Affordable Housing in East Harlem (Sophie Hecht)
The week of June 26, over 70 San Francisco media outlets came together to report on homelessness in the Bay Area. The collaboration, the San Francisco Homeless Project, produced over 300 local articles, videos, and radio and television segments, as well as similar collaborations in cities across the U.S. and internationally.
Within this much deserved media coverage is the sentiment of a former San Francisco mayor, which may describe what ails our approach to the homelessness crisis here in New York State.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Homeless Problem Looks the Same as It Did 20 Years Ago explains how despite the efforts of the last six San Francisco mayors, homelessness looks similar today to the problem of two decades ago. One of the six mayors, Art Agnos (1988-1992), worked to move San Francisco’s approach to homelessness from overnight shelters to shelters with supportive services. He told the Chronicle:
“We do know what to do, but we haven’t had the conviction or the commitment to make it happen...We could end homelessness as a commonplace occurrence in American cities if we adopted the same kind of commitment we did in addressing World War II: if we treat it like we want to win. But until the public and the politicians who serve them say we are going to win this, we won’t.”
Does New York State lack the conviction and commitment to end homelessness? Are we content to merely manage it, disconnected from its immediacy? While we know what to do - truly affordable permanent housing, including supportive housing, and long-term rental subsidies - are we acting to the extent and at the pace we should so homeless services providers can do their jobs and provide homeless individuals a way home?
Based on recent events in Albany, it is reasonable to conclude that we lack the conviction and commitment to end homelessness in New York.
One piece of evidence is the failure of Albany to adopt a new 421-a tax credit for developers who build truly affordable housing. Yes, the old 421-a program was flawed. Updating it while resolving the issue of prevailing wages for construction jobs is difficult. However, a state committed to ending homelessness would not have passed responsibility from lawmakers to real estate and construction unions to make a deal. A truly committed state government would do all it can to secure a new tax credit so developers don’t scale back new affordable housing projects like Hallet’s Point in Queens.
A second telling event is the delay in new supportive housing, a proven cost-effective tool for ending homelessness. A state government with conviction and commitment would have actualized, with lightning speed, Governor Cuomo’s January 2016 State of the State commitment of 6,000 supportive housing units over the next five years. It would have finalized the details of the 6,000 units before the state budget was finished April 1 instead of resorting to another to-be-determined “memorandum of understanding” (MOU), and then not securing a MOU months later.
A committed state government would not have settled on a short-term measure of 1,200 units over the next year to reactivate the stalled supportive housing pipeline. Short term measures do not address a crisis. They merely manage one.
A desperate need for truly affordable housing, including supportive housing, exists now. According to the Campaign for NY/NY Housing, there’s only one supportive housing unit available for every six eligible applicants. This leaves thousands of applicants languishing in a more costly shelter or on the streets, waiting for a way home. While 1,200 supportive housing units financed for the next year are appreciated, we need funding certainty and programmatic direction from the state for the full 6,000 units. A one year commitment does not allow developers to sufficiently plan, exposing them to financial risk as they take on acquisition and pre-development costs without clear state funding details.
A truly committed state government would expedite the building of truly affordable housing - we can do this now. If we have the conviction to end the homelessness crisis, we won’t wait for another budget. If Albany continues to delay, we should hold lawmakers accountable. Homelessness is worthy of our full effort. We cannot be content to merely manage a crisis that leaves thousands of New Yorkers to suffer.