Cuts to human services rarely get the attention of the press, especially in the past few years with so many budget cuts at the city, state, and federal level. This year, however, a fair amount of press has been generated over one program in particular – the Advantage program – and the game of chicken being played over whether it will be funded at all.
The Advantage program is a rental subsidy that helps individuals and families transition out of emergency homeless shelters to housing by providing two years of rental subsidies. Participants in the program must work and contribute 30 percent of their monthly income to rent in the first year, 40 percent in the second year. The program in New York City currently serves 15,000 families, and is funded by the State at $35 million and the City at $69 million, and then leverages federal dollars for a total of $192 million.
The program is not without its detractors, who argue that alternatives, such as Section 8 housing or other federally subsidized permanent housing, would offer a better success rate to people coming out of the shelter system. The rate of people who return to shelters from federally subsidized housing is just four percent, while the rate of those returning to shelter from the Advantage program is between nine and 26 percent (depending on the source for the numbers). Advocates have been making the case in Albany and elsewhere that the Advantage program should be phased out for another program that offers real permanency. In a climate where every program is on the chopping block, a $10 billion deficit looms over us, and no one wants to back revenue options such as tax increases, it may not have been wise to speak out against the Advantage program without any guarantees that a new program would receive the funding to take its place. The message everyone heard was that Advantage didn’t work (and while it is flawed, its success rate is far from terrible), and no one presented a viable alternative that didn’t rely on uncertain external factors, such as federal funding. The conversations about the “failed” program and the iffy alternatives failed to recognize what would happen to real people if the Advantage program ended―which is what happened next.
Governor Cuomo, in his Executive Budget, eliminated all $35 million in funding for the Advantage program, and Mayor Bloomberg fired back by eliminating New York City’s entire $69 million contribution. As the State budget deadline loomed, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) sent letters to all 15,000 families receiving Advantage subsidies informing them that the program would end on April 1, a mere three weeks from the date of the letter. By court order, the City will continue paying the subsidies through the month of April, but it is unclear what will happen after that. Now, as advocates, legislators, the Mayor, and the Governor squabble over the merits of the Advantage program, the amount of funding, and the need for an avenue to permanent housing, 15,000 families in New York City sit and wait, and wonder what will happen to them.
For people looking to cut the deficit, eliminating this program might seem like a good idea. The real result, though, is that the city is gearing up to build 70 new homeless shelters to deal with the massive number (up to 45,000) of individuals and families who will be evicted and will require emergency shelter. Additionally, numerous landlords will not be receiving rent they were counting on and will have to deal with sudden vacancies when they were previously guaranteed up to two years of rent.
While it is important to advocate for better programs – and permanent housing is certainly a more secure option than two years of subsidies – it is also important to preserve funding for programs that are working. The final State budget includes $15 million for a program similar to Advantage, which is less than half the level of funding Advantage received from the State. It also remains unclear what Mayor Bloomberg will decide about the new State program; will he fund the program with City dollars, and if so, how much?
Arguments about dollars spent, shelters built, and success rates are all happening while real people, people trying to build their lives, worry about where they will live in the next few weeks. This fight over who will fund what and for how much means little to a mother and her small children who just received a letter saying they won’t be able to stay in their apartment anymore. In the end, these families do not care about success rates – they see the Advantage program as their way out of the emergency shelter system and into a safe place of their own that they can call home.
Contributed by Michelle Jackson
Of the Human Services Council of NYC