Gotham Gazette

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How New York City Can Truly Turn the Tide on Homelessness

mayor attend ceremony

Housing underway (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

We as a city spend $3 billion annually on shelters -- including renting hotel rooms -- that fail to provide the services New Yorkers experiencing homelessness need. 

These band-aid solutions don’t work. They’ve never worked. Before COVID-19, more than half of New Yorkers were paying more than 30% of their income on rent, and more than 140 New York City schools had a homeless student population of over 20%. Almost 1 in every 100 New Yorkers experienced homelessness in 2019. Despite big promises, Mayor Bill de Blasio has overseen a 23% increase in homelessness during his tenure, even as homelessness declined nationally. While the mayor’s approach expanded access to dormitory-style shelters, it didn’t come close to adequately addressing the root causes of homelessness: a citywide lack of stable, affordable housing and access to “wraparound” social services and healthcare. 

The homelessness crisis has only become more potentially dire due to pandemic-related job losses, particularly among lower-income households, causing more families to fall behind on rent and putting nearly 150,000 New York City households at risk of eviction. While the state eviction moratorium and federal stimulus checks have so far prevented the worst, many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers still fall through the cracks

With so many of our neighbors at risk of losing their homes, we need a mayor who will treat homelessness like the crisis it is. It’s time for bold, transformative solutions on housing and homelessness — it’s time to move from a shelter strategy to a housing strategy. It’s time for housing that heals. 

I’m a dedicated public servant who knows how to manage a crisis. But unlike this mayor, I’m not content to just manage homelessness – I pledge to end it.

It starts with smarter leadership. Right now, 19 city agencies are “responsible” for tackling homelessness, which means nobody is in charge. When I’m mayor, for the first time homeless services, housing, and economic development will all report to the same deputy mayor, who will be held accountable for treating housing issues with one comprehensive approach.

We’ll also put more resources towards prevention, focusing on the top risk factors: job loss and health crisis. New York’s CityFHEPS rental assistance program provides temporary vouchers to at-risk households, but the voucher amounts are often too low to rent an apartment. Fully funding CityFHEPS means less homelessness in the first place.

Shift from a shelter strategy to a housing strategy also means instead of paying to rent hotel rooms we purchase suitable empty commercial spaces and convert them into 10,000 permanent supportive housing units. California’s Project Homekey used federal coronavirus relief funds to acquire 6,000 vacant hotel rooms in a matter of months, and New York City should act with similar urgency.

You get what you measure. Rather than fixating on units, we will focus on reducing the number of people who are sleeping on the street, who are rent burdened, and who are in shelters. We’ll open new drop-in centers with bathrooms and critical services, creating more opportunity for social workers to build trust and a pathway to permanent housing, and proactively engage with individuals leaving the correctional system.

Finally, we’ll address homelessness at its roots by fixing our broken housing market. Despite red-hot demand, New York builds less housing per-capita than almost any major city in America. We’ve only added housing in a few neighborhoods where zoning has encouraged it, and we’ve even lost housing stock in areas including the Upper East Side, Sunset Park, and Bayside. It’s no wonder that only 4% of New York’s essential workers can afford an apartment that fits their budget. Our housing market has become a sick game of musical chairs, leaving more and more New Yorkers without a place to call home.

My administration will fund 50,000 new affordable homes for New Yorkers making under 50% of the Area Median Income (AMI), finally targeting the city’s affordable housing plan to the greatest need. We’ll plan for citywide affordable housing growth, especially in high-resource neighborhoods with good access to jobs, transit, schools, and parks. We’ll update the zoning code and streamline the byzantine permitting process, which makes it all too easy for housing opponents to block affordable housing. And we’ll implement common-sense reforms like legalizing basement units, backyard units, and small apartment buildings citywide. 

We won’t be the first city to use this approach to deliver results. In 2011, Houston, suffering from record-high homelessness, adopted The Way Home, which identified homeless residents and matched them to housing within 30 days. Houston redirected funding into building permanent supportive housing and improved coordination among service providers, nonprofits, and government. Houston’s housing supply also grew quickly, holding rents flat. Six years later, homelessness had fallen 60%, and military veteran homelessness was effectively ended. This playbook works — we just have to follow it.

It’s one thing to say that housing is a human right. It’s another thing to execute on it. With COVID-19 still putting too many New Yorkers’ housing in jeopardy, our next mayor needs to embrace proven solutions and prioritize ending homelessness. New Yorkers have had enough of excuses — it’s time for experience.

Kathryn Garcia is a Democratic candidate for mayor of New York. On Twitter @KGforNYC.

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