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.”

Despite these criticisms, ICPH is opposed to Cuomo's cuts to Advantage. A spokeswoman says that "a program is better than none at all," adding that Advantage "merely needs to be tweaked."

Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United, said she suspects the real numbers lie somewhere in between the Coalition's critique and the agency's claims.

“What’s most important to the providers is to find out why people are coming back into shelter,” she says. “The Advantage subsidy program, while needing improvement, has offered people a lifeline.”

Parque supports Palma’s bill, which would require DHS to better divulge data as to the demographics of people going back into the shelter, as well as what percentage of Advantage graduates are paying rent as opposed to couch surfing and relying on the goodwill of family and friends. DHS does not support the bill.

The governor has framed the budget cut as a reaction to fiscal pressure, not any concerns about the performance of the program. Morris Peters, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo, tells City Limits, “We’re not going to make any statements about the merits of the program. In light of New York’s significant fiscal challenges, the state simply can no longer afford to participate in this supplemental program. If the city wants to continue funding it, it may of course continue to do so.”

Same program, different progress

Johnetta Goodlow and Linda Cresswell both have been in the Work Advantage program for almost two years, in apartments on Staten Island. Neither of them like Staten Island, but it was the best they could afford on Advantage’s budget.

“Staten Island is different than the other four boroughs. They’re a little behind the times. They really celebrate the 70s and 80s,” says Cresswell. She says she felt urgency to get out of the shelters, so took the first apartment she could find.

Both have had problems with their landlords. “There are a lot of scammers. Landlords want you to pay money up front. It’s very hard to find a place. Mostly you end up living in people’s basements,” Goodlow says. Cresswell took her landlord to small claims court after being overcharged for electricity.

The difference is that Goodlow has maintained her job as a care worker for the mentally disabled, and says between that and her savings from the past two years, she’ll be able to stay her in apartment.

“[Advantage] helped me out, because I was able to save money,” says Goodlow, who originally entered the shelters after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend, and is also a member of the advocacy group Community Voices Heard. “If I had to come up with the money and pay the rent and buy food it would have been a huge struggle.”

But Cresswell lost her job doing clerical work at an AARP office—the job was for people making less than $15,000, and once she started getting Social Security benefits, she no longer qualified.

“I’ll probably be back in the shelters when this is over,” she says. “I think Work Advantage is good because it gets you out of the shelter, but you can’t find employment to sustain you for full market rent. If the city could help us get into affordable housing that would be better.”

What other options?

Coalition for the Homeless opposes Advantage because, as a temporary program, it doesn’t provide a permanent solution to homelessness. In addition, it cuts off families after two years regardless of their situation or housing needs. The organization also opposes tying of Work Advantage to employment, which excludes the majority of homeless people.

Markee says there are more than 5,000 public housing apartments available for rent each year, and that policy changes being debated in Congress could provide the city with more Section 8 vouchers. Coalition for the Homeless criticizes the Bloomberg administration for its 2004 decision to stop prioritizing homeless families in shelters for Section 8 vouchers.

“The Bloomberg administration continues to run this program that is demonstrably a failure when they have other options available to them,” Markee says. “Why should taxpayer dollars go into this?”

Diamond, however, says the program has the requirement that eligible people work and pay a share of their incomes not because of a desire to keep people out of shelters but because, “it sends the right message."

"It’s very tough when you begin to work, but people work hard and fight hard," he says.

What's more, DHS says there are not enough alternate funding streams to house the 15,000 families that currently use Advantage funding, so even if Markee’s proposals were implemented by the city, the shelter population would rise at least in the short term if Advantage were ended.

That’s why many groups that serve the homeless are opposing cuts to the program.

“Work Advantage has some flaws,” said Mark Hurwitz, deputy director of Project Renewal. “But it’s unthinkable to get rid of the program without improving it or replacing it with something better."