Thanks to an amendment to a state social services law approved by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) last month, older foster youth who find a market-rate apartment can now receive a monthly housing subsidy from Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) even if they live with a roommate.
Previously, youth were required to be the sole leaseholder in order to receive the subsidy, which pays up to $300 per month for up to three years or a lifetime total of $10,800. That requirement was intended to ensure youth would be secure in their apartment long-term, but the bill’s sponsors say it didn’t reflect their social needs or the realities of today’s rental market.
“For youth who have been through really challenging times, to have to live alone and be isolated was something they found really difficult,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D) of suburban Rockland County, who chairs the Committee on Children and Families and co-sponsored the reform bill Cuomo signed in early December. “Speaking as a former educator, it didn’t really make sense – living with a friend provides much more emotional stability, plus they can share the cost.”
The subsidy program currently serves only a handful of youth in New York City – just 31 in 2018, according to ACS data. About three-quarters of foster youth ages 17 to 20 who receive housing support live in New York City’s public housing, while most of the rest live in supportive housing facilities.
But with the NYCHA waitlist stretching out years – despite a special priority status for foster youth – and spots in supportive housing hard to come by, some youth are willing to consider living in a private apartment, either their own or a friend’s.
Sharing rent costs can be key to enabling foster youth to afford an apartment of their own – especially in New York. Of the 649 youth ages 18 to 21 who aged out in 2018, ACS data shows less than 20 percent had earned a high school diploma or equivalent. Many have low incomes.
“The assumption is they should be working, they should have an income by that point,” said Mary Keane, who leads the nonprofit You Gotta Believe, which focuses on older foster youth. “But the reality is, when they age out, many are not able to get anything other than maybe a part-time job.”
Keane anticipates the new amendment will mostly extend subsidies to youth who already had informal living arrangements, such as staying with a friend. The advocates behind the bill have also pushed to increase the dollar amount of the monthly cap, but ultimately decided to focus on passing the roommate provision first because it didn’t have a cost associated with it.
“A compromise was reached because we wanted to make some progress,” said Dede Hill, director of policy at the Schuyler Center, a statewide nonprofit that advocates on issues affecting children and families. “This is a good step that will help a certain subset of young adults aging out, and we’re definitely hopeful this is just a first step – next we want to increase the subsidy to reflect the reality of increased housing costs.”
Eligibility for the monthly housing subsidy expires on a youth’s 21st birthday, which limits the program’s enrollment, according to staff at Lawyers For Children. “The monthly subsidy is not going to do much for youth if they’re getting their apartment at age 20 or 20-and-a-half, or even at 19,” said staff attorney Tara Sheoran-Khaimov, who specializes in housing issues.
Sheoran-Khaimov says many more of her clients take advantage of a special grant within the ACS housing subsidy that’s available beyond age 21 and regardless of whether they are in market-rate, supportive or public housing. That one-time grant provides up to $1,800 for moving expenses like a broker’s fee, security deposit, and furnishings, and the funds are deducted from the lifetime total of $10,800 available to each youth through the monthly ACS housing subsidy.
The statewide Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA) was a prominent voice in lobbying lawmakers to allow the subsidies for youth with roommates. The new amendment was first introduced by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D) of Central Queens with co-sponsors Ellen Jaffee and Tremaine Wright (D), who represents Central Brooklyn. State Senator Julia Salazar (D) sponsored the Senate version, which passed with nearly unanimous support.
Megan Conn is a reporter in New York for The Imprint, and can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.