Mayor Bloomberg’s “Advantage” Budget Strategy: Scare Tactics and Falsehoods

Late last week Mayor Bloomberg and administration officials engaged in irresponsible scare tactics in their desperate attempts to defend the failed Advantage program. And as usual, they didn’t tell the whole story about how to genuinely help homeless families.

As we’ve written here before, Governor Cuomo’s 2011-2012 budget proposes eliminating State funds for the failed Advantage program — a deeply flawed, time-limited rent subsidy program that has become little more than a revolving door back to homelessness for thousands of children and families.

State officials insist that the City use its Federal housing resources, like public housing and Section 8 vouchers, to help homeless families obtain housing before any discussion about reinstating State funding for Advantage.

City officials are refusing to do that, making New York City the only large city in the country that denies Federal housing assistance to homeless families and individuals.

Mayor Bloomberg’s FY 2012 budget plan threatens to eliminate all funding for the program – including to current recipients — beginning on July 1st if the State does not restore its share, and City officials have been lobbying frantically in recent weeks to make that happen.

However, on Thursday evening, in a panicky and desperate move, the Bloomberg administration announced plans to end new enrollments in the Advantage program today. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Mayor Bloomberg and administration officials took to the airwaves Friday to…well, to do their best to scare the hell out of NYC neighborhoods as well as homeless and formerly-homeless families.

The local news media covered the story widely on Friday – see reports from NY1 News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (paywall), and WCBS News - and unfortunately they ran the administration’s threats and false claims without any reality-checking. These included:

NY1:
DHS officials say without the apartments, shelters will overflow by next summer. The city predicts it would have to pay $80 million to build 70 more shelters around the city.

“A lot of that is our money and there is capital cost to build as well as operate,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

NY Times:
Saying that state budget cuts have forced New York City to stop accepting new people into a successful program intended to reduce homelessness, the city mailed a letter on Thursday to hundreds of real estate brokers involved in the program informing them that no new participants will be taken after next Monday….

“Due to proposed budget cuts that will eliminate the Advantage rental subsidy program, effective after the close of business Monday, March 14, we will stop conducting lease signings,” Mr. Diamond said in the letter to the brokers, who connect homeless families with the program. Those already in the program will be able to stay in their homes….”This funding reduction will cause a significant increase in the city’s shelter population and force the city to build 70 new shelters.”

WCBS:
Seth Diamond, the commissioner of homeless services, says the city would have to build 70 new shelters if the program is eliminated.

Administration officials’ wild, unsubstantiated threats are echoed in an “Advantage talking points” document sent last Monday to not-for-profit shelter providers by NYC Department of Homeless Services Deputy Commissioner Barbara Brancaccio:

1. The State’s elimination of Advantage will result in a huge increase in the shelter population forcing the city to spend millions of dollars to build and operate new shelters.

2. Without Advantage as an option to move out of shelter, families will stay in shelter far longer. We project that the number of families with children in the City’s shelter system will increase by 51 percent to an estimated total of over 13,000 families by June, 2012. At least 70 new shelters will have to be built in neighborhoods throughout the city.

3. Ending Advantage will cost taxpayers $80 million more in shelter and related programs. To fund these new costs, cuts will have to be made to other programs serving low income New Yorkers.

The scare tactics used by Mayor Bloomberg and City officials are not only irresponsible — they’re also patently false, illogical, and possibly illegal. For instance, there’s no reason to halt new Advantage cases right away — the State Legislature and Governor have not yet passed a final State budget and, as Governor Cuomo’s spokesperson said, the City still has its own resources:

State officials pointed the finger right back. “In the midst of a serious budget process that affects the lives of all New Yorkers, it is counterproductive, disingenuous and dangerous to play games by announcing a so-called newly discovered crisis of the day,” the governor’s spokesman, Joshua Vlasto, said in a statement. “The reality is that, regardless of this year’s anticipated cuts, New York City has the funds to support the continuation of this program if it so chooses.”

Most important, the City has thousands of public housing apartments available to re-house homeless families — which are proven to be more effective and cheaper than flawed Advantage subsidies. This would avert any need to build new shelters, and save City and State taxpayer dollars.

What’s more, if the Bloomberg administration really plans to spend “$80 million” on new shelters, why not instead use that money for permanent housing? And City officials’ threats to eventually eliminate Advantage subsidies for current recipients are clearly unlawful. Finally, City officials continue to claim that the Advantage program is a “success,” when the City’s own data shows that more than one out of three Advantage families who’ve lost rental assistance has returned to apply for shelter.

Worst of all, the Mayor’s scare tactics are designed to scare homeless and formerly-homeless New Yorkers and service providers. And they play on the fears of many NYC neighborhoods and local elected officials by claiming that dozens of new homeless shelters will be opened citywide — a blatant effort to stoke anti-homeless sentiment.

Mayor Bloomberg and City officials should halt the threats and stop playing games with the lives of homeless children and families. Instead, they should agree to restore priority referrals to Federal housing programs for homeless New Yorkers, and negotiate with State officials on much-needed reforms for the Advantage program.