Today’s Read: NYC Exempt From New Federal Housing Subsidy Rules

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program is a proven solution to homelessness and housing instability, by enabling tenants to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. But when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would change the formula for calculating maximum rents in an attempt to deconcentrate poverty, it jeopardized the efficacy of a program that has been a vital buffer against housing unaffordability for low-income tenants.

By shifting to a “small area fair market rent” standard, which would be used to calculate the maximum rent based on local zip codes instead of the current citywide maximum rent, HUD hoped to encourage voucher holders to move from traditionally poor neighborhoods to wealthier areas. However, in cities like New York that suffer from a dearth of vacant apartments as well as other barriers to mobility, this policy change would have created new challenges for those who remain in poorer neighborhoods by choice or because there simply aren’t enough vacant apartments in so-called “high-opportunity neighborhoods.” These renters would have their voucher value decrease, leaving them to either come up with hundreds of additional dollars per month to cover the gap or search for even cheaper apartments elsewhere, which is nearly impossible given the realities of NYC’s housing market.

The Coalition joined numerous elected officials and other organizations in calling for HUD to exempt NYC from the proposed rule change. When the federal government unveiled the final rules on Tuesday, it heeded those concerns and incorporated an exemption for NYC and other cities with an apartment vacancy rate below 4 percent. The announcement is a tremendous relief to the more than 55,000 New Yorkers who would have seen the value of their housing vouchers drop. Thanks to the united advocacy of tenant activists, non-profit organizations and elected leaders, New York City has been spared a policy change that would have inadvertently exacerbated the housing affordability crisis citywide.

Greg B. Smith covered the announcement for the New York Daily News:

The Obama administration Tuesday unveiled new rules to combat income segregation by encouraging landlords in upper income neighborhoods to rent to lower income tenants by hiking subsidies there.

But because the supply of affordable apartments in New York City is so tight, local officials warned the well-intentioned plan would actually backfire and cut subsidies for more than 55,000 city renters.

Responding to that complaint, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agreed to exempt all cities with an apartment vacancy rate of 4% or less. In New York City the vacancy rate is 3.45%.

“I am relieved to see HUD finally coming to grips with what New Yorkers have long known: that the federal government has no business strong-arming tenants into moving when there is no place for them to go,” Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council Public Housing Committee said. “In NYC, where the vacancies are too few and the rent too high, (HUD’s plan) would have been a cure worse than the disease, giving us homelessness on scale we’ve never seen before.”