New York City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Well before the beginning of the pandemic that has turned life upside down, New Yorkers already faced a devastating affordable housing and homelessness crisis. Even without the dramatic wave of unemployment brought about by a global pandemic, low-income tenants and homeless people across the city faced a grave lack of truly affordable housing and the absence of an effective citywide plan to fix it. Now, of course, the crisis has deepened, with tenants who have long lived paycheck to paycheck unable to scrape together even a modest living to pay their rent, and the danger of living on the street or in a congregate shelter multiplied by a deadly virus.
As we look for new leadership for New York City through this year’s elections, we must learn the lessons of why the city has fallen so short, and look forward with clarity and boldness to a new vision for meeting all New Yorkers’ housing needs and ending homelessness. That vision must begin with an Integrated Housing Plan to end homelessness and promote racial equity -- one that brings together all the agencies involved in housing, building, and planning to work in sync to meet ambitious goals based on our communities’ true needs. Such a plan can work if it addresses the shortcomings of the dominant approach from the past seven years.
Since taking the reins in 2014, the de Blasio administration has focused attention on what became the ambitious goal of creating and preserving 300,000 units of affordable housing over 12 years. And while the administration has created and preserved a substantial number of units (166,000) according to its definition of affordability, the reality is that most of that has not focused on the New Yorkers suffering the greatest housing hardship: very low-income and homeless New Yorkers.
As a recent report by the Community Service Society lays out, the administration failed to focus on the populations with the greatest housing need, paying the most attention to meeting ambitious goals for number of units instead of grappling with the true needs of communities. Moreover, the administration’s siloed approach to affordable housing -- which it largely separated from discussions and decisions about NYCHA and homelessness -- led to a failure to grapple with the full picture that breeds housing insecurity and homelessness across the city.
As we lay out in a joint report with our allies, the next Mayor must learn from these mistakes. The report, “Right to a Roof: Demands for an Integrated Housing Plan to End Homelessness and Promote Racial Equity,” offers critical recommendations for how to right the ship. First, the next administration must create the Integrated Housing Plan (IHP) to break through the siloes, and ensure that there is a Deputy Mayor of Homelessness, Housing, and Planning paying attention not just to one part of the housing context, but examining housing, building, and planning matters together.
The IHP can succeed if it prioritizes need over numbers -- in particular, by focusing on providing permanent, deeply affordable housing for those who need it most, and by preserving public housing without relinquishing public control. The plan must also improve access to affordable and supportive housing by bringing agencies together to streamline the process for finding and securing affordable and supportive housing options, as well as promoting fair housing.
Meanwhile, we cannot continue to let the real estate sector destabilize the market through speculation. The next mayor must seek to end such speculation by creating and preserving 100% permanent, affordable housing that is community built and community owned, and working to keep existing residents in their homes.
And it must preserve people’s existing housing. To ensure all New Yorkers have safe and healthy housing, the IHP must focus on stopping displacement due to poor housing conditions or harassment, secure our communities by ensuring the long-term viability of the city’s affordable housing stock, and guarantee that every New Yorker has a safe, healthy, and stable home.
Finally, planning that truly listens to community input will be crucial. The IHP must support planning that centers local knowledge within a true citywide framework. Unlike recent rezonings in communities like Bushwick, where the city has ignored community members’ deep concerns and residents’ community-based planning process, planning must meaningfully incorporate residents’ voices and create an equitable approach that centers fair housing and neighborhood priorities. It must also ensure that wealthier communities do their part to address citywide priorities, including creating housing for very low-income and homeless people.
Confronting the enormous scale of the interlocking affordable housing and homelessness crises in New York City will not be easy. But unless we set bold goals that address the full scope of the need, we won’t stand a chance.
Jose Lopez is the Deputy Director and incoming Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York. Barika X. Williams is the Executive Director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANDH). On Twitter @JLopez_MRNY & @barikaXw