New York City’s Advantage housing program has received plenty of criticism during its four years of existence. Advocates, homeless people and government officials have at various points derided the program’s success rates, its work requirements, the involvement of allegedly shady landlords and the philosophy behind temporary housing.

But now, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget threatening to eliminate New York State’s $85 million share of the program, many—if not all—Work Advantage critics are fighting to save the program.

“Something’s better than nothing,” says New York City Council member Annabel Palma, the chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. In October, she introduced a bill that would require the city to better track and report the outcomes of participants. “Work Advantage is not a perfect program. But to cut across the board is completely devastating. Shelters can’t handle the demand now.”

City Limits spoke to Palma as she drove up to Albany Tuesday morning to lobby state legislators to resist cuts to the program, which provides two years of rental assistance for families transitioning out of shelters.

With the notable exception of the Coalition for the Homeless, most Advantage critics are holding their noses and defending the program against state cuts. Despite what they say are the initiative's flaws, there are 15,000 families—comprising 45,000 people—who are currently housed as a result of the program. Work Advantage is a joint city, state and federal program, and New York State picks up a 25 percent share.

DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond said the city won’t continue the program without the state match. DHS is lobbying hard for the state Senate and Assembly to reinstate the state’s portion.

“The city needs the state support to have Advantage. Anything else will cost more money. We want to do the most cost-effective thing,” Diamond says.

On Thursday Diamond sent an email to providers that “effective after the close of business Monday March 14, we will stop conducting lease signings” But he added: “Should the state budget continue Advantage as it is currently designed we will reverse this decision.”

According to the daily DHS shelter census, 37,725 individuals slept in homeless shelters on March 3, 2011, the most recent night statistics were available. The shelter census for single adults was higher in February than at the comparable point of the last six years. Ending Work Advantage would further strain that system. Diamond’s letter also stated that losing the funding would “force the city to build 70 new shelters, impacting neighborhoods throughout the city.”

A Second Try

The Advantage Program began in 2007 as a replacement for the short-lived Housing Stability Plus, another temporary housing subsidy that, unlike the Advantage program, was restricted to families receiving public assistance benefits and offered a four-year rental subsidy that declined each year. After sustained criticism of Housing Stability Plus by advocates, who criticized linking the subsidy to public assistance, the department shifted gears to Advantage.

Under Work Advantage, participating households must have at least one person working 20 hours a week in the first year of the subsidy and 35 hours a week during the second year. In the program's first years, households were required to make a $50 contribution toward rent each month if they worked at least 20 hours a week. Starting in August 2010, the program instead required new participants to contribute 30 percent of their incomes towards the Advantage program during their first year and 40 percent during the second.

There is also a limited Children’s Advantage and Fixed Income Advantage program for people unable to work because of disabilities or illness.

If New York State’s cuts go through, DHS has not yet committed to finishing funding the program for current participants, even though they provide the majority of the program’s funding. Program participants say they will be in limbo if the program ends.

“Right now, if the Advantage program ended I’d be s--t out of luck,” says Shondra Rushmore, who began receiving Work Advantage in April after 16 months in the shelter system. “I was too functional for other types of assistance, and this was my only option.” She is happy with her studio apartment in Flatbush. “I really lucked out. It’s a quiet building in a great neighborhood.”

Wilibert Hawks has received the Fixed Income Advantage program for a year, and lobbied in Albany Wednesday to keep the program. If the Advantage program was canceled he says, “it would be like the rug was pulled from underneath me. I was in the shelters for six years, and I don’t want to go back.”

DHS states that 91 percent of people who completed two years of the Advantage program had not returned to the shelters two years later.

“The program is structured to give people time to adjust to the community, establish roots in the community. We prepare people to live without the rent subsidy,” Diamond says. “It’s very tough when you begin to work, and we support them.”

Questions about effectiveness

But the Coalition for the Homeless issued a blistering report in February that questioned DHS’s numbers. Using DHS’s data, the report states that 25 percent of people who first enrolled in Work Advantage have already returned to the shelters, and one out of three former participants have applied for emergency shelter. Unlike DHS’s numbers, Coalition for the Homeless counts people who dropped out of the Advantage program for a variety of reasons, including untenable living situations, such as landlords that overcharge on utilities and apartments infested with vermin.

Says Patrick Markee, the Coalition's senior policy analyst: “The fact that they’re only counting people who completed the program is like a high school that says, ‘100 percent of our students graduate from high school, but we’re only talking about students who make it up to senior year.’”

A recent audit by the City Comptroller and an October report by the Public Advocate also cited flaws in the program. The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness said in its fall 2010 report on programs nationwide: “While DHS claims success and a low recidivism rate, Advantage has yet to be proven effective. There is a lack of publicly available information both on the adherence to program requirements and regarding the number of families returning to the city for prevention assistance or shelter after receiving an Advantage subsidy.”