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Empire Justice Budget Memo: Ensure the Adequacy of Public Assistance Housing Aid

March 9, 2015


In New York, the Temporary Assistance Program (TA), a crucial component of the safety net for our State’s poorest families, does not enable a family to meet even their most rudimentary needs.  The grant barely brings a typical household to even half of the Federal Poverty Level. [1]

Stable, decent housing is crucial for optimal child development, educational success, and the overall mental and physical health of families. [2]  But the components of the TA grant that address housing costs – the shelter allowance and the fuel for heating allowance – are dramatically disconnected from the real needs of low income New Yorkers.  Instead of ensuring access to stable housing, they increase the risk of overcrowding, unsafe homes, eviction and homelessness.  It is essential that New York adjust benefits to reflect actual costs and pursue solutions that will enable families to thrive. 

The Shelter Allowance

Needy families who receive public assistance experience a perpetual state of crisis when it comes to housing.  We get a sense of this situation when we compare the monthly rental aid a household can receive with the HUD-established Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the appropriate apartment size. [3]  In Albany County, the FMR for a one-bedroom housing unit is $750; the shelter grant from Albany Department of Social Services (DSS) for a household of two is $279 - a difference of $471.  In Suffolk County, the FMR for two bedrooms is $1,613, while the Suffolk DSS shelter grant for three people is $447.  In much of upstate New York, the TA rent allotment rarely comes to even half of the FMR.  And in the New York City suburbs, home to significant numbers of low income families, the rent that DSS provides is rarely even a third of the local FMR.

The gross inadequacy of the welfare rent allowance is certainly one reason that, for the 2012-13 school year, there were 357 children identified as homeless in the Brentwood, Suffolk County, School District, 957 homeless children in Syracuse schools, and 1,820 children in Rochester schools [4] - and these figures do not reflect the many families in unacceptably substandard or overcrowded housing.

The Fuel for Heating Allowance

The inability to keep a home adequately warm, or the need to heat only part of a home because of unaffordable heating fuel, is a critical problem for low income households in upstate New York.  For those receiving TA, inadequate heating assistance puts both access to housing and housing safety at risk.

Although the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) provides families with some relief, it’s not enough.  The grants that New York provides families who receive TA and must pay for heating have not changed since they were adopted in 1987, close to thirty years ago.  A family of four in Monroe County, for example, receives an allowance of $54 per month, as it did in 1987.  Since that time, residential natural gas costs have, on average, doubled, and the cost of residential electricity has increased by over 40%. [5]  Sadly, another common phenomenon upstate is that when a family receives emergency assistance to pay heating bills, they then have their monthly grant reduced by 10% so that DSS can “recoup” the cost of the emergency aid.  Many families, always unable to meet their heating costs, are consigned to permanent recoupment.

Far too many low income New Yorkers must engage in a constant struggle to secure and retain stable and decent housing.  Our legislative proposals would put our State on a path towards alleviating this crisis.


  1. Direct OTDA to conduct a study, to be repeated every three years, of the adequacy of the public assistance grant.  The study should be completed within 90 days of passage of legislation and signature by the Governor, and then promptly posted on the OTDA website.
  2. Increase the shelter allowance to 50% of regional Fair Market Rent around the state as a down payment on meeting the housing needs of families and singles on welfare, and to limit the hardship and massive costs of widespread homelessness.  The allowance should thereafter be increased in accordance with OTDA’s studies of shelter costs relative to the shelter allowance.  Furthermore, counties should be allowed to increase the shelter allowance up to 100% of FMR to avoid eviction and homelessness if they so choose.
  3. Until completion of the study, impose a moratorium on the recoupment of energy-related payments that households must request because of the inadequacy of the welfare grant in meeting fuel and utility costs.  Upon completion of the study, the allowance should be raised to a level consistent with heating costs.  If they deem it helpful in achieving administrative efficiencies, counties should have the option to suspend all recoupments during the moratorium period.
  4. Support the Governor’s Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force to develop community-based ideas and initiatives to combat poverty that can then be replicated across the state if proven effective.

End Notes:
 [1] The grant brings a family to 41% of the Federal Poverty Level in Onondaga and Erie Counties, and to about 50% of FPL in Nassau.  And the FPL itself severely understates poverty in high-cost areas like New York City and its suburbs.
 [2] See H. Emple, Stable Housing is Uneqivocally Good for Children and Families, Children Health Watch, 2012; M. Brennan, P. Reed, and L. Sturtevant, The Impacts of Affordable Housing on Education, Center for Housing Policy, November 2014.
 [3] The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the FMR at the 40th percentile of rents being paid in a given area.  This is seen as a reasonable measure of the cost of decent, but modest housing.
 [4] This information was collected by the New York State Education Department in the Student Information Repository System.
 [5] It is important to note that the recent decline in fuel costs has not remotely compensated for cost increases over the 28 years since the fuel for heating rates were established.

For more information, please contact:

Don Friedman

Empire Justice Center
at the Public Advocacy Center
Touro Law School
225 Eastview Drive-Room 222
Central Islip, NY  11722

(631) 650-2316
(631) 348-3571

Saima Akhtar

Empire Justice Center
119 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY  12210 

(518) 462-6831
(518) 935-2852