New York

What de Blasio’s ‘Paying the Homeless to Leave Town’ Program Is Really About

In a city with less and less affordable housing, low-income New Yorkers say it’s any port in a storm

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“Get the fuck out of here!” exclaims Anthony Cepeda. “That is so awesome!”

Cepeda is one of the dozens of mostly homeless people streaming out of a Chelsea church’s soup kitchen one morning in mid-October, bearing paper-wrapped buttered bagels and Styrofoam cups of tea. He’s just been told that the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has a new pilot program that will help pay homeless people’s rent for up to twelve months if they find housing outside the city.

The unnamed program, which began quietly on September 1, drew public attention in late September, after DHS sent a group of shelter residents to look at seventeen apartments in Newark, New Jersey. Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis called it an example of the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policies on homelessness, accusing him of spending “the taxpayers’ money” to subsidize out-of-town rents. For others, paying for poor people to leave raised the specter of the Louisiana segregationists in the 1960s who bought public-assistance recipients one-way bus tickets up North, or the Trump-mouthed provincial executive in Alberta in the 1990s who sent them to British Columbia.

New York’s relocation-aid program is much more benign, according to both city officials and homeless advocates. For ten years, the city’s Project Reconnect has paid transportation expenses for people living in city homeless shelters who are looking to move outside the city; under the new pilot, the city will subsidize rents as well — for housing either in the city or elsewhere.

“It’s brand-new, so we don’t have a lot of on-the-ground feedback,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “We haven’t seen people in our office who’ve been through it.”

The Coalition, the court-appointed monitor of city homelessness policy since it won a case establishing the right to shelter in the early 1980s, learned about the program last month in a meeting with the DHS. For eligible households, DHS will cover the amount by which their rent exceeds 30 percent of their income, up to the same maximum rent as in other city rent-assistance programs for homeless people: $1,213 a month for a single person and $1,515 for a family of four. To be eligible, individuals or families have to have spent at least ninety days in a city homeless shelter and verify that they’ll have a job or be able to afford their rent in the place they’re going. They are ineligible if they have open arrest warrants, open child-welfare cases, or untreated mental health or drug- or alcohol-use problems.

“For decades, the city has helped our homeless neighbors seek housing where they can best get back on their feet — sometimes that includes outside the five boroughs,” says DHS press secretary Isaac McGinn.

With the city in a never-ending housing crunch, looking for homes outside the five boroughs has become a last resort to avoid homelessness for many. The city has recorded more than 60,000 people living in homeless shelters every month since December 2015, the most since it began tracking them in 1983, and an increase of more than 50 percent in the last six years. About three-fourths are families, and the average stay is fourteen months. Those numbers do not include the unknown thousands sleeping on the street.

The reason, says Routhier, is that there is essentially “no housing” affordable to the poor. For someone making $25,000 a year, even a rent of $700 a month would be more than one-third of pre-tax income — and about the only place you can find apartments that cheap in the city is in public housing, which has 257,000 families on the waiting list for its 176,000 apartments.

Since Project Reconnect began providing transportation assistance in 2007, it has helped about 4,000 households move out of the city, according to DHS figures. The most common destinations are Florida and Puerto Rico, which together with Georgia and the Carolinas account for the bulk of all relocations.

For both the homeless and their advocates, the new rent-subsidy program is just an extension of that Bloomberg-era initiative.  “I don’t know to what extent this represents a significant break,” Sam Miller, a spokesperson for the homeless people’s organization Picture the Homeless, says of the new relocation-aid program. “We as an organization support anything that pays for homes instead of shelter.” However, he adds, a year of housing aid isn’t a long-term solution: “What happens when you move to North Carolina and the voucher runs out, or the job doesn’t pay enough for shelter?”

This is the long-standing catch-22 with temporary housing subsidies: People are likely to end up homeless as soon as the rental assistance runs out. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s two main initiatives — Housing Stability Plus, which gave families on public assistance rent subsidies that were scaled back by 20 percent each year, and Advantage, which offered subsidies that ended after two years — both failed dismally and were canceled, largely for this reason. More than 60 percent of the programs’ recipients wound up back in shelters, says Routhier. The city currently offers temporary rental-assistance programs for working families eligible for public assistance, long-term shelter residents, domestic violence victims, elderly and disabled individuals, working individuals, and people who have a relative or friend they can move in with.

There is one program that offers permanent rent subsidies: the federal Section 8 voucher program. But the maximum rents it will subsidize are less than what most vacant apartments in the city rent for: $1,460 for a studio and $1,768 for a two-bedroom. In any case, funding for the program is so limited that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which administers it here, has not accepted applications since 2009.

Those at the Chelsea soup kitchen like the idea of rent subsidies for housing outside the city, but are quick to point out its likely shortcomings. “It’s good for people who have a place to go,” says James Brown, a former taxi driver who’s been in and out of city shelters for the past ten years, as well as shelters in Dallas and Miami. “If you don’t have family, you’re just going to be wandering around, and they’ll put you in jail.”

Mohamed, who has been in the shelters for a bit more than a month and prefers not to give his last name, calls it “innovative,” but adds that “it seems very specialized. It’s not going to be a lot of people who’d know somebody outside, and you have to hear about it.”

Homeless advocates say that helping a relatively small number of people relocate doesn’t address the underlying causes of the city’s continuing affordable-housing crisis. Picture the Homeless cites a 2016 audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer that said the city owns more than 1,100 vacant lots that could be used to build 57,000 apartments. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) countered that most of those lots are not viable locations for housing; for example, some are in hurricane danger zones in the Rockaways. The actual number of vacant lots is murky, and HPD has refused to release its list. A package of three bills called the Housing Not Warehousing Act would require the city to conduct a census of all vacant land, but the City Council has not taken any action on it since a hearing in 2016.

Another possibility, says Routhier, would be for the city to reserve a larger share of vacant apartments in public housing for homeless people leaving shelters; it currently sets aside about 1,500 of the roughly 4,000 annual vacancies. On the other hand, providing a greater share of the minuscule number of public-housing apartments to shelter residents would leave fewer available for the city’s non-homeless working-class and poor people.

At current rates, it would take more than sixty years for all the people on NYCHA’s waiting list to get apartments, and a 1998 federal law, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, generally prohibits cities from using federal funds to build new public housing if it would “result in a net increase” in the number of units. Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which relies on enforced trickle-down from luxury development to create new “affordable” housing, will cater mainly to New Yorkers who make more than $40,000 a year. There have been numerous calls to create more housing for lower-income people, most recently by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, but the mayor’s plan is the main one in effect.

DHS acknowledges the problem. Roughly 40,000 people in families with children live in the shelters, a spokesperson says, and more than one-third of families “include a parent that is earning income but cannot make ends meet — underscoring the economic factors, namely rents rising far faster than wages or incomes, driving homelessness.” On that basis, the spokesperson adds, if even one family participates in the relocation program, “it is a successful tool for that family.”

Anthony Cepeda would seem to be a perfect candidate. “I come from Nashville, Tennessee, and I’d like to go back,” he says. “I’ve got someone in Tennessee who wants to take care of me.”

But the requirement that participants have to have lived in city shelters for ninety days would trip him up. He was placed in a shelter in Brownsville — one where a resident was seriously wounded in May when he was stabbed with a pair of scissors — but left because it was “really horrible.”

“I didn’t feel safe,” Cepeda says. He’s now back on the street, along with thousands of others — in a city where rents keep going up far faster than people’s ability to pay them.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect DHS’s clarification that its new rent subsidies can be used for housing within the city, not just outside of it.

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