By Ed Hersh
Last month, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal was appointed chair of the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Housing, a key position focused on an issue that touches the lives of every New Yorker. “The need for safe and affordable housing, whether it be regulated, supportive, social, public, subsidized or something new, has truly never been greater,” Rosenthal said when she was appointed. “Skyrocketing rents, a looming eviction crisis, record rates of homelessness and bureaucratic delays have left far too many New Yorkers behind.”
Rosenthal, a Democrat who has represented the Upper West Side and part of Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen in the New York State Assembly for 17 years, has been a longtime advocate for tenants’ rights. A month into her new role as housing committee chair, Rosenthal spoke with the West Side Rag from Albany to elaborate on her priorities and where she thinks progress can be made.
Homelessness is one of those priorities. “The problem of unhoused people has been with us for a very long time,” she said. “COVID changed everything. Evictions were stayed during COVID because of the moratorium. And now that’s lifted so there are more evictions and that creates just more homelessness. You know, for the small landlords who can’t collect the rent, that’s a problem as well, and there have not been good solutions.”
A federally-funded pandemic relief program for those struggling to pay their rent — the Emergency Rental Assistance Program — provided financial assistance to help people stave off homelessness but it stopped taking applications on January 20th of this year. While there may still be funds for existing applicants, it leaves a void, says Rosenthal, for those who simply cannot pay their rent and could be forced into homelessness.
To fill that void, Rosenthal is sponsoring a new bill – a version of which is also in the Senate — that creates the Housing Assistance Voucher Program (HAVP). According to Rosenthal, the bill would create “statewide rental subsidies for low-income families and people facing evictions, people who are currently homeless, or experiencing loss of housing due to domestic violence and hazardous living conditions.” Under her plan, Rosenthal says, a tenant would pay 30% of their income toward rent, and after that a voucher would cover the rest, to up to 100% of fair market value.
While a new voucher program was not in Governor Kathy Hochul’s January proposed budget, Rosenthal says she believes the program has wide support in both the Assembly and Senate and is optimistic it will wind up in the state’s final budget after negotiations with the governor’s office. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Rosenthal says. “It really helps provide stability for low-income families, who wouldn’t have to be constantly worried because their rent would be covered.” And ultimately, she says, it reduces costs to taxpayers, because the program can prevent evictions and reduce the financial and social costs of being homeless. “I feel a lot of support for it this year; it is so necessary, we can’t put off dealing with this,” she says. “We have to make a dent.”
Rosenthal also wants to streamline the application process for housing assistance, based on what she saw firsthand during efforts to find homes for those living in The Lucerne hotel during the pandemic. “The amount of effort it took to place someone in an available apartment was enormous,” she says. “City agencies do not have the staff that’s needed, and it’s a slow and cumbersome process.”
Capital improvements to public housing are also a high priority, with an estimated $40 billion dollars needed. “The lack of investment in NYCHA has gone on over the years, and NYCHA has been falling into greater disrepair… and that’s always been true,” she says. “We used to get a lot of money from the federal government, but that pipeline has dried up and that’s part of the reason why NYCHA is 40 billion [dollars] in the hole,” she says, and as housing chair she sees “other public housing developments across the state and they also need greater investment.” While lobbying efforts continue for more funds from Washington, she said she is pushing for additional funding for NYCHA improvements in the upcoming budget negotiations with Gov. Hochul.
Last week, Borough President Mark Levine made headlines with a survey that identified 171 city-owned vacant lots and buildings that could be turned into affordable housing. Rosenthal agrees. “I think we have to do this and I’m going to work with him and see what we can get done.” But she points out that there are great opportunities to create new housing outside of Manhattan as well. “In part of Queens, in Brooklyn, and certainly the Bronx, where more development will be taking place [in the future], and we have to make sure there’s a major component of affordable housing.” For that, she advocates strategies such as re-zoning some areas, and creating regulations for new, safe, basement apartments to increase the housing supply. But she remains firmly opposed to giving any new tax breaks to developers.
The governor’s budget also proposes $1 billion for mental health services, which Rosenthal says can help in the struggle to end homelessness. “Some who don’t have housing also have mental health issues,” she says, “and getting mental health help means they get into the system and can be connected with agencies and organizations that help them find housing.”