Some New Yorkers in need of housing aid could catch a break later this year under Mayor Eric Adams’ plan to issue thousands of federal rental assistance vouchers and accept new applications for the first time in almost 15 years.
But others who’ve waited years could find themselves on the outside looking in after the city purged their names from a vast Section 8 waiting list because of administrative reasons.
The city’s plan to begin accepting new Section 8 applications for the first time since the Bloomberg administration comes as it contends with soaring rents, shrinking housing supply and a record-high homeless population driven by a rise in newly arrived migrants, as well as longtime New Yorkers who cannot afford the cost of permanent housing.
Adams briefly mentioned the proposal during his State of the City address last Wednesday, saying the city would issue “1,000 vouchers a month” to low-income households at some point this year.
“We will help more people get into homes and stay in their homes once they are there,” he said.
But so far, additional details are hard to come by. There is no clear timeline for when the city will actually start accepting new applications or begin issuing the federal subsidies at the rate Adams mentioned.
Nearly 100,000 households in New York City already use Section 8 vouchers to help pay rent, and the New York City Housing Authority issued most of those vouchers in a role that is separate from its responsibilities as the nation’s largest public housing authority. A NYCHA spokesperson said the agency will start accepting new applications at some point later this year.
About 7,000 applicants are left on a waiting list that ballooned to more than 100,000 households as recently as five years ago, according to NYCHA.
“As the largest landlord in New York City, NYCHA understands firsthand the importance of affordable housing and the need to use every available tool to connect more families with decent, safe and sanitary places to call home,” spokesperson Michael Horgan said.
Horgan said NYCHA will contact every remaining applicant and issue vouchers based on when they applied and where they fall on a preference scale, which prioritizes homeless people, domestic violence victims and people with disabilities, among others.
How does Section 8 help with housing costs?
Section 8, formally known as the Housing Choice Voucher program, is considered the gold standard of existing housing assistance tools because it is backed by the federal government and has no expiration date once recipients find an apartment. That means people can continue to receive the assistance as long as they qualify based on their income. In New York City, that’s just under $50,000 a year for an individual and $70,600 for a family of four.
Recipients of Section 8 vouchers pay no more than 30% of their income toward rent, while Section 8 covers the rest up to a certain “fair market” threshold determined by the federal government. Recipients must be U.S. citizens or have legal permanent residency and can use their vouchers in all 50 states and U.S. territories, as long as they find a landlord willing to accept it. Across the country, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issues the vouchers to local agencies, like NYCHA, to disperse and oversee.
In New York, it’s illegal for a landlord to reject a prospective tenant because they’ll pay rent with Section 8 or another subsidy. But the practice remains pervasive, and government agencies have failed to enforce so-called “source of income discrimination” in the five boroughs for years.
The lack of enforcement is a problem for new Section 8 recipients because people have only 120 days to find a place to live after receiving the voucher before they lose it.
Despite the obstacles, the vouchers are crucial for the nearly 98,900 New York City households using them to help make housing affordable, according to city data.
Issuing more of the vouchers “will greatly impact people in the shelter system” said Kristin Miller, the executive director of the group Homeless Services United.
“And maximizing federal resources like Section 8 is sound budget practice because it’s less money the city has to spend,” Miller said.
The federal subsidies could reach low-income people locked out of the city’s own housing voucher program, known as CityFHEPS. Adams has so far refused to implement new laws expanding access to CityFHEPS for people who earn slightly over existing income caps and households facing eviction.
The City Council and Legal Aid Society have both threatened to sue over the obstruction.
How do I apply or make sure I’m still on the waiting list?
NYCHA closed the waiting list to new applicants, except in certain circumstances, back in December 2009 after tens of thousands of people added their names for a limited number of available vouchers allocated by HUD based on congressional appropriations. The shuttered waitlists are common nationwide, according to HUD spokesperson Olga Alvarez.
Alvarez said most housing agencies “have waiting lists that are either closed or have very long waiting periods.”
NYCHA said it will post notifications on its website and in local media outlets when it is finally ready to reopen the application portal.
But if you’re on the waiting list, stay on the waiting list, said Robert Desir, an Legal Aid Society attorney specializing in rental assistance.
“We do encourage people to apply and update NYCHA about any changes of address, household or status,” Desir said. “It is remarkable the wait list has been pruned down by such a significant amount, but I’d like to know more about how that happened.”
NYCHA says it cut down more than 90% of the waiting list by, in part, issuing Section 8 subsidies to thousands of people in recent years — including New Yorkers who received new emergency housing vouchers issued during the COVID-19 pandemic — and by removing applicants who no longer qualify because their incomes increased beyond the eligibility threshold.
But the agency also chops applicants off the list for various administrative reasons, according to agency rules posted online.
The agency purges the names of people who failed to respond to multiple requests for updated information or who changed addresses without providing notification over the past 15 years since the waiting list closed. Others who got a voucher but failed to find an apartment within a four-month window are cut from the list as well. Applicants are also removed after they die.
NYCHA said it could not immediately determine what percentage of applicants were removed from the list for administrative reasons.
“It’s good news that we’ve gotten to this place where they’re able to open up this list again because they’ve placed people into housing,” said Miller, from Homeless Services United. “But if it’s for other reasons, like people have been unresponsive, that’s not good.”
So when can you apply?
That’s still unclear.
NYCHA said there is no set timeline for accepting new applications, but it will happen at some point later this year.
Adams’ announcement and the lack of detail is confusing would-be applicants and the organizations that serve them.
“There are a lot of questions here,” Desir said. “The announcement sounds great, but we’d like to know how it’s actually going to work.”
Is housing guaranteed once I get a voucher?
Although Section 8 is the gold standard for housing vouchers, it isn’t a silver bullet. Around 4,500 households with Section 8 vouchers issued by NYCHA are currently searching for apartments, the agency said.
Tammie Davis, a 60-year-old medical assistant from Brooklyn, said she was evicted from two apartments over the past 15 years even though she was paying rent consistently with her Section 8 voucher because her landlord wanted the units back.
In 2022, she left the two-family home she was renting in Canarsie and stayed with her daughter while searching for another apartment where she could use her voucher. She said she applied for more than 500 apartments — she documented each one in a notebook — before she was finally approved for a unit in Bushwick through the city’s affordable housing lottery. She said she moved there in April 2023.
“I was worried my Section 8 was going to be taken away because I had been looking to move for months,” Davis said. “It was very, very stressful.”
But now Davis says she is living comfortably in the apartment and has the right to renew the lease every year.
“You have to work hard to find a place,” she said.
Desir, from the Legal Aid Society, said the city should pair the voucher initiative with a crackdown on owners and real estate agents who refuse to accept them — a familiar demand among voucher holders and their advocates.
“We really want them to issue vouchers, especially for people in shelters and in overcrowded situations,” he said. “It would also be great if the city increased its enforcement of source of income discrimination.”