Coalition For the Homeless

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.

The Bigger Problem: Why Didn't Tenants Have Right to Counsel in First Place?

Long wait for justice (NYT)

Long wait for justice (NYT)

 

Recently, housing advocates celebrated the announcement that New York City will provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants in housing court. This relatively inexpensive program will undoubtedly improve the lives of many vulnerable New Yorkers by reducing the risk of eviction.  But why didn’t these tenants have access to legal representation in the first place?  Therein lies the bigger housing problem with our legal system and our country.

The obvious place to start is the difference between criminal and civil court in the US.  The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to counsel in all criminal proceedings (although surprisingly it wasn’t expressly outlined by the Supreme Court until 1963).  Anytime the state brings charges against you, you are guaranteed fair, conflict-free legal counsel through the public defender system (though some are cared for more than others.)

However, unlike most western democracies, you are not guaranteed the right to counsel in civil court in the US.  There are some exceptions to this - if there are concerns over due process or if the case risks your personal liberty.  This narrow view is partially based on Lassiter v Dept. Social Services in 1981.  It’s an utterly heart-breaking case and I strongly recommend you read this article about it to understand the sexist and racist assumptions that went into the broader argument against providing counsel for civil cases.

In New York City, the Housing Court (which was formalized as its own branch of the civil court system in 1973) sees 350,000 filings a year with just 50 judges. That makes for a painfully slow process that favors those who can afford lawyers who are familiar with its pace and process (and who can afford to take that long).  As of 2015, 90% of landlords had legal representation and only 10% of tenants did.

Now, ask any landlord and they will tell you its exceedingly difficult to evict a tenant in New York (which is absolutely true, certainly relative to other states) but with such a discrepancy between representation, it’s clear that tenants don’t have the same access to due process.  It’s also a substantially different circumstance when your home is at stake vs. part of an investment. 

It’s not hard to see why this is a problem.  According to the Coalition for the Homeless, eviction is the number one cause of homelessness for women and children in the city, who represent over 75% of shelter system residents (about 48,000 out of 62,000 people).  The right to counsel will have a profound impact on this particularly vulnerable population.

But why did it take this long to address? Because we don’t think of housing as a right.  Or, put another way, we don’t think the loss of a home is the same as loss of personal liberty

And therein lies the problem with our civil legal system (putting aside how unacceptably overworked and underfunded that system is) and our broader society.  Who defines personal liberty? Would a mother with several children consider herself free if she is homeless? Is she not deprived of her personal liberty and her children’s? Not being able to afford a home is not the same as choosing not to have one.

Courts have generally shown concern about the ‘slippery slope’ of where to draw the line on personal liberty.   That’s reasonable and one that the courts ultimately shouldn’t have to decide.  We should.  The right to counsel to prevent evictions is a wonderful start, but we must go further as a society.  We must decide that housing is a right.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that it is the landlord’s obligation to provide that right.  There are malevolent landlords out there for sure, but there are also many more that are trying to make ends meet just like everybody else.  We can’t simply put the burden of providing free housing on landlords or demonize them when they are trying to get a return from their property.

We must think bigger. Adopting housing as a right as an organizing principle would have several major policy implications to do just that.

First, at the local level it would have a liberating effect on the stifling status quo of our current rent, occupancy, zoning, and property tax laws that collectively play a large role in the affordable housing crisis.  It would spur significant innovation around these regulations that would likely provide gains for all stakeholders.

Second, it could fix the federal government’s wasteful role in housing.  For too long, and at far too high a cost, the federal government has supported homeownership exclusively.  This choice has caused generations of systemic segregation, degraded our environment and civic life, and nearly destroyed our economy.  Building more types of housing in more kinds of communities for more types of people could arguably create a sustainable, equitable economic boom the likes of which we haven’t experienced in decades, if ever.

Finally, it could also potentially lead to a cultural reboot; something that Americans of all political identities appear to agree is needed.  For too many people, it’s not clear today what America’s role in the world is or will be.  It isn’t clear that our system is producing the type of peace and prosperity we’ve come to expect - or that it’s capable of fixing itself in order to do so.  It isn’t clear what America is. Let’s fix that.

Let’s start by getting back to basics. What is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’? Is it merely positive liberty (the freedom to do something) or is it also negative liberty (the freedom from something)?  How can you pursue happiness, liberty, or life without a place to call home?

We’ve always been our best when we’ve used our noble ideals to defend the vulnerable and innocent from the violent injustices of the world, here and abroad.  Surly we can address the housing needs of millions of Americans.  In the process, we can rediscover the ideals that have made us such a beacon for the rest of the world.

There are 60,000 Homeless People in NYC Right Now

Homeless in the USA (huffingtonpost)

Homeless in the USA (huffingtonpost)

A recent article in the Daily News stated that New York City’s homeless population has surpassed 60,000, which is the highest count on record – outpacing even the darkest days of the Great Depression.  The number of homeless has more than doubled in the last 20 years.  This fact is disheartening enough but what is perhaps even more disheartening is how little attention this problem gets in the city.  The images of the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 have long since faded from the day-to-day perceptions of New Yorkers.  It’s rare that a typical New Yorker comes across any homeless in the city, despite the record numbers. 

I’ll discuss why the homeless population has grown so much during this period, what the city is trying to do to address it, and why this issue doesn’t get much attention.

First, it’s important to understand the different types of homelessness.  The National Coalition for the Homeless lists three: Chronic homeless, transitional homeless, and episodic homeless. 

Chronic homeless are the stereotypical homeless - individuals that have been unemployed for an extensive period of time and rely on the shelter system for long-term housing.  They are typically older and often suffer from mental health disabilities and substance abuse problems but can also represent younger families who cannot afford housing.  They generally do not transition into stable homing as much as others. 

Transitional homeless are usually younger individuals or families that have suffered through some type of catastrophic event that has temporarily forced them into relying on the shelter system.  Whether it’s a natural disaster, a domestic abuse situation, or a sudden job loss, these people represent a high portion of the homeless that find new permanent housing.

Episodic homeless fall in between the other forms.  They are generally younger and filter in and out of the shelter system over a long period of time, whether as a result of higher levels of unemployment, mental health issues, or substance abuse issues.

The Coalition for the Homeless in NYC breaks down the numbers of chronic homeless.  Of the 60,000, reported nearly 24,000 are children.  58% are Black and 31% are Latino. The DHS also reported that over the entire fiscal year of 2015, there were 109,000 people who slept in city shelters, suggesting that there is also a significant transitional and episodic population of homeless that also needs addressing.

(DHS)

(DHS)

So why has the homeless population gone up so much? The obvious answer is the lack of affordable housing.  Rents have increased across virtually every neighborhood in NYC and by 75% overall since 2000. During that period median real incomes have declined by 5%, causing an immense amount of pressure for economically vulnerable residents.  

The other answer is the lack of support for larger policy interventions.  Mayor Giuliani is often (somewhat incorrectly) credited with the large decrease in crime and homelessness in the 1990s, but his policy (based on Broken Windows principles) effectively chased the homeless out of public places rather than addressing their underlying issues. 

In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg removed the preference for homeless families to receive vacant NYCHA housing, which many advocates see as a reason for the spike in chronic homelessness. 

The number of vouchers to help residents pay rent at a fixed 30% of income, commonly refereed to as Section 8, has also varied wildly over this time period.  The number of homeless families in city-subsidized housing declines from 10% under Mayor Koch to 4% under Mayor Bloomberg.

Finally, the construction of new units dedicated to the homeless has generally been a non-starter politically.  Mayor de Blasio’s major housing initiatives had little to say about requiring developers to provide homeless housing in private development.  Given the political opposition to the plan as it was, the Mayor clearly didn’t want to turn off more developers and residents. He has stated that out of 80,000 new units the administration homes to build 15,000 will be some form of supportive housing, though those details remain undefined.

That’s not to say the city isn’t doing more to address the problem.  Many advocates are quick to credit Mayor de Blasio with providing more of an outreach than any previous administration.  There is more coordination between city agencies, neighborhood groups, and non-profit organizations which has resulted in, among other things, the reduction of some of the more infamous cluster-site programs that have been seen as dangerous by residents of these shelters and surrounding neighbors.  The Mayor has also reintroduced NYCHA priority housing for homeless families.

(DHS)

(DHS)

One area that could potentially see the most gains for transitional and episodic homeless is the guarantee of a right to counsel in housing court.  Right now, many residents don’t have representation in housing court, which leads to a large amount of evictions (and a heavy cost on the city to provide homeless services.) The Right to Counsel Coalition has suggested that by paying $260m a year in defense counsel, the city could save a net of $320m on homeless services by keeping people in their homes.  This type of intervention has support from the Mayor, who has expanded city legal services by $70m, but he has so far not supported the larger policy change.

Developing meaningful programs to address chronic homelessness is admittedly much harder.  The number of individuals suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse calls for more intervention from health and social services in coordination with DHS. Efforts in places like Salt Lake City show that a commitment to providing basic shelter can make addressing these underlying issues easier for social workers and health care providers, but the costs in NYC appear to be prohibitive.

Despite how large a problem homelessness has been in NYC for decades, there is a basic “Out of sight, out of mind” element in play for most New Yorkers, although that has started to change.  Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg had a much stricter policy on removing the homeless from park benches and other public places, which has been relaxed somewhat under Mayor de Blasio.  This has resulted in a larger presence of homeless than some New Yorkers have been used to seeing.

In this sense, given the raw numbers and the fact that some New Yorkers see the homeless more than they used to, you might say that the problem is objectively ‘’worse” than ‘before.’  But that's missing the point.  The homeless population has indeed grown considerably, but it has been at an alarming level for years.  Contrary to the media coverage over that time period, many advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm with little fanfare. 

We're hearing about the homeless problem now because it's starting to become politically useful.  The Mayor has made many enemies in his first term. Some of those enemies are products of differing political agendas and some are the product of missteps by the Mayor and his administration.  As the next citywide elections crop up on the calendar, you can expect potential rivals to test issues with the public that might be weaknesses to exploit. Homelessness might very well be a weakness for the mayor given the increase in raw numbers despite his background advocating on this issue. Christine Quinn, who lost in the primary to Mayor de Blasio last time out, was curiously quoted in the Daily News article about homelessness. 

It's a shame that this issue only crops up in the media with any consistency as primary season gets closer. Politics are politics, but framing this as some type of horserace wedge issue is missing the point. This is a problem that spans multiple administrations and should transcend shallow election media coverage or the occasional outrage piece. 

We can’t otherwise ignore that for years, thousands of New Yorkers, many of them families with children, haven't been able to afford to live in the city and have nowhere else to turn to but the city’s over-stretched shelters.  It should concern everyday New Yorkers beyond the discomfort of occasionally stepping over a homeless person on the way to the subway. The truth is, that experience is only a small window into the enduring trauma suffered by 60,000 New Yorkers that we don't ever see.

Finally, in the larger and more complicated sense, we also can’t otherwise ignore that the homeless represent just the first wave of victims of the affordable housing crisis, a crisis that has too many New Yorkers dangerously close to losing their homes if an unexpected event occurs or if basic economic trends continue. We can’t ignore that homelessness in NYC represents a larger problem about the nature of our economic and political system, where we can’t produce enough good paying jobs, affordable homes, and adequate social and health services for enough of our citizens. No Mayor and no city agency can address those issues alone, but we must start framing them together as one large issue if we want to solve any one of them.