Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
Plan to Charge Shelter Residents Rent Draws Skepticism from City Council
Thursday, April 15, 2010
New York, NY –
Some city council members expressed skepticism today about the city's plan to charge certain homeless families rent for staying in homeless shelters.
The initiative is not meant as a way to help close the city's budget gap -- at a council hearing, city officials testified that the measure is meant to promote individual responsibility. "I think we're establishing a pattern of personal responsibility," HRA Commissioner Robert Doar said. "We want people to understand that there is an aspect of affording your rent that is part of your own contribution."
Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander took issue with the statement, saying that a mother working a minimum wage job is homeless not because of a lack of personal responsibility but because she doesn't make enough to afford rent. Lander used as an example the case of a mother who works 35 hours a week and earns $7.25 an hour. "She's in the shelter because she could not find a place to live for $300 a month in the city of New York, not because there's a bad pattern of personal responsibility in play," Lander said.
"If our goal is to get them back in an apartment, I still don't get how we are helping them get back into an apartment by keeping some of their money?" he asked.
The city's Human Resources Administration, the office that administers welfare, will be responsible for charging and collecting the rent payments. For a family of three earning just over $13,000 annually, shelter rent would come to $120. But once incomes exceed the poverty level, there's a substantial increase and the same size family earning $25,000 annually would pay more than $900 monthly.
The city says less than 20 percent of shelter residents will be affected by the new rule, since the vast majority of shelter residents are either not working or earning too little to be subject to the rent rule.
When asked what would happen to families who don't make rent payments, Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess said any non-compliance would be handled on a case by case basis. When pressed on the question, Hess said it could be possible for the city to move to evict someone.
Some council members floated the idea of putting rent contributions into savings accounts that would be reimbursable to families once they move out of shelter. City officials said the state rejected that idea but some details of the plan could still change as negotiations continue. Rent payments are supposed to begin this fall.
Thursday's council hearing also touched on a couple of other developments regarding the homeless.
The city says a handful of failed condo developments have been offered to the city as shelter for homeless families and a couple of them are now being used for exactly that. The units are nicer than the average shelter and Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess says at first he was concerned families would want to stay longer in them, but that hasn't been the case.
Hess says the city isn't paying any extra for the condo units. He says his first choice is to use the failed condos as permanent housing for families moving out of shelter and paying their rent with a housing subsidy, but so far that hasn't happened.
The council also heard an update on the more than 2,589 New Yorkers that lost their section 8 vouchers in December. Homeless Services set aside $1 million to help any of them that were struggling to pay rent. So far, $22,226 has been spent on rent arrears and utility payments for 13 of those families, and 25 of the families have ended up homeless and in need of shelter.