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Legislator Rachel Barnhart wants more emergency housing in the county. This is how she would fund it

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart with Ashley Williams
Jeremy Moule
Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, left, stands with Ashley Williams, center, outside of the Econo Lodge in Henrietta, where Williams has lived for the past month. The county had notified Williams she was going to be cut off from public assistance benefits for a month because she wasn't being aggressive enough in her search for a permanent residence. Three days later, the county rescinded the sanction.

Ashley Williams stood in the blustery cold outside of the Henrietta Econo Lodge.

For the past month, a hotel room has been a temporary home for Wiliams and her three children. But she was being evicted in three days.

Monroe County commonly uses inexpensive hotels to provide emergency housing. But Williams had not been aggressive enough in her search for permanent housing, county officials concluded. So they were suspending her benefits for 30 days. That meant she had to leave.

“I’m really scared,” Williams told a gathering of reporters. “I don’t have no family, and I don’t know where to go. So if I don’t pay to stay here, I don’t know where I’m going to go.”

Within days, the county reversed the sanction it lodged against her, without explanation.

If you go...
Public hearing on County Executive Adam Bello's 2024 budget proposal
Where: Legislature chambers in Monroe County Office Building, 39 W. Main St.
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7

The news conference had been called by county Legislator Rachel Barnhart, a Rochester Democrat who has been publicly calling on County Executive Adam Bello — also a Democrat — and his administration to invest more into social services, particularly emergency housing assistance. She has ramped up that effort in recent weeks, headed toward a Dec. 7 legislative hearing and a Dec. 12 vote on Bello’s proposed 2024 budget.

Barnhart said she plans to propose a budget amendment that would create a $10 million fund controlled by the Legislature that could be used to support more robust housing assistance programs.

“This is a way to provide flexibility, to get community involvement, and make sure that that money is set aside,” Barnhart said.

She envisions legislators working with the administration to develop programs that could provide things such as rent subsidies or assistance with security deposits. The county ran a rental subsidy program, funded through federal dollars, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams said that she’d been constantly looking for permanent housing. She'd searched through a flawed list of options provided by the county Department of Human Services, where one number listed for several properties rang to a local heating and cooling contractor.

She also hunted through listings on sites such as Zillow, Hot Pads, and Trulia, even setting up appointments to view the apartments. But a lot of what she found was either unaffordable or run by landlords who brushed her off.

"I've never had this much issue in my whole life with trying to find an apartment,” Williams said.

But Barnhart believes her proposed fund could be used to address one of the issues Williams has struggled with. The county doesn’t set the amounts it pays for public assistance, the state does. A four-person family renting an apartment where heat is included receives roughly $875 a month, which is supposed to cover the cost of housing and necessities such as personal hygiene items.

In Monroe County, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is just under $1,200, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That limits rental options for many, and Williams said the difference between the benefits she receives and the actual cost of housing hindered her efforts to get out of the hotel.

Why a housing fund?

Barnhart had previously submitted legislation to establish a housing voucher trial program in Monroe County. That program would have closed the gap between the grants people get through public assistance and what it actually costs to rent an apartment in the county.

A Legislature committee leader directed the measure to the Bello administration for review and it rejected the proposal, arguing in large part that the Legislature does not have the authority to direct the county executive to create a new program.

Barnhart said that’s why she’s proposing a fund controlled by the Legislature, not the administration.

Legislators have created funds of that nature in the past.

During debate over Bello’s 2021 budget proposal, Republicans advanced a controversial measure to create a $2.5 million “community contingency fund.” Critics, including several Democratic legislators, referred to it as a slush fund, though the measure passed with some Democratic support. Barnhart voted against creating the fund.

The fund only lasted for the 2021 budget and the money was distributed to a long list of community organizations and nonprofits.

Denise Read, deputy commissioner of Monroe County's Department of Human Services, said that the county is open to bringing in additional Code Blue shelter providers.
Jeremy Moule
At a news conference on Nov. 29, 2023, Denise Read, deputy commissioner of Monroe County's Department of Human Services, said the county is open to bringing in additional Code Blue shelter providers.

Barnhart said that at the time, she was worried the fund would be used to “bolster people’s political credibility in their communities.” But she added that she’s come to see the value of having a pot of money controlled by legislators, as long as there are “guardrails and controls” on the money’s use.

Barnhart suggested one way to seed the fund would be to pull from county reserves, which have a surplus under a new fund balance policy.

“Let’s create this $10 million fund; we do not have to touch the tax rate to do that,” Barnhart said. “And let’s work on some innovative solutions over the next year with that money.”

After a recent news conference on another matter, Bello defended his administration’s approach to emergency housing issues. The county has invested in the Veterans Outreach Center’s Richards House to help homeless veterans, has worked to expand the number of warming centers and available beds during cold weather, and has steered federal pandemic relief funding to many different community agencies, he said.

The county is also preparing to open its own shelter in the Corn Hill neighborhood.

“I'm proud of those investments that we made, and we did that with a bipartisan majority of the county Legislature, and we did that by working with all these community-based organizations,” Bello said.

Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.