Fair Share Bills Are NOT Fair to Homeless New Yorkers
The citywide affordable housing crisis has pushed record numbers of New Yorkers into homelessness. In an effort to meet its moral and legal obligation to provide shelter for all homeless individuals and families, the City has scrambled to open more shelters to meet the need. While some communities have welcomed new shelters and greeted their neighbors with compassion, others have resisted the establishment of shelter facilities in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, community concerns are often based on false, damaging stereotypes about homeless people, rather than an appreciation of the reality that homeless New Yorkers struggle with the same affordability crisis we all face. Most homeless households are women with young children. Many work, and others are too disabled to work, or are survivors of domestic violence.
In an attempt to address misguided community concerns, the City Council released a report and introduced a package of “Fair Share” legislation in early March to change the City’s process for siting shelters and other municipal facilities. Although the purported intent of the bills is to empower communities in the siting process for municipal facilities, they would establish daunting new barriers to the siting of desperately needed shelters and other facilities that serve vulnerable populations, including prohibiting their establishment altogether in some communities. Specifically, they would prohibit the City from opening new shelters in community districts that are assessed to be “highly concentrated,” while also failing to make it easier to site facilities in other areas.
The legislation is harmful in many ways, but most prominently, it would foster unlawful discrimination by authorizing mechanisms under which communities could discriminate against people with disabilities – including those who are homeless – in violation of the Federal Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Acts. Even the City’s current “Fair Share” law is being used to prevent the establishment of shelters, thereby causing serious delays that threaten the right to shelter and fair housing rights of the clients who would be sleeping in these shelters under the Callahan and Butler settlements.
The Council’s proposed legislation would exacerbate existing unlawful discrimination against vulnerable New Yorkers by establishing further avenues to delay or forestall the opening of shelters, transitional housing, supportive housing, and treatment facilities.
A central flaw in the “Fair Share” package is that it prioritizes the stably housed community members who would oppose the establishment of a shelter, and at the same time disregards the needs of homeless New Yorkers to remain close to existing social supports, schools, workplaces, doctors, churches, and other resources that can help them get back on their feet again. As we explained in our State of the Homeless 2017 report, “The proposed legislation would do little more than foster the rejection of homeless shelters and other vital transitional housing and human services without providing a vehicle to accomplish their needed placement, resulting in continued capacity strains that would make it difficult to place families near their children’s schools.”
By limiting the City’s ability to open shelters quickly at a time of unprecedented need, the proposed bills would unquestionably result in prolonged suffering for homeless people – and more men, women, and children might have to resort to sleeping on the city’s streets and subways, or in laundromats, vestibules, and other places not fit for human habitation. Specifically, the “Fair Share” bills as proposed would:
- Deprive homeless New Yorkers of life-saving shelter, access to treatment, and permanent housing options in their neighborhoods of origin;
- Ignore the needs of families and individuals to remain in their own neighborhoods when they lose their housing so that they would not also lose their jobs, proximity to school, and contact with their social supports;
- Undercut the City’s legal obligations to provide shelter to those in need;
- Foster unlawful discrimination against people with disabilities, including those who are homeless;
- Authorize the unlawful public release of confidential health and domestic violence status of homeless individuals and families, including those with a family member who is HIV-positive; and
- Risk serious violations of the Federal Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, which could generate Federal fines and a loss of Federal housing funds, and cause the City to face litigation for violating the rights of homeless people and those with disabilities.
These defects could be addressed simply by revising the language to exclude shelters, supportive housing, and other facilities serving people with disabilities. If amended in this way, the bills would no longer place vulnerable New Yorkers at risk or force the City to violate court orders and Federal laws. Ultimately, this legislation draws attention away from the real solutions to homelessness – permanent housing – which, if implemented at a scale to match the need, would reduce the demand for shelters.
The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless jointly released a statement in opposition to seven of the nine Fair Share bills because they would result in homeless New Yorkers being deprived of shelter and permanent housing options. Read the full statement here.