NYC Council Joins Suit to Force Mayor to Enact Rental Voucher Reforms

Mayor Eric Adams at City Hall Blue Room, Tuesday November 28, 2023. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

(New York Daily News/TNS) — The City Council moved Wednesday to join a lawsuit that seeks to force Mayor Adams to implement a set of laws designed to make it easier for low-income New Yorkers to access the city’s rental assistance program.

The Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit was first filed last week by four New Yorkers at risk of homelessness who’d become eligible for the voucher program, CityFHEPS, if the mayor allowed the laws to take effect.

The laws would expand access to the program, which subsidizes rent on open market apartments, by increasing an income eligibility cap and eliminating a rule that requires beneficiaries to enter a homeless shelter before they can apply, among other provisions.

The Council — which passed the laws last summer and then overrode the mayor’s vetoes of them — filed a motion Wednesday morning to become a plaintiff in the suit alongside the four CityFHEPS applicants.

The motion, which needs to be approved by a judge, argues that by not implementing the CityFHEPS reforms the mayor is not just depriving more New Yorkers of rental vouchers but also violating the City Charter.

“Because the Council validly enacted the CityFHEPS reform laws, the mayor is now legally required by the Charter to implement them. But he refuses to do so,” the motion states. “His refusal not only deprives New Yorkers of housing benefits to which they are entitled under the law; it usurps the powers of the Council, a co-equal branch of city government, and it upends the separation of powers enshrined in the City Charter.”

Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said City Hall “will review the filing” from the Council.

The mayor has argued the laws would be too expensive, predicting they’d cost the city $17 billion over the next five years, and worsen existing CityFHEPS processing backlogs. He says that price tag is an unmanageable budgetary burden at a time that the city is under fiscal strain due to an influx of migrants.

Lisa Zornberg, Adams’ City Hall counsel, said in a briefing Tuesday that the mayor’s administration also believes the reforms overstep the Council’s legal authority.

“However well intended they were in passing the law, it’s our belief as a legal matter that that law goes beyond the City Council’s authority and that it’s actually preempted by existing state law,” Zornberg told reporters at City Hall. “So, there are significant legal issues and they will play out in court.”

The Council has said the mayor’s price tag for the laws is exaggerated. According to a financial impact statement compiled by the Council’s economists, the laws will cost $3.3 billion over five years and could actually produce savings in the long run by decreasing the local homeless shelter population.

In Wednesday’s motion, the Council also panned Zornberg’s claim about the CityFHEPS reforms exceeding the legislative chamber’s authority.

“These arguments lack merit,” the motion stated. “More fundamentally, if the mayor believed that the reform laws were unlawful, he should have taken his concerns up with the courts himself. … Instead, he unilaterally decided the reform laws were invalid and that he would not implement them, and in doing so, usurped the role of the judiciary. This cannot be the way that disputes between the political branches are addressed.”

The Legal Aid Society, which is representing the four CityFHEPS applicants who brought the lawsuit against the mayor, lauded the Council for “filing this motion to intervene to help us hold Mayor Adams and his administration accountable for illegally refusing to implement the reforms.”

The feud over the rental voucher forms comes as the city’s housing crisis is deepening.

The city shelter population is at an all-time high, in large part due to the migrant influx, while rents and evictions continue to go up.

A recently released study shows the city’s apartment vacancy rate, meantime, is at just 1.4%, the lowest since 1968.

The vacancy rate is even lower for the most affordable apartments. The Council argues that’s why it’s critical to enact the CityFHEPS reforms, which would allow low-income New Yorkers to use a rent demand from a landlord as grounds to apply for a voucher as long as they satisfy other eligibility requirements related to income and employment.

“By keeping low-income New Yorkers in their homes with vouchers, the city can prevent more New Yorkers from joining the pool of those in need of housing assistance in searching and competing for a limited supply of housing,” the Council said in a statement.

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