Op-ed: Vouchers are good for the homeless—and taxpayers

Brian Kavanagh & Linda B. Rosenthal

Originally published in Crain's New York Business

By some measures New York’s housing crisis hasn’t been this severe since the Great Depression. On any given night, more than 90,000 New Yorkers live in shelters and on the streets, and nearly 600,000 households are behind on rent. 

In her State of the State address, Gov. Kathy Hochul recognized that “more than half of New York renters are rent-burdened, meaning that they pay more than 30% of their income on rent— the second-highest rate in the nation.” Families are struggling to afford basic needs, such as food and child care, because rents are so high, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York—and unless we take action now, things will only get worse.

The governor understands the need for more housing, including provisions in her budget proposal to help boost the number of units in the state by 800,000 in the next 10 years. She is right to make housing development a key pillar in the fight to address this emergency, and the elements of her proposal are still being discussed. But New Yorkers’ inability to pay rent won't be solved by future construction. People need help now.

The Housing Access Voucher Program, a bill we sponsor in our respective houses, is the urgent solution New York needs. Modeled after the federal Section 8 program, the plan would provide desperately needed rental assistance directly to New Yorkers who are homeless or at risk of eviction—and it would mean that the state and local governments would not have to spend millions of additional dollars to keep families in the shelter system in the long run. That's why we are committed to appropriating $250 million for voucher program in the 2023-24 state budget.

The proposal is a sound investment for New York. In its first year, the voucher program would cost about $12,000 per household—far less than what the state and local governments spend on temporary shelter. A March 2020 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that localities around the state billed the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance $2 billion in gross costs for homeless shelter services in 2018; and billions of dollars more are spent by local governments. A recent Furman Center report highlighted the proven social and economic benefits of housing vouchers, which include lowering rent burdens and shelter costs, improving housing conditions and reducing the risk of homelessness. We know that if people have a home base from which they can organize their lives, they will fare much better.

The proposed voucher program is supported by a broad coalition of organizations, including real estate trade organizations; faith-based groups and advocates for tenants’ rights, affordable housing and racial justice. It has momentum in the Legislature, where it has passed both housing committees and is co-sponsored by more than 90 of our colleagues.

Here’s how the program would work: Housing vouchers would be made available in every part of the state, with recipients contributing 30% of their income toward the rent, with the program paying the rest. The program’s vouchers would be prioritized for people who are homeless, and they would be available for households facing imminent eviction or loss of housing.

Now is the time to take action on housing. We have the tools and the financial resources to meet the crisis head-on. All that’s needed is the political will.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh (District 27) chairs the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development.

Assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal (District 67) chairs the Assembly Committee on Housing.