Policy News

Mayoral candidates' big plans for homelessness will be tough to see through

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02/22/2021 01:41 PM EST

Virtually all of the candidates running for mayor have pledged to overhaul the city’s approach to a chronic homelessness crisis that left upwards of 52,000 people sleeping in city shelters on a recent night.

But actually following through on the range of proposals floated by candidates — from ending dormitory-style homeless shelters, to substantially increasing the number of homes built for the poorest New Yorkers — will be much more challenging for the next mayor than the rhetoric suggests.

“The notion that anyone will be able to build their way out of a homeless crisis that’s decades in the making in less than a term is really fanciful to me,” Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of shelter and service providers, said following a recent candidate forum on the issue.

She cited a troubling disconnect between the candidates’ plans and the realities on the street: “The aspirations are right, the instincts are right, but a practical plan is necessary.”

The new mayor will inherit a homeless population that hovered around 51,000 when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014 and has neared 60,000 on his watch. The crisis persisted through a booming economy and record-low unemployment before Covid-19 hit. And even after years of record spending on affordable housing efforts, very low-income households face scant options when looking for a place to live.

The crowded field of Democratic candidates for mayor has largely argued that de Blasio got it all wrong: His administration built too few apartments for its lowest-income residents, focused too many resources on shelters instead of permanent housing and failed to frame homelessness as a housing issue. Their public comments, and answers to a policy questionnaire circulated by POLITICO, echo longstanding criticisms of de Blasio’s housing plan, which calls for building or preserving 300,000 income-restricted apartments by 2026.

At a recent forum on homelessness, many candidates pledged to move more people out of the shelter system more quickly than the current administration and several committed to getting rid of congregate shelters entirely.

“We have got to transition people not into another shelter … we’re not going to look at the Lucerne and bounce 280 people from shelter to shelter like human cattle, but we’re going, under my administration, into building housing,” said City Comptroller Scott Stringer, referring to one of the hotels individuals experiencing homelessness have been transferred to in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus in dormitory-style shelters.

“Instead of spending $3 billion a year on homeless shelters, we should be investing in folks having housing first,” said attorney and MSNBC commentator Maya Wiley.

“If I were mayor, we would end street homelessness in New York City and we would do it by reimagining the right to shelter as a right to housing,” said former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. In responses to the POLITICO questionnaire, Donovan argued current and past administrations’ focus on the shelter system has “[drained] money from permanent housing.”

Shelter providers and homeless advocates don’t see it as an either-or question, and some caution that transferring funds away from the shelter system while the homeless population remains where it is could jeopardize the city’s ability to offer shelter to everyone who needs it — something required by law. With different types of funding streams involved in shelters versus affordable housing efforts, an attempt to simply transfer money around could face any number of logistical problems.

Meanwhile, without a new state or federal commitment to affordable housing, a substantial boost in the production of housing units for people coming out of shelters would likely require a significant hike in the city’s capital commitment at a time of dire fiscal constraints. A sizable expansion of rental assistance — another tenet of several candidates’ plans — would represent a big financial burden to the city if state and federal funding streams weren’t also expanded. The city spent $284 million on rental assistance in 2020, $243 million of those city funds, according to the Independent Budget Office.

“You can’t invest existing shelter resources into housing without a massive reduction in the number of homeless people,” Trapani said. “If you do that before the shelter census goes down, you then fail to uphold the right to shelter.”

Through recent years, the city has lacked enough traditional shelter beds for everyone who is homeless, and has instead resorted to other options such as hotels. The de Blasio administration has worked to curb the practice, but there were still 3,500 individuals experiencing homelessness in hotels before the pandemic hit and the city has since expanded its use of hotels to reduce Covid-19 health risks in the congregate shelter system.

Christine Quinn, executive director of the shelter provider WIN and former City Council Speaker who ran for mayor in 2013, agreed a future mayor should build and rehab more affordable and supportive housing, but noted those efforts are “not quick.”

In the meantime, she said, “people need a place to live, and that place is transitional housing, which is also known as shelter. That’s a reality, you can pretend it’s not a reality, but it’s a reality.”

“We need the answers [from candidates] to be much more granular, much more specific,” Quinn said.

She has been pushing Council legislation that would increase the value of rental assistance vouchers given to people exiting shelters, available through a program called CityFHEPS. The de Blasio administration raised concerns with the bill at a hearing last year, citing its “fiscal implications given the current budget realities facing the city,” and has called instead for a state program that would accomplish the same goal. Several mayoral candidates have come out in support of the push, however.

Candidates have said they would upzone more affluent neighborhoods for more housing, where the city’s mandatory inclusionary zoning policy could generate income-restricted units without additional city subsidy. Most have not identified specific areas where they would pursue such plans, and their administrations will likely face the same local blowback that has made such porposals politically difficult.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a frontrunner in the race, said in response to POLITICO’s questions the city must “build far more affordable housing units, much faster, and for more lower-income New Yorkers.” He said he would increase subsidy dollars for affordable housing (though he didn’t specify by how much), and upzone wealthier areas, citing a 100-block stretch of land still zoned for manufacturing in Manhattan that spans between 42nd and 14th streets, and Ninth and Park Avenues.

Andrew Yang, who has been leading in polls, said he would reform the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy so it produces more very low-income units by providing additional incentives to developers, such as a greater density bonus.

Given the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, the next mayor could take advantage of new opportunities to convert distressed hotels and other commercial properties into affordable housing, and several candidates have made this a tenet of their housing platforms.

All other circumstances being equal, reorienting an affordable housing plan to focus more on producing very low-income housing with the same city capital subsidies would result in fewer total units built. Many housing advocates have criticized the de Blasio administration for focusing too much on a high unit count, and have argued a plan should focus on where the largest need is, but this is still a tradeoff that the next mayor will have to grapple with. Department of Housing Preservation and Development officials have said in recent years it costs the city about $25,000 per unit in additional subsidy for every 10 percent drop in the household income level that an apartment is affordable to.

“The tradeoffs that they’re going to face are not going to change,” said Matthew Murphy, executive director of NYU’s Furman Center and a former official at the city’s housing department. "Anything on the development side a next mayor would have to confront, whether it’s acquisition costs, the hard costs of development — labor, materials, soft costs … These are all costs that don’t react to mayors, they have to come up with some way to be able to counteract that."

The city classifies “very low-income” as up to 50 percent of the area median income, which is $51,200 for a family of three. “Extremely low-income” is $30,720.

Most candidates did not lay out a detailed income breakdown for their proposed housing plans in their answers to POLITICO’s policy questionnaire. Former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia said she would create 50,000 units affordable to people who make under 50 percent of the AMI. Stringer said 77 percent of new units created under his plan would be for “extremely low-income” households, 21 percent would be for “very low” and the remaining 2 percent would be for other income tiers. He didn’t say how much city money he would commit to the effort, or how many units he would seek to produce.

Alicia Glen, who served as Deputy Mayor for Housing under de Blasio until 2019, and was the architect of the mayor’s housing plan, defended the breakdown of the current housing program and argued that focusing exclusively on very low-income families would be a “big policy mistake.”

“We’ve spent 25 years talking about how policies that put all low-income people together is bad policy,” she said. Such a plan would “also mean that, financially, the government is perpetually on the hook for maintaining those buildings, and that’s why mixed-income housing is a much more sustainable model.”

“Everybody should just take a step back before they get all righteous about everything,” she said.

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