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De Blasio Wrestles with Homelessness -- Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide?

de Blasio new homelessness plan

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

This is part three of a three-part series: De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem, by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. [Jump to Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy or Part Two: Setbacks and Responses]

Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide on Homelessness?
In response to the growing shelter census, the de Blasio administration recently released a new plan, “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” which features an ambitious proposal to build 90 new shelters within a five-year period, while ending the use of cluster sites and commercial hotels. The multipronged approach also touts the mayor’s success in enhancing shelter security and addressing code violations, which is particularly warranted given the state of disrepair found in many cluster site apartments.

A New Tone and New Shelters
Perhaps the most striking thing about the new plan is its tone, which is markedly more realistic than de Blasio’s campaign rhetoric. When he was a candidate, de Blasio’s determination that the city could indeed successfully take on the daunting problem of inequality raised expectations about what could be done to deal with homelessness. Now, his new plan tells us that “[w]e must be clear-eyed: it will take many years to reset the unacceptable status quo we see today...There are no silver bullets here. We will not solve this crisis overnight. It will be a long hard fight.”

The more realistic tone is certainly welcome. But wouldn’t it have been better to start out by lowering expectations, which de Blasio could have afforded to do given the big lead he enjoyed in the general election campaign?

If the city indeed succeeds in opening 90 new shelters, it says it will be able to end the use of commercial hotels and cluster site housing. But the greatest challenge to the construction of new shelters is community opposition. De Blasio’s new plan therefore calls for improved community relations and better outreach to community boards in order to curb resistance to new shelters.

Unfortunately, the mayor’s promises to consult communities thoroughly sound all too much like those of his mentor, David Dinkins, who in 1991 proposed to overcome local opposition to his plan of opening a mere 20 shelters through “Early and Meaningful Community Involvement,” “Fair Distribution of New Facilities Around the City,” and “Undertaking a Comprehensive Approach to Siting.” Dinkins’ plan was to win over hostile neighborhoods by being too impeccably fair to dispute. Communities would have none of it. The highly visible plan merely called attention to itself and gave communities an obvious target. The fact is, the less noticeable such siting efforts are, the easier they are for the city to accomplish.

Another problem for de Blasio’s plan is that where and how to place new shelters is in part governed by the city’s “Fair Share” law, which was incorporated into the City Charter in 1989. The law is outdated and confusing, and over the past 25 years, poor neighborhoods have in fact received more shelters than is equitable. In response to this unfairness, the City Council is now considering a proposal to reform the Fair Share law and push better-off communities to accept more shelters.

Fair enough, it would seem, but a disproportionate number of shelter residents come from those same poor communities. Locating more shelters in better-off neighborhoods would mean that more homeless people would be sheltered far away from their places of origin, a practice that advocacy groups such as Coalition for the Homeless already dislike. How the de Blasio administration will square this circle is not at all clear.

Two courses of action for the city seem desirable. One is to reform the CITYFEPS voucher program. As it stands, CITYFEPS may not meet its goals of rehousing families in appropriate apartments since units are not appropriately inspected. The practice of having CITYFEPS units inspected by potentially self-interested service providers should end. The responsibility of inspecting apartments should be taken over by HPD, which already has a set of standards that is enforceable, and staff trained and equipped to perform this function. If the reintegration of DHS and HRA is successful, perhaps better coordination with HPD and other agencies will improve the administration of CITYFEPS.

The cluster site program should end and the apartments it made use of should be converted into permanent housing for LINC voucher holders. But as IBO notes, the greatest challenge to this initiative is that the landlords will be paid half as much from LINC as they are already being paid to run a cluster site. Landlords are also reluctant to resume business relationships with the city after the fallout from the abrupt termination of the Advantage program in 2011. However, the city should be able to use the threat of withdrawing funding for cluster site housing as leverage in convincing landlords to participate in the LINC program.

The experience of the de Blasio administration also sheds light on two conceptual issues. One, it seems that the issue of perverse incentives needs to be reexamined. The studies that undermined the perverse incentive theory and cleared the way for the reintroduction of rent subsidies are now 18 years old and the issue needs to be revisited. The introduction of LINC was supposed to drive the census down, but it has in fact gone up, which does not imply causality but does suggest that the issue of how policy affects shelter demand deserves careful consideration. DHS needs to improve its forecasting ability to more accurately predict the likely results of changes in rent subsidies, eligibility, and other policies.

Also important is what recent experience with homelessness policy says about the prospects for the progressive coalition in New York City. A striking feature of city homelessness policy is that it was developed mostly under conservative mayors: Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. From the beginning of modern homeless policy in the late 1970s to the end of Bloomberg’s tenure in 2013, the one-term mayoralty of David Dinkins was the only interregnum of progressive rule.

Coming to grips with homelessness proved difficult for Dinkins, who found that he had to rethink some of the progressive conceptions he had brought to the issue. Dinkins’ indecisiveness and his failure to make a dent in a problem he had decried as a candidate seemed to justify Giuliani’s criticism that progressives lacked the managerial skills necessary to govern New York City. De Blasio’s reelection prospects seem pretty good right now, but his lackluster record with an issue that was central to his political vision will not be helpful. To be fair, de Blasio was dealt a bad hand regarding the homeless problem, but he has not always played his cards well. The problem has not been fundamentally wrongheaded policy but lack of managerial and political deftness. Can progressives govern New York City? De Blasio’s so far disappointing record on homelessness does not help make the case they can.

This is part three of a three-part series, De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem, by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main.

Jump to Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy
Jump to Part Two: Setbacks and Responses

by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. Nasaw, MPA, LMSW, is an expert on homeless policy who has worked in the social services for several years. Main is a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York and author of Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.

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