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Mayor Adams floats legal challenge if Council overrides his veto and passes housing voucher bills

Jul. 11, 2023 By Ethan Stark-Miller

Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday said he is considering a legal challenge against the City Council over a package of bills it passed in May that would expand eligibility for city housing vouchers.

The mayor’s statement comes amid an ongoing back and forth over the legislation, with Adams vetoing the bills last month and the council set to override his downvote later this week.

Adams has said he vetoed the bills based on their estimated price tag — roughly $17 billion over the next five years — and because they would create more competition for a limited number of apartments by vastly broadening eligibility. He also argues that the council doesn’t have the “legal authority” to enact the legislation in a statement he released along with his veto and a subsequent op-ed he penned in the New York Daily News. However, council leadership disputes all of the mayor’s arguments.

City lawmakers passed all four measures in the package by a 41-7 vote in late May, giving them the numbers needed to override the mayor’s veto, which Council Speaker Adrienne Adams has said they are “prepared” to do.

The mayor made his July 11 remarks concerning potential legal action when asked by amNewYork Metro what he intends to do if the council does indeed overrule his downvote. But, while Adams outlined the contours of a legal argument, he didn’t definitively say if his administration would bring a suit following a veto-override from the council.

“I do know based on our analysis that the state and [the city Department of Social Services (DSS)] are in charge of making the determination,” Adams said. “The state determines the subsidies’ rules, DSS actually applies them. And so, I think that we have to wait to see what they’re going to do. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I can’t speak to that.”

The mayor was speaking at a press conference celebrating progress made since his administration dropped the rule that people must spend 90 days in city homeless shelters in order to be eligible for the vouchers — known as CityFHEPS. He announced that 500 households are now eligible for the rental subsidies who previously were not.

Adams’ action to drop the so-called “90-day rule” essentially duplicated one of the four council bills — the only measure in the package he mostly supported.

Council spokesperson Rendy Desamours, in a statement, said it’s “positive” to see the results of dropping the 90-day rule touted by the mayor, but insisted the other bills in the package are needed to meet the “scale of the crisis” and made clear city lawmakers will “continue to advance” them.

“It’s positive to see that the council’s efforts have spurred action by this administration, but the scale of this crisis demands more meaningful solutions that we will continue to advance for New Yorkers,” Desamours said.

Council Members who sponsored bills in a package to make CityFHEPS housing vouchers easier to access sitting with advocates.Credit John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

The council legislation Adams opposes would expand eligibility to any person or household deemed at risk of eviction, do away with an applicant’s employment status or source of income as requirements for obtaining the vouchers and change the income threshold from 200% of the federal poverty level to 50% of the Area Median Income (AMI).

The mayor’s argument that the council doesn’t have legal authority, according to his office, stems from the notion that rental assistance programs — like CityFHEPS — are governed by state Social Services Law. That law gives DSS authority to develop and administer rental voucher programs with oversight from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, City Hall contends, and gives no role to the City Council in running the programs.

Because one of the council bills — Intro 894-A — would give the council such authority, the mayor’s office argues it would be undermined by state law. The legal case would apply to all of the bills in the package, according to City Hall.

But Robert Desir, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit, said he thinks City Hall’s legal argument doesn’t hold water because CityFHEPS is not subject to state oversight given that it is completely funded by the city.

“There is obviously some state involvement with public benefits that are administered by the city, but I don’t think that CityFHEPS is subject to the state’s oversight because it’s totally funded by the city,” Desir said. “So it operates kind of outside of any state oversight.”

Additionally, he pointed to several bills — now laws — the council passed in recent years that altered the CityFHEPS program, which he said didn’t require the state’s signoff. Those include Local Law 71 of 2021 — a measure that raised the amount of CityFHEPS subsidies to the same rate as Section 8 vouchers — and Local Laws 157 and 170 of 2021, both of which allowed time spent in foster care and runaway youth services to count toward the 90-days in shelter requirement.

Desir said that while it is “difficult to say” how strong the city’s case would be based on prior legal actions of the same nature, he’s inclined to think the council is within its authority to enact the legislation.

“I think there’s been a lot of instances where there’s been this kind of tension, not necessarily in housing, but in other areas of law, like employment,” Desir said. “So I would really be interested to see how they put meat on the bone for that. But I think for now, as we’re talking about it in cursory terms and not having seen their arguments fleshed out, my instinct is that the City Council is not restricted as the city posits.”

In his statement, Desamours also pushed back on City Hall’s contention that increasing voucher eligibility would create more competition for a limited number of apartments.

“The mayor’s argument that using vouchers to prevent evictions creates more competition for current voucher holders makes no sense,” Desamours said. “Every New Yorker kept in a current apartment subtracts from those entering the shelter system and searching for new apartments with vouchers. It is the mayor’s approach of forcing more people into shelters in order to be eligible for vouchers that will create more competition in a limited housing supply.”

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