Based on current trends, we may be only weeks away from reaching a homeless population of 60,000 in New York City. It would be a terrible way to ring in the New Year.
Now is the time for Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to embark on a new city-state agreement for the next generation of supportive housing, a proven and cost-effective solution. Supportive housing is typically a new construction building of affordable studio apartments with on-site case management services, which efficiently keep residents stably housed. There have been three previous NY/NY agreements to build supportive housing and all have been an overwhelming success. The last one showed cost savings of $10,100 per resident per year. The model, which works even for chronic street homeless fighting double battles with mental illness and substance abuse, should also be expanded to include more families and vulnerable seniors.
Making the argument for supportive housing even more compelling is news that New York can expect capital funding in the region of $50 million annually as a result of FHFA Director Mel Watt’s recent directive to Fannie and Freddie, who are turning a profit once again, to fund the National Housing Trust Fund. As required by the Housing & Recovery Act of 2008, the money must primarily be used on rental housing for extremely low-income households—a perfect fit for building supportive housing.
A supportive housing capital program is essential to reducing homelessness, especially for chronic and disabled homeless but other interventions are also required. Many people just need help paying rent. Recognizing this, the mayor has launched a new rental assistance program aiming to assist 4,000 families, which unlike previous programs offers ongoing homeless prevention interventions. Landlords need to give this program a chance. The mayor also reinstated a public housing homeless preference for 750 families. Given the swelling census, both programs should be doubled or even tripled.
New York City has also tested a vulnerability index and housing placement tool while making progress in substantially reducing veterans’ homelessness. Such a tool has the promise of reducing the duration of shelter stays for families, which ultimately can help shrink the city’s homeless count (more homeless enter than exit shelter at present). This tool should be adapted for citywide use.
It is not just government who is thinking creatively about solutions, nonprofits have developed new shelter financing models which can cross subsidize permanent housing. If better shelter planning and financing tools were in place, the city could minimize reliance on costly cluster-sites and put 3,000 rental units back into the private market. Rental guarantees are also being piloted to entice reluctant landlords to lease apartments to working homeless families. This is sure to be an important tool in our hot rental market. More innovation of this kind will make a difference.
We must keep trying new solutions, while also investing in what is known to work, to ensure we never hit 60,000. This holiday season, the governor and mayor should put the $50 million expected from the National Housing Trust Fund under the tree for the homeless as a down payment on the next NY/NY Supportive Housing Program.