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Fears of Census Undercounting Grow in New York

espaillat at abny

Rep. Espaillat at ABNY (photo via ABNY)

Some New York officials are nervous about 2020 and not just because of the presidential election that year. The year will also feature the next United States Census, the once-every-decade attempted count of everyone living in the United States that dictates representation in Congress and affects the drawing of legislative districts, federal funding, and more.  

On Friday morning, the Association for a Better New York hosted a census-focused event featuring New York Department of City of Planning chief demographer Joseph Salvo and New York Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who both spoke about what’s at stake in the census, the challenges the city faces in executing the count, and strategies to combat those potential pitfalls. New Yorkers, they both feared, are at risk of being undercounted in the 2020 Census.

“The census determines how many seats we have in the House [of Representatives]. And New York is at real risk of losing a seat or two in the census,” said Steven Rubenstein, chair of ABNY, to the roughly 100 attendees. Along with political representation in the House, the New York census influences how the seats are allocated in the state and municipal government. And, as Espaillat noted during his remarks, it influences funding levels for essential social services, education, housing programs, and more.

“New York City needs an accurate count, but history has told us that is hard to get,” said Rubenstein.

Indeed, in the 2010 census, the city trailed behind the national average in collecting census information via mail-return, though responses were up from 2000, while the national average decreased in relation to the previous census. Specifically, 63 percent of New Yorkers and just over 74 percent nationwide mailed in their census information, according to The New York Times.

And the 2020 census poses unique challenges and uncertainties that may complicate accumulating data. Due to anti-immigrant posturing and policies from Washington, D.C., along with increasing privacy concerns and general distrust of government, Salvo and Espaillat expressed worry that the current environment would throw a wrench in the census process.

There are lingering questions at the Census Bureau, too, Salvo said. For example, it has yet to be determined if the census will ask for citizenship status. The amount of funding allocated toward community outreach is another unknown variable in the  equation. What’s more, the Census Bureau has yet to be assigned a Director or a Deputy Director, which Salvo said is under the control of Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

“It remains to be seen what they’re going to get for partnership and outreach. We’re very worried about partnership and outreach being underfunded, which means we’re going to have to stand up and be stronger this time around than ever before,” Salvo told a small group of reporters after the event.

Additionally, in New York City, hundreds of thousands of new homes and unconventional living arrangements may be hard to track, making it difficult to enumerate many residents. During his presentation, Salvo displayed examples of living arrangements that are less likely to be included on the city’s address list, such as basements, attics, and garages. Counting people that live in either unconventional or illegal dwellings is another way to ensure everyone is accounted for. But the census, he insisted, is “agnostic” on legality of the homes. (He also wants it to be agnostic on citizenship).

Salvo said one of the keys to guaranteeing as much of the population is included in the census is establishing an accurate address list, which he labeled the “foundation” of the census. The compilation of that list is soon to be completed. It could have around 3.6 million addresses, according to The Times.

City Planning officials will then go block-to-block in select locations to find addresses that may have been left out of the list. Notably, the 2010 census omitted 50,000 people in Brooklyn and Queens because the Census Bureau incorrectly considered a number of homes to be vacant.

Next, City Planning will enlist New York community leaders to spread the word about the census and the importance of completing and submitting census data. After the information is sent by mail, Census Bureau employees will go door-to-door to add to the census those yet to send in their information.

In order to improve accuracy and responsiveness, the 2020 census will encourage response via the internet, will include a tracking of census operations in real time, and will use data, such as postal records, to identify if units are vacant or have people living in them. In addition, the 2020 census will allow people to write in their racial and ethnic background on the form if they choose to do so, allowing people who don’t fit neatly into the Hispanic, Black, White and Asian boxes to more accurately capture themselves, Salvo said.

At the event, Espaillat offered his perspective on why boosting participation in the census is crucial. “It’s really a great tool to understand who we are as a city and as a state. It also drives the allocation of $7 billion of federal funding to people that may need programs -- education, health care, transportation, as well as food stamps and Medicaid,” he said. “All these very important programs that help our city and help the neediest among us.”

Of the consequences of undercounting the city’s population in the census, Salvo said, “It hurts business; it hurts our economy.”

Espaillat, a Democrat and the first formerly-undocumented member of the House of Representatives, also spoke to the particular challenges in accumulating accurate information in his Upper Manhattan and Bronx district. “It makes it hard to count,” he said of the diversity in his district. “Minorities have long been seriously undercounted. Latinos and African-Americans. In the last census we had one of the highest non-response rates in the state.”

He added, “When you translate that into numbers, it’s huge numbers that very well may translate into losing a seat, or losing all those important services that we’re able to get through the census count.”

Salvo also said that not all low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods are uniform in their census responses. “That map is very complex,” he said in the gaggle, referring to a color-coded map of census response rates by neighborhood. The map, in essence, showed that in 2010, several predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods had high response rates, while certain middle-class, largely black areas responded to the census at comparatively lower rates. “There is no single answer to outreach is what that map says. There are poor areas that are doing incredibly well…because their local leaders have come out.”

“In other areas, where frankly there is money and a lot of home ownership,” he explained, “they don’t answer.”

According to Salvo, the particular challenges within different neighborhoods underscores the importance of community involvement to supplement the technical aspects of the process that fall under his purview. “What I’m trying to point out here is there’s not one formula. Outreach does make a difference,” he said.

“We have to convince community leaders that they have to come forward and tell the city who they are,” he said during his presentation. “Unless we make it personal, we’re not going to overcome this.”  

“We have to basically convince people that not only is it safe to answer the census but it is in their interest for them to answer the census,” he added. “And if they don’t answer the census, they’re going to hurt the city and themselves.”  

Fulfilling Johnson Promise, City Council Significantly Increases Its Operating Budget

Johnson Dromm City Council budget

Speaker Johnson, middle, & Council Member Dromm, right (photo: John McCarten)

The City Council’s Committee on Finance voted on Thursday to increase the Council’s operating budget to $81.3 million, an increase of nearly 27 percent from the current fiscal year’s budget of $64 million, following through on Speaker Corey Johnson’s promise to increase internal resources and produce a stronger role for the legislative body in areas such as land use and oversight.

The City Charter allows the Council to decide its own budget, with no required oversight and without any interference from the mayor. After the budget is approved, the Council can insert its spending plan into the mayor’s executive budget, which follows after preliminary budget hearings have concluded and the Council issues its response to the mayor. A new city budget is due by the July 1 start to fiscal year 2019.

As the city’s budget has increased dramatically over the last few years, the Council’s spending has followed suit, though at a different scale. In the previous four-year session, the Council inherited a $51.5 million budget in 2014, with $38.6 million for Personal Services (PS), a budget line that covers salaries for Council members, aides, and committee staffers. The rest covered Other Than Personal Services (OTPS), expenses such as rent and office supplies.

By the current fiscal year, ending June 30, the Council’s budget had grown to $64 million, an increase of 24 percent over four years under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Spending on salaries and staff pay increased significantly to $49.2 million, owing to a pay raise that Council members voted themselves in 2016, increasing their annual salaries 32 percent from $112,500 to $148,500 (while also banning most forms of outside income and removing bonuses for leadership positions). That same year, Mark-Viverito also allocated an additional $25,000 to each Council member to boost staff member salaries.

Johnson came into office vowing greater independence from the mayor and increased oversight of city agencies. Among his top priorities were beefing up the Council’s land use division, to ensure, among other things, that Council members could play a more proactive role in the administration’s many proposed neighborhood rezonings across the city.

“I am fulfilling a promise I made during the Speaker’s race to enable the Council to fulfill its mission as the legislative body of New York. I have always been clear that doing that would mean an increase in staff and resources," Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "This budget reflects that. For example, two core functions of the Council are to legislate bills and negotiate the city budget, and this budget increases staffing and adds resources to the Legislative and Finance divisions. I’ve added staffing for the Charter Commission and Oversight and Investigation Unit, which I promised during the Speaker’s race. And we have also added to Land Use, another core function of the Council. I am excited to see what a fully empowered City Council will do moving forward.”

“I think that we need to do a better job about having the resources in our land use division so that we are fully staffed up to be more proactive,” Johnson told reporters in January. On a number of occasions Johnson compared the small Council land use staff to the much larger City Planning Commission. “Since we’re the final arbiter when it comes to land use matters, we should have a large land use division that can do some of the work up front, even before our community boards give a recommendation,” Johnson said.

He also committed to stronger oversight of city agencies, with a newly empowered Committee on Oversight and investigations led by Council Member Ritchie Torres. The Committee is setting up its own investigative unit with former prosecutors, professional investigators, and former journalists.

“The Council’s taking on a whole lot of new...responsibilities to a certain extent in terms of oversight and investigations and other areas of the budget, I think which is going to make the Council a more equal partner with the mayor,” said Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, after Thursday’s hearing. “And I think in order to be able to do that, that’s why we needed the increase in the operating budget for the City Council.”

Much of the new funding, about $9 million, is for 111 new committee staff hires, increasing the total headcount of committee staff from 147 to 258. Another $2.9 million is being doled out equally to Council members so they can increase their staff pay or hire more staff for their district offices. The OTPS funding increased by about $4.1 million.

Most of the major divisions of the Council will see a significant increase in funding to account for additional staffing. The new Oversight and Investigation unit will be comprised of 20 staffers with a budget of $1.5 million. The finance division will see its headcount increase to 66 positions, up from 39, with a budget of $5.2 million, up from $3.1 million. The land use division, which budgeted for 14 staffers last year, will have 21 staffers with a $1.8 million budget, up from $1.25 million.

Most of the divisions will see a headcount increase, save for a “Policy and Innovations” division that is being eliminated entirely.

The Council also included placeholder funding to staff a potential Charter Revision Commission, which the Council is hoping to create through legislation independently of Mayor de Blasio’s recently announced commission. The budget line, which simply reads “Charter,” funds 20 committee staffers with $1.7 million.

“It’s clear the Speaker wants the City Council to take on a more aggressive role and that may require beefing up analytic capacity and staffing,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog. “But just like with other city agencies, that increase should be justified...the Council has to articulate clearly the goals and what it hopes to accomplish, and demonstrate that it’s still keeping its operations lean and demonstrate to the taxpayer that it’s delivering results for the investment.”

Doulis said it was “reasonable” for the Council to want to enhance capacity in key areas, including land use. But insisted it should be “within limits.” She also agreed that the Council’s budget should undergo public oversight as well. At Thursday’s hearing, as is usual with the Council’s budget, there was little discussion and the vote concluded in less than five minutes. The detailed outline of the budget had yet to be uploaded to the Council’s website, where the committee hearing agenda is posted in advance.

“They review everything else,” Doulis said. “There should be a review of their own spending.”

“There’s been plenty of discussion around it as far as I know,” Council Member Dromm said, when asked by Gotham Gazette if the Council should hold an oversight hearing of its own budget. He pointed to the speaker race -- in which each candidate, including Johnson, indicated that they would increase the Council’s budget -- and news coverage of the Council’s enhanced responsibilities. “I think there’s been a lot of opportunity to discuss this.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Expert Points to Disconnect Between De Blasio Housing and Homelessness Plans

bdb mayor tides

Mayor de Basio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

The city’s homelessness crisis has been a major challenge for Mayor Bill de Blasio since he took office in 2014. While the crisis was growing over the course of decades, key decisions were made just a few years before de Blasio became mayor that appear to have accelerated the trend, namely the elimination of city and state rental subsidy programs.

When de Blasio became mayor, he set out to reinstitute rental subsidy programming, among other pieces of his homelessness and housing agendas, which have continued to evolve over the course of his more than four years in office. But, the city’s homelessness population continued to increase, hitting record highs above 60,000 individuals, and de Blasio has faced a great deal of criticism for not handling the issue better, including on specifics like shelter safety, outreach to homeless people on the streets, and attention to homeless students.

His voucher programs have not been as successful as he hoped, though he has been fairly aggressive in preventing evictions and city efforts have helped keep thousands at risk of displacement in their homes through legal services and rent-arrears payments.

Generally, it is the sheer number of homeless people living in the city that continues to frustrate the mayor and other New Yorkers. While the de Blasio administration’s efforts have shown some results in breaking the trajectory of the increase in homelessness, with the population relatively steady for much of 2017, there are major questions about the city’s ability and willingness to do what it might take to significantly reduce that number. Indeed, in de Blasio’s second major reboot of his approach to homelessness, his Turning the Tide on Homelessness report issued in February 2017, the mayor announced a goal of reducing homelessness to about 57,500 in five years, which would mark the end of his tenure as mayor if he serves his full two terms.

A leading policy advocate, Giselle Routhier of Coalition for the Homeless, recently outlined several areas of concern with de Blasio’s policies during an appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits.

Routhier is the Coalition’s policy director and author of its recent annual report, “The State of the Homeless,” which looks at “how the city and state can tackle homelessness by bringing housing investment to scale.”

According to the report, an average of 63,495 people slept in the city’s homeless shelters each night in December 2017; overall in 2017, more than 110,000 city students were homeless at some point; and nearly one in five homeless parents today were homeless as a child.

During the podcast appearance, Routhier gave de Blasio some credit, but stressed the urgency of the situation and criticized the mayor for not going nearly far enough. “So what the mayor has done is gone from nothing to something,” she said. Adding that, “he has not been bold enough to implement policies to actually ‘turn the tide’ as of yet, as said in his plan that he released last year.”

“I think it’s OK to say that [the homeless population is] stabilized. It’s important to remember that it’s stabilized basically at record levels,” Routhier said. Of the mayor’s goal for homeless census reduction, Routhier said, “2,500 people over five years. Not households, people. That’s fewer households. That’s crazy. We can’t accept that as an appropriate solution.”

When asked what she would have done differently, Routhier expressed her frustration that, although the plan was bringing sorely needed improvements to the shelter system, it did not create enough permanent housing.

Routhier did recognize the city’s significant and various efforts to mitigate the crisis and to help families avoid homelessness. She pointed out that de Blasio inherited a very tough situation from his predecessor. In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg ended a series of housing assistance programs for the homeless, and drastically reduced the use of key federal housing resources, and “had these Federally funded resources been consistently deployed to serve homeless families and individuals over the past decade, over 36,000 more households would have moved out of NYC shelters into stable, Federally subsidized homes,” according to Routhier’s report. De Blasio has reinstated a slate of city-funded subsidies and some access for homeless people to public housing and Section 8 vouchers.

Both on the podcast and in her report, Routhier commended the city’s substantial spending on rent subsidies, and the extension of free legal services to tenants threatened with eviction. She wrote that subsidizing tenants’ rent “is a fiscally sound investment and often costs a fraction of the $61,262 it costs per year to provide emergency shelter for a family.”

A de Blasio administration spokesperson, responding to Gotham Gazette inquiries, said that, without the administration’s initiatives, there would be roughly 70,000 people in shelters today, as opposed to the 60,366 in the shelter census for March 14, according to city figures.

“We are building and protecting affordable homes for families—including those facing homeless—at a record pace,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Between our affordable and supportive housing plans, free legal help for tenants fighting eviction, and rent assistance programs, we’re headed in the right direction.”

Routhier applauded the mayor’s initiatives to improve the quality and accessibility of its shelter system, which has expanded in an ad-hoc manner for years, and still needs a lot of attention. She and many others support the de Blasio plan to end the use of commercial hotels and so-called cluster site apartment rentals as homeless shelters, and to continue to fix up and secure existing shelters while opening dozens of new ones in an effort to keep homeless people in their communities and closer to their prior homes.

The city is now spending $217 million on shelter security, according to a spokesperson for the city. It created a Shelter Repair Squad that conducted more than 34,000 shelter inspections in 2016 and 2017. It tightened shelter regulations to make sure they were functioning adequately. It has doubled its investment in street outreach programs, looking to spend $97.6 million in FY18. It has hired liaison workers with the Department of Education to help families address transfer options, transportation requirements, and special education needs. According to an audit by city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office done in 2015 and 2016, a sample of 73 homeless students were chronically absent or late and not given the proper attention from the DOE.

“The two things can’t be divorced in our minds,” Routhier said of improving shelters and providing permanent housing. In her report, she wrote that, “in 2017 there were more than 860,000 households that needed to spend less than $800 on rent in order for their apartment to be affordable (consuming 30 percent or less of income), but only 350,000 such apartments existed - a shortage of more than 510,000 apartments.”

Both the mayor and Routhier see this lack of affordability in the rental market as the major driver of homelessness in New York City. However, they have different views on what to do about it.

Crucially, Routhier wants the mayor to change the composition of his affordable housing plan, Housing New York 2.0. Of the projected 300,000 “affordable” units to be built or preserved, 15,000 units are allocated to homeless households. Routhier added, “to put that in context, Mayor Koch, over a shorter time period, did half as many housing units over all, and allocated more to homeless families at a time when homelessness was a third of what it is today.”

Routhier wants the mayor to double the allocation to 30,000 units to serve homeless households, of which 24,000 units should be newly-built, in order to ensure that they are quickly available (virtually all “preserved” affordable units are currently occupied). For Routhier, this is the best way for the city to ensure a “robust supply of housing that’s going to be available to people of extremely low incomes, over the long term.”

During the podcast, Routhier further said that Mayor de Blasio is driven by “an ideological desire to create housing for everybody, in all income bands, when in fact that doesn’t really match with the data that show where the housing need really is.” De Blasio has emphasized that the city needs to affordable housing for families across much of the income spectrum, including middle-class families. But Routhier said, “If you really look at the data, people that are at 80 or 100% of AMI, that are making $80,000 to $100,000 a year, they’re going to be OK, it’s going to be possible for them to find housing in the market.” She believes that the mayor should build housing to address the highest-need demand, even if it means fewer overall units, but more at lower affordability thresholds.

In her report, Routhier also criticized top government officials over not following through quickly enough with their pledges to create supportive housing, which is permanent affordable housing that includes social services. “Despite the Mayor and Governor both making historic commitments in 2015 and 2016 to fund a combined 35,000 units of supportive housing...The City has so far opened only approximately 200 units of supportive housing under its NYC 15/15 commitment, despite the goal of opening over 500 units before the end of 2017. The State so far has opened none.”

Routhier went further in her criticism for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration. Cuomo, a second-term Democrat running for reelection this year, is a former federal housing secretary who has touted his own expertise in dealing with homelessness, but has not been effective at reducing the rising homeless population in the state.

Along with citing the lack of state support for subsidy programs, Routhier noted a recent NY1 segment by reporter Courtney Gross, which showed that state prisons are often discharging parolees who wind up going straight into the New York City shelter system. In 2017, the shelters accepted more than 4,000 people from upstate prisons, according to Routhier’s report. What’s more, the state has “systematically cut off cost-sharing with the city on a number of things.” For example, the cost of the shelter system has increased by $500 million in recent years, and the state has only supplied 5% of those funds, Routhier said during the podcast.

Voicing her fears about the federal government, which has been disinvesting from public housing for decades, and which is currently considering further cuts to the Housing and Urban Development budget, Routhier said that “It leaves the responsibility to the city and the state to then come up with those resources in a much more aggressive way, which is very challenging.”

Routhier’s report includes further policy recommendations which would help homeless families and individuals find permanent housing, including measures to aggressively enforce the source-of-income anti-discrimination law; establish a proper inspection protocol to guarantee that all housing placements made through NYCHA, section 8, or city subsidies are adequate for their families; increase the number of Section 8 vouchers provided to homeless families from 500 to 2,000 a year;  increase the number of public housing placements to 3,000 a year; and provide all homeless individuals and families with housing application and search assistance.

On the podcast, Routhier said that if the city adopted the Coalition for the Homeless proposals, “we could reduce the shelter census by 30%.” She claims that, while her proposals are aggressive, they are also realistic. “There are tools in our hands, and the mayor can use these tools to really advance his housing policy and to decrease homelessness.”

by Gabriel Slaughter and Ben Max

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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