Stop Blaming the Mayor for the Homelessness Crisis, It's On Us

 More like a flood (NYDailyNews)

More like a flood (NYDailyNews)

A lot has been made this week of Mayor de Blasio’s announcement of new homeless shelters around the city.  He has been criticized from all different sides, from community groups opposed to more shelters in their neighborhoods, to non-profit groups worried about getting paid for their services, and by political rivals questioning the Mayor’s effectiveness on the crisis.

However, this week also saw a settlement of a lawsuit at the state-level over rental assistance that quietly did more for the crisis than anything the mayor can do.  This speaks to the deeper structural problems causing homelessness in the city and why the political charade around the shelter system is missing the point entirely. The problem is bigger and deeper than any mayor can handle and we’re all partly to blame.

The lawsuit stemmed from the state’s Family Eviction Prevention Supplement (FEPS) program that started in 2005.  For women with children under a certain economic threshold facing eviction, the program offered rental supplements based on a formula set when the program began.  Rents have of course skyrocketed since 2004 while the payments remained flat, so many families were simply not benefiting from the program.

With the help of Legal Aid Society, two women successful sued the state to change the rent allotments to reflect the changing market.  A family of three that used to only qualify for $850/m now can get $1515 a month.  The new formula isn’t perfect, but it will no doubt help thousands of families in New York City under threat of eviction to stay in their apartments.

This is an important program because it has a simple mission: prevent eviction to prevent homelessness.  There are over 60,000 homeless in NYC of which 48,000 are women and children.  The number one cause of homelessness for this group is eviction.  Keeping these vulnerable citizens in their homes not only safeguards their well-being and future prospects, but it also saves taxpayers millions of dollars and lessens the burden on the few communities that host these shelters.

As the Mayor is finding out, it is both expensive and, at times, unpopular to shelter the homeless.  And he can’t simply ignore it.  Since 1979, the homeless in NYC have had a legal right to shelter. The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations both fought to undermine this law, so it is a credit to the de Blasio Administration for not taking the easy way out.

It is a significant financial burden for the city to maintain the shelter system. NYC Department of Homeless Services has an annual budget of $1 billion and the Mayor’s Office estimates that it costs $44,000 to shelter a family for a year.  However, even the most ardent supporters recognize that DHS is barely a stopgap that doesn’t come close to meeting the basic sustainable needs of New Yorkers entering the system.

The shelter system also clusters in only a few communities in the city, which puts a potentially unfair burden on them relative to others.  It’s important to note that very few shelters actually cause ancillary quality of life problems for surrounding communities.  However, when only a few communities host most of them, this concentration inevitably has an impact that other neighborhoods don’t experience. It's unfortunate that many citizens don't want to help the homeless, but it's reasonable to ask all of us to share the burden equally.  We are not. 

All of this is to say that the Mayor has a nearly impossible task.  He has clearly placed too much political capital on his ability to solve this crisis, which is now costing him, but he has made progress.  Guaranteeing counsel in housing court for low-income tenants is a major victory in preventing homelessness. Finding additional resources for new shelters, however controversial, is also commendable.

Look, Mayor de Blasio can’t end the homelessness crisis. No mayor can.  The politics around the mayor’s handling of the crisis mask the larger problems that must be addressed at all levels of government.  Many people recognize this, even if most of the media only focuses on the horserace stuff.  

For example, today State Assemblyman Hevesi, a Democrat from Queens, proposed a state bill to provide comprehensive rental assistance to families receiving public aid.  The plan, called Home Stability Support, would replace FEPS and potentially help 80,000 families across the state, including NYC with real, reliable rent assistance.

The program is estimated to cost $450 million a year, but Assemblyman Hevesi makes a compelling case that it save money in the long run.  Compared to $44,000/year to shelter a family, this program would potentially cost just $11,000 per family.  Scott Stringer has estimated that the plan could the city save hundreds of millions of dollars.  Of course there are complex issues to address around intended/unintended consequences, but this seems worthy of support.

It’s not clear how much support there would be in Albany, though, and it seems very unlikely we can bank on federal help, so the future of the bill is questionable.  But it makes a strong economic argument for supporting greater rental assistance.  We are already paying an immense amount of money sheltering the homeless in NYC and that won’t end anytime soon.  Why not intervene earlier and put less money towards a more efficient policy?

It is crass to approach the homelessness crisis on economic terms, but starting there hopefully allows us to consider the issue on moral terms.  And we should.  We are making the choice right now not to help thousands of citizens who are economically insecure, who have lost their home or are close to losing it.  It is entirely in our power to solve this problem if we choose to. It is wrong that we do not. Blaming Mayor de Blasio lets us off the hook too easily.

As much as the right to shelter for the homeless has been fought by various city and state officials over the years, we must think bigger.  A right to housing for all residents should be an obligation of the state that falls under its public welfare mandate.  New York has always been a laboratory of progressive governance and we should continue this tradition when it matters this much to so many.  We need to make sure the state follows through on this obligation. 

Far from requiring huge amounts of new revenue, committing to housing as a right would allow the city and state to review the many programs and laws that currently apply money as band-aids all along the housing cycle.  It’s easy to see how such a simple policy goal could unleash innovative public programs, private partnerships, and lead to an overall reboot for thinking about housing in New York.  This is clearly what we need to do if we want to address the homelessness and affordability crises - and actually end them. It starts with every one of us deciding that housing is a right.