During his first week as mayor of New York City, Eric Adams arrived at the cavernous Fulton Street subway station, in Manhattan. Standing with Governor Kathy Hochul, Adams vowed to address an expanding challenge for the city in the pandemic era—the growing number of homeless taking refuge on subway platforms and trains. The plan was a new version of what had already been attempted under prior administrations. Hochul, who became governor last August after the resignation of Andrew Cuomo, said the state would pay for dozens of new social workers to help the homeless get into shelters. Adams, boosting the initiative, added that more police would patrol subway cars and stations to attempt to defuse potentially violent situations. “It’s about building trust. When you build that trust and provide the wraparound services, you can actually have a better chance of taking them off the streets,” explained Adams. “These are people who are living on the streets and the subway system, and just have a lack of trust in the system.”
It’s true that trust between those living on the city’s margins and the bureaucracies charged with managing them—the police, the Department of Homeless Services, the shelter system—is largely frayed, where not completely broken. Like many major cities in America, New York has grappled with an explosion of the homeless population over the course of the 21st century. Families jam decrepit shelters and single men and women, some of them with mental health or substance abuse challenges, roam sidewalks and subway cars. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc in crowded, unsanitary congregate settings, infecting and killing the city’s most vulnerable people. Adams has yet to offer a far-reaching plan for combating homelessness. As a candidate for mayor, he backed a proposal to turn underused hotels into affordable housing units but has not pitched any specific projects since. He has demurred over whether he will ever appoint a deputy mayor for housing, as past mayors have done.
Vowing to curb or end homelessness is, of course, not new. As Michael Bloomberg was leaving office, in 2013, The New York Times published a wrenching five-part investigative series about a girl named Dasani who had grown up in the shelter system. The reporting amounted to a searing indictment of the 12-year Bloomberg era, a time when the homeless population steadily increased and more and more residents, even those gainfully employed, were forced to dwell in overcrowded shelters. Under Bloomberg, the city had grown wealthier but more unequal. Rents rose dramatically as gentrification took hold in the outer boroughs. In his third term, Bloomberg terminated a short-term rental subsidy program known as Advantage, worsening the crisis.
“If you ever needed an illustration of what the tale of two cities is all about, there you have it,” Bill de Blasio, the incoming mayor, said after the series was published. “We are simply not going to allow this kind of reality to continue.” But it did. De Blasio, a liberal Democrat, could not significantly drive down the city’s homeless population—in fact, for much of his tenure, it increased. In the 2010s, homelessness reached levels in New York not seen since the Great Depression, when Hoovervilles (shantytowns named after then-President Herbert Hoover) filled the city. By October 2021, there were close to 49,000 homeless people, including more than 15,000 homeless children, sleeping each night in the city’s municipal shelter system. That overall number, though down from the 60,000 peak of a few years previous, is still 20% higher than it was before de Blasio took office. On average, both homeless single adults and families with children will spend more than one year in a city shelter.
“They’re not trying to help nobody—not trying to help nobody at all,” Douglass Powell, a Manhattan resident who has spent more than two years in the shelter system, tells the Voice. He says he has rarely felt comfortable in shelters, and staff have not successfully helped him find permanent housing. Fights break out over food and water, he says, and isolating from COVID-19 is virtually impossible. “I’m in a corrupted place with a bunch of corrupted people. They don’t care about nobody.”
Why can’t a city with a $100 billion budget and a relatively generous social safety net—in NYC, the right to shelter has been legally guaranteed after a 1970s lawsuit, unlike in other places—stamp out homelessness for good? For advocates, policy experts, and those who regularly study the issue, the answers are both complex, rooted in decades of disinvestment and altered priorities, and startlingly simple. De Blasio, like previous mayors, seemed content to treat homelessness as a social services problem, not a housing problem. By herding the homeless into an ever-expanding public-private shelter network, rather than permanent housing, the de Blasio administration likely perpetuated, rather than solved, a crisis. “One of the significant roadblocks we encountered in the de Blasio administration was a failure to align his affordable plan with record homelessness,” says Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless. “We need both supportive housing and deeply subsidized affordable housing.” (“Supportive” housing refers to units with wraparound mental health services for those who require them.)
The homeless population of single adults, in particular, remained stubbornly elevated in the de Blasio era. It is now at least 60% higher than when de Blasio took office, as city housing assistance programs tend to benefit those who have families. The jail and prison populations have declined sharply, a welcome development for many advocates, but the state sends more than half of the prisoners it releases to New York City directly to shelters. Anti-eviction measures, which de Blasio introduced through the right to counsel in housing court, are of little help for those freed from jails and prisons.
At the same time, de Blasio—and even Bloomberg—was dealt a rather poor hand. Beginning in the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut federal housing vouchers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget was slashed, public housing deteriorated, and single-room occupancy units, or SROs, were systemically taken off the market, converted to market-rate apartments, or demolished altogether. “You can make the case that this is an issue bigger than any one city, any one mayor. The mayor is limited by fiscal limits, state authority, and international real estate trends,” says Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society and the author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. “There is a lot Eric Adams can do differently than de Blasio and Bloomberg, though. He can recognize homelessness as a housing problem and not a social services delivery problem.”
A Short History of Homelessness in NYC
Through the 1970s, and even past that decade’s fiscal crisis, which brought New York City to the brink of bankruptcy, homelessness was not a glaring challenge. Even as deindustrialization gutted the city in the postwar period and the white middle class took flight for the suburbs, there were not large numbers of homeless sleeping on streets and subways or filling up shelters. The city grappled with rising crime rates, racial strife, and unemployment, but not an exceedingly large number of people without a rented bed to sleep in at night. For decades prior, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt’s federal New Deal programs, progressive politicians and labor unions had held great sway in the five boroughs, beefing up the municipal workforce, fighting for greater safety net programs, and spearheading the creation of public, subsidized, and union-owned housing. Meanwhile, rent-control and rent-stabilization programs, created during World War II, introduced fresh regulations for private-sector apartments.
But the dawn of the 1980s offered new opportunities for a real estate and finance class now empowered to control the destiny of a city still recovering from its brush with bankruptcy. Financial controls on city spending lent tremendous new authority to the banking sector, which had been unwilling to loan money to a municipal government that, while mismanaging budgets, remained committed to generously funding its postwar welfare state as tax revenue cratered. With left-wing Democrats diminished, city, state, and federal actors combined to create a new order for housing. First, there was the slow death of single-room occupancy hotels, long demonized in the media for their shabby conditions and the types of people who lived in them. A 20th-century fixture, SROs were far from ideal—drug use and violence were a reality in some—but they offered a baseline safety net for the young and the desperately poor, many of them single, who wanted to live in New York City. The rooms were cheap enough that almost anyone, whether they were a disabled veteran or a destitute high school graduate, could afford one, avoiding nights on the streets. And SRO tenants could live in these hotels night to night or week to week, with few questions asked. When mental institutions shuttered as part of a national trend, in the 1970s, thousands of troubled people were sent into the city with little government assistance, but SROs were initially able to absorb that population.
From 1955 onward, the city restricted the construction of new SROs and began, by the 1970s, to offer tax breaks to landlords to demolish them or convert them into almost anything, including upscale apartments or boutique tourist hotels. Between 1976 and 1981, nearly two-thirds of all remaining SRO units were lost in the city. “There was no homelessness to speak of in the 1970s. There were enough units available to meet demand,” says Deborah K. Padgett, a scholar on homelessness at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. “The 1980s were a perfect storm. You had conservative government policies and the total privatization of housing—it became a commodity.” Real estate developers and landlords were hungry, throughout the 1980s, to convert as many SROs as they could into market-rate housing. New York was roaring back to life, and once-cheap land was growing incredibly valuable. Instead of housing the impoverished, landlords could attract affluent young professionals to Midtown and Downtown. The Baby Boom had created a whole cohort of them, young college graduates now entering their prime earning years, ready to make the big city their home. The old SRO tenants turned to shelters or the streets.
Reagan’s presidency cemented a neoliberal turn that had begun under Jimmy Carter, the Democratic president who oversaw, after Gerald Ford, an onerous federal bailout of New York City. Reagan, a conservative Republican, gutted the budget of HUD, the federal agency that oversees housing, and reduced federal funding for the city’s deteriorating public housing stock. Federal housing vouchers for low-income tenants were dramatically cut. At the same time, New York began to gentrify, with more and more working-class neighborhoods experiencing rising rents. By 1990, politicians had begun to recognize the growing challenge on their hands. David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, had defeated Ed Koch, who built a large amount of affordable housing during his tenure but presided over the destruction of SROs. Partnering with Mario Cuomo, the longtime Democratic governor, Dinkins announced a joint city-state agreement to find, refurbish, or build new housing for 5,225 “mentally ill” homeless people.
The NY/NY agreement, as it was called, was a relative success. It also laid the groundwork for additional agreements to create more supportive housing. The model pointed a way forward—if the political will could be summoned to implement it on a mass scale. But Dinkins and Cuomo would lose re-election, in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Republicans Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki took power, partnering with Democrats who were skeptical of expensive government interventions to solve homelessness. Mario Cuomo’s son Andrew Cuomo was heavily involved in the issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, founding Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), which grew into a large, nationwide private provider of transitional and emergency housing for the homeless. The younger Cuomo, who also chaired Dinkins’s City Homeless Commission, was an early proponent of the shelter system as an alternative to subsidized housing. He argued, in a much-read 1991 report, that homelessness should be treated as a mental health and social services issue, not necessarily one related to the loss of housing.
But despite the growth of the shelter system, homelessness continued to rise during the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, as the city grew more expensive and the housing constructed, much of it market-rate, was priced far out of the reach of those trying to get out of the shelter system. In the late 1990s, another policy bomb was dropped—vacancy decontrol, backed by moderate Democrats and Republicans alike, which allowed landlords to take apartment units out of the rent-stabilization system altogether if certain rent thresholds were passed, various repairs were made, or an apartment became vacant. Over the next two decades, before its repeal in 2019, vacancy decontrol led to hundreds of thousands of stabilized units exiting the program, fueling further gentrification.
“The fact that homelessness has increased so greatly, it’s the chickens coming home to roost. What do you expect when 300,000 rent-stabilized units go market-rate?” asks Michael McKee, a longtime housing advocate and the leader and treasurer of Tenants PAC, an advocate for tenants’ rights in New York State. “What do you expect when you don’t provide billions in vouchers that actually help people get out of shelters and into housing?” Another challenge, for New York City and other American localities, is the lack of new housing construction, especially of units that can be easily rented by working-class residents. De Blasio’s housing plan had small set-asides for affordable apartments that could still be too expensive for neighborhood residents. Overall construction has lagged, reducing supply: Between 2009 and 2018, the city saw a net increase of only 100,000 housing units, according to the city comptroller’s office, though resident employment grew by 500,000, leaving a substantial gap between available shelter and new wage-earners. Traditionally, upzonings to build new housing have been carried out in working-class, nonwhite neighborhoods that are wary of new development, because it tends to drive rent increases. Adams has championed building new housing in wealthy areas like Midtown Manhattan, though he has not advanced any concrete proposal. Ideally, housing experts say, the city would upzone transit-rich and more affluent areas in the five boroughs, where development has traditionally been restricted. This would mean taking on tough political fights that mayors have generally avoided.
What Else Can Adams Do?
Undoubtedly, a subsidized housing program that targeted the city’s poorest would reduce the homeless population. A revival of the SROs—newer and more humane versions of what came before—would do wonders. All of this will be very expensive, requiring partnerships between the city and state, like a much more ambitious iteration of the Dinkins-Cuomo plan. Private developers do not want to build for the working-class or poor, because it’s the market-rate tenants that allow them to recoup and profit off their investments.
In the interim, Adams could more generously fund one of the few successes the de Blasio administration found in its fight against homelessness: the right to counsel in housing court for low-income tenants facing eviction. Since the “Right to Counsel” bill passed the city council and de Blasio signed it into law in 2017, the city shelter population has declined.
Just as important, Adams can partner with state lawmakers to pass a new universal housing voucher program that would simplify a process that leads to too many tenants fighting through a confounding bureaucracy to land affordable housing. The Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP) would create a state-funded analog to Section 8, allowing residents facing homelessness to easily access a new housing subsidy. Another piece of legislation being prioritized by advocates, the Good Cause Eviction bill, would make it far easier for tenants to renew their leases, potentially keeping them out of the shelter system. Under the legislation, tenants would have a defense against arbitrary or retaliatory eviction.
“Somebody in government needs to say that we are going to build housing and end homelessness—we’re not going to manage it any longer,” says McKee, the housing advocate. “Can we ever completely solve the problem and get every single person housed? Could we get close? Yeah, we could.” ❖
Ross Barkan is an author and journalist from New York City.