Cuomo’s Potential: Reduce Homelessness

By Shelly Nortz

On January 1, 2011, Andrew M. Cuomo was sworn in as the 56th Governor of the State of New York at a time of deep financial deficit and equally deep voter skepticism about elected officials and government at every level. Governor Cuomo brings to his office an impressive record of public service in his roles in the non-profit sector, and with the City, State, and Federal governments. He is in a position to not only reign in the deficit, but to restore faith in government by addressing the most pressing needs of New Yorkers in his first term.

Andrew has an impressive career, first as founder of Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and most recently New York Attorney General. In these positions, Cuomo has helped homeless people with shelter, housing, jobs, and effective policing of sham charities. Of particular note are his records in support of humane sheltering, rental assistance programs, and supportive housing. Policies outlined in his recommendations as chairman of the New York City Commission on the Homeless in its 1992 report for then Mayor David Dinkins: The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy are instructive. They included recommendations to:

• Expand investments in permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals living with mental illness, and affordable rental housing for homeless families;

• Reform and improve the homeless services system by eliminating large, warehouse-style armory shelters and moving to smaller, services-enriched shelters, and by linking permanent housing and supportive services; and

• Eliminate street homelessness by targeting permanent supportive housing resources to help unsheltered homeless people, and by enhancing access to shelter for those sleeping on the streets.

Nearly two decades later, New York has sought to build on the forward-thinking reforms endorsed by the Cuomo Commission – but it has not done nearly enough. Investments in permanent supportive housing and affordable housing for homeless New Yorkers have fallen far below the actual need. The homeless shelter system still needs improvements, particularly for those with mental illnesses, and thousands of vulnerable men, women and unaccompanied youth still sleep on our streets.

Even the much-needed renewals of Governor Mario M. Cuomo’s historic New York/New York Agreement to create permanent supportive housing (the last of the most recent 9,000 units will soon be in development) have ultimately been insufficient to meet the rising number of homeless people living with mental illness and other disabilities.

In addition to an ever-worsening housing picture with a net loss of affordable housing, misguided, ideologically- driven policies advanced by the Pataki, Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations have actually contributed to worsening homelessness and harsher conditions for homeless families and adults, in disappointing contrast to the proven, housing-based solutions espoused by the Cuomo Commission.

As a result, homelessness is now worse than at any point since modern homelessness began in the late 1970s. New York City’s homeless shelter population constitutes 85 percent of the statewide total and is now 63 percent higher than it was when the Cuomo Commission report was released – and, the costs of the shelter system in the City have more than quadrupled in that span of time. In City Fiscal Year 2010, an all time record 113,553 different homeless men, women and children (42,888) slept in the NYC municipal shelter system.

Fortunately, as Cuomo’s Commission and subsequent experience has shown, cost-effective solutions can achieve sharp reductions in New York’s homeless population. Governor Cuomo and his incoming administration can successfully accomplish what the last three New York governors have failed to do: Reduce the number of homeless families and individuals.

How Andrew Cuomo Can Reduce Homelessness in New York

Invest in multi-family housing development, including supportive and accessible housing for people with disabilities. In the first Gubernatorial term, Andrew Cuomo should propose $1 billion in housing bonds and establish a meaningful housing pipeline. More affordable, accessible and supportive housing is needed to accommodate an aging population, working New Yorkers who can’t afford to buy homes in a tight economy, the increasingly independent population of people with disabilities who need accessible apartments, and homeless households for whom housing, even with onsite support services, is more cost-effective than shelter. Modest debt service costs would be offset in the coming years by savings and avoided costs in tax-payer funded Medicaid for costly but often unnecessary institutional care.

Use Federal housing programs in a smart, efficient way to address homelessness. In 2005, the Bloomberg Administration put in place a policy that effectively denies Federal housing assistance (both public housing and Section 8 rental vouchers) to homeless families and individuals. As a consequence, State and local taxpayers are financing a rapidly expanding shelter system. The State should condition its reimbursements for shelters on a new performance requirement that New York City and the counties prioritize available housing resources to move eligible homeless households into permanent homes.

Reform rental assistance programs aimed at homeless and at-risk New Yorkers. Thanks to Pataki-era regulations, the City of New York limits City rental assistance to two years in lieu of allowing the homeless access to the successful Federal housing programs, and the strategy is not working. At least one in four homeless families who exited shelter with the time-limited Advantage program subsidy has since returned to the shelter system. The State should model all rental assistance programs for homeless households on the proven Federal housing voucher programs.

Undo Pataki era policies that hamper access to shelter. Governor Pataki’s homeless policies promote massive shelters of greater than 200 beds, and force localities to evict homeless families and individuals from shelters for even the most minor infractions of administrative rules. These regulations are widely regarded as more harmful than helpful – often targeting the most disabled homeless clients for ejection from shelter – and should be repealed.

Maximize Access to Federal Benefits. Coalition for the Homeless and other groups help homeless people with disabilities obtain Federal disability benefits like Social Security Income and Veterans benefits. Complicated applications, extensive medical documentation, and appeals procedures act as barriers to these Federal programs and applicants require expert advocacy assistance to secure these subsistence benefits. Government assistance to help cover staff costs has been intermittent at best: A steady source of State funds to support benefits advocacy and appeals would help move thousands of disabled homeless New Yorkers out of costly shelters and off the streets into permanent homes – at a net savings to the State

Replicate Effective Policy from the first Cuomo Administration. NY Homes should issue an Emergency Order to set aside twenty percent of new vacancies in Mitchell-Lama developments for homeless families and homeless people with disabilities as a condition of any additional State financing. A similar program administered by the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal housed over 2,000 homeless families in the first Cuomo Administration. The State, in an effort to preserve this valuable affordable housing, is investing significant funds in these private developments, and should benefit by accessing a modest number of apartments to house the homeless as a condition of its financial support.

Extend SCRIE/DRIE. The Cuomo Administration should establish a tax abatement program that would freeze the tenant contribution to rent for the most vulnerable very low income populations in exchange for tax abatement credits for owners. Abatements should be extended to a broader array of housing options than those currently included in the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs which serve well over 50,000 households in more than 16 localities. A reasonable goal would be to extend this benefit to another 50,000 households over four years. It is notable, for example, that 40 percent of people with disabilities applying for DRIE were denied because their housing units did not qualify under the guidelines for the program, even though they spend as much as half to 90 percent of their meager incomes on rent.

Cuomo’s Potential

Governor Cuomo has a tough road ahead, with massive deficits, an entrenched recession, and a growing need for public services. By following our seven recommendations in his first term, Gov. Cuomo has the potential to reverse the record of his recent predecessors and make major strides in reducing homelessness and housing New Yorkers. He can invest limited state funds in cost-effective, humane solutions that build upon his own record of smart investments, save tax dollars, and provide permanent homes to New York’s most vulnerable homeless and disabled men, women and children. Coalition for the Homeless stands ready to assist in these efforts and is eager to get to work with the Cuomo Administration.

Published in Safety Net, Winter 2011