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Housing subsidy proposal aims to help 125 families live rent-free for a year

The seal of Monroe County
James Brown
The seal of Monroe County

Phoebe Daniel grew up not knowing where she might sleep from one week or month to the next.

“I spent most of my childhood unhoused or inadequately housed,” she said, becoming a ward of the state as a teenager and ultimately choosing her college because it offered free housing. "I didn't know what it was like to have a home.”

Now engaged, and with a 5-year-old son, she wanted a safe and stable home where he could have a yard and his own room. The house they found in Irondequoit is at the top of their budget — consuming between 50% and 80% of the family’s income, depending on the month.

It’s families like these that Legislator Rachel Barnhart and housing advocates are aiming to help with legislation submitted Friday. Their goal: Allow up to 125 families that are homeless or facing eviction to live rent-free for a year, using a voucher program that would supplement existing housing assistance.

“You know, housing instability impacts public safety, impacts workforce development, health care, education, so many things,” said Barnhart, D-Rochester.

Daniel and her fiancé both have their own businesses. She is a communications consultant. To cover rent, they cut expenses. Her private office space had to go. So did one of the two family cars.

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Phoebe Daniel
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Phoebe Daniel

But as a parent, reflecting on her experience as a child, the house is important.

“To have a room that you're able to return to time and time again, and kind of grow into that space,” she said, explaining why the house is so important. “So much of becoming is developing this practice that we do every day for ourselves, you know, how we learn how to rest. That's in connection to our beds in our bedroom.”

The one-year pilot project would be the latest anti-poverty measure aiming to address housing instability and homelessness in the area.

In recent weeks, separate guaranteed basic income programs — including one operated by the city of Rochester and another by The Bridge Project by the Monarch Foundation, a New York City nonprofit — have begun paying out monthly subsidies to select recipients, no strings attached. One goal of these efforts is to make the case at the state and federal level that current programs are insufficient.

“We need the state to step up,” Barnhart said.

Right now, the state offers rental assistance that amounts to $340 a month for a three-person family renting a two-bedroom apartment. That hasn’t changed since 2003, and the allowance falls well short of today’s rents. Critics say that pushes recipients into substandard or overcrowded housing, or leaves them at risk of eviction.

Monroe County paid to house upward of 630 families in shelters or hotels last year. And the administration now is working to open an emergency housing shelter in the Corn Hill neighborhood.

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.
Provided photo
Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.

Barnhart's proposal has the backing of housing advocates. And she points to what she describes as “voluminous and sobering data” regarding evictions, child homelessness, even the log of calls she gets every week, that she says supports such an intervention.

“I had a man who slept in a park with his two teenage children because his county placement, he missed a step and wasn't able to reauthorize it,” she said. “A couple of days ago, I had a pregnant mother with four children also was struggling to find a placement.

“This is a growing need for families experiencing homelessness.”

The legislation she put forward this week is intentionally vague on exact numbers, measures and other details — leaving that up to the administration to fashion.

“We didn't want to be overly prescriptive,” she said. “We didn't want to shoot ourselves in the foot the second we introduced the legislation, to have them say, ‘Well, it's not going to work.’ We want to give maximum flexibility to the experts in the county administration.”

The administration declined to comment on the proposal Friday.

Barnhart is realistic about the legislation’s chances. But she sees this as a first step.

“I think eventually the county will have to move in this direction, because the situation is dire. It’s dire,” she said. “If (the proposal) doesn't pass this go-round. I do believe that eventually we are going to provide more assistance like this, even if it's not this particular program.”

The Legislature is expected begin debating the measure later this month. Such a subsidy program would require both county and state approval.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.