Today’s Read: de Blasio Seeks to Turn Homeless Cluster Sites Into Affordable Housing

For the past 17 years, the City has tried to address the chronic lack of capacity in the shelter system by placing thousands of homeless families in cluster site shelters – paying private landlords exorbitant rates to shelter men, women, and children in often deplorable conditions with little or no social services. The practice has removed low-cost units from the housing market and reduced the stock of rent-regulated apartments. The de Blasio administration has committed to ending the use of this costly and deeply flawed shelter model by 2021 and has already decreased the number of cluster site units in operation. Today, the administration announced more aggressive action, promising to convert approximately one-third of the remaining cluster site units into affordable housing, and using eminent domain if needed to secure the properties.

The new plan marks an overdue shift toward a smart solution: The Coalition and other advocates have long called for the City to phase out the cluster site program and revert the buildings to permanent, rent-regulated housing, with an emphasis on code enforcement to correct poor conditions. Transitioning the cluster site facilities to permanent, affordable housing will provide welcome relief to hundreds of homeless families, but it is only one of the steps the City must take immediately to help the record numbers of homeless New Yorkers languishing in shelters. To meet the scale of the need, Mayor de Blasio must build 10,000 new units of housing for homeless individuals and families over the next five years and continue this level of homeless housing production throughout the life of his housing plan.

Nikita Stewart broke the cluster site news for The New York Times:

Under the plan, the city would use public financing to help nonprofits buy roughly a third of the apartments currently used for the homeless, and then convert the apartments into affordable units, helping the mayor fulfill two goals: lowering homelessness and adding to the city’s affordable housing stock.

If landlords do not cooperate, the city intends to use eminent domain to take the property, officials said.

The planned acquisition involves 800 apartments spread throughout 25 to 30 buildings, mostly in the Bronx, which has the overwhelming majority of cluster apartments in the city. The city targeted buildings where more than 50 percent of the units were occupied by homeless people — a threshold that would guide future acquisitions, the city said.

In a statement, Mr. de Blasio said his administration had to “think creatively and be bold.”

“We’re fast-tracking the transition from shelter to higher-quality, permanently affordable housing for New Yorkers caught in the grips of our city’s affordability crisis,” he said.

The planned acquisition could place about 3,000 people into permanent housing; in some cases, homeless families living in the apartments would simply stay put, but would no longer be considered homeless.

Steven Banks, the city commissioner of social services, said that the city’s announcement “should make crystal clear that we mean business, moving forward on every front to phase out this Giuliani-era stopgap measure once and for all in our effort to better serve homeless New Yorkers and all New Yorkers,” he said.

In response to the cluster site announcement, Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier released the following statement:

“Today’s announcement is a very positive step toward the laudable goal of eliminating the use of cluster sites and converting these apartments into permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, as advocates and experts have long called for. The potential use of eminent domain adds a powerful tool to the City’s housing arsenal. But to see a significant reduction in record homelessness and finally end the use of cluster sites and hotels completely, the City will have to think even bigger and commit to creating at least 10,000 units of new housing for homeless households over the next five years.”