New York City’s Housing Authority Needs to Put Aside More Units for Homeless
FRIDAY, JANUARY 13, 2017

A New York Times analysis of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to address the city’s homelessness crisis included views from The Legal Aid Society on how the city’s housing authority could play a greater role.

The story examined the factors contributing to more than 60,000 people requiring shelter – such as declines in federal and state aid in an expensive real estate market – and the steps taken by city agencies to address homelessness.

Josh Goldfein, a Staff Attorney in the Civil Practice’s Homeless Rights Project, noted the work public housing needed to do in the current context. Goldfein told the Times that the New York City Housing Authority was not reserving enough public housing units for homeless individuals. “They should be, for at least this crisis, ramping it up,” he said.




The New York Times
Mayor de Blasio Scrambles to Curb Homelessness After Years of Not Keeping Pace
By J. David Goodman and Nikita Stewart
January 13, 2017

During Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first year in office, the Department of Homeless Services created 16 new shelters across New York City to house more than a thousand families and hundreds of single adults.

Then, for eight months, the city stopped opening shelters. With the number of people falling into homelessness still rising and with shelter beds running short, the city instead turned to what was supposed to be a stopgap: hotels.

The decision to halt shelter openings for much of 2015 was the mayor’s, made after neighborhood complaints about homeless shelters, as Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, was beginning to wrestle with what has become one of the most visible and vexing issues of his mayoralty.

He calls it the “No. 1 frustration” of his first three years in office.

“I’m very dissatisfied when it comes to a lot of strategies we put into place to address homelessness that still haven’t gotten us where we want to go,” Mr. de Blasio said last month during an end-of-year news conference. “My job is to get it right.”

New York City is hardly alone in confronting the paradox of local economic growth coupled with rising homelessness: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington have seen increases even as the number of homeless people nationwide has declined in recent years, according to a recent survey by the United States Conference of Mayors.

But the growth in New York City’s homelessness has been sharper, and the inadequate shelter capacity has made it all the more apparent. The stop in shelter openings came just as the homeless population was surging in early 2015, and the de Blasio administration was relying on optimistic estimates of how quickly new rental subsidy programs would slow the flow of people needing emergency shelter.

The result has been a scramble to address the crisis and recurrent questions about the mayor’s handling of it. Indeed, as he seeks re-election for a second term, Mr. de Blasio’s record on homelessness has become a political vulnerability. Potential opponents from within his own party, including the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, and Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 campaign rival, Christine C. Quinn, have seized on the issue.

Outside City Hall on Thursday, elected leaders and advocates for homeless people called on the administration to do more in the short term to help those in shelters, such as making available more public housing units and Section 8 rental vouchers to homeless New Yorkers.

The number of people in the 274 shelters operated by the homeless services agency has continued to climb. Last year it topped 60,000 for the first time, even as the city’s economy has grown, with new jobs, a booming real estate sector and record tourism — successes that were not early priorities of the administration but have since been embraced by Mr. de Blasio.

The seeds of the current housing and homelessness crises stretch back many years and cross many layers of government. Federal and state aid have declined significantly. The public housing system, which relied heavily on federal funding, has not expanded along with the city’s population and is straining just to keep its facilities in good repair.

And the ending of a state-funded rental assistance program in 2011, called Advantage, was devastating, said Steven Banks, commissioner of the Department of Social Services overseeing homeless services. Without that aid, the city for three years all but stopped trying to provide rent for people who were slipping into homelessness. The result, he said, was a predictable surge in the number of people in shelters.

Since the city resumed opening shelters, in August 2015, 13 have been opened, eight of them in 2016. But its failure to keep pace with the demand for shelter beds has had lasting effects. The city has been paying roughly $400,000 per day for hotel rooms, which lack kitchens and have fewer on-site services to help people find permanent housing.

Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who was the deputy mayor overseeing social services early in the de Blasio administration, said the mayor “wanted to be part of the decision-making process for opening shelters.” His predecessors had not usually been involved in such decisions, said Ms. Barrios-Paoli, who led city agencies in the administrations of Michael R. Bloomberg, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Edward I. Koch.

A spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio said that in his discussions in late 2014 about shelter openings, he was pushing for a “comprehensive vision” that took account of his long-term affordable housing plan. “Any understanding other than that the mayor asked for a comprehensive vision was a misunderstanding of his directive,” the spokeswoman, Aja Worthy-Davis, said.

Mr. Banks said the city was revamping its rental assistance programs and would unveil the changes this year.

The current array of rental-assistance programs, aimed at replacing Advantage, are a jumble of acronyms, like LINC (Living in Communities) and SEPS (Special Exit and Prevention Supplement), and have been confusing to desperate applicants and reluctant landlords alike. Most of the planned housing has yet to come online, and some housing experts say that when it does, over the next few years, it will not adequately provide for the poorest New Yorkers.

The administration’s optimism is evident not only in its talk but also in its fiscal projections, which one budget watchdog has called unreasonably rosy.

In a report last month, the city’s Independent Budget Office found that Mr. de Blasio’s financial plan had continued to underestimate the impact of shelters, finding the cost of homeless services to be $231 million more than his plan had budgeted for the 2018 fiscal year.

Advocates leading nonprofits that are pushing for affordable housing for very low-income residents say the biggest miscalculation for the de Blasio administration is in its affordable housing plan.

But the agencies in charge of homelessness and housing have long had disparate missions, said Ms. Barrios-Paoli, who resigned as a deputy mayor in August 2015. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees the affordable housing plan, “does not see its mission as necessarily providing housing for homeless families,” she said.

Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said homelessness was a piece of a much broader and equally stubborn problem of rising rents and stagnating wages that threatened to drive out middle-class New Yorkers. In the administration’s internal system for tracking its progress on policy promises, homelessness appears as one element in the broader approach to housing.

“You can’t just say every single unit should be for homeless families, or every single unit should be for fixed incomes,” she said. “I’m not pitting people against each other. I’m saying these are the choices that as policy makers you have to be cognizant of, and you have to be willing to confront head on.”

Through the end of last year, work had begun on 3,423 new apartments for those making less than $24,500 as part of the mayor’s plan, which calls for a total 16,000 such units at that income level to be either built or preserved as affordable by 2024. The number is far below the need, advocates say.

Ms. Glen emphasized that the construction of new housing takes several years, a long-term solution whose effect on homelessness could not yet be evaluated.

She said advocates were missing the point that the city had “an obligation to build housing for the working low-income moms and dads who are trying every single day to put food on the table for their kids.”

Many units being built or preserved as affordable are set aside for households making 60 percent of area median income, or $38,100 for a single person. That represents earnings of more than $18 an hour in a full-time job, or twice the current minimum wage.

For some, that is still not affordable.

“The units that are being built for poor people are not being built for these poor people,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of nonprofit providers.

Joshua Goldfein, a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, said the New York City Housing Authority also was not setting aside enough units in public housing for homeless people. “They should be, for at least this crisis, ramping it up,” he said.

City officials said they had already restored set asides that were abandoned in the Bloomberg administration, but noted that the authority also had a lengthy waiting list of people who were not homeless.

The Coalition for the Homeless, in a report released on Thursday at the news conference with elected leaders, said that for a decade ending in 2014, 32,000 households were denied placement in public housing or through Section 8 that would have otherwise been received, and more needed to be done to reverse the trend.

There have been some successes. The city has been recognized nationally for housing homeless veterans, an effort that had the advantage of strong federal backing. To prevent New Yorkers from falling into homelessness, the city has ramped up its anti-eviction legal services, and has seen a sharp drop in evictions. It has also increased spending on overdue rent for New Yorkers who can demonstrate a temporary need, with $205 million in 56,000 cases this year, up from $121 million in 2014.

Renters can call 311 to locate so-called Homebase offices, where they can apply for assistance. In the Bronx, the entrances for a Homebase office and housing court are mere feet from each other, creating a beeline of tenants hoping to stay in their homes.

Michelle Isaroon was able to obtain $1,691 from the city to pay off back rent after she used her rent money on repairs, including the removal of lead paint. But she is still locked in a dispute with her landlord over other problems, which had brought her back to court.

The city has a gentrification problem, Ms. Isaroon said, and she urged city officials to get tougher on landlords who she says are “trying to push us out.”

Landlords have their own complaints.

Some have had to hire additional staff members to wade through rental assistance voucher programs, said Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents city landlords.

Mr. Strasburg said mistrust of vouchers began with collapse of the Advantage program in 2011. Landlords were stuck with nonpaying tenants, and they fear that new voucher programs could bring similar problems.