Gotham Gazette

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Advocates for Homeless New Yorkers Cautiously Optimistic About New Mayor


Call it the Dasani effect.

As if to remind Mayor Bill de Blasio that housing was a top priority in his election campaign, the New York Times devoted a five-part series last month to a homeless child, Dasani Coates, and her family’s travails in a miserable city shelter.

Dasani is one of 22,000 children – the most ever – living in the city’s homeless shelters. She was on the steps of City Hall on Jan. 1, a guest of the newly elected Public Advocate Tish James, as the mayor was sworn in.

The Dasani stories painted a distressing picture that is reality for thousands of children. While some apportioned blame to Dasani’s parents, it was impossible not to see how the city’s homeless prevention policies were failing the girl and her family. Former Mayor Bloomberg’s suggestion that God was to blame for the family’s plight seemed to indicate he had given up on the homeless as he was leaving office.

The stories were just one indicator – plenty of others signal that big changes in the city’s housing policies are likely in the next few months. And advocates are expressing cautious optimism at the prospects of changing policies that some say criminalized homelessness.

“I’m not holding my breath,” said William Burnett, a board member of Picture the Homeless, which has aggressively advocated on behalf of homeless people for years. “We’re hopeful but we’re not going to give de Blasio a pass.”

Housing advocates say they are optimistic that the new mayor will aggressively address the problems they see ravaging communities from Jamaica to Mott Haven, Washington Heights to Brighton Beach, Staten Island to Red Hook, Bedford Stuyvesant to Chelsea. And they are geared up to work with the new administration, they say.

“It’s sort of like there are fires all across the city and you have non-profit groups who, all they do is put out fires,” said Kenny Schaeffer, a housing attorney and member of the Met Council on Housing. “Of course the mayor will work with these organizations.”

Advocacy groups are elated that the city now has a mayor who seems to understand the housing dilemma and how housing policy can promote equity in the city, said Jackie del Valle, Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Fifth Avenue Committee in the heart of the Brooklyn district de Blasio represented as a City Council member.

“What's exciting,” she said, “is that the new mayor will actually work with advocates, and work with coalitions. He'll listen to advocates and work with us to make changes.”

He was elected by a progressive wing of New York City,” added Harvey Epstein, Project Director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. “I think he’ll listen to what we have to say. I’m hopeful.”

Advocates are keen to take advantage of the moment – and not lose leverage as they did in 2001 when a “truce” was adopted with the new Bloomberg administration.

“That was a terrible strategic mistake,” Schaeffer said.

Advocates say they are keen not to repeat that mistake and hope a new era has begun in the fight against homelessness.

"Obviously everyone understands our responsibiity is to provide legal representation to address the problems of homeless New Yorkers," said Steve Banks, chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which has sued the city frequently during the past three decades for its treatment of the homeless. "But we're hopeful that the city will have the kinds of policies in place that can avoid the systemic problems of the past."

Burnett echoed that sentiment, adding that de Blasio must do more than talk about the homeless.

“When Obama first got into the White House, homelessness and housing policy was broadly discussed and they solicited input from the public – we participated in that process – in order to develop a plan, it was a thick book, to reduce homelessness,” he said. “We’ve been through this before where politicians ask for our input and then don’t follow through.”

Action is needed, he said. The new mayor’s assertion that the owners of vacant lots in the city should “put up or pay up” is the type of action advocates are looking for.

“I want to be hopeful,” Burnett said. “But I realize if the mayor’s going to be truly progressive on housing, we’re going to have to hold his feet to the fire.”

With homelessness at a record level, a continuing erosion of affordable housing in the city and an unprecedented affordability crisis, the new mayor has lots to do on housing, advocates say. But a few things stand out, they say.

“First, making sure the mayor follows through on pushing for home rule on the rent laws – that’s the biggest thing,” said Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Met Council on Housing. ”And second, what he does with NYCHA (the New York City Housing Authority) and Bloomberg’s plan to build luxury towers on NYCHA properties.”

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Home Rule

Once upon a time, the city wrote its own housing laws, but in 1971 the state stripped the city of its power to do that. Landlords subsequently gained much greater influence over the city’s housing laws – because upstate legislators, the theory goes, don’t know or care about housing issues in the city – and landlords influence them by financing their campaigns.

If de Blasio leads the charge for home rule – and wins it – the idea that a new progressive era has begun in the city and the state for that matter would be more than rhetoric.

But one source I spoke to in Albany who was not authorized to talk for attribution said the idea was a non-starter – Republicans would never go for it, she said, and Democrats do not have anything to offer in return to obtain the repeal.

The use of NYCHA property for new developments

NYCHA manages 334 housing complexes, home to nearly a half-million New Yorkers. Real estate developers would very much like to build on that land and Mayor Bloomberg supported their vision, justifying it as a way to help the perpetually cash-strapped agency. NYCHA could use the money it got from leasing or selling property to fix up apartments, proponents of the idea said.

But advocates staunchly oppose the idea, as do many NYCHA residents.

“I think it's a horrible idea,” said Benjamin. “Nobody from NYCHA could afford to move in to those developments.”

Already, the departure of John Rhea, the chairman of the NYCHA board, is a good sign, advocates said. Recent articles questioning payments by NYCHA to the New York Police Department and Department of Sanitation – which advocates say set NYCHA up for financial distress – also suggest NYCHA is set up for significant change.

“NYCHA will be an easier issue to deal with, too, because he’s not going up against the landlord or real estate lobbies,” del Valle pointed out.

Keeping track of vacant buildings and lots

There are more than 3,500 vacant buildings and almost 2,500 vacant lots across the city, according to a 2011 study by Picture the Homeless. Properly developed, the buildings could house about 70,000 people – the approximate number of homeless in the city. But more needs to be known about these buildings and lots – such as who owns them and why are they vacant?

In 2010, Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, now the Council Speaker, introduced a law – Intro 48 – to have the city collect such information. The public advocate at the time, Bill de Blasio, supported the proposal, as does the new public advocate, Tish James. If Intro 48 cannot become a law now – with all three having ascended to the positions to make it happen – it will send a rather clear message to advocates.

“Bill de Blasio was very supportive as public advocate, especially on the count (of homeless people),” Burnett said. “But it’s easy to be supportive when there are no political consequences. I’m wondering what’s going to happen now he’s mayor, when there are consequences.”

Guaranteed inclusionary zoning

The lack of affordable housing in the city remains a problem. Inclusionary zoning offers a bonus to developers who set aside a percentage of the units they build for lower- or middle-income people. But developers can decline the offer. As a candidate, de Blasio said he supports making inclusionary zoning mandatory.

That would be a sea change for opportunities to create substantial amounts of affordable housing in the city,” Epstein said.


During the mayoral campaign, Housing First!, a broad coalition of community, business, labor and religious organizations, published recommendations for the next mayor. One suggestion: the creation of a deputy mayor position to handle housing in order to improve transparency and accountability.

Whether de Blasio creates the post or not, his appointments on housing will be critical to the pursuit of progressive housing policies: the commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for example, could pursue code enforcement more aggressively.

“He’s hiring people,” Epstein said. “We’re wondering who he appoints as his housing commissioner – and then we’ll be able to talk about this.”

Similarly, the mayor’s appointments to the Rent Guidelines Board will send a strong signal on what will happen when it starts deliberating on rents in the coming months. And his appointment to be chair of the NYCHA board will have a similar symbolic impact at first – and practical impact as the person implements her or his vision.

As for Dasani, soon after her appearance at the mayor’s inauguration, Publisher’s Weekly reported that her story would become a book. It was unclear, however, whether she would benefit from any advance paid for the book. Furthermore, the Legal Aid Society has set up a trust fund for Dasani and other children in the “Invisible Child” series in the Times.

Dasani and her family are no longer living at the homeless shelter described in the Times story, said Banks of the Legal Aid Society. They have moved into "a more appropriate facility," he said.

"The family would benefit from a reversal of the misguided policies of the Bloomberg administration," Banks said. "The way the Bloomberg administration treated Dasani's family highlights the urgent need to restore housing priorities for the homeless."

Letter to The Mayor: Recommendations From Students Of De Blasio's Alma Mater

BdB Columbia (Newsday)

Mayor Bill de Blasio at his alma mater, Columbia (Newsday)

Dear Mayor de Blasio:

We are writing to you as graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, to put forth a series of policy recommendations. The priorities in this letter are based on the results of a survey of SIPA’s student body. As SIPA is your alma mater, you know that we represent a diverse community with a strong commitment to public service. After reviewing the survey results, we offer the following strategies to help you and your administration address New York City’s most pressing problems.


Affordable housing in New York is at risk due to a highly speculative market, scarce housing supply, and an imperfect set of code enforcement mechanisms. To mitigate these problems we recommend:  

Creation of a landlord rating system and increased sanctions against failing landlords. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development currently tracks building violations, ownership, purchase price, property debt, and outstanding taxes and liens. While a landlord may face fines or liens for transgressions there is currently no mechanism to control for overleveraging of affordable rental units, and many fines and liens are never collected because the cost to collect exceeds the amount of the penalty. Using the available information, HPD should create an index that holistically assesses the quality of New York City landlords, resulting in publicly available grading system. Landlords with poor grades should receive heavy financial penalties, and/or be barred from purchasing additional property in the City. Landlord ratings are likely to be well received by New Yorkers, who have become accustomed to grading criteria in other areas such as restaurants and food trucks.

Create a survey of vacant properties, and use these lots to support the New York City Community Land Initiative. NYCCLI represents a coalition of community groups seeking to reduce market speculation through the implementation of Land Trusts, a non-profit vehicle that preserves affordable housing in perpetuity through land use restrictions and the development of housing units. Successful models exist in San Francisco, Burlington, and Berkeley. By conducting the survey and unlocking vacant lots, the City can minimize the impact of market forces on affordable housing in vulnerable neighborhoods.

Use mayoral discretionary power to dedicate an additional 1 percent of the Department of Homeless Services Budget for programs that serve long-term housing needs for the homeless. In particular, these additional funds should be used to purchase land for the New York City Community Land Initiative and to develop low-income affordable cooperatives in NYC, both mechanisms for building asset wealth in traditionally marginalized communities.


New York City Transit is underperforming and cannot efficiently move its current ridership. Congestion is a daily challenge and accessibility continues to marginalize outer-borough communities. Priorities for this administration should be:

Establish “congestion” or “fair” pricing to alleviate gridlock. Former transportation commissioner Sam Schwartz and MoveNY have outlined a “fair” pricing plan that shares the tolling burden among residents of all the boroughs. This plan institutes moderate tolls on the East River bridges, while decreasing the tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows, Whitestone, RFK, and Throgs Neck. This toll system should be implemented and the funds must be directed to strengthen public transportation infrastructure against the effects of climate change and to expand outer borough select bus service routes.

Institute a commuter tax. Suburban residents who work in the five boroughs utilize city services, though the cost of paying for these services falls on city residents. A modest commuter tax of 0.005 percent of income—costing $250 per year for a commuter with an annual salary of $50,000—could generate millions in annual revenue for the city. The funds from a commuter tax should help improve NYCT and finance its capital projects.


Workers employed in science, technology, engineering, or math fields earn 12-60 percent more than similar workers in other fields, with the greatest advantage going to those with a high-school degree or less. Despite the projected creation of 29,000 tech-sector jobs by 2020, graduates of local colleges and universities are twice as likely to major in humanities than STEM fields.  In addition to expanding universal Pre-K and reaching a contract with the city’s teachers, the mayor must capitalize on the growth of math-dependent sectors by taking the following steps:

Promote education in STEM subjects, particularly among girls, minorities, and other traditionally underrepresented groups. The city should expand the number of teachers receiving training in these subjects, provide dedicated time for professional development to encourage student achievement, and produce an annual analysis of the progress that individual schools make in increasing student participation in advanced math and science courses.

Prepare students for immediate post-graduate employment by providing hands-on experiential learning and alternative pathways to certification, additional degrees, or advanced standing, as has been done at P-Tech in Brooklyn. This mayoral administration should make the successful components of P-Tech a standard for future high-school redesign activities, and pilot transferrable course modules in other city schools in the next academic year.

Provide additional in-service learning opportunities — like app development for community use — and exposure to potential employers through out-of-school-time programs like Girls Who Code.


The number of people living in New York City is expected to reach 9 million by 2030. To ensure that all residents have access to the economic opportunities, clean atmosphere, and safe and secure living conditions that they deserve, we recommend that the following action be taken to facilitate robust yet sustainable economic growth:

Lobby the City Council to pass a 10 cent tax on paper and plastic bags. Cities and states across the country are adopting a bag tax to reduce waste and generate revenue. Implemented at the point of sale, 5 cents would go to each the retailer and the City. This tax would promote behavioral change for consumers and generate revenue that can be used for sustainability efforts elsewhere. From the estimated 5.2 billion bags used by New Yorkers each year, the tax could generate $520 million.

Incorporate vocational training into the services offered by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Nearly half of the labor force in New York City is comprised of recent immigrants. Recognize the vital contributions of these communities to the city’s economy and improve access and availability to programs dedicated to workforce development. Although the Immigrant Entrepreneur Initiatives and Immigrant Bridge programs furthered the employment gains of immigrants with high levels of education and experience, capacity must be expanded to include low-skilled individuals in order to ensure mutually beneficial participation in the modern economy.

Expand the existing NYC Business Link program, which provides wage subsidies to employers who hire public assistance recipients, to include low- and middle-income applicants who do not receive assistance.

Implement pilot microgrid programs to serve Coney Island Hospital and NYCHA facilities in the Rockaways. Sandy recovery is estimated at $19 billion, and as a region, New York lost $50-60 billion in economic activity. These numbers are expected to increase by 2050. Microgrids decentralize the electrical grid and contain the impact of damage and power loss. They incorporate multiple types of electrical generation, from gas to solar, and allow communities to sell excess generation back into the grid. $294 million of the federal recovery funds from Sandy are earmarked for resiliency programs and could be used for this initiative. Implementing microgrids in these locations would both protect these at-risk populations, many of whom were evacuated during the storm and went weeks without electricity, and inspire other communities to adopt them for themselves.

As your administration tackles these challenges, it will be important to adopt a comprehensive strategy and to include a diverse set of partners: political insiders and newcomers; wealthy, middle class, and poor residents; academics and practitioners; and seasoned public servants, as well as the next generation of policy advisers. In reconciling New York's "two cities," we urge you not to neglect one in favor of the other, but to foster interdependence and shared interests between the two.

This is a special time for New York City. At SIPA we are here to help and to serve, and hope that we can contribute to your administration as it addresses the issues outlined above.

We wish you the best of luck.


Lauren Andersen, Winston Berkman, Brendan Coticchia, Madeleine Gray, and Elyssa White
Master of Public Administration Candidates, Class of 2015

The Longest, Darkest Night of the Year


On December 21st, the longest night of the year, communities across America observe Homeless Memorial Day. Last year, 175 communities held an event. But most people have never heard of Homeless Memorial Day, and that's unfortunate.

Though it's been held for 25 years, it's usually not covered by the media. If ever it deserves coverage and thought, though, it's this year in New York City.

A month ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published its "Point-in-Time" homelessness count. They reported a 4 percent decline in homelessness across America in 2013 including significant decreases in urban areas. But in New York City, HUD's count, supervised by the city itself, documented a dramatic jump in homelessness.

Homeless advocates have been lamenting the record number of 57,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. But the HUD count for one night in January 2013, estimated the city's homeless population at 64,060. That's a new record — in a bad way. It's enough people to fill Yankee stadium and jam Times Square, too.

Highlighting further the plight of children like Dasani — whose life was so powerfully described in last week’s bombshell New York Times series — HUD reported a 13 percent New York City increase including 39,601 people in homeless families. Tragically, their report for the city's homeless population, number of homeless families and homeless children may be the highest ever reported.

That makes Homeless Memorial Day 2013 especially poignant.

Homeless Memorial Day remembers those who died in our community this year without a home. Many of them might have no memorial remembrance at all if not for Homeless Memorial Day.

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One person I'll be remembering is Jose Perez. He died without a home on September 12, 2013, in Elmhurst Hospital. I never actually met him, but I'll be thinking of him.

Mr. Perez was brutally beaten in Sabba Park, Sunnyside, Queens, on September 7th not far from where I live. He was assaulted simply because he was homeless and vulnerable. It certainly wasn't a robbery - homeless people are easy targets but not very promising victims for theft.

He died at the age of 42. That's way too young — but not all that young for a chronically homeless person.

Homeless Memorial Day reminds us how dramatically the trauma, stress and exposure of homelessness rob chronically homeless people of years of life.

A child born in New York City today has a life expectancy of over 80 years.  Studies document chronically homeless peoples' life expectancy is in their 40s or 50s. That's three or four decades lost, needlessly, to homelessness.

Senseless attacks on homeless people are increasing according to an annual Coalition for the Homeless study reporting over 1,000 documented attacks in the last decade. That's based on very incomplete reporting because most attacks on homeless people aren't reported. Sometimes even if they are reported by the victim they go unrecorded in official statistics. That's why a quarter of the attacks reported are fatal — not because 25 percent of the beatings end in death but because most nonfatal attacks aren't recorded.

Most victims are men in their 40s — just like Mr. Perez.   Most perpetrators are male, too, but about half are 20 years old or younger. The youngest documented "hate crime" attack against a homeless person was by a 9 year old. A study at California State University in San Bernardino found homeless people had a greater victimization rate — 66 percent annually — "than any other group in the western industrialized world."

But attacks and traumas are hardly the major health hazard of chronic homelessness recognized on Homeless Memorial Day. Epidemiological studies have found homelessness itself is a cause of morbidity and premature death. Those who practice street medicine and provide health care to homeless people have long known that homelessness is a public health crisis, an aggravating condition for disease and an interference with effective treatment.

It was eye-opening research from the city's Departments of Health and Homeless Services that found age-adjusted death rate for single adults in city shelters to be twice that of the city's general population. They reported homeless adults represented well under 1 percent of the population but over 1.6 percent of the hospitalizations, with their hospital admissions lasting more than 12 percent longer than average.  They found some diseases rare in the general population rampant in shelters.

For instance, their report put TB rates in city shelters at 11 times that of the city overall. The HIV diagnosis rate was an incredible 16 times that of the city. Even with heroic efforts to get homeless people off the streets in bitter cold weather, there are dozens of exposure deaths in New York City annually. Mental illness and emotional distress is epidemic among people experiencing homelessness.

Homeless Persons' Memorial Day recognizes the threat to health and life that living without a home carries. Homeless advocate Bobby Watts coined the phrase "death by park bench" in painting the picture of the homelessness health hazard.

If you want to hear more about the scourge of homelessness, its health consequences, how homelessness can be overcome and to memorialize those who passed in New York City this year without a home, there are several events being held in Gotham.

Two outstanding observances are the Picture the Homeless Memorial Service at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South at 6 p.m. on Friday evening, Dec. 20; and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 21, at the Care for the Homeless client leaders' event at New Song Church, 2230 Frederick Douglass Blvd. between 120th and 121st streets in Harlem.

Homeless Memorial Day also recognizes these deaths are avoidable. Better policies could end modern day homelessness as we know it and end the health hazard and premature death sentences it carries with it.

Jeff Foreman is policy director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter @JeffForeman2

One Of The City's 22,000 Homeless Children Is No Longer Invisible. Now What?


This week The New York Times is featuring amazing coverage of homelessness in our city, in the form of a captivating series of articles about a 13-year-old girl named Dasani — after the water of the same name. The coverage is nothing short of extraordinary.

First, the sheer depth of it is remarkable. It began on Monday with an article and picture filling almost the entire Times front page above the fold, with four full pages of photos and coverage inside. That's an amazing amount of space for any story.

On Tuesday it was the front page again, and three full inside pages. The series continues.

New York is a city where homeless advocates often criticize the lack of in-depth coverage of homelessness and poverty. We can be a city where people walk by homeless people in the street daily but never acknowledge them and rarely see them at all. We're a city long suffering homeless "fatigue."

The Times coverage might do something about that.

The articles put a face on homelessness. It's an engaging, captivating child's face. Precisely for that reason it's difficult to read; but it makes homelessness personal to anyone who does.

Dasani is an amazingly resilient and optimistic child living through a nightmare. She is described as 4-foot-8-inches, has incredible responsibilities for siblings at her tender age and lives in a city shelter for homeless families.

This isn't just any shelter. It's Auburn Place, a city-run facility Dasani refers to as "the jail." It's a Dickensian horror show of a place where Times reporter Andrea Elliot finds Dasani, who sleeps near a mop bucket that serves as her family's toilet, amid mice and rotting walls, to life.

The Times articles aren't the first media tour of the substandard Auburn shelter. A year ago, when Mayor Bloomberg opined that the increased average length of stay for city shelter residents — it's well over a year now on average — was because the shelters had become "so pleasurable" residents didn't want to leave, the NY Daily News reviewed Auburn. They described it as a place housing homeless families with "rats coming through the walls, worms in the bathroom and living conditions so squalid that one man compared them with his stint in prison."

{pullquote}The plan to end homelessness in New York City would include reinstating the priority for using some portion of the city's federal resources to house homeless families.{/pullquote}

The Times articles paint vividly, too. They tell the story of homeless children suffering "staggering societal costs" at the expensive of their opportunity for a decent education, a real chance to develop earning power or flee poverty,  often leading to psychological trauma, disease, addictions and prison.

The Times also laments results for 22,000 homeless children a night in New York City shelters, which they say is the highest number since the Great Depression. But it might be worse than that.

Each year, HUD conducts a national "Point-In-Time" count of people experiencing homelessness in America. Their 2013 PIT count of one night in January reported progress. They found homelessness down 4 percent across America.

Sadly, New York City bucked that trend. HUD estimated on that night there were 64,060 homeless people in New York City. That may be an all-time record high. Worse, it included 39,601 people in homeless families.

The Times series also visits the policy choices "intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant" and meant to reduce the number of homeless. First there was the elimination of the historic targeting of some of the city's public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers specifically to aid homeless families.  But the homeless population wasn't reduced — it increased.

Then there was the elimination of a city subsidy to move homeless families from shelter to housing. Again, policymakers felt the meager subsidy was just drawing people into shelters. After its elimination, the number of homeless people, especially families with children, increased. It's more accurate to say it exploded.

Advocates argue the situation is all the more tragic because it doesn't have to be this way. There are real, evidence-based plans that have worked to prevent homelessness and reduce the number of homeless people. If policy choices helped get us into this mess, they say, better policies could get us out.

The plan to end homelessness in New York City would include reinstating the priority for using some portion of the city's federal resources to house homeless families. It would include more affordable housing targeted to very-low income people and supportive housing for those who need it. It would include a housing voucher program to move homeless people to permanent housing and a strategy of better coordinating government efforts of major "feeders" of homelessness such as aging out of foster care without a home, getting time-limited out of domestic violence shelters or leaving prison without housing.

Advocates say these proposals won't cost more than we spend now on programs that haven't worked. In most cases they save money, because subsidies, supportive housing and the like are far less expensive than shelters.

But what has enthralled us this week is not policy choices but the hard to fathom story of an 11-year-old honor student making her way through seemingly impossible obstacles, and the chance — just the chance —that she might succeed.

We're charmed by her optimism against all odds. She tells the Times reporter she won't fall into the pitfalls all around.  She believes that Auburn will be just a "pit stop" for her. She says she has "a lot of possibilities."

We are horrified by her challenges, and saddened when she calls herself "ghetto."

The Times called the series "Invisible Child." But of course the articles have made her saga all so visible to us. That's a fantastic accomplishment.

It's also a responsibility. If we now know there are children forced to live like this in our city — 280 of them at Auburn, and at least 22,000 more — we should do something about it. And we could. Which leaves only one question: What will we do?

Jeff Foreman is Policy Director for Care for the Homeless in New York City. Follow him on twitter at @JeffForeman2.

Analysis: The Bloomberg Fiscal Legacy


After 12 years in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will have left an indelible fiscal stamp on New York City that will present his successor — and any progressive agenda — with formidable challenges.

There is, foremost, a four-year financial plan that looks sound in the short run, but masks future labor cost problems for the new mayor; a more centralized, less transparent budget process that has reduced public participation in making fiscal policy; and a weakened set of City Charter-mandated performance indicators that now obscures actual policy outcomes.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Bloomberg leaves a legacy of a trickle-down theory of philanthropy and privatization that sees fiscal and policy reform as best spun from private, not public sources.

Immediate Budget Prospects

In the immediate case, the mayor leaves a $72.7 billion one-year city budget which, according to a modification released last week, will actually end this fiscal year (in June 2014) with a $1.6 billion surplus. The new modification has even better news. The fiscal year 2015 budget — which in June’s financial plan was projected to have a $2 billion deficit — is, four months later, now balanced. The presumption is that the mayor-elect will inherit 18 months of a balanced budget.

"We’re proud of all we’ve achieved — and now we want the next Administration to do even better," Bloomberg said in his weekly radio address broadcast on WINS-AM on Sunday. "The balanced budget we’re handing off to them now — more than seven months before the next fiscal year begins — will help them get off to the best possible start."

But that June financial plan for fiscal years 2014 to 2017, as well as the new November modification, are disingenuous. Recent reports from all four fiscal monitors — city and state comptrollers, the state Financial Control Board, and the Independent Budget Office – all point to retroactive and future labor costs that could add billions of dollars to the plan. The IBO, for one, has laid out a scenario that could cost the city nearly $12 billion more over the next four years.

Management, Accountability, and Privatization

In terms of managing city finances, Bloomberg has expanded mayoral fiscal power, weakening the fiscal clout of the City Council and frustrating planning in city agencies and nonprofit agencies. At the same time, mandated accountability mechanisms, such as the mayor’s management report, provide little information about the impact of the outgoing mayor’s major priorities, such as education reform, expanded privatization, and reductions in human and social services.

The mayor’s focus on privatization has changed the funding and governance structures of reform in New York City. New charter schools are almost exclusively privately run. Many charter schools have attracted significant private funding, from foundations and wealthy individuals.

{pullquote}Bloomberg leaves a legacy of a trickle-down theory of philanthropy and privatization that sees fiscal and policy reform as best spun from private, not public sources.{/pullquote}

The mayor’s own foundation has contributed millions of dollars to city organizations that also receive public funds. Similarly, several small anti-poverty reform programs — introduced late in the Bloomberg tenure — are largely funded by private money and managed in large part by non-city agencies.

The ultimate impact of private funding of charter schools, cultural, social, and anti-poverty programs won’t be known for some time, but the private, philanthropic origins of this — unfolding as the Occupy Wall Street movement dramatized increasing inequality in New York City – have only expanded the financial and governance power of private wealth over public policy in the City. This development promises to be a stout barrier to any public, progressive reform agenda.  

The Budget Legacy: Two Crises, Two Different Solutions

The mayor’s budget legacy is the product of 12 years of balanced budgets, crafted, often brilliantly, in the face of two major economic, social, and political challenges — the shocks of September 11, 2001, and then the financial crash and subsequent recession of the late 2000s.  Those two crisis periods were, however, resolved in quite different ways, and illustrate the range of choices a new mayor and new City Council will consider.

The post-9/11 financial crisis — which slashed city tax revenues and soon threatened the city with a more than $6 billion deficit — presented an enormous challenge to the new mayor. Bloomberg responded effectively and equitably, in November 2002, with a controversial package of service cuts and new taxes, roughly $3 billion of cuts and $3 billion in new revenues.

The $3 billion in property, personal income, and sales tax increases were unpopular, especially the 18.5 percent increase in the average property tax rate (cut back by the City Council from his proposed 25 percent increase), the first rate increase in ten years.

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But the tax package was reasonably progressive, with higher income taxpayers paying higher rates for three years. (The sales tax, the city’s most regressive tax, was increased by only 0.125 percent and only for two years). Along with additional help from state and federal governments, the budget crisis was rather quickly brought under control. The plan, with its focus on shared sacrifice, in retrospect if not at the time, was a triumph for the new mayor.

The second crisis, the financial collapse of 2008 and subsequent budget crisis, was resolved in a quite different way: the regressive city sales tax was increased from 4.0 percent to 4.5 percent — and made permanent; the other major taxes were not tapped; and there followed a nearly-exclusive focus on reductions in city spending. In what has continued as a five year, nearly year-round series of budget modifications, mostly cuts in city spending, the city “saved” a lot of money.

Today the current budget is over $6 billion less than it would otherwise have been, absent the modifications. The cumulative effect on services, while only marginally documented in mayoral performance documents, has had clearly negative impacts, especially in public education.

The progressive income tax rates in place from 2003 through 2005 (and in place through most of the 1990s) would have been a reasonable alternative to the relentless succession of budget cuts. The mayor, however, has simply argued that wealthy New Yorkers already pay the bulk of city personal income taxes (true) and might well move out of the city (unlikely).

The $12 Billion Gamble

By far the biggest fiscal problem for the new mayor will be the nearly $12 billion “gamble,” as the IBO has put it, that the last Bloomberg financial plan includes. All city labor unions have been without a contract for the last three years, the city’s teachers and school administrators for the last five years.

{pullquote}The post-9/11 financial crisis presented an enormous challenge to the new mayor. Bloomberg responded effectively and equitably.{/pullquote}

The IBO’s March 2013 analysis of the mayor’s then-preliminary budget for fiscal year 2014 notes Bloomberg’s “assumptions that the municipal labor unions will accept settlements with no wage increases for contracts that expired after 2010 and that the unions for the teachers and principals will forgo the two years of 4.0 percent raises other unions received [in 2008-2010 negotiations]. With virtually no money set aside to pay for wage increases prior to 2013, the financial plan gambles that the unions and the next mayor will agree to no retroactive raises.”

The IBO estimates that paying the teachers and administrators the 4.0 percent increase for the 2008-2010 period that other unions received, and assuming all union members receive a retroactive annual increase of 2.0 percent for two years after 2010, the cost would be $4.5 billion through last year’s (fiscal 2013) budget, and $1.8 billion annually thereafter through fiscal year 2017. Total potential cost over four years: $11.7 billion ($4.5 billion, plus 4 x $1.8 billion).

More Fiscal Problems for the New Mayor

The just-released November modification shows that there will be a surplus of $1.6 billion at the end of this fiscal year in June, which is used to pre-pay expenses in the next year’s budget. This is much less than surpluses in recent years — and, again, assumes no costs in new labor negotiations. Another fiscal problem is that the mayor has used up the one big reserve fund, his own Retiree Health Benefit Fund (more on this below), which, although it was designed to pay for costs way down the road, he has used as a convenient budget-balancing tool.

As the state comptroller comments in his July 2013 report: “The city has come to rely on the annual surplus and reserves built up during the last economic expansion to balance its budget, and now the city has exhausted most of these reserves.”
Created in 2007 by the mayor and Council to build a long-term reserve fund to pay for the rising future health of city retirees (the city’s liability is now at $88 billion), the fund reached a peak of $3.1 billion. But little more than $100 million is left, according to the state Financial Control Board’s July 2013 report.

As an example of Bloomberg’s fiscal style, the state comptroller points out that the current fiscal 2014 budget “is balanced with $4.5 billion in nonrecurring [i.e., one-time] resources, including $2.7 billion surplus resources and $1 billion in reserves from the last economic expansion.” In other words, the new mayor will have little fiscal cushion should the collective bargaining results (or any surprise events) add major new costs to the financial plan.

The new mayor’s first chance to formally affect the city budget will be in February, when he will release a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2015 (beginning July 1, 2014) and a modified four-year financial plan.

The Question of Mayoral Fiscal Power

While questions about the fiscal health of the city in the short and long run will be paramount in the early months of 2014, there are questions about budget process and management mechanisms that deserve similar attention. For instance, the success of the Bloomberg administration’s 2008-2013 budget-balancing stemmed largely from its ability to change the budget clock and control fiscal information.

In its rush to accumulate an ultimate $6 billion in savings, the mayor telescoped the traditional budget process by overriding the usual February-June budget process set out in the City Charter and made it effectively a year-round process. No sooner were budgets adopted in June than they were effectively modified almost immediately: with public warnings to city agencies to cut back spending in the summer and major modifications announced as early as September.

The February-June schedule lays out formal, well-publicized mayoral presentations — a preliminary budget in February, an executive budget in May — which build in time for City Council hearings, opportunities for public access to the process, and council/mayoral negotiations. Big changes made in the fall don’t permit this full democratic exchange.

{pullquote}A more subtle way in which the mayor has controlled the budget process has been through his budget office’s control of information — much of which is not shared with the public.{/pullquote}

The City Council, for instance, could argue that the sudden increase in the budget surplus, announced last week, could have been used to increase city services this year. Autumn modifications don’t get thorough reviews, and the Council is generally ill-equipped to challenge the changes. The early modifications in a budget year also disrupt planning and management in city agencies and the large number of nonprofit agencies that contract with the city to provide public services.

A more subtle way in which the mayor has controlled the budget process has been through his budget office’s control of information — much of which is not shared with the public. There are any number of ways in which the city’s budget office can manage and then explain (or not) its budget planning to the public. The Bloomberg staff has probably not invented any new techniques, but in the scale and sophistication of its close-to-the-vest work, it may be unmatched.

The Budget Dance

There are several ways, for instance, for a mayor to tamp down expectations and maximize mayoral discretion. Revenue projections may be a bit under-estimated; projected expenditures may be a bit over-estimated. Projects can be delayed. Economic projections may be on the lower range of conventional projections. Money put aside to pay for certain anticipated expenses may not be needed. One-time revenues — like selling city land or taxi medallions — can be moved from one year to another.

These techniques are perfectly illustrated in the new November modification. That surprise $1.6 billion surprise stems from several sources. Tax revenues were (four months ago) underestimated by $1.1 billion for the current year. A reserve fund of $450 million was tapped for $300 million, only four months into the fiscal year; and re-financing of city debt — not anticipated four months ago? — will save $535 million over four years.  

One of the most effective of tamp-down strategies is the so-called “budget dance” through which the mayor each year cuts a few hundred million dollars from programs favored by the City Council. The mayor and Council fight over those cuts during the spring negotiations and the mayor eventually restores most of the cuts (generally for only one year, to keep the game going).

By thus focusing on less than 0.5 percent of the City’s $70 billion budget, the mayor diverts attention from the remaining 99.5 percent of his proposed budget. Big ideas — like re-introducing progressive tax rates or reviewing a system of housing and economic tax exemptions that cost the city billions of dollars — don’t get a hearing. Instead, the mayor and Council fight over pennies.

Typical result? This past June the mayor proposed a $1.00 increase in the public school lunch fee (to $2.50). The Council negotiated the proposed increase down to 25 cents — although the City Comptroller noted in his July report that the remaining 75 cent increase remains in next year’s budget.

One of the biggest areas of budget savings in recent years has been the low interest rates for a city that borrows billions of dollars each year for capital improvements. The budget office has repeatedly overestimated the cost of borrowing — as they in effect acknowledged last week — which then makes it easier for the mayor to claim there’s no money for new proposals.  

According to the state comptroller’s July 2013 report, for instance, the city has refinanced $18 billion of debt (one-quarter of the city’s debt) for cumulative savings of $1.5 billion through fiscal year 2014.

What these budget maneuvers suggest is a consistent political strategy that anticipates and discourages any pressures from the City Council or others to fund new programs or resist proposed cuts. The use of reserve funds, one-time revenues, and the depletion of the health-benefit fund, in particular, have meant that the Bloomberg budgets for the past five years have reflected short-term, opaque planning and an unwillingness to consider alternative strategies.   

Budget Accountability: What Else We Don’t Know

Then there is the question of accountability, the flip side of budgeting. What are the effects of 12 years of spending plans? The official answer is ostensibly in the City Charter-mandated Mayor’s Management Report, issued twice a year, in which a mayor is asked, first, to lay out his fiscal and program goals, and, second, to provide indicators that measure the success of those goals.

The Bloomberg administration, however, has stripped the MMR not only of data, but also of language. There is little or no data provided, for instance, on many of the mayor’s biggest policies and programs: education reform, economic development, contracting, and homelessness services. There is no overall analysis of data; there are occasional paragraphs, but mostly a litany of one-line, bulleted comments.

Nobody reads the MMR anymore. An IBO blog, “How the MMR Went MIA,” noted three years ago that there was an almost complete absence of major press notice of that year’s MMR (only 145 words in the Daily News), and concluded that “the report’s stature has clearly declined.” The New York Times, however, did devote 443 words to the last Bloomberg MMR, released in September.

{pullquote}The Bloomberg administration, however, has stripped the MMR not only of data, but also of language.{/pullquote}

But the Times found little of substance. More than a fifth of the Times’ report was devoted to the MMR’s summary of 12 years of work with the “perennial challenge” of graffiti. It turns out that getting rid of graffiti was transferred from the Department of Sanitation to the Economic Development Corporation (the mayor’s economic office) in 2011.  Who knew? In any case, in fiscal year 2013, the EDC “scrubbed off more than four million square feet of the city’s landscape … the equivalent of 93 acres.”

It wasn’t always so. In 1991, The New York Times reported that then-mayor David Dinkins’ first MMR “painted a dark picture of New York City’s growing social problems and service burdens.” When Harvey Robins, Dinkins’ director of operations   whose office produces the MMR   was asked by reporters about the tendency of such summaries to ‘cook’ the hundreds of pages of statistical indicators in the most favorable way, he said, ‘Not only didn’t we cook them. This year, we didn’t even put them on the stove.’”

Eight years later, the Times’ Michael Powell said of the Dinkins’ tenure that “through the years of recession, as the city lost hundreds of jobs, [Dinkins] spoke of his successes and failures, often with brutal candor. His successors [Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg] have pruned the statistical reports of some negative indicators and tend to place a relentless emphasis on the positive.”

Read more: Analysis: The Bloomberg Fiscal Legacy

Commentary: I Lost the SNAP Challenge


It's old news that food stamps, technically SNAP benefits, were cut on Nov. 1 by $5 billion, including cuts for about 1.9 million New York City residents. If you were single and on food stamps you might have gone from the maximum $200 benefit to $189 just in time for Thanksgiving. That's an $11 loss a month. For a family of four, it typically meant a $36 cut or about 24 meals a month.

The average SNAP cost per meal went from about $1.50 to $1.40 a meal. That doesn't sound like so much, does it? It's just 10 cents a meal.

It sounds like a lot to me.

By November 1, the day the cuts kicked in, I had just completed a "SNAP Challenge." Well, sort of.

A SNAP Challenge is one of those things where people who aren't in need of food stamps agree to live on approximately a food stamp budget for five days — just five days. The challenge I participated in was actually a little too easy because I was allotted $5 a day, for a five-day total of $25. That was an extra $2.50 over what a "real" SNAP beneficiary would have had to live on before the cuts took place.

So, I need to make a confession. First, I realize five days on a SNAP challenge is to living on food stamps as camping is to being homeless. Second, I failed. I failed the SNAP challenge.

I started out well enough. I stuck to the $5 a day budget for the first day. But I went over the $25 total on day four. It was only a five-day challenge and I couldn't make it.

While I'm being candid, I might as well go all the way. I cheated and still failed.

I ate a few morsels and drank copious volumes of coffee at work and didn't count it.

Cutting food stamp benefits, most of which go to kids, the elderly and disabled people, is no joking matter. The only real point of participating in the challenge was to realize how hard it was to possibly eat on that budget.

I stuck with mostly Raman noodles, and macaroni for variety. To put it another way, pasta, high carb and starchy foods was all I could afford. SNAP is theoretically designed to allow a nutritious diet, but I sure don't know how. Things like fresh fruits and vegetables just cost too much.

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I didn't get the full SNAP experience even for five days. I wasn't restricted, as beneficiaries are, from purchasing hot or prepared foods. I wasn't subject to the stigma and judgment of others. I didn't have to go through the embarrassment of trying to purchase an item from a store that should have accepted it just to be turned down, knowing I didn't have money to make the purchase.

There's no geographic differential in the SNAP program. A person in the same income category, the same number of mouths to feed and other similar circumstances gets the same benefit in rural Louisiana, the Midwest bread basket or in costly New York City.

SNAP really is a safety net. It's a critical last-line-of-defense but increasingly porous safety net.

In America, studies say there'd be another 4.7 million people (again, mostly kids and seniors) below the federal poverty threshold without SNAP benefits. If that ratio is true for New Yorkers, SNAP saves over 160,000 of our city neighbors from falling below the poverty line.

These are real cuts taking food out of the mouths of hungry people. The Food Bank For New York City figures the cuts amount to the equivalent of 62 million meals annually in the Big Apple. Of course the meals probably couldn't actually include an apple. That's too expensive.

As we were approaching November, I was concerned because so many SNAP recipients didn't know the cuts were coming. The week before Nov. 1, though, letters went out to New Yorkers on SNAP. I guess it was sort of a directive to tighten belts and not be quite so hungry from here on out.

Suddenly, I became concerned that most beneficiaries would assume this was the big SNAP cut back we've been reading about for the past several months as the farm bill, larded with industry tax breaks, agri-business subsidies, farmer price supports.

If that was the big cut, I assumed many recipients might think, it's bad, but maybe not as bad as I was worried it would be. It's not easy, they might reason, but if I have to I can live with that.

Well, this isn't that cut. This one was just the expiration of a small increase in nutrition payments from the 2009 Recovery Act. The big one is still on the menu.

We don't know how big yet. The version passed by the Republican-controlled House has a $40 billion SNAP cut over 10 years — $4 billion annually. The cut comes mostly from throwing a good 3.8 million mouths off the program altogether.

But even the Senate Democratic version calls for a $4 billion cut over a decade.

We'll be celebrating Thanksgiving this month, most of us with opulent meals served on overflowing plates piled high with the traditional foods and dripping with gravy. But that's not for all of us.

The weekend before Nov. 1, I got a phone call about a homeless friend, dependent on SNAP, who ran out of "food stamps" before he ran out of October. Just like I ran out of my $25 before I hit the end of the five-day challenge. This guy, though, was sitting in a police station.

He was arrested for stealing a pack of hot dogs from a bodega. He was just so hungry, he said. And I got that.

Of course, that was before the SNAP benefit cut.

Jeff Foreman is Policy Director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter at JeffForeman2

Opinion: For De Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Plan, the Devil is in the Details


Now comes the really hard part. Having handily defeated Republican Joe Lhota to become the first Democrat elected mayor of New York City is nearly a quarter century, Bill de Blasio must now make good on the plethora of promises that paved his way to City Hall.

And none is likely to be more politically challenging than his signature commitment to establish “truly universal pre-Kindergarten for all 4-year-olds” by imposing an extra tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

A central plank in his campaign platform, the de Blasio pre-K plan calls for a five-year tax hike – from 3.86 percent to 4.41 percent – on those New Yorkers making more than half a million dollars a year. The surcharge is expected to raise some $530 million in dedicated funding for universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle-school students.

But unlike other populist promises like stop-and-frisk reform, which arguably can be accomplished by mere executive fiat, the universal pre-K commitment will require a virtual army of other prominent elected officials willing to risk their own political fortunes. And therein lies the rub. As The Wall Street Journal correctly noted, de Blasio’s proposal faces “significant headwinds” in Albany, including “a skittish Legislature heading into an election year and a governor who is reluctant to raise taxes.”

Even state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — himself a fellow Democrat — has been hedging his bets on this one, telling the Journal that the plan might have to be put on ice for at least a year until after the 2014 state legislative election.

Then there’s the always intricate intersection of semantics and arithmetic. What exactly does “universal” mean and how do we measure the reach and effectiveness of the de Blasio plan? In first unveiling his initiative before the Association for a Better New York just over a year ago, de Blasio said his proposal would add 10,000 new pre-K seats to the existing system and expand all part-time pre-K classes to fulltime sessions for 38,000 four-year-olds.

But would the creation of 48,000 new publicly funded full-time pre-kindergarten slots come even close to meeting any reasonable definition of “universal”? That depends on how you do the math and what you mean by pre-K.

New York City already operates the largest publicly funded early care and education system in the nation, serving some 100,000 pre-school children in a mix of center-based and home-based settings. Recently renamed EarlyLearn NYC, the program is run by the Administration for Children’s Services, which also oversees one of the largest Head Start grant programs in the country, serving some 19,000 children. In addition, the city’s Department of Education manages the state’s universal pre-K program, which is provided through public schools and contracted EarlyLearn providers.

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But a study released by city Comptroller John Liu earlier this year found that the combined early education system does not even come close to meeting universal need: as many as 200,000 children in the city, including many from low-income families, are currently excluded from early-learn programs, including pre-kindergarten classes. Titled "The $4 billion Deficit: Ratcheting Up Investment in Early Childhood Education," the comptroller’s report estimates that the total cost of providing universal, comprehensive, early care and education (including pre-K programs) for all of New York City’s children, would amount to more than $6 billion a year.

But combined city, state and federal spending on these programs currently totals a mere $1.5 billion, leaving an “education deficit” of $4.6 billion.

Though not as widely covered as de Blasio’s pre-K initiative, Liu — himself a former candidate in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary — had also proposed an additional investment of some $433 million to make pre-Kindergarten truly universal for all 4- and 5-year olds in the city. But he has gone even further in calling for the creation of a universal pre-school program for all 3-year olds, at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion. 

{pullquote}Would the creation of 48,000 new publicly funded full-time pre-kindergarten slots come even close to meeting any reasonable definition of “universal”?{/pullquote}

De Blasio’s populist embrace of universal pre-K programs as a signature component of his mayoralty places him squarely not only on the rightside of history, but of science as well. It also dovetails neatly with his “tale of two cities” narrative: one recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the best thing we can do about inequality is to provide universal pre-school.

“A policy of free preschool would yield a raft of cost-effective benefits for society and the economy,” according to the report. “It would increase social mobility, reduce income inequality, raise college graduation rates, improve criminal behavior and yield higher tax revenue thanks to an increase in lifetime wages.”

These benefits are especially critical for children of low-income families, who suffer at an early age from poverty-related developmental deficits that are only compounded the longer they remain unaddressed. In fact, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine now report in a study published by the JAMA Journal Pediatrics that poverty appears even to inhibit the physical development of the brain. Those children exposed to poverty at an early age had smaller volumes of white and cortical gray matter, the study found, as well as hippocampal and amygdala volumes.

All of that is aside from the environmental impact of poverty on a student's behavior and school performance.

Noting that fewer than three in 10 4-year olds in the United States are currently enrolled in high quality pre-K programs, President Barack Obama has also publicly embraced the cause of universal access to early education in his State of the Union address earlier this year. And that’s good news for mayor-elect de Blasio who, come January, may need an infusion of political capital from the nation’s top Democrat if his signature initiative is to make any headway in Albany.

Hugh Hamilton is an independent journalist and editorial consultant in New York City. For 12 years until this summer, he was the host and executive producer of WBAI-FM's drive-time news-talk analysis program, Talkback. He previously worked as a legislative director for two different members of the City Council. 

Letter to the Editor: De Blasio And Affordable Housing

Dear Editor,
The article “De Blasio Pins Affordable Housing Hopes on Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning” correctly highlights the challenge of requiring affordable housing in any new developments that depend on zoning changes.
One alternative de Blasio should consider is to mandate the construction of middle-income housing only in the development of city-owned land.  The city successfully took this tact with Seward Park, a strip of city-owned land on the Lower East Side, by obligating RFP respondents to make at least half of the housing units there affordable. Refining the requirements to be more capital market friendly may have enabled an even greater amount of middle-income units.
Requiring affordable housing to be built as part of city RFPs – as opposed to all development projects – will send a signal that he wants to work with the real estate industry to create badly needed affordable housing and strengthen New York’s middle class.
Leonard Grunstein

Leonard Grunstein is an expert in real-estate finance who worked on the original ground-lease deal for Battery Park City as well as on other public-private projects in the city.

Op-Ed: A Road Map to Wipe Out Homelessness


There's reason for optimism about ending homelessness as we know it in New York City.

Sure, the problem has never been worse. There are 57,000 homeless people daily in city homeless shelters or living on the streets, probably more. At least 22,000 of them are kids and, for them, brushes with homelessness may lead to a lifetime of consequences.

But now a loosely knit network of community-based groups, calling themselves United to End Homelessness, have joined to author and promote a detailed plan. They fittingly called it "A Roadmap to Ending Homelessness."

The ad-hoc group (which many members hope will become permanent) started with 13 desperate groups. It has now grown to be a union, this one with more than 130 organizations endorsing the platform.

The groups don't share just a single mission or business interest. Some operate shelters; success could put them out of business. Others develop or advocate for specific types of housing but have readily endorsed other approaches, too.

It's also not just groups that work on homelessness. The coalition includes faith groups, neighborhood organizations and a range of broad-based human service and social justice entities. It includes big names and small ones from every section of the city.

Their common commitment to ending homelessness is the unusual example of wide-ranging grassroots groups, sometimes separated by competing convictions or economic interests, working for a public goal they can agree on — ending homelessness.

Their 39-page plan sometimes reads like it was written by housing and homeless experts; other times like an emotional plea to do what's right. That's probably because — can you imagine this — it was written, reviewed and finally accepted by all 130 organizations.

The old saying is it was a big committee that came up with the camel. This one, though, wrote a real plan.

The timing isn't random. It comes just weeks before an election sure to shake up city policies for decades with a new mayor, all new citywide officials and several new City Council members, too.

Nicole Branca, deputy executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, is a steering committee member. She says the group’s "is that this briefing book provides the next administration with the research, ideas and motivation to develop and start implementing a plan to end homelessness on day one."

This is no pie-in-the-sky plan from do-gooders. It's a war plan against homelessness that actually saves taxpayer dollars. Their research says it costs $36,000 a year to keep a family in shelter, but just $6,000 to prevent homelessness in the first place.

They say the city and state pay $78 a day for a person in shelter, $165 if they're in prison and $802 a day for a psychiatric hospital. The cost of subsidizing a homeless person in housing, including the supportive services they need, is $68.

The UEH platform proposes robust programs to build affordable housing for very-low income people, supportive housing for those who need it and an effective rent subsidy to move families from more expensive city shelters to less expensive permanent housing. They want a return to the city's historically successful targeting of a small portion of public housing for moving people out of shelters, too.

These ideas have worked elsewhere. Some were successful here in the past, but eliminated in budget cuts or policy changes. The UEH platform is not just a reprise of past programs, though; they detail specific strategies and evidence-based practices designed to make each program work.

Some ideas are brand new, at least here. One example, and a no-cost one at that, is creating an "Interagency Council on Homelessness," like the one the federal government uses effectively. "It calls out the key players that must participate cooperatively" to create the city's first-ever coordinated Interagency effort to end homelessness, according to Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United and the generally recognized organizer of UEH.

The interagency council idea is designed to address what Parque calls "a decades-old problem that has plagued the city" where one agency or another serves as a feeder of newly minted homeless people without coordinated plans to fix the problem.

The city's Department of Homeless Services spends nearly $1 billion yearly on homeless shelters. That's not including the expenses of multiple shelter programs under other agencies. Prevention programs for those at-risk of homelessness, moving families very quickly to permanent housing and providing the numerous other pathways to stable housing the platform advocates is the right thing to do, but it isn't cheap. Reducing DHS's shelter costs could pay for most of it.

There are other cost efficiencies in ending homelessness, too. It's proven to cut health care and emergency room use at dramatic cost savings. It's proven to reduce public safety and jail costs, as well as reduce mental health system and other public service requirements.

There's also the promise of incalculable savings in human suffering, broken families, developmental and emotional delays for children and the second-chance opportunities it could bring to tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

"When homelessness absolutely cannot be prevented," the group says, "safe, decent appropriate shelter should be provided for those who need it," but as a temporary step on the pathway to permanent housing.

The only way to truly know the group’s roadmap would work in the real world is, of course, to try it. The plan offers diverse routes to housing for a diverse set of circumstances, is well researched and documented and promises far better outcomes at cost-effective and cost-savings prices.

I'm hardly an unbiased observer, but I'm all-in betting the roadmap can get us where we need to go.

Jeff Foreman is policy director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter at @JeffForeman2.

De Blasio Should Mandate Affordable Housing In City RFPs


Bill de Blasio¹s goal of building or preserving 200,000 affordable housing units during his all-but-certain mayoral administration is laudable, but it is also causing unnecessary angst in the real estate industry.

Instead of forcing developers to include affordable housing in every single rezoning application, as de Blasio proposed this month, he should mandate the construction of middle-income housing only in requests for proposals for the development of city-owned land.

Tempering his position in this way will demonstrate he is willing to work with the real estate industry on an important issue and, more importantly, go a long way toward solving our affordable housing problem.

The need for middle-income housing in New York City is vital. It helps support our burgeoning economy by providing affordable places for employees of city businesses to live. When these employees are priced out and forced to move, fewer dollars will be spent here in the city.

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Some of New York City¹s most well established communities have been founded on this principle of affordability. From Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, to Parkchester in the Bronx, middle-income housing developments have enabled working-class New Yorkers to thrive in the city for generations.

Unfortunately, while more than 140,000 affordable homes have reportedly been created or preserved since the start of the Bloomberg administration, this included few middle-income units. The number could have been significantly higher if the city required private developers to include affordable housing units in their proposals to city RFPs.

One recent example of a missed opportunity is the city¹s RFP for the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights Library. Issued in June, it allows for the redevelopment of an underutilized public library into a residential, commercial or community facility building.

But the RFP did not include any requirements for developers to build affordable housing at the site. While there is a small incentive to build affordable housing offered through the city¹s inclusionary housing program ­ which allows developers to construct a larger building if they agree to create or preserve affordable housing in the area ­ this program is voluntary. More can be done in terms of zoning bonuses or overrides for these sites to foster the creation of middle-income affordable housing.

The city should not leave the decision to include affordable housing up to the developer. Instead, it should have required the construction of affordable housing as part of the RFP and guaranteed the creation of a place where middle-income New Yorkers could live.

{pullquote}By requiring affordable housing to be built as part of all city RFPs, Bill de Blasio¹s administration will add to the long-term sustainability and vitality of our city.{/pullquote}

A perfect counterpoint is Seward Park, ­ a large swath of city-owned land on the Lower East Side that has been vacant for more than four decades. There, the city recently took the monumental step of requiring RFP respondents to make at least half of the housing units affordable. Fine-tuning the requirements could also make them more capital markets-friendly and yield even more middle-income affordable housing.

While some still debate whether the Seward Park RFP could have included even more affordable housing units, there is no reason the city should not continue and expand this practice when it comes to the library site and all future RFPs for the redevelopment of city-owned land.

If similar requirements had been in place for the massive Hudson Yards development, there would be an additional 5,000 units of affordable housing constructed. The thousands of people who will eventually work in that new neighborhood could have filled these apartments rather than having to commute from long distances.

That¹s an unnecessary burden for those workers as well as a loss for the city¹s economy.

By requiring affordable housing to be built as part of all city RFPs, Bill de Blasio¹s administration will add to the long-term sustainability and vitality of our city. People of all income levels will once again be able to call this city home, and the neighborhoods they live in will be better off for it.

Leonard Grunstein is an expert in real-estate finance who worked on the original ground-lease deal for Battery Park City as well as on other public-private projects in the city.

Commentary: One Year after Sandy, Community Groups Still Hard at Work in the Recovery


New York has made steady progress in recovering one year after Sandy, thanks in part to local non-profit organizations working tirelessly to rebuild homes and help the most vulnerable New Yorkers get their lives back on track.

Affordable housing organizations have been a lifeline for low-income individuals and families, those with the fewest resources to prepare for and recover from a disaster. Beyond the household level, these groups were pivotal in coordinating evacuations and recovery efforts in local communities after Sandy.

We must continue to provide these organizations, and the families they serve, with the support they still need to help our communities thrive.

Hurricane Sandy was a stark reminder of the importance of having a safe place to call home, with low-income families and the city’s affordable housing stock taking the hardest hit. According to the Furman Center for Real Estate & Public Policy, Sandy affected nearly 100,000 public, subsidized, or rent regulated units, and our analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that 64 percent of people who rent their homes and registered for damages from Sandy had household incomes under $30,000.

Case in point is the story of Shyrell Wisdom, a published poet and resident of a supportive housing community for formerly homeless individuals with mental illness or addiction. Shyrell lived through hurricanes as a child in Jamaica, but she never expected one to ravage her home in Far Rockaway.

The day before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, the staff from Services for the Underserved, a group providing services and support for individuals with special needs, helped Shyrell pack her bags and evacuate to an emergency shelter. When she returned to her apartment a few days later, she found it filled with mold and insects. Shyrell and 70 other residents had to move to temporary apartments 20 miles away in the Bronx while SUS staff worked around the clock to repair their building.

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Last month, Shyrell and her neighbors moved back into the newly renovated building. “It feels great to be back,” she says. “The staff worked so hard and that’s why I’m able to be here today. Because they are that supportive."

Stable, permanent affordable housing like SUS’ development is the building block for stabilizing vulnerable individuals and maintaining healthy communities. As part of ongoing resiliency efforts, we must continue to invest in housing that is accessible to New Yorkers like Shyrell. In New York City, 47 percent of low-income renter households pay more than half of their income on rent, leaving little to save for emergencies like Sandy. Individuals and families are better positioned to withstand disasters when they are in quality homes they can afford.

Furthermore, to safeguard existing public investments like affordable housing against future storms, we must invest in fortifying developments located in neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding and other natural disasters. As funding for community organizations like SUS gets tighter, we must allocate flexible dollars to rebuilding developments that are resilient to the changing climate.  

There is hope that we can rebuild a stronger New York. Shyrell says, “The Rockaways have come back. It was neglected for a long time. Sandy helped us see the positivity and growth prospects of the Rockaways.” As New Yorkers, we must see the one-year anniversary of Sandy as a reminder of what we endured, and an opportunity to build back stronger together.

Shola Olatoye is the vice president and New York market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national nonprofit that has helped build or preserve more than 44,000 affordable homes for lower-income New Yorkers and invested more than $2.5 billion in and around the city.