News & Politics

To Understand NYC’s Homelessness Crisis, Look Beyond de Blasio

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New York City is facing a debilitating homelessness crisis. Try as he might, Mayor Bill de Blasio alone can’t keep tens of thousands of people off the streets and out of substandard, temporary housing. As mayor, de Blasio has been forced to own this disaster—he’s the executive, after all—and the media’s ire has been aimed solely his way.

But it’s time to dispense with the fiction that this is entirely de Blasio’s fault. Were the state more supportive and local elected officials less obsessed with guarding their turf from the homeless and the new developments that could house them, progress would be possible. Instead, New York City has 60,000 homeless people, a record high, and it’s entirely unclear how this number will significantly decline in the near future. Certainly not in time for de Blasio’s re-election campaign next year.

The crisis is not unique to New York City. As urban centers across America grow more desirable for the wealthy, rents and property values skyrocket—and the working class can’t afford what they once could. The working poor and unemployed are fast running out of options. Thank Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio’s billionaire predecessor, for that.

Though he’ll always be too beholden to real estate interests, de Blasio recognizes this problem. It was at the heart of his campaign. Build more housing, increase density, and hope the market slowly corrects itself. He’s trying and running out of time, and privately he probably could admit it. Manhattan rents, still comically astronomical, are cooling off, but now the outer boroughs are bastions of privilege too. Soon, the South Bronx and East New York will gentrify. His rezoning plans, if well-intentioned, will only entice developers to create new enclaves for the affluent.

Ideally, de Blasio would move faster and his plans would call for far more housing affordable to the shrinking middle class and poor of New York than the mandated 25 percent for new developments. In the meantime, homeless shelters are overtaxed — more than 42,000 people now live in them. More and more hotels are converted into shelters, an expensive solution that can threaten the safety of families and force children to live many miles from their schools. Housing families in hotels costs the city $400,000 a night, according to a recent report released by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

To house everyone, de Blasio must contradict himself and continue to jam the homeless into so-called “cluster” sites, privately-owned buildings with disreputable landlords. An exploding radiator at one such site in the Bronx killed two infants this month. Converting apartment buildings into temporary shelters also takes housing stock off the market, an untenable proposition in a city with such low vacancy rates.

What should be done? The elephant in the room, which even the most liberal Democrats won’t approach directly, is that mass homelessness is one symptom of our version of capitalism. A system of mass rent-regulation — or a law forbidding all landlords from raising rents beyond a certain number or above a certain rate — could solve this problem quickly, but would cost landlords and developers a lot of money. And it would be antithetical to the free market values cherished by the political class.

In the short-term, realistically, the city must build more shelters and the state must do more to more to keep people from losing their homes. Queens Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi is pushing a laudable plan to create a new rental subsidy; whether Republicans in the State Senate, who are hostile to the city’s interests, and their off again, on again benefactor Governor Andrew Cuomo see fit to usher it into law remains to be seen.

When Cuomo, without hardly a thought, shot down de Blasio’s ambitious proposal to erect more than 11,000 affordable housing units over Sunnyside Yards (which are partially owned by the state-controlled MTA), he ensured at least one serious answer to homelessness crisis would never see the light of day.

The city is still reeling from Bloomberg’s decision to end Advantage, a program that offered subsidies for up to two years to help people in shelters afford their own apartments. Bloomberg made the decision, in part, because Cuomo’s government cut off its share of funding. Austerity measures undertaken when David Paterson, Cuomo’s predecessor, governed during a recession have never been fully reversed. Cuomo’s office believe it’s doing plenty, though: they point to their five-year, $20 billion plan to build 100,000 affordable housing units, and the overall increase in state support for emergency shelters and rental supplements since 2012.

“The Governor is committed to providing every New Yorker with a safe, affordable place to call home,” said Abbey Fashouer, a Cuomo spokeswoman, told the Voice.

The other necessary component is the construction of many new shelters to house this increasingly permanent class of homeless. Here we find the virus of NIMBYism that won’t die. City and state elected officials have disingenuously lamented the surge in homelessness while doing everything they can to ensure the problem isn’t solved in their neighborhood. City and state elected officials — State Senator Joe Addabbo, Assemblymember Mike Miller and Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley — teamed up to torpedo a shelter in Maspeth, Queens, bowing to furious community opposition. Maspeth residents even harassed Steven Banks, de Blasio’s commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, at his home.

A plan to convert an East Elmhurst hotel into a homeless shelter met with misguided resistance from Rep. Joe Crowley, State Senator Jose Peralta and Assemblyman Francisco Moya. Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker, now runs a shelter provider trying to open a homeless shelter in Coney Island. The local councilman, Mark Treyger, is predictably not thrilled. But maybe he remembers how Quinn once gutlessly battled a homeless shelter in her own district.

Where, then, are all these homeless supposed to go?

No elected official will wholeheartedly endorse a new shelter in their district because the people who vote— those who have homes, a savings account, and the time to engage with their local government — don’t like them. Excuses are concocted. Short-term gain trumps long-term wisdom.

Shelters must be spread equally across the city, with wealthy neighborhoods doing their share too. Queens shouldn’t be the only front for this war. Elected officials should stand aside for once and allow the city to build shelters fit for their fellow New Yorkers.

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