Today’s Read: The Long View on New York’s Homeless Problem

In order to turn the tide of homelessness and reduce the record shelter census, we need a coordinated, comprehensive effort from both the social services and housing departments of government.

Kim Hopper, a Columbia University professor and one of the Coalition’s founders, provided historical context for the homelessness crisis and recommended housing-based solutions in an op-ed for City Limits. Recognizing the rising cost of living throughout New York City and the resulting surge in the shelter census, Hopper calls for the implementation of prevention strategies and affordable housing resources to meet the scale of the need. His policy recommendations echo those outlined in the Coalition’s recent reports: The City must allocate more affordable HPD units to New Yorkers who are homeless or have the lowest incomes, and the State should enhance prevention strategies by adopting Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support rental subsidy program. From Hopper’s City Limits op-ed:

Advocates argue that shelter should be a buffer, a last dignity-shielding redoubt, not a degrading penalty for failure to plan or cope. In a weak welfare state, it will probably never be that. But we can commit to making it a decent way-station, not a grim terminus. Better still would be targeting resources where they can do the most good—in prevention.

Refreshingly, the city now seems to get this. Even as federal and state authorities dither in well-founded fear of failure, the de Blasio administration has committed itself to forging a homelessness policy tuned to the complexities of our troubled times. Nettlesome critic recruited as put-up-or-shut-up bureaucrat, Steve Banks emerged as its point person. In short order, eviction prevention and rent-subsidy programs were beefed up, while new multi-agency efforts were undertaken to repair a dysfunctional shelter system suffering decades of systemic neglect.

But the necessary complement to temporary shelter is affordable housing. Here the math is more revealing than the messaging. Recent research by the Citizens Budget Commission estimates the number of “severely rent burdened” (paying more than 50 percent of income on rent) households in specific income groups. “Extremely low income” (<$25,150 for a family of four) households are estimated at 246,000; “very low income” ($25,150 – $41,950), at 133,000. For these 379,000 precariously pitched households, the mayor’s affordable housing plan reserves a total of 40,000 units over 10 years. Even if we credit the plan with full success (which makes some magical realist assumptions about federal support), and assume no increase in the numbers of those in dire need (unlikely), the plan will be good news for just over 10 percent of sorely strapped households.

So there’s no evading this awkward truth: Whether as prevention, deterrence or respite, the shelter system will continue to anchor and belay the housing struggles of low-income New Yorkers. What was once a rude salvage operation targeting the disreputable poor is now an integral part of how those disfavored by fortune get by.

In such an environment, it’s folly to subscribe to “disparate missions” for housing and homelessness divisions within city government. It’s cynical for the state to play coy. Intensified preventive efforts and set-asides in existing housing will surely help; so would more rational institutional placement. But without a serious reckoning with what it will take to integrate affordable housing and shelter policy in the long run—and a significantly greater commitment from the city and state to creating housing affordable for those earning 30 percent of area median income or less—the specter of enduring mass homelessness will continue to haunt New York.

But if we can’t “build our way out of” this crisis, there is promising news on a parallel front. The “Housing Stability Support” policy being developed by State Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi draws upon the demonstrable success of a host of targeted (if often time-limited) rental subsidy programs, programs that have operated at varying degrees of visibility. Left to its own devices, of course, the private market is an inconstant partner. But the focus on enhanced demand (rental subsidies to be used in existing housing), in addition to expanded supply (developing affordable units as contingent “set asides”), is a welcome one. The devil, as always, will reside in the details.