What’s a veto-proof majority worth without a chance to test it?
The City Council voted 42-8 on Thursday afternoon to override New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ veto of a package of bills designed to expand access to a rental housing voucher program. The council readopted the legislation, which council leaders and housing advocates say will help more New Yorkers transition into and remain in permanent housing through the CityFHEPS vouchers.
The move was expected – the council passed the package in May with full awareness that the mayor was against it, and Eric Adams’ veto of the bills last month was met with confidence from the council that they had the votes to override the mayor’s veto.
But it nonetheless represents a turning point for the City Council, which has been increasingly openly critical of Mayor Adams’ administration, including over cuts to social services in the recently adopted city budget and the administration’s handling of sheltering asylum-seekers. The City Council has not overridden a mayoral veto since the Bloomberg administration – in very large part due to the fact that former Mayor Bill de Blasio never issued a veto in his eight years in office.
“We will continue to do all that we can to build more housing and tackle decades of exclusionary zoning policies that have prevented our city from building an adequate housing supply,” Eric Adams said in a statement sent out shortly after the vote. “We are reviewing our options and next steps.”
The City Council’s six Republican members and conservative Democratic Council Members Kalman Yeger and Bob Holden voted against overriding the mayor’s veto.
Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who as president of the shelter operator Win has been a fierce advocate for the council’s legislation, offered some recent historical context, saying that while she was in the City Council during Bloomberg’s administration, they voted to override mayoral vetoes dozens of times. “I know when I was speaker and Mayor Bloomberg was there, we would disagree and agree – we’d have a meeting and have six points on the agenda, and two of them we would disagree on and four we would agree on,” Quinn said at a media gaggle. “And you just went about the rest of your business.”
The council’s legislation would expand access to the city rental vouchers to anyone under a certain income level who is at risk of homelessness or eviction, and would prohibit sources of income or work status being used as a basis for eligibility. It would also eliminate a longstanding requirement that individuals and families have to stay in the shelter system for 90 days before being eligible for the vouchers. Shortly after the council passed this package, Eric Adams independently made an emergency rule change that suspended that 90-day rule. He later vetoed the council’s bills. If the rule change was an attempt by the mayor to find a compromise that would preempt the council from overriding his veto, it wasn’t successful.
The mayor has argued that the council’s move to expand housing voucher access will cost taxpayers too much money and result in homeless people living in shelter or on the street being deprioritized for vouchers to access permanent housing. At a press conference on Tuesday, he celebrated the administration’s suspension of the 90-day rule, saying that it has already allowed 500 households to become immediately eligible for CityFHEPS vouchers. But he has strongly objected to the rest of the voucher expansion. “Unlike the council, we do not, however, believe that New Yorkers should spend $17 billion on a package of bills that would put New Yorkers in shelter at the back of the line for a CityFHEPS voucher and make it harder for them to find permanent housing,” a spokesperson for the mayor said in a statement on Wednesday.
Ahead of the council’s vote on Thursday afternoon, Speaker Adrienne Adams rejected that argument, saying that the purpose of the package has always been to help the lowest-income New Yorkers. “It has been disconcerting to see it misconstrued that somehow these bills would open the program to those in our city who are not in greatest need,” Speaker Adams said.
The council and the mayor are also sharply divided over whether the city can afford to expand access to vouchers. While the Eric Adams administration has estimated that it would cost $17 billion over five years – an estimate that includes savings on shelter costs – to implement the expansion, the council’s estimate is $11 billion, not including savings on shelter costs.
The council has also argued that the expansion is more cost efficient in the long term, pointing to reports that show it’s more expensive on a per night basis to house someone in shelter than it is to house them in permanent housing with the voucher.
The Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog, said in a statement on Thursday that the city can’t afford the expansion of the voucher program. Funding for the CityFHEPS program in the city budget is set to drop $141 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Leading up to the veto override vote, both sides have already been talking about hypothetical next steps, which include a possibility of the Eric Adams administration suing to block the laws from going into effect. It’s not clear exactly what legal precedent the administration would use for a lawsuit, but statements from the mayor’s office have alleged that the council doesn’t have the legal authority to pass these changes. At a background briefing with media on Wednesday, city officials said that the state has jurisdiction over the rental voucher program, and that the City Council doesn’t have a role in it.
But the City Council has previously legislated on the program, voting in 2021 to raise the value of the vouchers.
With the potential of a legal challenge looming, there could still be a long road ahead to actually implementing the legislation. But Speaker Adams received praise from colleagues for exercising the council’s veto authority on a measure they called crucial to address the city’s housing crisis. “Today's show of strength could not have happened without your backbone, your commitment and your refusal to be bullied,” Council Member Tiffany Cabán told Speaker Adams before the vote.