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Citizens Union


Op-Ed: The Coming Urban Crisis is Already Here


“For the past several years all the ingredients have been in place for an urban crisis,” New York University's Patrick Sharkey wrote recently, in a thoughtful New York Times opinion piece calling for a national urban policy.

Professor Sharkey’s article gets it mostly right. He writes cities have suffered high unemployment and poverty rates with declining property values. It was the Great Recession in America, but the Terrible Depression for urban areas.

“And yet,” Sharkey points out, “Our cities have remained relatively quiet.” He goes on, and this is where he gets it wrong: "Public housing complexes have not fallen into disrepair, and large numbers of homeless people have not emerged on the streets.”

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Perhaps that’s true across America, though a recent trip to San Francisco makes me question the no large numbers of homeless description, but it’s not true in New York.

New York City’s Housing Authority is a $3-plus billion operation, with 178,000 units serving more than 400,000 residents. But it’s no example of property not falling into disrepair.

On the very day Professor Sharkey’s op-ed appeared, the Times also ran a story headlined “Housing Authority Is Sued Over Slow Pace of Repairs." It reported the plight of a public housing tenant who got a water leak fixed, but was left with a hole in their wall and a promise to fix it later. By later they meant 2014. Maybe.

That’s not an isolated incident. NYCHA admits to a 300,000 work order backlog, with repairs often taking two years. That’s why 300 tenants in one housing development sued NYCHA demanding repairs or civil penalties for problems from leaks, flooding, mold, electrical problems, warped floors and holes in the walls, to broken items including stoves, buzzers, toilets and doors.

There are horror stories about broken elevators elderly and disabled tenants stranded on high floors. Expect more lawsuits.

As New York City’s affordable housing shortfall increases to staggering proportions, the number of public housing units available has been shrinking. The two year repair backlog pales compared to the seven year waiting list for eligible housing applicants.

Large numbers of people experiencing homelessness have emerged — it’s more accurate to say the homelessness crisis exploded. New York’s homeless population increased over 60 percent in the last decade.

Children in city homeless shelters are up 22 percent in one year. In February, the last month we have city figures for, 55,000 people slept daily in city shelters; 22,000 of them were children. It was thousands worse the month before when it was colder. That’s the highest number in New York since … Well, ever. And it doesn’t count the thousands sleeping rough on the streets or in non-city shelters.

Starkey’s prescription isn’t more initiatives “unveiled with fanfare and then abandoned” or “a vast influx of new money," but a priority shift. He argues for ending exclusionary zoning, taking funding from incarceration to fund ex-prisoner re-entry, building police-community relations and for shifting money from mortgage interest tax deductions to investment in affordable housing.

When it comes to New York City’s public housing, affordable housing and homelessness problems, there is no need for massive new dollars either. We know what works, and over time the solutions are cheaper than what we’re doing — what isn’t working — now.

We know, and there’s a great body of research to document, that investing in adequate high-quality medical care and other services for homeless people saves significant tax dollars. It’s the “low hanging fruit” of saving money on human services.

Because many homeless people have not had access to appropriate medical care, many don’t have the habit or experience of using primary and preventative health care, or ongoing integrated treatment. Their more common experience might be getting no care until they’re very ill, then using expensive emergent care leading to avoidable and expensive inpatient treatment and hospitalizations.

A number of public health studies have concluded that homeless people are about the hardest to reach and least healthy subpopulation in most communities. Providing appropriate primary, preventative and ongoing health care to people experiencing homelessness is the biggest bang for the buck in improving health outcomes and tax savings.

It’s true in housing, too. Transitional rent subsidies to move homeless people from shelters to permanent housing isn’t just a better outcome, it’s many times less expensive. Affordable housing for very low-income people, and supportive housing for those who need it, are better outcomes and less expensive than shelters, too.

These are investments that save lives and tax dollars even without considering the better quality of life and increased productivity for the people involved and especially the value of saving children from life-time trauma and developmental delays associated with homelessness.

Jeff Foreman is the director of policy for Care for the Homeless, which helps to shelter and provide healthcare and other services to homeless individuals and families.


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