Maximizing the Benefits of Housing Vouchers in Fighting Homelessness
In New York City, families with children make up almost two-thirds of the more than 72,000 people who live in city-run homeless shelters. Since 2015, the city has been supporting these families by providing city-funded rent vouchers, primarily via the “City Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement” (CityFHEPS) program, which was established in 2018.
While CityFHEPS has helped over 26,000 households, only a small share of the households in shelters receive – and are able to use – a CityFHEPS voucher. This is critical because, according to City data, less than one percent of the families with children who received a voucher returned to a city shelter within a year. In contrast, over 15 percent who left without such support returned in that time. Moreover, other research has shown that by providing more stable housing for families, vouchers also produce long-term educational, developmental, and health benefits for children.
In “Maximizing the Benefits of Housing Vouchers in New York City,” a paper which won the Center’s Best Paper on Housing Prize this year, I examine the many barriers that households in homeless shelters must overcome if they want to secure and use a CityFHEPS voucher. I also suggest operational improvements to the program that could be supported by the Robin Hood Foundation, which was my “client” for this Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE). While my focus was specifically on New York City, I believe my findings and recommendations are broadly applicable to other underutilized voucher programs, such as the Emergency Housing Vouchers funded via the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021.
To research CityFHEPS, I conducted 42 interviews with stakeholders in the CityFHEPS voucher administration process, including 11 people who experienced homelessness, as well as several landlords, case managers, homelessness service providers, public officials, and others. I also augmented interviews with findings from the research literature, available data, and other sources including newspapers, online publications, and social media discussions.
During interviews, individuals currently or formerly experiencing homelessness reported that the biggest obstacle to using a CityFHEPS voucher is finding a landlord who is willing to accept it. This sentiment was echoed by landlords and other program stakeholders, who acknowledged that “most landlords want nothing to do with CityFHEPS.”
I find that landlords do not want to participate in CityFHEPS because of both perceived issues with the program as well as widespread perceptions that voucher-holders are “risky” tenants. The most common issues that landlords and other housing professionals cited include:
- High vacancy costs during the months-long CityFHEPS application process.
- Concerns about missed or interrupted rental payments from the city. Missed or delayed payments tend to occur when a voucher is re-certified or if there is churn in a tenant’s public assistance case.
- The lack of a clear point-of-contact at the city government for when problems with the voucher payments or tenants arise.
- Concerns that the city will discontinue the voucher program (which is one of the country’s few locally-funded voucher programs).
In addition, individuals currently or formerly experiencing homelessness explained how performance issues among shelter staff exacerbate an already difficult housing search process. For example, individuals in shelters reported that they received little to no assistance in their housing searches, and that case managers were often so overburdened that they were unable to complete required steps in the CityFHEPS application process.
In order to improve voucher utilization rates and help households exit homeless shelters more quickly, I recommend that the Robin Hood Foundation and New York City officials focus on strategies to increase landlord participation in CityFHEPS and address workforce challenges at shelters. I break these strategies into two main categories
1. Advocating for Easy Operational Fixes: I recommend that the New York City government adopt low-cost, high-impact operational improvements that will accelerate the rehousing process for households in homeless shelters. Such improvements would mitigate landlords’ concerns about long application processing times and reduce excessive job demands on shelter staff. Proposed changes include:
- Exempting newly constructed apartment units from CityFHEPS inspection requirements;
- Reducing redundant requests for information in CityFHEPS application forms;
- Increasing and publicizing enforcement of source-of-income protections for voucher holders; and
- Lengthening CityFHEPS certification periods.
2. Testing Interventions to Address Deeper Barriers: I also recommend that the Robin Hood Foundation partner with the city and shelter providers to pilot evidence-based interventions that seek to boost landlord participation in CityFHEPS and address workforce challenges at shelters. Examples of proposed interventions include:
- Hiring community-based landlord liaisons to recruit landlords to participate in CityFHEPS;
- Creating a “fast-track” application review process to alleviate landlord concerns about application delays;
- Offering expanded landlord and tenant supports after clients are re-housed, including expanded landlord assurance funds;
- Launching a training academy and anti-burnout programming for front-line shelter staff; and
- Modestly increasing pay and staffing ratios for case managers and housing specialists.
As data from New York City and elsewhere show, housing vouchers are critical tools for alleviating housing instability and homelessness. Maximizing the benefits of housing voucher programs requires getting the details of voucher administration right, particularly with regard to recruiting landlords, ensuring high-quality case management services, and reducing unnecessary burdens on all stakeholders. My paper provides a framework for identifying problems that limit the usefulness of housing vouchers and offers a path forward for addressing them, not only in New York City but in other places as well.