Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1082 Wed, 13 Dec 2017 01:38:05 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Increasingly Paying Back Rent to Keep Tenants from Homelessness http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7326:city-increasingly-paying-back-rent-to-keep-tenants-from-homelessness http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7326: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.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Increasingly Paying Back Rent to Keep Tenants from Homelessness Wed, 15 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Budget Response Seeks New Spending, More Savings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6263:city-council-budget-response-seeks-new-spending-more-savings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6263:city-council-budget-response-seeks-new-spending-more-savings bdb budget briefing w CMs

Mayor de Blasio briefs Council members on his budget (photo: William Alatriste) 


The City Council on Monday issued its formal response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017, capping a month of budget hearings that were fraught with concerns over how Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget would affect the city and how prepared the city’s coffers are for a rainy day.

Until last week, uncertainty over significant cuts in funding to New York City outlined by Cuomo had the City Council on its toes, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito traveling to Albany to participate in efforts to eliminate them. The de Blasio administration said at the first Council budget hearing that it did not have a contingency plan if the state were to shift nearly $700 million in costs for Medicaid and CUNY in fiscal 2017 to the city. Instead, officials said, they would be making every effort to ensure that the cuts did not stay when the state budget was passed.

In a letter to the mayor on Wednesday, the Council identified its budget priorities but stopped short of issuing its full response given that the state budget had yet been finalized.

At the end of last week, a new $147 billion state budget was passed without the most significant cuts to city funding, and the Council had the all clear to move forward with its priorities unchanged. Out of a budget process so far largely focused on identifying savings across city government, the Council outlined specifics for a city budget that serves immigrants and youth, sets aside more in reserves, and invests in expanded services that it can track.

“The Council’s budget recommendations are the culmination of dozens of comprehensive budget hearings and reflect the needs of all New Yorkers while also planning for our City’s future,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, in a Monday statement accompanying the Council’s budget response, which will form the agenda over the next three months as it negotiates a final budget with the mayor’s office by the June 30 deadline. “This is a budget that is smart, fair and fiscally responsible, all while greatly expanding opportunities to New Yorkers across the City,” Mark-Viverito wrote.

The Council identified eight major priorities in its response: increased investment in city youth; investment in healthcare, education, jobs and legal services for immigrants; specific funding for the diverse communities; capital investment in infrastructure; creating a Rainy Day Fund and adding to existing reserves; baselining essential city services; expanding criminal justice, community support, and human services; and more accurately tracking city agency performance.

The Council is proposing $790 million in new spending and tax reductions but estimates that the increase to the budget would ultimately be only about $127 million once larger agency savings and changes to debt service payments are included. Even with additional spending, the Council estimates a budget surplus of $258 million in fiscal 2017.

The Council identifies $91.2 million in agency savings that the preliminary budget did not account for. A majority of this amount, $80 million, would come from reducing the city’s contribution to fringe benefits for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which have received increased state and federal funding for these costs, the Council says.

The response also calls for reduction in the city’s data processing equipment budget by $14 million and a $6 million reduction in Other Than Personal Services costs at the Department of Transportation. All of these savings figures were arrived at through analysis by the Council’s budget office, which is under the supervision of Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who chairs the finance committee, and Finance Director Latonia McKinney.

Although the state budget no longer haunts the city’s fiscal future, the Council recognizes risks remain. An economic slowdown is widely expected by city officials, economists, and budget watchdogs, and the Council’s budget response notes the consequences it could have on consumer spending, tax revenue, real estate prices, and cost of living.

“These preliminary budget recommendations reflect a central challenge in government: making our city more equitable while also planning prudently for the future,” said Ferreras-Copeland, in a statement. “The proposals included address inequality in New York City while remaining fiscally responsible, and I believe they represent the diversity of needs across our city. As the budget process advances, I will continue to ensure that the Council is an equal partner and that the Administration’s investments are transparent.”

The budget is due before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. Along with the state budget, Mayor de Blasio will take the Council’s feedback into consideration as he crafts his executive budget, due out later this month. The release of that updated spending plan, which the mayor has indicated will likely include a more robust agency savings plan, will trigger another round of hearings at the City Council. Then, the two sides will negotiate out of public view until a deal is struck.

Asked to respond to the Council’s preliminary budget response, Office of Management and Budget spokesperson Amy Spitalnick, recounted by email that “Budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence and focus on targeting investments and protecting against economic uncertainty – and investors agree,” while providing a link to a Bloomberg news article on the subject.

Spitalnick outlined that the administration has “unprecedented” reserves while restoring “funds cut under the prior administration.” Even with billions already in savings, she wrote, “the Mayor has made clear, we’ll continue to build on those savings in the Executive Budget.”

“We look forward to continuing to work with the Council throughout the budget process,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Budget Response Seeks New Spending, More Savings Mon, 04 Apr 2016 21:06:46 +0000
Report Propels Debate Over City's Welfare Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6227:report-propels-debate-over-citys-welfare-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6227:report-propels-debate-over-citys-welfare-reforms banks levin

CM Levin, left, & HRA Commissioner Banks (photo: William Alatriste)


A new report on the city's reengineered public assistance system concluded, among other findings, that it's too soon to tell whether the wide-ranging reforms put in place by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks are working. The updated analysis from the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO) not only leaves unanswered whether the Banks/de Blasio reforms are working, but how exactly to judge a system now geared towards long-term change rather than short-term reward.

Earlier this month, IBO, a nonpartisan city-funded agency, released a report on how the de Blasio administration changes to the welfare system, making it less punitive and refocused on education and employment for welfare recipients, rather than stressing work experience programs. Conservative critics of the changes, including Banks' predecessors from previous administrations, say that the city is becoming too lax and encouraging people to rely on government assistance. The administration says it is both taking a more humane approach and playing the long game, with greater payoffs down the road when people move off of assistance and don't need to return to it.

The IBO looked at the effects these reforms have had on welfare caseloads and the city budget. Caseloads have increased, in particular one-time grants, which also mean increased budget outlays projected for the coming year. One-time grants are cash assistance benefits to those who apply due to the most temporary hardship.

The report notes that over the course of December 2015, there were a total of 597,347 unduplicated welfare recipients, a slight increase from 591,544 in May 2014. It attributed this increase to one-time grant recipients, one group among welfare classes, which went up by 34,339, translating into $133 million over the course of a year ($60 million of which is city funds).

"The idea was that people would get better jobs and stay out there," said Paul Lopatto, the IBO analyst who authored the report, on the reforms. "The prediction that HRA is making now is that after a while, the caseload will decline, and that the increase is only temporary," Lopatto said. "It's not a surprise," he added. "It's a question of how long and how high it gets."

Alex Armlovich, a policy analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the IBO report echoes what he has already said about the new welfare system, that the increase in the cash assistance caseload is "policy driven, not driven by weakness in the local economy or by disenfranchisement of low-skilled workers. It does not look promising on its face but we still have to see how it plays out," he said.

Armlovich emphasized that one of the potential concerns about the system's new direction was "rubber stamping" in the education and training programs and that there was no way to tell if there was substantive improvement. "That's the fear," he said, insisting that HRA should put out tracking metrics for particular outcomes. He cited GED enrollment and completion as an easy figure to track and analyze.

"If you're directly and quantitatively accountable, that assuages any fear about the nature of the program," he said. "I don't think it's time to panic. It's just something we need to keep an eye on."

The need for metrics is one that City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the general welfare committee, which has oversight of HRA, agrees with. "We need strong metrics, strong data and strong measures in place to ensure that policy in New York City is working," he said of the welfare system reforms.

Levin was less concerned about the increase in caseloads or the resulting budget burden, although he said it was especially necessary to keep an eye on the latter. The increase in welfare recipients, he said, was to be expected after years of previous administrations artificially suppressing the rolls.

"The previous administrations spent a lot of money trying to knock people off the rolls," he said of the Bloomberg and Giuliani years, noting that HRA's new, more conciliatory approach is correcting these past policies. "If the numbers have gone up, we would expect that."

At a preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday, the general welfare committee heard testimony from Commissioner Banks on HRA's progress on these reforms. Council members asked few critical questions, if any, on the specifics. Levin chalked this up to the fact that HRA's plan was still being implemented and that the committee had little time as they were focused on a litany of other pressing issues. General welfare also has oversight of HRA's other programs, the Department of Homeless Services, and the Administration for Children's Services.

When asked about the IBO report, an HRA official cited similar reasoning. In a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette, HRA press secretary Lourdes Centeno said, "As part of our employment plan that is being phased in over two years, HRA is in the process of reforming its employment services through new RFPs and other program enhancements and continues to expand services that put recipients on a career pathway to long-term employment and self-sufficiency, which will replace the past policies that often resulted in only short-term employment and return to the caseload."

Centeno added that the fluctuation in caseloads was in part because of increasing one-time assistance to prevent evictions and utility shutoffs, and noted that the unduplicated recurring caseload was largely flat for eight years. "We are monitoring our budget to ensure that we are using our resources effectively to help as many New Yorkers in need as we can," she added.

[Related: In Departure From Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls Welfare System]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Report Propels Debate Over City's Welfare Reforms Thu, 17 Mar 2016 02:39:26 +0000
Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5740:through-committee-bill-to-create-office-of-civil-justice-heads-toward-law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5740:through-committee-bill-to-create-office-of-civil-justice-heads-toward-law MMV Levine and co

Mark-Viverito, front, & Levine, behind her, are the lead sponsors (photo: William Alatriste)


New York City is one step closer to having a new Office of Civil Justice. On Tuesday, the City Council's Committee on Courts and Legal Services unanimously passed a bill that would create the office, to be tasked with assessing, coordinating, and helping reform the civil legal services available to low-income New Yorkers. Among the most pressing concerns are ensuring legal representation for immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

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Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law Tue, 26 May 2015 18:42:12 +0000
New Guide to Public Assistance Aims to Help Neediest Navigate System http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5705:new-guide-to-public-assistance-aims-to-help-neediest-navigate-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5705:new-guide-to-public-assistance-aims-to-help-neediest-navigate-system snp cup hra

At Thursday's guide release (photo: @DMirandaSNP)


New Yorkers in need of public assistance provided by the city must navigate a maze of bureaucracy and paperwork. In an attempt to provide clarity and ensure that the neediest access available benefits, the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center in collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy today released a visual guide to the city’s welfare system.

Titled “Your Guide to Welfare NYC,” the poster is designed to help the 350,000 city residents who rely on public cash assistance to access benefits and protect themselves when those benefits are in danger of being revoked.

The guide was created over the last year through feedback from recipients of public benefits and advocacy groups. The city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) also helped review the poster drafts and its commissioner, Steve Banks, was at Thursday’s launch event.

The Safety Net Project has printed 2,000 copies, a portion of which will be distributed today throughout the five boroughs while the online version of the guide is disseminated through social media and other channels.

“With over 350,000 people relying on public assistance, there aren’t enough resources to ensure everyone has access,” said Denise Miranda, managing director of the Safety Net Project. “There’s an urgent need to help those people who rely on benefits for their survival.”

Going forward, Miranda hopes that they can translate the multi-page poster into different languages and print and distribute on a larger scale. “We’re hopeful that the city might participate in raising funds for distribution,” she said. “It’s a resource tool that will be invaluable to New Yorkers.”

The poster - in red, white and blue - has a step-by-step visual guide divided into three easily readable sections with graphics. The first section lays down the basics of eligibility for benefits, how they are disseminated, and where to apply. The second section gives simple instructions for how to apply, including the documents needed and tips for visiting HRA centers. The final section shows people how to retain benefits, avoid sanctions, and settle disputes with HRA.

nyc welfare guide via safey net

Showing renewed cooperation between HRA and advocacy groups, the release was held at HRA’s Waverly Job Center in midtown. “We have been partnering with community groups all over the city,” Commissioner Banks told reporters. “Over the past year we’ve been making dramatic reforms in the agency and we think efforts like this are helpful to get information out to our clients. We look forward to continue to partner with the Urban Justice Center and other efforts to make sure our clients are aware of the services that we have and help them navigate that process.”

Under Banks, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, HRA has seen significant changes from past administrations. “After 20 years of administrations that showed disregard, some might say disdain, for people in need of assistance, there’s been a shift in outreach, policy and culture in the new administration,” said Safety Net Project’s Miranda.

HRA has also been making efforts in easing the process of accessing benefits. Just last week, the city announced a new website, foodhelp.nyc, to help people apply for  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The city estimates that more than half a million New Yorkers qualify for SNAP but have not availed of them.

“Anything that helps people know about and navigate the complicated process [of public assistance] is important,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. “The administration has taken big steps forward. But there have been 20 years of policy and public practice in place that make it nearly impossible to access public assistance. It takes the full effect of both the city administration and advocacy organizations to see that people are able to get assistance and navigate the process.”

Wendy O’Shields has volunteered at Safety Net Project for the last year and worked on the new guide. Her perspective is doubly relevant considering that during the Great Recession, she had to reluctantly apply for public assistance. “There was nothing I could reference to learn the rules that HRA goes by,” she told Gotham Gazette after today’s press conference. “I had to learn by the experience, the school of hard knocks. It would have been very helpful going through crises if there was something I could have referenced so I could have not made the learning curve beginner mistakes.”

The new poster does just that. Perhaps more aptly called a pamphlet, it translates legal technical information into conversational language and has a flow-chart-like design. “We often think of it as building a narrative that helps people move through the information in a way that’s accessible,” said Christine Gaspar, executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. “The process is about bringing those pieces together.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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New Guide to Public Assistance Aims to Help Neediest Navigate System Thu, 30 Apr 2015 19:10:45 +0000