An entry in the snarky blog Gawkerpointed last year to 5,000 new apartments planned for Manhattan as proof that there was no real housing crisis. I couldn’t help contacting the editors, asking them to consider that 5,000 new apartments in a city of eight million people is not proof of very much. I was told not to take their Web site so seriously.
It is hard not to take numbers seriously. They figure prominently in almost every policy debate, and seem to take over many discussions that involve housing. Statistics mold public opinion. In a few weeks, the city is planning to release one that is sure to get some attention â€“ the number of homeless people in New York City.
Counting the homeless people in shelters can be done rather easily; counting the street homeless is difficult. The city tries to do it anyway, producing a “statistical estimate” after sending volunteers into one out of five neighborhoods. Its methods leave a lot to be desired, said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.
“I think our biggest problem all along has been the flawed methodology the city uses to produce the estimate,” Markee said. “People see those numbers and get an impression.”
This year, in a bid to bolster the credibility of that estimate, the city used decoys, college students disguised as homeless people, to test how well the volunteer counters actually counted.
But Markee believes the count itself simply distracts people from the real issues at hand -- the lack of supportive housing and the difficulty many people have getting into city shelters. On neither front, Markee said, has the city made any progress in three years.
Whatever the number winds up being, it is undoubtedly going to get more attention this year because of the coming mayoral election.
For several years the city and landlords have boasted of fewer housing code violations in buildings across the city. But in poorer neighborhoods, as I have pointed out before, buildings are often in very poor condition.
After more than a year of intense efforts by housing advocates, the city may finally adopt a more comprehensive inspection strategy. Rather than responding to tenant complaints, the city’s code enforcement agents would conduct regular inspections of buildings, from roof to cellar, in specific neighborhoods.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development will inspect 30 buildings with violation problems in three council districts every two months, according to the new strategy. The Norwood News’ Heather Haddon reportedthis news in March.
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.