Gotham Gazette Tue, 12 Dec 2017 16:24:12 +0000 en-gb (Webmaster) Federal Tax Reform Could Turn City’s Housing Crisis into a Humanitarian Disaster picture the homeless vacant lots

protesting unused vacant property (via @pthny)

In New York City, the demand for affordable housing far exceeds supply. Seventy percent of the city’s homeless shelter residents are families. Families who should be in homes.

Now, as the United States House of Representatives and Senate look to the conference committee to reconcile their respective tax reform bills, the housing crisis that began in the 1980s will become a catastrophe unless we, the people, intervene.

On paper, both the House and Senate plans retain the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) — which funds 90 percent of the nation’s affordable housing developments. However, the House tax bill eliminates tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs) that fund half of all LIHTC projects.

Although the Senate bill retains PABs, both bills cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, dramatically reducing the value of tax credits that fund the remainder of LIHTC projects.

Also included in the Senate bill is an amendment that imposes what amounts to an international alternative minimum tax on any corporation with significant foreign operations. As a result, some large corporate investors might be deterred from claiming the LIHTC.

No matter how the reconciliation pans out, it is clear that, if passed, federal tax reform will devastate more than a million low-income New Yorkers searching for homes. And this isn’t the first federal policy to squeeze out affordable housing.

Under President Reagan, government spending on subsidized housing was slashed from $26 billion to $8 billion, contributing to a dramatic spike in homelessness. As a private sector solution, Reagan signed the LIHTC into law in 1986 to counterbalance the cuts to direct federal spending.

LIHTC’s market-based answer to affordable housing was successful enough that subsequent administrations maintained the program while continuing to whittle away at Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds. LIHTC became the best — or rather, only — hope for Americans in need. But in cities like New York, LIHTC wasn’t enough to mitigate the surge and suffering of homelessness.

Although LIHTC helped develop or preserve approximately 122,000 affordable properties in New York City from 1994 to 2014, the city still endured a net loss of 150,000 rent stabilized apartments, leaving tens of thousands of New Yorkers with nowhere to go but the street or a shelter.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to this crisis with a pledge to add 100,000 affordable units by 2020. But experts at Novogradac & Company estimate that, if the House tax bill passes, that number could fall by two thirds.

Even if PABs are retained in the reconciled bill, the corporate tax rate reduction alone will result in the loss of around 300,000 affordable units nationally.

By squeezing the funding pipeline for affordable housing tighter than ever before, both bills crush the supply of affordable housing and the low-income families that rely on it.

This cannot happen — not on our watch, not in our city, and not in our country. This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a moral one. We have a duty, to our city and our neighbors, to speak out against any provision that would threaten the supply of affordable housing at this most critical time in our country’s history.

Although the House and Senate have approved their respective bills, the final version has yet to be agreed upon. Now is the time to urge our representatives to reject any final bill that removes the tax-exempt status of PABs and cuts the corporate tax rate.

George McDonald is founder and president of The Doe Fund. On Twitter at @GeorgeTMcDonald and @TheDoeFund.

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Federal Tax Reform Could Turn City’s Housing Crisis into a Humanitarian Disaster Mon, 11 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Enhancing City Efforts to Move Individuals from Homelessness to Homes tenant apartment de Blasio affordable

new tenants (photo via Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Amid this National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, as organizations across the country bring attention to the issues of hunger and homelessness, it’s important to also bring attention to and advocate for thoughtful policy solutions that address the gaps in our current efforts. On homelessness, it is essential that we provide landlords and formerly homeless tenants the support they need to both encourage landlords to rent to people without stable housing and address tenancy issues as they arise instead of amid the emergency of homelessness.   

According to the City’s Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City, as of February, the de Blasio Administration had helped 51,500 individuals move from homeless shelters to housing or keep their housing under the threat of homelessness. This is a striking number when considered in the context of current homelessness numbers, illustrating the extent of our housing affordability crisis. Despite preventing or ending homelessness for tens of thousands of New Yorkers, there remains a crisis. At best, city homelessness has only stabilized, if you consider Furman Center analysis that the 2 percent increase in the city shelter census from 2015-16 is the lowest yearly increase since 2011.

Amid our difficult housing market, the City must do even more to turn the tide on moving individuals from shelter to permanent housing and keeping them housed. Paramount is enhancing landlord engagement. As Turning the Tide notes, landlords are “key partners” in the “continued success” of rental subsidy programs and moving individuals from shelter to home.

To an extent, the City engages landlords in housing those experiencing homelessness. It offers landlords signing bonuses and security deposits to mitigate the perceived risks of renting to those with City rental subsidies. It will also provide a 2 percent rent escalator for new scattered-site supportive housing units to incentivize landlords to provide units. (The City’s “NYC 15/15” program aims to build 15,000 units of supportive housing, permanent housing that includes social services, over 15 years.)

The City also engages landlords in housing the homeless through its public-private partnerships. For example, the Come Home NYC program with Enterprise Community Partners, engages landlords in permanently housing homeless families with income. Enterprise recruited landlords to provide apartments, offering participating landlords a guarantee of up to $3,000 per lease to offset costs like missed rent and legal fees.

Financial incentives are an important carrot to spur landlords to rent to people experiencing homelessness. Concerns and stigmas about renting to this population exist, even if unfounded. For its Home No Less Will Do Campaign, homeless charity Crisis UK researched landlord attitudes on renting to homeless people, surveying nearly 1,000 landlords and interviewing landlords and landlord organizations. It found 82 percent of surveyed landlords unwilling to rent to this population due to a perceived greater risk of rent arrears and intensive tenancy management; and when renting to the homeless, 18 percent increased the security deposit and 16 percent increased rent.

But New York City should engage landlords with more than financial incentives. For example, offer landlords other carrots to encourage them to rent to those with City rental subsidies or Section 8 vouchers. One useful tool is a named contact for the landlord to utilize in the event of tenancy issues. In another Crisis UK survey, a majority of landlords stated that having a named contact, in addition to direct rental payments and guaranteed funds, would incentivize them to rent to homeless people. Also according to Crisis’ anecdotal evidence from a tenancy support program, landlords appreciate having the consistent tenancy support of reputable nonprofit providers when renting to these prospective tenants.

One example the City should consider is the City of Boston’s recently launched Landlord Guarantee Pilot Program. The program is based on a national model to address homelessness in cities with rental markets like New York City - very competitive with extremely low vacancy rates. It has been successful in Seattle and Portland, and New York City should consider it.

Like New York City’s current landlord engagement, the Boston program offers landlords financial incentives such as access to funds for losses like unpaid rent and apartment damages. In addition, it offers landlords other incentives to rent to those with a housing subsidy. One is a landlord partner who supports the landlord-tenant relationship. Another is access to landlord resources such as free mediation services. A landlord partner and landlord resources address landlords’ perceived risks in renting to people experiencing homelessness. Importantly, they also switch the emphasis from acting in a crisis to maintaining tenancy, assisting landlords with resolving issues that could derail the tenancy, before they rise to eviction and homelessness.

As the impact of City efforts to move individuals from homelessness to housing demonstrates, we need to do more to really impact, prevent, and reduce homelessness. This means looking outside the traditional boundaries we work within in New York City. We cannot build our way out of homelessness. We also cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. Ending homelessness requires various sectors working together in partnership.

Nicole Bramstedt is the Director of Policy at Urban Pathways, a nonprofit social services and supportive housing organization serving homeless adults. On Twitter at @UrbanPathwaysNY.

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Enhancing City Efforts to Move Individuals from Homelessness to Homes Wed, 15 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Increasingly Paying Back Rent to Keep Tenants from Homelessness de Blasio homelessness

De Blasio discusses homelessness (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

In the effort to fight a steady, decades-long rise in homelessness, the de Blasio administration has significantly increased the city’s rental assistance programs over the past four years. A variety of programs including vouchers for those seeking to reenter stable housing from shelter, the effort also entails paying back rent for those at risk of losing their apartments.

Known as “rent arrears” payments, the de Blasio administration has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to keep New Yorkers in their homes and out of the shelter system. While this and other efforts, like significant increases in city-funded legal assistance to tenants facing eviction in housing court, have not reversed the upward trend in the shelter census, combined efforts have kept thousands of families in their homes and led to a break in the trajectory of the homelessness population -- the shelter census has hovered around 60,000 for all of 2017.

The de Blasio administration has estimated that well over 70,000 people would be homeless were it not for its efforts. At the same time, an increase in homelessness under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch, leading to multiple shake-ups in the administration’s approach to the issue and personnel in charge, has been one of the biggest areas of criticism for the mayor and one where he has openly admitted an insufficient response.

When de Blasio took office, there were roughly 51,500 people in city shelters, according to numbers the mayor used during a February speech outlining new plans to combat homelessness. During the 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, homelessness grew to that number from about 31,000. During Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s eight years in office, the shelter census grew from 24,000 to that 31,000.

While homelessness has grown under de Blasio, this year has shown a fairly sustained pause in that growth, one the administration attributes to its suite of programs and immense resources devoted to both re-housing people experiencing homelessness and keeping at-risk people in their homes. A key piece of the puzzle has been the increase in rent arrears payments.

In 2016, the city provided 58,167 households with rent arrears payments totaling more than $214 million, with an average of $3,688 per case. This was an increase from 54,737 households and $188 million in 2015; up from 48,654 cases and $149 million in 2014, the first year of de Blasio’s time as mayor, according to data provided by the administration’s Human Resources Administration (HRA).

Before de Blasio took office, the city was also using rent arrears payments through HRA. In 2013 about 47,000 households were helped with $127 million in rent arrears; in 2012, 44,500 were helped with $121 million; and in 2011, 40,300 households with $107 million, according to HRA.

The final year of the Bloomberg administration, 2013, compared to 2016 under de Blasio, shows rent arrears payments provided to about 25% more households. The average disbursement has gone from $2,695 to $3,668, indicative of the increased cost of housing in the city and the widening gaps between incomes and rents, according to the city. HRA indicated that rent arrears efforts have continued to grow in 2017.

“As part of this Administration’s overall effort to prevent evictions and alleviate homelessness, over the past three years we have rebuilt rental assistance and rehousing programs that had been eliminated in 2011, expanded legal services for tenants and enhanced emergency rent assistance,” said HRA spokesperson Lourdes Centeno, in a statement. “By providing emergency rent assistance, we have helped more than 300,000 New Yorkers remain in their homes while saving taxpayers’ money because rental assistance is much less expensive than the cost of a homeless shelter. Helping New Yorkers at risk of eviction remains a crucial priority for this Administration.”

The mayor has not only increased resources going toward homelessness prevention and reduction, as well as toward simply sheltering those experiencing homelessness (some at pricey hotels and at decrepit shelters), he also signed into law a “right to counsel” bill that will cover the vast majority of low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court, where they often do not have legal representation without the city’s help. While he had been increasing funding toward such legal services, de Blasio only agreed to such a law after intensive lobbying from City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, the co-sponsors of the bill, and advocates.

Before that, though, de Blasio in February announced his second reboot of the administration’s approach to homelessness, with a focus on opening new shelters to keep people close to their communities, jobs, and support networks, while eliminating the use of costly hotels and substandard “cluster site” shelters.

“I said honestly, since we’ve come in, we’ve had to struggle to deal with a constant flow of people coming in, and that got to our worst point just about the time of Thanksgiving last year,” de Blasio said in February when releasing his new plan, Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City. “We reached the peak population that’s ever been in shelter, 60,709. Today, we have just over 60,000 people in shelter. By the end 2021, we will get down 57,500.”

De Blasio has been criticized for proposing to open 90 new shelters and for setting such a modest goal in homelessness reduction, which he admitted was such when he announced it.

According to the latest numbers available from the Department of Homeless Services, there were 60,325 people in homeless shelters on Tuesday of this week. (There are somewhere around another 2,000-4,000 people living on the streets, a population that is challenging to accurately quantify, members of which the de Blasio administration has launched new efforts to bring into shelter.)

In an interview earlier this year, de Blasio’s homelessness czar, Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, said that while he was impatient to make more progress, “breaking the trajectory itself was a significant achievement. Three-and-a-half years in, there are signs of progress and signs of much more we need to do.”

Banks said that other than more federal and state help, the pieces were all in place to not just break the upward trendline, but put it in reverse. He often cites a “prevention-first strategy,” and listed “more supportive housing, more rental assistance, more outreach on the streets, more help to prevent evictions, more money for rent arrears, a shelter system to keep people close to their networks.” He added, “Reforms that we have wanted for years, now we’re putting them in place.”

Discussing the increase in rent arrears payments on Wednesday, Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, said that “the scale of the numbers highlights the scale of the need that’s out there. The number of cases and the investment indicate the widespread need across the city, something we should all be concerned about. But it’s good that the city is making these efforts to keep people housed.”

“This highlights one aspect of what the de Blasio administration is doing right -- prevention efforts,” Routhier said. “But when we’re talking about reducing record homelessness in New York City, we have to look at how they are helping people in shelter move into housing.”

Routhier added a word of criticism and previewed a City Council hearing schedule for this coming Monday. “Today he released Housing New York 2.0, in which he’s increasing the target number of units,” she said, “a vast increase in the total housing plan, but there’s no mention of an increase in the number of units for homeless households. For us, that’s a concern given the number of people in homeless shelters.”

Of de Blasio’s original 200,000-unit, ten-year affordable housing plan (now upped to 300,000 units over 12 years) there were 10,000 units dedicated to homeless households.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Increasingly Paying Back Rent to Keep Tenants from Homelessness Wed, 15 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Record on Poverty and Inequality de Blasio equality shaking hands crowd

Mayor de Blasio at an announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.


Bill de Blasio ran for Mayor in 2013 as an unabashed progressive, painting the image of a city cleaved in an even two by its wealth distribution. There existed, he explained, a relatively small class of New Yorkers at the top holding the majority of the city’s wealth and making immense sums of income each year. The rest, a large underclass of New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet, left behind during the boom of the Bloomberg years and decades of insufficient federal policy, especially on taxes and redistribution of wealth. De Blasio envisioned, with lofty rhetoric and ambitious policies, bridging that gap and pulling up those at the bottom while asking those doing very well to chip in a bit more.

He was elected overwhelmingly.

“New York has faced fiscal collapse, a crime epidemic, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. But now, in our time, we face a different crisis – an inequality crisis,” de Blasio declared in his inaugural address as mayor on January 1, 2014. “It’s not often the stuff of banner headlines in our daily newspapers. It’s a quiet crisis, but one no less pernicious than those that have come before.”

Equity became the foundation of the de Blasio administration, enshrined in virtually every policy coming from City Hall and, more comprehensively, in the OneNYC roadmap for the city’s future, which sets poverty reduction and other goals to fulfill de Blasio’s promises.

Whether it’s affordable housing, sustainability, economic development, community infrastructure, or education, the administration has sought to build equity, though de Blasio has at times been accused of not going far enough by those who had immense expectations of him. Tellingly, under de Blasio, the annual Mayor’s Management Report, which is mandated by law and details the accomplishments of more than 40 city agencies on hundreds of performance indicators, included for the first time evaluations of agency efforts for their “focus on equity.”

With data showing an acute poverty problem in New York City, amid its immense wealth and gleaming towers, de Blasio sought to drastically increase opportunities available to poor, working class, and middle class people, and reduce the number of people in or near poverty, a rate that stood at roughly 21 percent -- or 1.74 million people -- when he took office.

De Blasio set the city on a path that he believes will reach the OneNYC goal of pulling 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty by 2025. And though the results of many of his policy actions cannot easily be gauged in the short term, there are a few clear indicators that the city’s approach is working. Notably, between 2014 and the end of 2017, about 281,000 New Yorkers will have left poverty or near-poverty simply due to an increase in the minimum wage to $11. That wage, set by state policy that de Blasio and his allies have helped influence, is set to jump to $13 at the start of 2018 and hit $15 per hour in New York City on December 31, 2018 for companies with 11 or more employees (the wages will be $12 then $14 for smaller companies).

According to five-year estimates from the American Community Survey for 2011-2015, about 20.6 percent of New York City residents lived below the federal poverty level. The latest one-year ACS supplemental estimates for 2016, released September 14, show improvement. People living under the poverty level in New York City, measured by the federal threshold, fell to 18.9 percent or 1.59 million New Yorkers, itself still an astonishingly large number. And, the number remained marginally higher than the pre-recession poverty level of 18.5 percent in 2008 and far higher than the national poverty level of 14 percent in 2016.

The federal measure only takes into account pre-tax cash income. New York City has its own poverty measure which also accounts for non-cash benefits, tax credits, and housing subsidies, and sets a threshold that includes housing costs to judge poverty more accurately. By city estimates, poverty in the city is at its lowest since the Great Recession, at 19.9 percent in 2015, down from 20.7 in 2013. The city’s data does not account for the latest ACS microdata yet.

Although the mayor has little control over the broad contours of the economy, he has been able to use the significant authority at the local level to enact a multi-faceted approach to lifting up wages, giving low-wage earners better opportunities, and enhancing access to city services for New York’s most disadvantaged residents.

In his first term, de Blasio has invested heavily in early childhood education and the universal pre-kindergarten program, his signature achievement, is serving nearly 70,000 children in 2017 (up from 20,000 prior to the UPK expansion) and is estimated by the city to have put $1.4 billion back in the pockets of New Yorkers who do not have to pay for child care. About 500,000 people were covered by the city’s expansion of paid sick leave in 2014, especially helping low-wage workers become more likely to keep their jobs if they get sick and need to miss work.

And though the city’s homelessness crisis continues to be blight on the mayor’s record, he has taken steps to stem the tide by funding free legal assistance for tenants in housing court and increasing rental subsidies for low-income families. In the lead up to Election Day, de Blasio announced an expansion of his affordable housing program, from a target of 200,000 affordable rental units over 10 years to 300,000 over 12.

On Tuesday, the mayor said he would also double the number of units planned for seniors from 15,000 to 30,000. This, after having adjusted his housing plan earlier this year to increase the number of deeply affordable units and those for seniors.

De Blasio has increased funding and attention to NYCHA, the public housing authority home to about half a million New Yorkers, while launching a community parks initiative and a variety of other programs aimed at equity across neighborhoods and demographics. IDNYC, the city’s municipal identity program with 863,464 card holders, allowed more New Yorkers, particularly undocumented immigrants, to avail of city services. These are among other initiatives, both large and small, that the administration has set in motion to increase opportunity, especially for those struggling.

Most significantly in terms of income inequality, de Blasio made a concerted effort in his first term to push for a higher minimum wage at the local and state level. The increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 in 2013 to $11 has had its intended consequences. Last year, the mayor approved an increase to a $15 minimum wage, by the end of 2018, for all city employees and nonprofit human services contractors, the groups for which he has discretion. He also instituted a paid family leave program for 20,000 city workers whose contracts are not part of labor union collective bargaining. New York State followed in the city’s footsteps by announcing its $15 minimum wage program, which is phased in faster in New York City than several other parts of the state, and a paid family leave program that begins its phase-in in 2018.

“De Blasio deserves a lot of credit for that, and it appears to be having a pronounced effect in reducing poverty,” said James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policy at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, of the minimum wage efforts.

Other than the paid sick leave law and universal pre-kindergarten, according to Parrott, a chief accomplishment of the administration has been the settling of 99.1 percent of expired municipal union contracts, which gave many low- and moderate-income workers wage increases. Parrott also cited other positive developments, including new labor protections for freelancers and the creation of an Office of Labor Standards at the Department of Consumer Affairs. “I’m not gonna give [de Blasio] all the credit but the things he has done have led to some pretty remarkable improvements in wages and incomes of the bottom 30-40 percent of the income distribution since 2013,” Parrott said.

Parrott also noted that there are limitations in judging progress from the federal poverty measure or from the Gini coefficient, a statistical tool used by the U.S. Census to measure income inequality. Instead, Parrott prefers to use income tax data, which he said shows a more complete picture of wealth distribution, combined with other data measures on wages and family income. All these together, he said, have shown “the best improvements in the last 30 to 40 years, it could even be 50 years if we had comparable data to make a careful comparison.”

An encouraging trend, evinced from 2016 census data, is that median household income in 2016  was $58,856, up from $56,457 in 2015, and surpassing the pre-recession peak level of $56,982 in 2008, according to an analysis by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. Median incomes for families with children grew at 10.4 percent between 2015-2016, outpacing overall household income growth. Black and Latino New Yorkers benefited from the largest decreases in poverty rates -- nearly 2 percentage points each -- and poverty fell across racial and ethnic groups. The report did point out some worrying trends. Poverty on Staten Island, for instance, was 3.2 points higher than pre-recession levels; income increases were concentrated in Manhattan and Brooklyn; and the gap in median household income for racial and ethnic groups, which expanded during the recession, has continued to grow.

Jennifer March, executive director of CCCNY, praised numerous policies enacted by the de Blasio administration that are “positioned as vehicles to combat income inequality,” including universal prekindergarten and its planned expansion to three-year-olds, the paid sick leave expansion, the minimum wage increase, the recent implementation of free universal school lunch and universal after-school programs for middle school students. She also commended initiatives such as the piloting of child savings accounts, and the overall efforts at creating affordable housing and rent freezes for rent-regulated tenants.

“Those things combined really suggest that he has an ambitious multi-pronged approach to help families and New Yorkers afford to live here and to reduce the gap between those that are earning more and those that are really struggling,” she said.

In 2015, de Blasio launched an ill-fated attempt to influence the national conversation around income inequality through a nonprofit organization that brought together progressive elected officials, leaders, and celebrities from across the country. The nonprofit, the Progressive Agenda Committee, fizzled out after an unsuccessful bid to host a presidential candidate forum in Iowa in late 2015, and de Blasio’s message about economic inequality and the need to put it at the forefront of the Democratic platform was largely subsumed by the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, de Blasio has doubled down on his agenda, pushing multiple proposed tax increases on wealthy New Yorkers -- which would require action by the State -- to fund items such as affordable housing for seniors and subsidized transit fares for low-income commuters. De Blasio has regularly criticized the Hillary Clinton campaign for not focusing on economic populism enough.

As he heads toward an expected second term, de Blasio has announced a shift to actively creating better paying jobs in burgeoning economic sectors and building talent pipelines to ensure that New York City residents are the beneficiaries of city-funded economic growth. He acknowledged, in a sobering State of the City speech this year, that “people are so fundamentally challenged by the affordability crisis that this city simply must do more and must do it quickly.”  

“So many people love this city. But here is a blunt truth,” he said. “They love it, but that doesn't mean it's easy to live here. Right? For a lot of seniors, this is not an easy place to live. For a lot of young people just starting out, it's not so easy. For folks struggling to make ends meet, this can be a punishing environment.”

De Blasio announced the broad contours of a plan to use city resources to spur the growth of 100,000 jobs paying at least $50,000 over a 10-year period. A few months later, he and his team unveiled a more detailed plan, which was met with snickers about a lack of detail and questions about its necessity, or whether it is more of an election year gimmick.

As many people evaluate the mayor in his reelection bid, the stubborn nature of income inequality and the fact that so many New Yorkers continue to struggle to live secure, decent lives raise questions about de Blasio’s ability to deliver on his core 2013 promises. The mayor has largely shifted his lens, at least when speaking publicly, from income inequality and toward efforts to lift up those at the bottom.

De Blasio is, in part, a victim of his own rhetoric, says Alex Armlovich, adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “That wasn’t a good promise to make on the mayoral level,” said Armlovich, of the mayor’s commitment to fight the “tale of two cities” that he evoked on the campaign trail. “Inequality is a national issue. At the local level, [population] displacement and retention effects are going to swamp your efforts to reduce inequality.”

In a report released earlier this month, Armlovich noted that income inequality as judged by the Gini coefficient has in fact remained flat under de Blasio and that changes in income inequality were affected by compensation trends in the financial sector rather than by the city’s policies. The Gini measures income distribution on a scale of 0 to 1, and the higher it is, the higher the inequality. The city’s Gini score in 2016 was about 0.55. Armlovich pointed out that city policies that help poor New Yorkers live in the city, such as more affordable housing, naturally increase the Gini, even though they are laudable policy goals, because they wind up keeping many low-income people from moving elsewhere.

Debate over the use of the Gini notwithstanding, Armlovich said the mayor should focus on providing equitable services across the five boroughs. “That’s what you can hold the mayor accountable for, because the mayor doesn’t control the economy,” he said. “His whole mistake in all of this was making himself politically accountable for a statistic that he doesn’t control.”

In an interview with The Daily News editorial board, the mayor insisted that the static Gini score was not reflective of a failure by his administration. “I'm very comfortable saying when I think something that I've done has not worked, or hasn't worked well enough,” he said. “But on this one, because we have seen job growth, we have seen wage growth, we have seen people getting out of poverty, we certainly have tangible evidence of reducing people's economic burdens. I think the central question is, were we going to give folks, low-income folks, working class people, middle class people, all of whom felt economically stuck, were we gonna give them more upward mobility? That's the central question in New York. It's also the central question in the country. Here we've been able to prove, not just because of public sector policies, but sustainability because of public sector policies, that we can increase upward mobility. That doesn't answer the question about the rich getting richer. Now, again, how do you address that? In my view, most notably, through tax policy.”

Indeed, income is one measure of inequality, and de Blasio has consistently sought to go further, whether in his attention to NYCHA or his parks or community schools efforts. He’s increased the city’s annual operating budget by about 18% since taking office, up to its current $85 billion, in large part to expand services and add to the public payroll, including thousands more early education teachers, police officers, and others. While some can aptly criticize this budget growth and others question how effective additional spending has been in certain areas, there is little question that de Blasio has heavily invested taxpayer money in building equity.

The CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance devised the NYC Equality Score, a tool for a more holistic view of inequality in the city, first published in 2015, with 95 indicators across six areas: economy, education, health, housing, justice, and services. Out of a possible 100, the city’s 2016 score was 46.01, up from 45.45 in 2015. “These scores suggest that NYC continues to be characterized by vast inequalities, and that when looking at the city as a whole, little has changed,” the report reads. “Generally speaking this score means that overall, the disadvantaged groups represented here are almost twice as likely as those not disadvantaged to experience negative outcomes in fundamental areas of life, as measured by the Equality Indicators.”

“It’s such a daunting challenge,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the general welfare committee, which tackles with issues including poverty and homelessness (and was once chaired by de Blasio himself), “because you’re dealing with broader economic issues, you’re dealing with the persistent challenge of lack of affordable housing, and you’re dealing with the issues in Albany.” Levin was referring to state government, where Republicans hold power over the state Senate and often put the kibosh on progressive legislation floated by Democrats who control the Assembly and supported by de Blasio. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who de Blasio often feuds with, is inconsistent in his support for policies backed by the mayor, regularly opposing any tax increases.

Levin, a fellow Brooklyn Democrat who has endorsed de Blasio for reelection, said the mayor’s dedication on equity is “indisputable.” “This mayor and administration are using every tool in their toolbox,” he said, lamenting their inability to affect larger trends that can be influenced much more strongly by either state or federal policy. “I expect that over the next four years, this continues to be a priority.”

De Blasio does face significant challenges ahead. Federal policy proposals on taxes and healthcare threaten to blow holes in the state and city budgets, and could shred the city’s social safety net. Large-scale budget cuts at a time when the city’s budget has ballooned by billions of dollars would put the mayor in a tough spot, despite the significant rainy day funds built up over the last four years.

“What remains to be fixed is the highly regressive nature of the local tax structure, and mainly the property tax system,” said Parrott, of the New School. “He has to really work on it to figure out how to build the alliance in Albany. And he’s gotta keep making tweaks to his policies on affordable housing, homelessness, and education.” De Blasio has promised to push property tax reform if he’s reelected but has not provided specific details for addressing a system that is seen as disadvantageous to many middle-class New Yorkers of color because of how assessments are made in part based on geography.

CCCNY’s March said the mayor should advocate for deepening the earned income tax credit and the child care tax credit, both of which bolster the finances of working families and would require the state to pass legislation. “I think the challenge he will face moving forward, assuming he’s reelected, is the federal context in which we’re working,” she said, noting for instance that 900,000 children in New York rely on some form of public health insurance, which face proposed federal cuts. She also stressed the need for increased investment in affordable housing and reducing family homelessness. “One of the biggest conundrums will be that incomes have not kept pace with rising rents in the city,” she said, pointing to a challenge frequently cited by de Blasio and his top aides, like social services Commissioner Steven Banks.

“Many of the things that he started in his first term, we will see the real benefits of years from now,” March added. “Whether that’s universal pre-K, universal school lunch, or universal after-school for middle school, all of those things. It’s the consistent access that populations have to programs that are designed to promote school preparedness or reduce hunger or promote a college-oriented identity, over time we will see the results of these things.”

Mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips declined to comment for this article. Emails and messages to spokespersons for the Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services went unanswered.

A Quinnipiac University Poll from July 31 showed that a majority of New Yorkers, 63 percent, disapproved of the way de Blasio has handled poverty and homelessness while only 29 percent approved. In eight polls conducted by Quinnipiac between 2015 and 2017, it was the worst appraisal the mayor received on the issue, likely due to the problems de Blasio has had in controlling and reducing homelessness.

Another particular issue related to poverty and inequality where de Blasio has disappointed advocates has been his lack of direct support for the “Fair Fares” proposal, which would provide half-price MetroCards to 800,000 low-income New Yorkers.

The proposal was created by two advocacy groups, the Community Service Society and Riders Alliance. De Blasio refused to fund the proposal in the city budget and wouldn’t support a pilot program floated by the City Council either, instead insisting the state-run MTA should provide the funds to those riding its services. Eventually, in his “Fair Fix” proposal for funding mass transit through a tax increase on the highest-earning New Yorkers -- which would need state-level approval -- the mayor included a set-aside for Fair Fares, which he called an “ultimate act of justice” despite his hesitance to identify the roughly $200 million to cover it annually. It’s unlikely that the state Senate, run by Republicans, or Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who largely opposes tax increases, would approve the so-called millionaires tax in 2018, which is a state-level election year.

“That would have a significant impact on low-income New Yorkers, first financially, but also by helping them access better jobs, training, things that would increase their upward mobility,” said Nancy Rankin, vice president for policy, research and advocacy, CSS. “It’s unfathomable to us why [Mayor de Blasio] wouldn’t want to do something that’s at the core of what he says his administration is about. That’s why people voted for him. That’s a practical step that would make an enormous difference in people’s lives.”

Council Member Levin holds out hope that the balance of the state Legislature would shift in next year’s election cycle towards Democrats who are friendlier to New York City and its progressive priorities. “Hopefully some of the dynamics shift and we can move the dial in a more accelerated way,” he said.

Jesse Laymon, director of policy and advocacy at the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, an organization comprised of more than 150 workforce providers, praised the de Blasio administration for leveraging economic growth into lifting wages at the bottom of the economic ladder, but nonetheless had pointed criticism for their policies. “It’s one thing to make it less terrible to be poor in New York, and I think they’ve done a good job of making it less terrible to be poor, but they have not done a great job of making it easier to get out of poverty,” he said. “And that’s really the goal that they should focus more attention on in the second term.”


This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio's Record on Poverty and Inequality Tue, 31 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
‘Fair Share’ Reform – An Essential Step to Solving the City’s Homelessness Crisis Carlina Rivera

Carlina Rivera, the author (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

Repairing the subways, closing Rikers, rescuing failing schools – it can seem like New York’s most insurmountable crises are always being dealt with by cutting corners and taking the path of least resistance. This isn’t how it’s always been in our city. When the city passed the historic Fair Share Criteria in 1989, officials finally said enough to the inequitable distribution of city facilities and called for investment in a long-term plan for facility siting in the future.

These rules were supposed to require the city to place facilities in a thought-out, deliberative process that factored in their potential effectiveness as well as the input of the community. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.

Over the years, the original Fair Share Criteria have been found to be non-transparent and filled with loopholes that city officials and agencies continue to exploit to this day, particularly when it comes to homeless shelter siting.

The city’s new homelessness plan shows this disregard for Fair Share, with officials looking to place shelters in the easiest-to-build locations in order to satisfy the plan's goal of building 90 new shelters. Sadly, this means that overburdened communities are once again seeing shelters open just blocks away from existing shelters, while nearby neighborhoods continue with few or no shelters at all. This is a clear misallocation of resources that will only help to exacerbate difficulties around existing shelters.

Want a real example of how Fair Share isn’t being factored into the city’s homelessness response? One of the newest facilities in the city, a 28-unit shelter that is set to open soon in on East 17th Street in Gramercy, perfectly illustrates the current situation. This shelter is exactly what the city needs – its small size will create a safer, more comfortable environment for its residents, and the facility will have access to the programs that can get New Yorkers back on their feet.

But this shelter’s innovations quickly end when it comes to its location. The site was quietly chosen largely because it was a former treatment center and easy to develop, even though the community already has nearly 1000 beds within walking distance at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter. With such a large population and a lack of individualized supportive services, this shelter has been a disappointment for many who reside in it and a continued complaint of local residents who see hundreds of men outside each day with seemingly no path to housing stability.

I want our district to be a role model for the rest of the city, where we each accept the same, equal responsibility to help. When I am elected to the City Council, passing the recently announced Fair Share reform package will be one of my first legislative goals.

I also understand that new shelters such as the one on 17th Street will be a real resource for our community’s most vulnerable residents. However, we also must be fair and recognize the terrible situation occurring at large, less-effective shelters such as 30th Street, and couple any new shelter openings with a reduction of beds at larger or failing shelters. This would bring shelters like 30th Street more in line with the smarter, smaller shelters we need in this city.

For years the city favored quick fixes over a long-term solution to homelessness. But homelessness has never been an issue that can just be swept under the rug and forgot about, or dealt with by warehousing people. It requires a forward-thinking strategy that looks at each level of the homelessness support structure and honestly asks if we can do better.

A better Fair Share is the first step in this process, and it won’t be easy. But our city’s biggest accomplishments have always emerged from the most visionary ideas. We know what needs to be done – now we just need the courage to follow through with it.

Carlina Rivera is a candidate for New York City Council’s District 2, which covers the East Village, Gramercy Park, Kips Bay, Flatiron, Lower East Side, Murray Hill, Rose Hill. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera.

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‘Fair Share’ Reform – An Essential Step to Solving the City’s Homelessness Crisis Mon, 28 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Did Street Homelessness in New York City Really Just Increase by Nearly 40%? de Blasio walking snow

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Is the number of people homeless on New York City streets skyrocketing?

There were 3,892 unsheltered homeless people on the streets or outside in public places on the cold night this past February when New York City conducted its annual street homelessness count, according to the City’s own statistics released this month. That’s a jolting 39-plus percent increase in one year over the 2016 street homelessness count of 2,794.

The good news is that many advocates and academics don’t really think there was a 39-plus percent increase in street homelessness in one year. The bad news is that’s because most of them never thought the decreases in street homelessness reported in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were accurate either.

New York City’s HOPE Count (Homeless Outreach Population Estimate) is an annual one-night count of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on New York City streets, or in public places. The City readily notes it’s really an estimate. It is the point-in-time (PIT) census type count required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development from all communities in order to qualify for certain federal funding for homelessness service programs.

These PIT canvasses count both people who are sheltered and unsheltered. In most communities the great majority of people experiencing homelessness are unsheltered. In New York City, though not in any other major city, there is a an enforceable legal “right to shelter” for most people in need, so that the great majority of homeless people in New York City -- more than in any other U.S. community -- are sheltered. The city can provide a completely accurate “daily census” of people in the Department of Homeless Services shelters each and every day. Counting people who are living rough on the streets or in other public places is a very difficult proposition.

Any large scale “count” in a city like New York is a massive undertaking. New York City annually mobilizes between 3,000 and 3,500 volunteers to work with city staff in counting in over 1,500 defined areas, all over one night. They even have a “decoy” program, employing people to be on the streets in the role of unsheltered homeless people over the time of the HOPE count to see how many of the decoys (call them a sort of control group) do or don’t get counted, and use the ratio of counted to uncounted decoys to assist in making the estimate.

These kinds of counts were invented in New York City. Experts have called the New York City effort “the gold standard” of the point-in-time count. This, of course, is not to say the HOPE Count is actually accurate.

There are both unavoidable inherent reasons the accuracy of the count is problematic and problems with the way the count is conducted. To understand the inherent problems, just recognize that this is an effort to count many people who are hiding from view, and many people who do not want to be included in the count.

One of several major problems in the way the count is conducted is that it intentionally limits itself only to counting those on the streets or in public places. But every New Yorker knows many unstably housed people often spend very cold nights in what might be called semi-public enclosed spaces. Think people who hang out overnight in a 24-hour McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts. And remember, the point in time count is typically scheduled on a January night which tends to be extremely cold. In fact, at least twice in recent years the point in time count was pushed back to the first week in February due to snow storm predictions, but still was held on bitterly cold nights.

For the last several years the Bronx Health and Housing Consortium has conducted their own fascinating count on the very same night as the city’s HOPE Count -- but counted inside in some of the emergency rooms in the Bronx. Consortium President Henie Lustgarten, an organizer of the project that began in 2014, spoke about how the project works.

This volunteer project operating just in a few emergency rooms of hospitals that agreed to participate has developed an ingenuous methodology. In each emergency room they survey they count two groups of people as “homeless.”

First, anyone who registers for emergency treatment indicating they have no address or that they live in a shelter (but wouldn’t be in the DHS census for that night because they aren’t in shelter that night) is counted as homeless.

Second, people who spend the night in the emergency room area but never register to receive medical care are counted as homeless. Lustgarten indicated most of the time this unregistered cohort are sleeping in the waiting room or the emergency room hallways. In recent Consortium emergency room counts those not registered at all account for about half or more than half of their entire emergency room count.

In 2015, for example, surveying just five Bronx emergency rooms, the Bronx Health and Housing Consortium count was 120. The complete HOPE count for the Bronx that year was 69. The numbers and percentages vary, but consistently the Consortium emergency room count has been greater than the HOPE Count of street homeless people in the Bronx.

So the population of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in New York City probably didn’t increase by 39-plus percent this year. Unfortunately, the real number is almost certainly more than the 3,892 people estimated in the 2017 HOPE Count.

Jeff Foreman, who resides in Queens, is Policy and Advocacy Director for nonprofit Care for the Homeless. On Twitter @JeffForeman2 and @CFHNYC.

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Did Street Homelessness in New York City Really Just Increase by Nearly 40%? Tue, 25 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor De Blasio Let Me Down De Blasio speaking podium uptown

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In 2013 I met then-Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio at a campaign event in midtown. I talked with him about my housing situation, that I had been laid off at work and the rent for my apartment had become too expensive. He said if he was elected, he would do what he could to help people like me. I voted for him.

Soon after our conversation, I lost my apartment. Three years later, I am still homeless. The promises de Blasio made to me seem far away, and now, I’m not sure he is still on our side.  Recently he openly criticized panhandlers and questioned whether we are poor enough to ask for money. He’s even said that panhandling “contributes to a decline in quality of life of New Yorkers.” I am a New Yorker - what about my quality of life?

While some things have changed since Mayor de Blasio took office, many others have remained largely the same.  Just last week the Mayor published an op-ed about his affordable housing plan. He announced that under his leadership, city government has constructed or preserved nearly 78,000 units of affordable housing, but our homeless population is still hovering around record highs of 60,000-plus.

New buildings are popping up in neighborhoods all over the city and our mayor is celebrating a successful affordable housing plan. So my question for him is, affordable for whom? Most of the units in his plan are for people whose income is much higher than mine, and not enough of it is set aside for homeless people. For me — and the tens of thousands of people like me — the numbers just don’t add up.

Clearly there is not enough housing being prioritized for homeless New Yorkers. And, even the systems that are supposed to help us get housed are full of problems. For the last six months I’ve had the Living in Communities (LINC) rental assistance program – a de Blasio program. If I found a place to live, I could potentially pay the rent with this voucher.

So why am I still homeless? Because landlords across the city are discriminating based on source of income. Landlords and brokers blatantly respond with “no programs,” or “no LINC,” when asked about potential apartments. This is flat-out illegal! While homeless people are getting arrested for jumping turnstiles, landlords are getting away with discrimination against poor people and they’re leaving us out on the street. What good is my LINC voucher if no landlord accepts it?

Everyone -- from city officials to service providers to homeless people -- knows that the subsidies are not keeping up with skyrocketing rents around the city, and the few places that are affordable are often found far away from people’s communities and support networks.

On top of broken rental assistance programs, the city continues to give away public resources that could house more homeless people. Over and over again, we hear about vacant lots, parking lots, or armories being given away to for-profit developers who get city subsidies to build luxury condos and market rate apartments that are often too expensive for the very community members who live there. Public land should be used for public good.

Mayor de Blasio may call me a “skeptic” or a “naysayer,” but before I applaud his housing plan that he says is for everyone, I need to see that homeless New Yorkers are truly included in it.

For the homeless, the solutions are simple: we need the city to make more housing available to us, we need systems in place to help us easily access this housing, we need the city to target bad actors who refuse to rent to homeless people, and we need the city to stop giving away valuable resources to developers who are more concerned about their profits than they are about our communities.

I am homeless not because it is “fun,” but because real estate profits have been put before my needs over and over again.

Ruby Carrasquillo is a member of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that builds power among low-income people impacted by homelessness, HIV/AIDS, drug use, and mass incarceration. On Twitter @VOCALNewYork.

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Mayor De Blasio Let Me Down Mon, 24 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem de Blasio Banks homelessness

Mayor de Blasio & Commissioner Banks (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This is part one of a three-part series.

Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy
During the course of his overwhelmingly successful campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio made poverty and income inequality his main issues. As the liberal journalist and fervent de Blasio supporter Eric Alterman put the matter, “De Blasio made economic inequality the central issue in his campaign and attempted to tie nearly every issue he addressed to that problem.” Homelessness was obviously such an issue, and so when de Blasio took office in January 2014, expectations were high that he would address that problem effectively.

The Way Things Are Now
Unfortunately, as of April 2017, under the mayor, the homelessness problem had, by some important measures, gotten worse. The month de Blasio assumed office there were 53,615 people in the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter system. That number has hovered around 60,000 people since December 2014. The annual enumeration of street dwellers—the HOPE count—is down from 3,537 people in 2014 to about 2,794 in 2016, which is a positive trend but not a dramatic improvement. And the DHS budget remains high: $1.29 billion for the current 2017 fiscal year.

De Blasio himself recently admitted that the city has not made nearly enough progress, while announcing another new homelessness-fighting plan and creating new, unambitious goals for reducing the homeless population. Voters and other observers are not impressed. Surprisingly, given the emphasis de Blasio put on poverty and homelessness in his campaign, a March 2017 Quinnipiac University poll found that voters rated this the weakest aspect of the mayor’s performance, with 55 percent disapproving. And The New York Times editorial board, which supported de Blasio’s mayoral run, recently concluded, “The rise in homelessness is arguably the mayor's biggest failure in that goal to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

How did the mayor end up in this position, and what is he doing about it?

How We Got Here
To put de Blasio’s situation in context, we have to go back to 2004, when Mayor Bloomberg developed a five-year plan to “make the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct in New York.” Preventing homelessness would be emphasized through a “Home Base” program that would intervene with at-risk families to keep them housed. Analysis would show that Home Base did lower homelessness and even paid for itself.

More supportive housing—that is, apartments with services for the mentally ill and other disabled street dwellers—was to be developed. This goal was accomplished in 2005, when the city and state signed the third in a series of “New York/New York” agreements, which produced 9,000 such units. Under the “Housing First” philosophy, street dwellers would be moved into supportive housing as quickly as possible, an approach that both reduced street homelessness and encouraged enrollment in rehabilitative services. Shelter use was to be cut by rehousing long-term shelter stayers. And, very importantly, shelter clients were to be moved out through rent subsidies, which, a key document noted, “must continue to be available in shelter to re-house chronically homeless individuals and families.”

Bloomberg pledged to reduce the shelter census—36,399 people in June of 2004—by two-thirds in five years, to about 12,000 persons by 2009.

On October 19, 2004, DHS abandoned its long-term policy of giving shelter residents priority for entering public housing and for federal Section 8 rent vouchers, which were forms of housing subsidies. Commissioner of DHS Linda Gibbs believed that policy attracted poor families into the shelters to receive the subsidies and so drove up the census. But moving one family out of the system with a subsidy meant the census would go up only if subsidies also drew in more than one new family. But economists found that to draw one family into the system requires placing seven families into subsidized housing. Perverse incentives are real but too weak to drive up the shelter census. Nonetheless, shelter families lost preferential access to public housing and Section 8 vouchers; instead, they were eligible for a temporary five-year rent subsidy, Housing Stability Plus. This system was then replaced in 2007 by Advantage, a two-year-maximum rent-subsidy program funded jointly by the state and the city.

By Bloomberg’s deadline of June 2009, the shelter census had not dropped appreciably. Then, as a result of a falling out between the city and the state over funding amid the unraveling financial crisis, Advantage ended. At that point no subsidies of any kind were offered to move families out of the shelter system. The number of people in the DHS shelter system began going up, and in January 2014 de Blasio inherited a record high shelter census.

De Blasio’s challenge was to create a new rent subsidy, implement it effectively, do nothing to encourage shelter entries, and hope for a decline in the census. How well did he meet that challenge?

De Blasio’s First Steps
First, the new administration made striking changes in personnel as well as policy. Steven Banks, the Legal Aid lawyer who since 1983 had litigated against the city for the right to shelter for homeless families, became commissioner of HRA, which runs public-benefit programs including rent subsidies. Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former Catholic nun who served in the city’s social service bureaucracy under Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg, became deputy mayor for Health and Human Services. And Gilbert Taylor, formerly executive deputy commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services, was appointed commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

The new administration’s biggest initiative in homeless policy is the Living in Communities (LINC) programs, which are a batch of rental-subsidy programs designed to help various sorts of shelter clients move out of the system. But the new programs had implementation problems. Getting LINC started required cooperation from New York State and thus between de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. The necessary small adjustments were not accomplished in a timely manner. LINC did not get fully up to speed until December 2014, and the nonpartisan Independent Budget Office concluded that “the homeless shelter population has remained stubbornly high this year. This is largely due to a slower than anticipated start to the LINC rental assistance programs.”

The ongoing Cuomo-de Blasio turbulence also delayed the development of more supportive housing. Supportive housing provided through the New York/New York agreements is one of the great successes in homeless policy and has been demonstrated to keep the disabled off the streets and reduce the cost of their care. The last of these agreements was signed in November 2005, and by 2014 most of its units were occupied. Thus, many homeless people remained on the streets, where they attracted the attention of unsympathetic media and the general public and fostered the perception of a homeless crisis. In fact, despite the declining street homeless population documented by the HOPE count, the March 2017 Quinnipiac poll reported that 54 percent of city voters believed that they were seeing more homeless people on the streets and in parks and subways than they did a few years ago.

The de Blasio team made a big misstep when in 2015 it decided to halt development of new shelters for eight months due to community opposition. When the delayed LINC program did not reduce the shelter census, the city was forced to rely on various unsatisfactory stopgaps to put up homeless clients.

Cluster Sites
One such stopgap is the cluster site program, which was initiated by the Bloomberg administration and harshly criticized by de Blasio before he became mayor. Under this program, DHS rents out a “cluster” of private apartments to shelter homeless families. Private landlords own the apartments while nonprofit providers under contract with DHS provide the families with services, and the buildings have a mix of homeless families and private rent-paying tenants.

The cluster site program is a policy disaster. It is premised on putting shelter families in apartments that would otherwise have gone to still-independent families, thus making an already tight low-income housing market even worse. And cluster site apartments are of poor quality. In March 2015, the Department of Investigation (DOI), which is a non-mayoral agency, released a scathing, 180-page report on family shelters that focused mostly on cluster site apartments.

The DOI report found DHS’ cluster sites to be “poorly monitored” and said that they “provide the least adequate social services to families.” Among the issues were rodent infestations, fire safety code violations, defective window guards, a lack of furniture, and units in need of major repair. Landlords can charge three times the market rent for such low-quality apartments.

Moreover, as the buildings are privately owned, DHS is unable to monitor who is using the apartment, security guards cannot screen guests, and there are many unauthorized visitors. Assaults, prostitution, gang activity, and other crimes are frequent. DHS is even renting from landlords who are on the Public Advocate’s list of the city’s 100 worst landlords. Well before he became mayor, de Blasio was aware of these problems and pledged to end the use of cluster sites. But his moratorium on building new shelters and continuing high demand left him unable to do so. Given the vastness of the cluster site program—3,000 families—improvement will take years.

Commercial Hotels
De Blasio inherited the cluster site program from Bloomberg, but is himself responsible for reviving the old and unfortunate practice of placing shelter system clients in commercial hotels. In the late 1980s, the common practice was to place homeless families in private, for-profit “welfare hotels” where conditions were infamously bad. Eventually the federal government refused to fund these hotels, and the practice was curbed.

But because of increased demand, de Blasio has had to return to using commercial hotels. Unlike with traditional, “Tier II” shelters, use of commercial hotels does not require community board notification, for the city is able to claim that it is not actually opening up a “facility,” but merely renting out hotel rooms. DHS has to make sure its clients maintain a low profile in these hotels to avoid protests from other guests.

Further, providing social services in a private facility is difficult. DHS clients in commercial hotels, although they may like the relative independence hotels offer compared to Tier IIs, are thus less likely to receive the necessary assistance to obtain permanent housing. Also, security at the hotels is poor. Visitors are not monitored and only recently have security guards been stationed at hotels. In February of 2016, there was a triple homicide at the Staten Island Ramada Inn. A man murdered his girlfriend and her two children, one of whom was his own. Had this hotel had the same security and monitoring that is provided in Tier II shelters, it is unlikely that this tragedy would have occurred.

This is part one of a three-part series.
Read Part Two: Setbacks and Responses
Skip to Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide on Homelessness

by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. Nasaw, MPA, LMSW, is an expert on homeless policy who has worked in the social services for several years. Main is a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York and author of Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.

De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem Sun, 30 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Wrestles with Homelessness -- Part Two: Setbacks and Responses de Blasio Banks McCray homeless shelter

Mayor de Blasio & aides visit a shelter (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This is part two of a three-part series, De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem, by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. [Jump to Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy]

Part Two: Setbacks and Responses
The new administration was set back when Barrios-Paoli, a seasoned administrator and voice of moderation, left just 20 months after she had joined with much fanfare. Moreover, Gilbert Taylor did not work out as DHS commissioner and stepped down on December 15, 2015. Thus, for about the first two years of his administration, while he was being battered in the press and in public opinion over the issue of homelessness , de Blasio tolerated the presence of an ineffective point person on this crucial issue. With Taylor’s departure, HRA Commissioner Banks took temporary charge of DHS.

Thus, by mid-December 2015, city homelessness policy was perhaps not in crisis but certainly less than optimal.

Responsibility was widespread. Bloomberg failed to follow up on promising beginnings, eliminated housing subsidies, and drove up the shelter census. Candidate de Blasio underestimated how difficult a reversal would be. The conflict between de Blasio and Cuomo delayed the renewal of rent subsidies and kept the shelter census higher than it would have been. The feud also put off a fourth New York/New York agreement, leaving the city with few supportive housing units for unsheltered mentally ill people, who remained on the streets to be seen by all. The mayor responded slowly to the resulting media flap. Putting off building or opening new shelters forced the city to rely on cluster sites and commercial hotels. Turmoil and turnover in city leadership hurt. If de Blasio was to prove that a progressive could govern New York City, he would have to pick up his game, and he tried to do so.

Street Homelessness and Supportive Housing
To deal with the perception that street homelessness was out of control, the administration introduced the Home-Stat program. Sixty workers from the Mayor’s Office of Operations now patrol Manhattan streets and call in sightings of homeless people to the city’s nonemergency phone number, 311. Funding to private outreach nonprofits will be increased so that they can expand their street outreach teams from 175 to 312 workers and thus be able to respond to 311 calls within one hour. The Police Department will redeploy 40 officers to its Homeless Outreach Unit. Two extra mini-counts of homeless people living on the street will be done each year for a total of four yearly counts. The idea is to identify street homeless individuals quickly and bring them to shelter rapidly. It may also be that the administration finally realized that more frequent and more accurate enumerations of street homelessness will be likely to rebut the belief that this population has exploded.

Further, it seems that a way around the Cuomo-de Blasio impasse, as it concerns supportive housing, may have developed. There is still no New York/New York IV agreement, but there is what might be called a New York/New York IV disagreement. In his State of the State speech of January 13, 2016, Governor Cuomo announced plans for the state to develop 20,000 supportive housing units over 15 years. Earlier, de Blasio had announced the city was moving forward without the state and pledged that the city would develop 15,000 supportive units over the same period.

In other words, since the mayor and governor cannot get along well enough to sign a formal agreement, each will undertake part of the job on his own. Supporters of a New York/New York IV had been calling for 30,000 more units and are pleased that in sum the city and state plan to create 35,000 units. The New York/New York agreements were strikingly successful ventures in intergovernmental cooperation, so it is a pity that that process has apparently been abandoned for largely personal reasons. No one knows yet whether the lack of a formal agreement will prove to be a problem.

HRA/DHS Integration
A key part of the effort to get on top of the homelessness issue was the partial re-merger of DHS with HRA. Homeless services were spun off from HRA in 1994. In April of 2016, a 90-day review authored by City Hall with the help of outside management consultants PriceWaterhouseCooper argued that having two different agencies provide services to largely overlapping populations was inefficient. The mayor’s solution was to have both HRA, which runs subsidies, and DHS, which runs the shelters, report to Banks, who was now dubbed commissioner of social services. The review projected $38 million in savings from the combined management structure.

But this partial merger may not be a good idea. As an independent agency, DHS was able to communicate and bargain with other city entities. Most homeless services are performed not directly by DHS, but by contracted providers, who are generally not enthusiastic about the new arrangement. Most providers prefer to deal with a small agency focused on their specific issue rather than a very large but possibly more powerful super-agency. Bureaucratic coordination via consolidation is rarely achieved in America’s fragmented administrative system. Agency effectiveness is more likely to be achieved by smaller, mission-driven organizations. But if the new, better-integrated structure is to work, the mayor needs to get serious about it: so far, no new head of DHS has been appointed.

Housing Subsidies and Their Limitations
Another problem for the de Blasio administration is that the LINC subsidies did not have as much of an effect as was hoped, at least through 2015. According to a report from the Independent Budget Office, as of December 2015, the program was unlikely to meet its targeted goals. Although new data are yet to be made available, there remain concerns about whether enough landlords will accept city-funded housing vouchers.

Analysts believe that since the end of Advantage, housing prices have risen, and so LINC vouchers are too paltry (between about $1,200 and $1,550 depending on household size). Also, many of the very apartments that would be assigned to LINC voucher-holders are still being used as cluster site units.

De Blasio’s other housing voucher program is CITYFEPS. FEPS stands for Family Eviction Prevention Services, and is designed for families that have experienced eviction. The program guarantees four months of rent upfront to incentivize landlords to rent to homeless families. The CITYFEPS vouchers provide the same support as LINC vouchers.

But the FEPS program has serious problems. Apartments that participate in housing subsidy programs—including Section 8, NYCHA, and LINC—are inspected by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in order to meet federal standards for habitation. However, CITYFEPS units are not inspected by HPD. According to an HRA spokesperson, “For CITYFEPS, not-for-profit service providers generally do an assessment of the units, including a walk-through of the units.” But providers are judged by DHS partly by the number of families they place in independent apartments. Underperforming providers are at risk of losing their contract. So providers have an interest in approving apartments that can undermine their objectivity.

The HPD inspection process is time tested; their inspectors are trained and regulated, and there are rules in place to prevent conflicts of interest. CITYFEPS apartments need to be inspected by HPD in order to protect vulnerable families from being exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Allowing potentially self-interested shelter providers to inspect FEPS units is incautious and likely to provoke criticism when it comes to light.

The Eligibility Process
A major factor that has driven demand, but has rarely been spoken about in public, is the eligibility process for families that apply to shelters. The city must direct scarce housing resources to those who are most in need, and the eligibility process is designed to keep out all but the most needy families.

The city shelter system is regulated by the state welfare department, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). In December of 2015, OTDA issued a new regulation that drastically loosened eligibility rules. Very often, families applying for shelter had previously been living in an apartment leased to a family member or friend. Essentially, the new administrative directive made it much easier for the primary tenant of an apartment to refuse to let a family applying for shelter return to the apartment where it had been staying.

Often, prior housing history, public assistance records, and close family ties would show that despite the primary tenant’s refusal, the applicant was in fact lawfully permitted to reside at the address of origin. With the new rules, any applicant who told eligibility specialists that they were not allowed to return to their former apartment would more likely be found eligible for shelter. In effect, the primary tenant now had a greater power to evict family members than did the city marshal.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, “the 2015 change in policy resulted in a decrease of the percentage of families denied shelter.” No doubt many needy families now received shelter, but the census was also driven up. Whether this was on balance a good deal may be doubted. In any case, almost one year later, in December 2016, a new OTDA regulation allowed the city to re-tighten eligibility standards.

In effect, eligibility standards were loosened, more families were found eligible, the shelter census went up, and then the standards were tightened again. Fiddling with the eligibility standards at the very time when the new rent-subsidy programs were supposed to drive the shelter census down was probably not a good idea.

This is part two of a three-part series.
Read Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide on Homelessness?
Jump to Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy

by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. Nasaw, MPA, LMSW, is an expert on homeless policy who has worked in the social services for several years. Main is a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York and author of Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.

De Blasio Wrestles with Homelessness -- Part Two: Setbacks and Responses Sun, 30 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Wrestles with Homelessness -- Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide? de Blasio new homelessness plan

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

This is part three of a three-part series: De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem, by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. [Jump to Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy or Part Two: Setbacks and Responses]

Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide on Homelessness?
In response to the growing shelter census, the de Blasio administration recently released a new plan, “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” which features an ambitious proposal to build 90 new shelters within a five-year period, while ending the use of cluster sites and commercial hotels. The multipronged approach also touts the mayor’s success in enhancing shelter security and addressing code violations, which is particularly warranted given the state of disrepair found in many cluster site apartments.

A New Tone and New Shelters
Perhaps the most striking thing about the new plan is its tone, which is markedly more realistic than de Blasio’s campaign rhetoric. When he was a candidate, de Blasio’s determination that the city could indeed successfully take on the daunting problem of inequality raised expectations about what could be done to deal with homelessness. Now, his new plan tells us that “[w]e must be clear-eyed: it will take many years to reset the unacceptable status quo we see today...There are no silver bullets here. We will not solve this crisis overnight. It will be a long hard fight.”

The more realistic tone is certainly welcome. But wouldn’t it have been better to start out by lowering expectations, which de Blasio could have afforded to do given the big lead he enjoyed in the general election campaign?

If the city indeed succeeds in opening 90 new shelters, it says it will be able to end the use of commercial hotels and cluster site housing. But the greatest challenge to the construction of new shelters is community opposition. De Blasio’s new plan therefore calls for improved community relations and better outreach to community boards in order to curb resistance to new shelters.

Unfortunately, the mayor’s promises to consult communities thoroughly sound all too much like those of his mentor, David Dinkins, who in 1991 proposed to overcome local opposition to his plan of opening a mere 20 shelters through “Early and Meaningful Community Involvement,” “Fair Distribution of New Facilities Around the City,” and “Undertaking a Comprehensive Approach to Siting.” Dinkins’ plan was to win over hostile neighborhoods by being too impeccably fair to dispute. Communities would have none of it. The highly visible plan merely called attention to itself and gave communities an obvious target. The fact is, the less noticeable such siting efforts are, the easier they are for the city to accomplish.

Another problem for de Blasio’s plan is that where and how to place new shelters is in part governed by the city’s “Fair Share” law, which was incorporated into the City Charter in 1989. The law is outdated and confusing, and over the past 25 years, poor neighborhoods have in fact received more shelters than is equitable. In response to this unfairness, the City Council is now considering a proposal to reform the Fair Share law and push better-off communities to accept more shelters.

Fair enough, it would seem, but a disproportionate number of shelter residents come from those same poor communities. Locating more shelters in better-off neighborhoods would mean that more homeless people would be sheltered far away from their places of origin, a practice that advocacy groups such as Coalition for the Homeless already dislike. How the de Blasio administration will square this circle is not at all clear.

Two courses of action for the city seem desirable. One is to reform the CITYFEPS voucher program. As it stands, CITYFEPS may not meet its goals of rehousing families in appropriate apartments since units are not appropriately inspected. The practice of having CITYFEPS units inspected by potentially self-interested service providers should end. The responsibility of inspecting apartments should be taken over by HPD, which already has a set of standards that is enforceable, and staff trained and equipped to perform this function. If the reintegration of DHS and HRA is successful, perhaps better coordination with HPD and other agencies will improve the administration of CITYFEPS.

The cluster site program should end and the apartments it made use of should be converted into permanent housing for LINC voucher holders. But as IBO notes, the greatest challenge to this initiative is that the landlords will be paid half as much from LINC as they are already being paid to run a cluster site. Landlords are also reluctant to resume business relationships with the city after the fallout from the abrupt termination of the Advantage program in 2011. However, the city should be able to use the threat of withdrawing funding for cluster site housing as leverage in convincing landlords to participate in the LINC program.

The experience of the de Blasio administration also sheds light on two conceptual issues. One, it seems that the issue of perverse incentives needs to be reexamined. The studies that undermined the perverse incentive theory and cleared the way for the reintroduction of rent subsidies are now 18 years old and the issue needs to be revisited. The introduction of LINC was supposed to drive the census down, but it has in fact gone up, which does not imply causality but does suggest that the issue of how policy affects shelter demand deserves careful consideration. DHS needs to improve its forecasting ability to more accurately predict the likely results of changes in rent subsidies, eligibility, and other policies.

Also important is what recent experience with homelessness policy says about the prospects for the progressive coalition in New York City. A striking feature of city homelessness policy is that it was developed mostly under conservative mayors: Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. From the beginning of modern homeless policy in the late 1970s to the end of Bloomberg’s tenure in 2013, the one-term mayoralty of David Dinkins was the only interregnum of progressive rule.

Coming to grips with homelessness proved difficult for Dinkins, who found that he had to rethink some of the progressive conceptions he had brought to the issue. Dinkins’ indecisiveness and his failure to make a dent in a problem he had decried as a candidate seemed to justify Giuliani’s criticism that progressives lacked the managerial skills necessary to govern New York City. De Blasio’s reelection prospects seem pretty good right now, but his lackluster record with an issue that was central to his political vision will not be helpful. To be fair, de Blasio was dealt a bad hand regarding the homeless problem, but he has not always played his cards well. The problem has not been fundamentally wrongheaded policy but lack of managerial and political deftness. Can progressives govern New York City? De Blasio’s so far disappointing record on homelessness does not help make the case they can.

This is part three of a three-part series, De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem, by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main.

Jump to Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy
Jump to Part Two: Setbacks and Responses

by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. Nasaw, MPA, LMSW, is an expert on homeless policy who has worked in the social services for several years. Main is a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York and author of Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.

De Blasio Wrestles with Homelessness -- Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide? Sun, 30 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000