Mayor de Blasio, Wake Up and Build a Solution to Homelessness
Mayor de Blasio won re-election handily, promising in his victory speech to make New York City the fairest city in America. It’s a bold vision — one he’s soon going to make a trip to Iowa to try to sell on the national stage.
But with 62,000 homeless New Yorkers (including more than 23,000 children) sleeping in shelters each night and thousands more on the streets, there is a lot of work to do to make it real.
So far, the mayor’s record on homelessness has been mixed. He has admitted to reacting too slowly to growing homelessness on his watch. He changed course — committing new resources to street outreach, trying to improve longstanding problem conditions in shelters, and ramping up prevention efforts to keep families from becoming homeless in the first place, as well as launching a series of new rent subsidy programs and a first-in-the-nation guarantee of free legal help for tenants facing evictions.
These are all worthy and critical efforts, but they do little for the small city’s worth of homeless New Yorkers stuck in the shelter system with almost no access to stable, affordable housing. It is troubling that the mayor has two conspicuously separate plans: one for homelessness, and one for housing. His “Turning the Tide” plan to combat homelessness aims to reduce the number of people in shelters by a mere 2,500 over the next five years.
In stark contrast, Housing NY sets an unprecedented goal of creating or preserving 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026.
This is a yawning gap that must be closed if we’re going to make any real progress in fixing the homelessness crisis.
It is abundantly clear that the mayor’s housing plan will yield only a paltry number of units for homeless households. It will create just 4,000 new units for homeless families. It will preserve an additional 6,000 — most of which will not be available for occupancy for those who are homeless now.
The number of new units for homeless households comprise a mere 3% of the total number of new units in the mayor’s plan.
It’s no surprise then that while the mayor and his team have made some progress in stemming a precipitous increase in the sheltered homeless population, they have not been able to reduce it. New York’s homelessness crisis is a moral stain on our city, and the most egregious manifestation of the “tale of two cities” that the mayor is so fond of highlighting. If we are to finally leave behind the disgrace of four decades of mass homelessness, the scale of the response to the crisis must meet the magnitude of the need.
So how can de Blasio do it?
To begin, he must build 10,000 new units of housing for homeless individuals and families over the next five years — a first step that is achievable given the scale of his housing plan and, more importantly, commensurate with the need. To succeed in truly turning the tide, the mayor must continue this level of homeless housing production throughout the life of his housing plan.
Second, he should maximize the resources the city already has, like NYCHA public housing and Section 8 vouchers. For nearly a decade under Mayor Bloomberg, homeless families did not have access to these precious resources and the stability of truly affordable housing. As a result, homelessness soared.
De Blasio reversed this policy, but only in part. Today, far fewer NYCHA apartments and Section 8 vouchers are set aside for the homeless than there were during the Giuliani administration, no paragon of progressivism. Taking the short-term step of doubling the number of NYCHA set-asides for homeless households will begin to meaningfully reduce the shelter population immediately.
We are not naïve about the deep roots of homelessness, the high costs of building housing in New York City, or the difficulty facing the Mayor in solving a crisis he inherited. But de Blasio has too often talked about homelessness as if it were an intractable problem or a force of nature we cannot stop.
That view is just plain wrong. With stable, affordable housing we can help families get out of the shelter system and make sure they never return.
New Yorkers gave de Blasio another four years because they believed his slogan that New York could truly be “your city” — a home for all of us. Getting serious about reducing homelessness is the first step needed to turn that phrase into a lasting legacy for all New Yorkers.
Routhier is policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.