New York City Council joins lawsuit against Adams over rental vouchers

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(The Center Square) — The New York City Council has joined a civil lawsuit against Mayor Eric Adams over his objections to expanding the state’s housing voucher program.

In legal filings, the Council argues that Adams is legally bound to implement the law but refuses to do so over his objections to the changes. The Council filed a motion asking a state judge to allow the chamber to intervene in a class action lawsuit by several low-income New Yorkers against Adams over his “failure” to enact the new requirements.

“His refusal not only deprives New Yorkers of housing benefits to which they are entitled under the law; it usurps the powers of the council, a co-equal branch of city government, and it upends the separation of powers enshrined in the city charter,” the council’s lawyers wrote in the filings. “What he could not secure through the charter-established process, the mayor is now attempting to achieve by unlawfully abdicating his duties.”

A lawsuit, filed last week by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of four homeless individuals, faults the mayor for failing to implement three laws overhauling the city’s rental assistance program, CityFHEPS. The plaintiffs have asked a Superior Court judge in Manhattan to grant an injunction ordering the city to comply with the laws.

The package of bills would allow New Yorkers facing eviction to apply for rental vouchers and eliminate a rule requiring people to stay in shelters for 90 days before they are eligible to receive a voucher. It also prohibits landlords from deducting utility bill charges from a voucher and raises the cutoff income level to qualify for assistance.

Adams, a Democrat, vetoed the proposal last year, saying it would be too costly to the city. He estimated the price tag to be $17 billion over five years, $7 billion more than the City Council had projected.

The Democratic-controlled council overrode Adams’ veto by a vote of 42-8 in July, gave the mayor until Feb. 7 to implement the law, and said he hasn’t complied with the demands.

In December, the Adams administration informed council members that it couldn’t implement the new laws due to “substantial financial, operational and legal issues.”

The council recently voted to authorize Council President Adrienne Adams to file a legal challenge to force the mayor to implement the new laws.

Under the CityFHEPS program, a household must have a gross income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level and face eviction. About 36,000 households use the program, according to the city.

In 2023, the city spent nearly $500 million on the program, almost double what it spent in 2021, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Expanding the voucher program would cost the city between $3 billion and $36 billion over the next five years, the Adams administration says.

The dispute over implementing the rental voucher law is the latest development in a widening intra-party rift between Adams and the Council, which recently overrode the mayor’s vetoes of a police stop bill and a ban on solitary confinement in city jails.

It also comes as the city grapples with the influx of tens of thousands of migrants that have pushed its emergency shelter system to the brink of collapse.

“This administration has been exceptionally clear and transparent with the City Council for many, many months that however well‑intended they were in passing the law,” Lisa Zornberg, the mayor’s chief legal counsel, told reporters on Thursday when asked about the lawsuit. It’s our belief as a legal matter that that law goes beyond the City Council’s authority and that it’s actually preempted by existing state law.”