New Yorkers in search of affordable housing (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
With the rights of those experiencing homelessness being debated - or disregarded - in the move from hotels back to congregate shelters, homeless New Yorkers declared July Homeless Rights Month, forcing our leaders to reckon with those often ignored in our policy debates, simply because they don’t have a permanent address. While the United Nations has condemned America for its criminalization of homelessness despite having the resources to solve it, the timing has never been politically expedient to tackle this public health emergency — until now. At the end of a pandemic and a mayoral administration, it is finally too big an issue to ignore that Housing is a Human Right, and we are failing tens of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers every day.
It is possible to move past ‘Housing is a Human Right’ being just a slogan, and make it a reality in the United States, especially right here in New York City. This is not some far-fetched dream. It is within our grasp.
The Section 8 housing program is a guaranteed path to housing stability - for those lucky enough to have access. We should expand the Section 8 program that provides a housing subsidy universally to everyone who is eligible, giving renters a similar benefit as homeowners who receive tax deductions on their mortgage. Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY) introduced the Ending Homelessness Act that takes us closer to this being a reality, which if passed, would be the biggest step towards ending the city’s housing crisis.
But even if we ensure everyone can afford to pay rent, we cannot house them all until we see a major influx of new housing supply. Our housing supply has failed to keep up with our job growth over the past several decades. It is little wonder housing costs have skyrocketed, severely outpacing wages and leaving many households rent burdened and at risk of becoming homeless. It is simple supply and demand economics. The lack of housing supply in New York City puts a strain on services when essential workers are pushed out far away from the jobs where we rely on them and has led to massive increases in homelessness.
Unfortunately, we cannot just snap our fingers and create more housing. The housing supply our city needs is often slowed down and turned away by exclusionary community input that seeks to preserve the status quo rather than welcome new neighbors. We see this most often in high-income neighborhoods, especially when housing or supportive housing for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness is being proposed.
While proponents of more community input may mean well, not every housing project should be dissected, slowed down, and litigated by those who claim to speak for the community. If housing is a human right, then the rights of people to have a roof over their head should simply not be open for debate. Mayor de Blasio’s Racial Justice Commission should consider proposing city charter changes that exempt projects that are deeply affordable or contain housing for people experiencing homelessness from a public review process, therefore codifying that housing is a human right and not up for discussion.
When a patient is rushed to the emergency room, we don’t hold a community meeting to decide whether a doctor should treat them. Housing our homeless neighbors is a matter of life and death, it shouldn’t be up for negotiation by stably housed New Yorkers.
Beyond the supply and subsidy, we must remember that stable housing allows for a person or family to begin taking steps towards so much - mentally, physically and emotionally. We must ensure that, whichever stage of housing a person is at, the social safety net, including affordable, dignified housing with security of tenure, is as expedient and humane as possible.
We need to stop repeatedly asking people to prove poverty, searching for fraud where there is none to be found, or continually sending them from one government agency to another sharing the same information over and over again. These hoops force people who need it the most to stop asking for help. Access to services to get a family on the pathway to stable housing should not be an onerous process.
It is possible for us to end the homelessness crisis and ensure that New York City is affordable and accessible to all. It will take action at every level and compassion and commitment from each other, but if we truly believe Housing is a Human Right, is that too much to ask?
Jessica Katz is the Executive Director of Citizens Housing and Planning Council. Robert Robinson is a formerly homeless individual, human rights activist and Staff Volunteer with Partners for Dignity and Rights. On Twitter @chpcny.