De Blasio Resists Calls for More Homeless Housing as Council Proposal Moves Forward

As Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to defend his housing plan against critics who say it leaves out the city’s most vulnerable populations, the City Council is taking up a bill that would force a dramatic increase in housing built for the homeless.

A bill that would require any development receiving city subsidies to set aside 15 percent of units for homeless New Yorkers will come up for a hearing on Monday, raising an issue that homeless advocates have long called for the mayor to address. De Blasio has resisted the proposal, while a majority of council members have signed onto the bill and Speaker Corey Johnson has voiced support for more homeless housing.

Proponents say Intro 1211, which currently has 29 sponsors, is needed to address the city’s ballooning shelter population, which totaled 61,164 people as of Thursday. They also highlight what they see as a flawed approach by de Blasio in viewing affordable housing and homelessness as separate issues — the mayor’s ambitious affordable housing goal, they say, has neglected one of his administration’s biggest crises.

De Blasio is against the bill, but Johnson supports increasing the set-aside, saying in October, “If we don’t increase the set-aside, we’re likely not going to get out of this shelter population plateau for potentially years.”

As the bill moves forward, City Hall and the Council could end up on opposing sides, stirring the potential for the mayor, who has not vetoed a bill since taking office, to veto legislation related to a plan he considers one of his most significant achievements.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca, chief sponsor of the bill, said the mayor’s current affordable housing plan will not make a dent in addressing the city’s homelessness need. The existing plan to build or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026 designates 5 percent of total units, or 15,000 apartments, for the homeless.

“The mayor has to come up with bolder policy,” Salamanca said in an interview. “He acknowledged at the end of the year that homelessness has been a failure, so this is his opportunity to right that wrong,” he said, referencing an appearance on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” at the end of 2018, during which the mayor cited homelessness as among his biggest regrets.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development says it already requires developers of city-subsidized projects to set aside 10 percent of units for the homeless, spelled out in agency term sheets.

That requirement is often negotiated down, Salamanca said, which he argues is part of the case for putting the set-aside into law. But the housing agency says the more stringent requirement would undermine the flexibility it needs when working out financing for affordable developments.

The vast majority of homeless set-aside units fall within the lowest-income bracket in the housing plan — intended for those making up to 30 percent of area median income, or up to $28,170 for a family of three, according to the housing agency.

Putting in place the 15 percent requirement would either require significant additional city subsidies, or involve swapping out lottery units that are currently set aside for the lowest income bracket and designating them homeless housing, officials said. It costs the city about $25,000 per unit in additional subsidy for every 10 percent drop in AMI, according to the agency.

Beyond the logistical concerns, the mayor has opposed increasing homeless units on ideological grounds.

“I don’t want to send a message that the only folks who can get affordable housing are folks who end up in shelter,” he said at a press conference in October. “I think that’s wrong for everyone.”

The push to increase the homeless set-aside comes as advocacy groups and other elected officials have criticized de Blasio’s housing plan as failing to match the bulk of the need among the most rent-burdened households. A report put out by Comptroller Scott Stringer in December noted that while less than 11 percent of units in the plan are intended for families in the lowest income tier, there are some 515,000 households in that bracket who spend more than half their income on rent.

While Johnson has called for an increase in homeless housing, he stopped short of fully backing Salamanca’s legislation. Asked for comment on the bill, a Council spokesperson said Johnson supports increasing the set-aside and is reviewing the legislation.

In a statement on the bill, mayoral spokesperson Jane Meyer cited the city’s existing 10 percent set-aside, which she said is followed in “virtually all” affordable developments. She noted the allocation can be as high as 60 percent in certain cases.

“Legislating a single standard for every project would undermine our flexibility and could ultimately reduce the City’s production of affordable housing for all New Yorkers, including the homeless and those most at risk of homelessness,” she said by email.

Giselle Routhier, policy director at the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s existing approach to the issue, which includes strategies such as rental vouchers and anti-eviction services, can only go so far in addressing the crisis.

“There’s a limited ability of the market to absorb [vouchers],” she said. “It can’t be the only piece — at some point you have to start building housing from the ground up.”

“We’re not really sure why the mayor is the only holdout here, saying this is not a good idea,” she added. “It would realign his housing plan to meet the need — we’re not really sure why he doesn’t see that as a positive thing.”

(via Politico Pro)

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