Lawsuit pending? City Council empowers Speaker Adams to sue Mayor Adams over housing voucher inaction

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams speaks about potential lawsuit over housing voucher inaction
The City Council on Thursday passed a resolution giving Council Speaker Adrienne Adams the power to sue Mayor Eric Adams’ administration over its refusal to enact several laws expanding access to city housing vouchers.
Photo Credit: Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

The City Council on Thursday passed a resolution giving Council Speaker Adrienne Adams the power to sue Mayor Eric Adams’ administration over its refusal to enact several laws expanding access to city housing vouchers.

It was the latest chapter in a growing rift between both sides of City Hall, which recently butted heads over two controversial pieces of public safety legislation.

The speaker, during a Thursday press conference, said that while the resolution will allow the council to pursue legal action, no final decision has yet been made on whether to actually take the mayor to court.

“There has been no final decision yet on any legal action, but this maintains our ability to keep our options open,” the speaker said. “It is our responsibility to get to compliance. Just like you have to comply with the law, I have to comply with the law, the administration has to comply with the law as well.”

Manhattan Council Member Shaun Abreu (D) said Thursday that the resolution shows that “my word means something, that this council’s word means something, in this chamber we follow through on our promises.”

The procedural move comes after the administration failed to meet the Jan. 9 deadline for implementing the laws, which expand eligibility for the program that currently provides subsidies for homeless New Yorkers to rent apartments on the open market. 

It also follows a Jan 9. letter in which the speaker threatened to take legal action if the administration did not by Feb. 7 take “concrete, verifiable steps” to enact the laws, which the council passed over the mayor’s veto last summer. With the Wednesday deadline passing and the administration still refusing to implement the laws, the council is now taking steps towards a suit.

In the case that the council does pursue legal action, the speaker did not specify whether it would bring its own suit or join one launched by another group — like the Legal Aid Society, which pledged last month to take the administration to court sometime in the near future.

The speaker said there has not been “any further communication” between her office and the administration after her last letter, which was addressed to Department of Social Services Commissioner Molly Wasow Park.

“We are going to wait and see what happens once we pass this resolution today and we’ll go forward,” the speaker said.

Battle over costs

Mayor Eric Adams speaks about housing vouchers
Mayor Eric Adams announced reforms to CityFHEPS vouchers and new pilot program to get more homeless individuals into permanent housing. Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.Photo courtesy of Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The laws in question would greatly expand access to the program by making it available to those on the verge of eviction and to a wider-swath of low-income individuals. Previously, the vouchers were only open to those who were already homeless and living in shelters.

The council passed the laws in a bid to ease the strain on the city’s shelter system, which has ballooned over the past two years due to the influx of over 170,000 migrants to the five boroughs.

Mayor Adams’ administration has remained vehemently opposed to the laws, arguing they carry a hefty $17 billion five-year price tag and would create competition between homeless New Yorkers and those facing eviction for a limited number of available apartments. They also charge that the council does not have the legal authority to make changes to the program through legislation because it is overseen by the state government and preempted by state social services law.

Mayoral spokesperson Kayla Mamelak Altus, in an emailed statement, did not respond directly to the council moving to bring legal action, instead reiterating that the laws will add $17 billion “onto the backs” of taxpayers and “force” the mayor to make more budget cuts.

Council leadership has pushed back on all of those points.

They say their own projections put the cost closer to $10 billion over 5 years and that they would not create more competition because the vouchers would help keep those facing eviction in their homes. Additionally, the lawmakers say they have tweaked the program through legislation as recently as 2021.

As the council was set to take the Thursday vote, Adams introduced his own new initiative surrounding CityFHEPS. The program would move 1,500 voucher holders into market rate units in buildings rented out by nonprofits contracted with the city.

However, while the initiative is “welcome,” the speaker said, it does not supersede the laws the council passed.

Tension at City Hall

The speaker’s move towards suing the administration comes a little over a week after she scored two major victories over the mayor by overriding his vetoes of legislation requiring cops to document low-level interactions with the public and to ban the use of solitary confinement in city jails. 

The council overrode both of the mayor’s vetoes with more votes than the measures originally passed by, despite a concerted public campaign by the mayor to discredit the legislation and flip council members to vote against the override.

But the mayor, during a Monday press conference, said it is a “misnomer” that the council overriding mayoral vetoes is a novel occurrence. He pointed out that the council overrode vetoes 68 times between 2002 and 2014 — the years former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in office.

Instead, he said, the overrides prove democracy is working as it should be.

“We say that to say, this is a healthy form of our democracy,” he said. “My job was to communicate with New Yorkers of what I felt the bill’s challenges were … And you don’t get a W on everything.”