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Democratic Mayoral Candidates Discuss Taking on Family Homelessness

shelter housing

Shelter in the Bronx (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Tens of thousands of parents and children are living in city shelters. Some of the worst effects of the pandemic may not be felt until the next mayor is in office in 2021, when New York City and State may have to reckon with the fallout from an expiring eviction moratorium, mass income losses, and diminishing federal stimulus.

Three of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination for mayor -- civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, city government veteran Kathryn Garcia, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang -- discussed how they would approach issues affecting children and families experiencing or at risk of homelessness in a virtual forum Thursday hosted by nonprofit service-providers Win and Advocates for Children. The candidates, competing in the June primary, presented their plans for addressing housing instability and permanent housing, social services, and barriers to education for homeless children.

Roughly 29,000 children stayed in city-funded shelters on an average night in 2020 and the average length of stay, 15 months, rose 9% from 2019, according to a recent report from Win, the city's largest family shelter and supportive housing provider. School attendance and graduation rates are chronically low for children living in shelters, and problems have only been exacerbated by the shift to remote and hybrid learning models.

The problem falls almost entirely on Black and Latino New Yorkers, who respectively made up 53% and 41% of the city's shelter population in December 2020, according to the report. Across New York City, 68% of Latino residents and 67% of Black residents reported income losses during the pandemic compared to only 48% of Asian residents and 45% of white residents, states a report from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection cited by Win. Between 640,000 and 1.18 million New Yorkers are estimated to be facing a rental shortfall statewide, according to data from the National Council of State Housing Agencies also cited in the report.

"On any given night during this pandemic there were more than 9,000 families sleeping in barebones city-funded shelter units," said Christine Quinn, president and CEO of Win, former Speaker of the City Council and 2013 mayoral candidate. "This forum is an opportunity for voters to learn what our candidates are planning and thinking about how to end the family homeless crisis in New York City."

Primary day is June 22, with early voting from June 12 to 20. The winner of the packed Democratic slate, which features a ‘top tier’ of eight candidates, is almost guaranteed to win in November because of the high proportion of registered Democrats in New York City. This is the first citywide election to use ranked-choice voting. Voters can also request an absentee ballot to vote by mail. Housing and homelessness remain top issues in the campaign and, according to polls, among New York voters.

At the forum Thursday, the candidates appeared one at a time but were asked most of the same questions by Courtney Gross, a NY1 reporter who covers homelessness and moderated the forum.

Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board for police oversight, presented a three-pronged approach of jobs, affordable housing, and "trauma-informed care."

Wiley said if elected mayor she would focus on creating well-paying jobs in regions with the highest unemployment rates accompanied by training and workforce development programs. She proposed doubling the city's capital construction budget to build more affordable housing, among other things.

Wiley also emphasized the importance of social services and said she citied her “care economy” plan, which includes providing grants of up to $5,000 to 100,000 low-income households, including to undocumented individuals, to cover child care and elder care costs. She has proposed hiring more teachers, social workers, and psychologists in schools to be more proactive about connecting families to services.

"It requires government actually being de-siloed" and having a "goal that is explicit about ending homelessness," Wiley said.

Garcia has said she wants to join housing and homelessness efforts by bringing the Department of Homeless Services under the deputy mayor for housing (it is currently under the deputy mayor for health and human services), something other candidates have also come to call for. To help single parents in shelters, Garcia, like Wiley, discussed childcare, saying she would expand public mental health clinics and provide free childcare for parents making below $70,000 a year.

But for Garcia, who has helmed the city Department of Sanitation and NYCHA, the single most important element is permanent housing. The number of families who left shelters for a permanent home dropped 12.5% between 2019 and 2020, according to the Win report.

"The first and fundamental problem is we focus on shelter and not on permanent housing, particularly for families," Garcia said.

Over one four-year term, Garcia wants to build 10,000 units of supportive housing with services for at-risk residents and 50,000 units of deeply affordable housing for people making under $30,000 a year. She also discussed legalizing accessory dwelling units, like basements and garages, which could be built faster and easier than new affordable housing. Garcia said she wants to move away from the current shelter model of long-term, recurring stays by setting 30-day housing placement goals.

Wiley didn't offer specifics when asked whether she would have set-asides for homeless families in the jobs and affordable housing she seeks to create. "We're looking at communities of concern," she said. Wiley has published an anti-eviction plan but not a housing plan, though she again said one is coming soon.

Garcia and Wiley both want to speed up public housing refurbishments and lower NYCHA's vacancy rate. To speed up repairs at public housing, Garcia supports Rental Assistance Demonstration, which allows private companies to manage NYCHA developments and leverage Section 8 federal subsidies. Frontrunners Shaun Donovan, Eric Adams, and Ray McGuire, who weren't at Thursday's forum, have also supported RAD, though Adams and McGuire have expressed some reservations. Wiley and Yang have opposed the program, as have Dianne Morales and Scott Stringer, other leading Democratic candidates who weren't present Thursday.

Yang, a former business and nonprofit executive who became well-known running to be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president, said keeping people in their homes is paramount. He said he supports the eviction moratorium, which is controlled by the federal and state governments and set to expire in August. He also wants to increase rental assistance and allocate $4 billion a year to build or preserve 30,000 units of affordable housing annually, roughly the same as created in 2020. In the short term, Yang wants to convert vacant buildings, including office buildings, into affordable housing, though he didn't offer specifics on the proposal and it is unclear how viable that plan is.

"The first thing, I believe, is we have to keep the crisis from getting any worse, which is one reason I support the moratorium on evictions," he said. He said the city has done "a relatively good job" at sheltering people but acknowledged that shelters themselves have "deficiencies."

"There are some people that have said that they've had negative experiences in the shelter environments," he said.

When pressed on how he would make shelters more hospitable, Yang suggested the city create shelters specifically for people escaping domestic violence, which the city currently has, and said there should be more when Gross pointed this out.

Housing Vouchers
Each candidate emphasized the need for changes to the city's rental subsidy program, CityFHEPS, which they agreed could provide rapid housing and ease long-term spending on homeless services.

"We know that if we increase the voucher people can go rent an apartment of their own in the neighborhood that they want to live in," Garcia said. "That's actually probably the easiest thing to solve, it doesn't require any construction, it is just about having the resources available to these families."

Wiley and Yang said the voucher rate should be raised to be on par with federal Section 8 subsidies, a proposal the de Blasio administration has opposed without an equivalent raise in state housing vouchers. Garcia said the subsidy should be raised "somewhat near" the federal level and called waiting for the state to raise the rate "impractical."

The current CityFHEPS rate is $1,580 per month for a family of three. The federal rate is $1,945 for a one-bedroom apartment. A bill in the New York City Council would bring the city voucher rate to the federal level.

Wiley also wants to improve voucher acceptance rates by improving communication with landlords and better enforcing the city's source-of-income discrimination laws. She also wants to increase free legal assistance for people facing eviction, an initiative created through City Council legislation in 2017 and recently expanded, and broaden eligibility to people making under 400% federal poverty guidelines. (Currently, eligibility is set for people below 200% of federal poverty levels and a bill in the Council would raise that to 400% in line with Wiley's proposal.)

"We have beef up both the relationships and partnerships with landlords to make sure they know and understand the program and that the city is behind it...and that it's reliable," she said.

Yang said landlords found vouchers hard to deal with and said he'd reduce the administrative hurdles for landlords using CityFHEPS. He did not specify what the issues were.

On education, the candidates offered different approaches to reach students with unstable housing and in shelters. The average school attendance rate for students in shelters was 71% in 2020, according to the Win report. Students experiencing homelessness are much less likely to be reading at grade level by third grade or graduate high school in four years compared to their peers in stable housing.

Wiley has proposed a plan to increase broadband access, including for students in shelter. She also wants to hire 2,500 more teachers to reduce class sizes and make it easier for schools to connect families to services related to nutrition, domestic violence, and job opportunities. She discussed drop-off care centers for children and seniors, but didn't say who would operate them or how they would provide services.

Garcia said she would allocate additional resources to the 140 schools with the highest concentrations of homeless students to provide laundry and other household resources. She also said the Department of Education needs to better track children in shelters. "They can't be out one out of every ten wonder they are not on grade level, they are missing a ton of school," she said. (The average student living in a shelter in 2020 missed closer to one in four days of school, according to the Win report.)

Yang said the priority should be getting schools fully open, after more than a year of remote and hybrid learning, in order to help students in shelter. When pressed for details on how he would reach those students, he suggested more busing.

"We have to provide them the support they need, and if that's a bus that's going to take them across town to school, that's what we should be providing," he said. "I'm a public school parent and I've experienced some aspect of this and I'm fortunate enough where there's a bus that comes by and we're able to put our child on that bus. There's no reason why someone in a shelter shouldn't have that same level of access."

Yang and Wiley were also asked about supportive housing for students with special needs.

To Wiley, it was a matter of having more supports in school to identify children with special needs and use community-based providers -- like her proposed drop-off centers -- to offer wrap-around support.

Yang, who has a son who was diagnosed with autism, said there needs to be more investment in supportive services and blamed de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo for failing to cooperate to build more supportive housing, something he said would not be a problem for him and the powers in Albany.

"I'm passionate about building as much supportive housing as we can, as quickly as we can, and it's been one of the costs of the mayor and the governor not being on the same page because a lot of the resources for supportive housing have flowed from Albany," said Yang. "They'll get zero political point scoring out of me, it'll just be trying to get things done."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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