NEW YORK — The city can stop paying rent subsidies for more than 16,000 formerly homeless families after losing state backing for the initiative, a judge ruled Tuesday in a case that advocates have said could make thousands of people homeless again.
While the Advantage program has valuable aims, the city was within its rights to cancel it, Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Judith J. Gische said.
New York City officials "have no ongoing obligation, contractual or otherwise, to continue the Advantage program," she wrote.
An appeals court had ordered the city to keep paying the assistance while the legal fight played out. Steven Banks, chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which sued the city on behalf of Advantage recipients, noted that the order still stands, at least for now. The city could take further legal action to get the order voided.
The city's chief lawyer, Michael A. Cardozo, and City Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond praised Gische's decision. It came after a five-day civil trial this summer.
"We will continue to move forward in supporting homeless families in their effort to gain employment and move out of shelter," Diamond said in a statement.
The four-year-old program was designed to move families out of shelters and into permanent housing. It provides rent subsidies for up to two years to homeless people who have secured jobs but can't pay the rent from their earnings alone. It was projected to cost $140 million this fiscal year.
Advocates for the homeless have long expressed concern also about whether the program puts people in apartments they can't afford long-term.
The city told the families in March the subsidies were stopping because of state budget cuts. City officials said they had no choice, but some critics accused the city of using the program as a political tool in a standoff with state lawmakers over spending.
City officials forecast then that without the program, the city's homeless family population would increase by 51 percent and the city would have to build an additional 70 shelters.
Banks said in a March court filing that ending the program would put its recipients "at imminent risk of eviction proceedings and homelessness."
"By winning, the city loses, since now thousands of formerly homeless families and individuals are at risk of losing their homes and flooding the shelter system," he said by telephone Tuesday evening.
Legal Aid argued the program amounted to a contract. But the judge said it didn't carry such guarantees.
"The Advantage program, no matter how laudable its goals, is nothing more than a social benefit program, which (the city) had the right to terminate, based upon the lack of funding available for its continuation," she wrote.
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