A homeless 52-year-old woman described the boutique Manhattan hotel room where she lives with her two grandkids as clean but tiny. Frances Ramos said the city Department of Homeless Services placed her family at The MAve Hotel in late October.
The narrow, 11-floor building at Madison Avenue and East 27th Street sits around the corner from the Museum of Sex. Its website markets rooms “modern in style,” but news reports revealed in October that the city was renting all of its 72 units for homeless New Yorkers.
Ramos’ room lacks a refrigerator, and she says 2-year-old Carlos and 5-year-old Ashley don’t always like their city-provided meals of bologna, turkey or tuna sandwiches. Yet the MAve also offered the family a reprieve from their mice-infested former shelter home, she said.
With homelessness in the city at a level not seen since the Great Depression, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been relying more and more on commercial hotel rooms like those at the MAve. City Hall has blamed political opposition for blocking any new traditional shelters.
One in eight ‘shelter’ residents is in a hotel
Nearly 12 percent of folks staying in DHS shelters in December were living in hotel rooms, the latest figures show. Hotels have emerged as a least worst choice with the city trying to close so-called “cluster-site” shelters made up of units in private affordable apartment buildings.
De Blasio vowed to end the use of commercial hotels as shelters after a triple homicide involving a family placed by DHS at a Staten Island Ramada Inn last February. Yet homeless advocates and critics of his administration alike say sheer numbers have caused him to renege on the promise so far.
Critics have seized on the issue to question the administration’s overall strategy, while advocates have also offered reservations about the use of the commercial hotels. But the reality of crisis-level homelessness, experts say, makes the facilities a necessity in the short-term.
“Homelessness is at an all-time high in New York City,” says Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney for the homeless rights project at The Legal Aid Society.
“The easy answer is that the hotels are a result of the city’s crisis. They have to provide shelter somewhere, so they’re using the hotels.”
The number of rooms across the city rented daily by DHS jumped 540 percent to 2,069 hotel rooms over the 12-month period ending Oct. 31, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. The number of homeless people housed in commercial hotel rooms grew to 5,881 from 696.
DHS officials say the number of clients in city-rented hotel rooms had increased even more by December, to more than 7,000 out of a total of roughly 60,000 shelter residents.
“Against a background of a 115 percent increase in homelessness over the last 20 years, we are only using hotels as a temporary bridge until we can open enough shelters to keep homeless children and adults off the street,” spokesman David Neustadt says in a statement.
“This is a citywide problem and we need the help of all the city’s communities in finding good shelters for families and individuals who’ve lost their homes due to rapidly rising rents and flat incomes.”
Concerns over cost and safety
Hotels represent an expensive solution, though. The city pays an average cost of $174 per night for a family and $85 for single adults sharing a double room. DHS spent over $72.9 million on hotel room bookings over the 12-month period tracked by a report Stringer’s office released Dec. 14. The collective cost of the room rentals grew to $400,000 a day by the end of October.
“To help our most vulnerable New Yorkers get back on their feet, to help families thrive, and to ensure we are spending taxpayer dollars efficiently, we need a plan from the City—and we need it now,” Stringer said in a statement. “These costs are absolutely alarming.”
Stringer’s criticism came the week after sisters aged 1 and 2 died in a South Bronx apartment complex used as a DHS cluster site. Investigators believe steam from a broken radiator burned the girls to death at their family’s Hunts Point Avenue cluster-site home on Dec. 7.
De Blasio called the sisters’ death “a horrible, horrible tragedy” caused by what appeared to be “a horrible perfect storm accident” in a Dec. 16 appearance on WNYC. He also said the administration plans to repair all cluster sites and convert them back to affordable housing.
“Because what happened is the cost of housing has created such pressure on people and this is what is driving this increase in the number of folks who end up in homeless shelter; that we are literally constantly running out of space for people who are perfectly good, in many cases, hardworking people who have a job and literally can’t afford their apartment anymore,” de Blasio said on “The Brian Lehrer Show.”
“We’re trying to fix that both in terms of more affordable housing and raising wages and benefits and creating more high quality jobs. But right now, we’re in a crisis, so we’re in a building like that because we don’t have a better alternative to get people to.”
Shortly after taking office, de Blasio asked the city Department of Investigation to examine all types of family shelters, and investigators pointed to cluster sites as the worst. The March 2015 probe found “unsafe and unhealthy conditions” at cluster sites, including lax security and vermin infestations. Investigators released pictures of rats squirming among debris inside one cluster building.
A larger crisis
DHS officials vowed to phase out both cluster sites and commercial hotels last spring as part of reforms stemming from an internal review. The 46 different reforms DHS unveiled in April 2016 followed a series of high-level personnel shifts atop the agency.
Commissioner Gilbert Taylor resigned in December 2015, four months after Lilliam Barrios-Paoli left her post as deputy mayor of health and human services where she oversaw DHS. De Blasio placed Steven Banks, the Human Resources Administration commissioner, in charge of DHS after the review in early 2016.
Banks, a former Legal Aid attorney of 33 years, said in April at a City Council hearing on the DHS reforms that the agency had beefed up security and maintenance at all types of shelters. He also warned that the city couldn’t stop using blocks of hotel rooms as shelters right away.
“As we move out of things like the 16-year-old cluster program and the commercial hotels, we also have to deal with a night-to-night reality,” Banks said.
“As we’re making progress to phase out the use of things that we’ve identified are appropriate to phase out of, there may be occasions to have to use more of something because we want to make sure that we continue to provide shelter even as we’re phasing out the overall programs.”
Banks acknowledged at the hearing that hotels did not offer the same level of case management, child care and other services as full-scale shelters known as Tier II facilities.
The legal mandate to house the homeless, which stems from a class-action lawsuit in the late ’70s, has forced the administration’s hand, says Coalition for the Homeless policy director Giselle Routhier. The Coalition reported 62,306 people sleeping in city shelters in October.
DHS homelessness figures, which are calculated differently, passed 60,000 that month for the first time ever and ticked up slightly to around 60,400 people by late December. The city’s “moral and legal obligation” demands space, according to Routhier.
“While imperfect, hotels are a way to quickly add capacity to fulfill that need. They’re not pulling from the housing stock, which is generally a good thing,” she says.
“The best way to reduce the need for hotels and the need for shelters more broadly is to make affordable housing more available so that the census starts to decrease.”
An expanding footprint
The agency’s rental of hotel rooms to serve this group has extended from the outer boroughs into prime Manhattan properties. DHS booked 30 rooms at $629 each for two nights at one Midtown hotel near Times Square in September, according to Stringer’s office. Even Properties like a landmarked West 81st Street building opposite the American Museum of Natural History has entered the fold: DHS is housing 38 families, including 49 children, at The Excelsior Hotel, according to Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal..
Visited in mid-December, the Excelsior’s lobby, marked by marble floors and shiny wood paneling, displayed nothing that would suggest it also serves as a homeless shelter. In contrast, two security guards stood in front of an elevator bank at The MAve in the NoMad area, blocking any possible guests.
The MAve marked Ramos’ sixth different home during her two years living in DHS housing. She says her family eats the DHS-provided food as well as groceries she buys under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and it’s adequate. But the room is just too small.
“You think they’re trying to help you, but it doesn’t work for everybody,” Ramos says. “It’s clean, there’s no mice and there’s no rodents. That’s the only thing that’s good about it.”
A 22-year-old woman outside a Quality Inn along Queens Boulevard in Woodside says she’s been living there less than a month with her fiancé and their 2-year-old daughter. She praises the caseworkers onsite at the hotel and describes the family’s DHS-rented room as adequate.
“It’s like a basic hotel room,” she says, declining to give her name. “It’s nothing to be comfortable with because you will end up lazy. The whole point is not to end up here for a long period of time. It’s to get yourself up.”
Routhier, of the Coalition for the Homeless, says most city hotel shelter facilities have office spaces for case managers and security staff and a food storage room. Rules often prohibit shelter residents from hotel swimming pools and other amenities onsite.
Around one-third of shelter residents work full-time jobs, according to Beth Hofmeister, another Legal Aid attorney from the group’s homeless rights project.
“There is this misconception around our clients. They’re doing everything they can to better their situation,” Hofmeister says. “These are not people who want to be where they are.”
Councilwoman Rosenthal’s office planned a holiday gift giveaway for the children at the Excelsior with Lincoln Center and the NYPD’s 20th Precinct, she says. Her staff was working with community partners to help give the kids “as normal a life as possible,” she says.
“As the winter gets colder, more people come in. Then you have to do these emergency placements,” says Rosenthal, a Democrat. “There aren’t enough shelters and the only option for the city—they’re left with these hotel rooms.”
Some pols see a last resort, others a talking point
Rosenthal says her staff had fielded only one constituent complaint about the DHS rentals at the Excelsior. Regardless, she says, the city’s use of commercial hotel rooms ought to remain only a “temporary, emergency solution.”
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district includes the Quality Inn, says the hotels make sense in light of a homelessness crisis that has reached “epidemic proportions.”
“Using hotels as homeless shelters is not a good first option, but we must take all steps necessary to keep children from sleeping on the street,” Van Bramer, a Democrat, says in a statement.
Even as DHS adds hotel-room rentals to its shelter rolls, the agency moves out of other sites. Political and logistical problems have prompted officials to reconsider some hotels which don’t offer quick public transit to the rest of the city. Much remains in flux amid record homelessness.
Representatives from the office of Republican Staten Island Councilman Steven Matteo say DHS moved shelters out of the Ramada after the triple homicide in February and out of three other hotels in his district over the summer.
DHS also cut off a lease after a month for roughly a dozen units in Rockaway Beach, Queens, at the former Playland Motel, according to Jamie Wiseman of Cayuga Capital Management, the owner of the property.
Wiseman says the agency ended the arrangement without ever moving anyone into the shuttered hotel. Cayuga is talking with “several” prospective new bar and restaurant and hotel tenants for the space after DHS officials pulled out of the lease, Wiseman says.
“It probably didn’t suit their needs,” he says. “It seems like the site turned out not to be part of the solution.”
Representatives for DHS didn’t provide the number of rooms the agency had rented at five specific hotel sites identified in media reports over the past year when asked by City Limits. No hotel manager nor landlord, other than Wiseman, returned requests for comment.
“Our member hotels serve transient needs. That is our focus,” Lisa Linden, spokeswoman for the Hotel Association of New York City, said in an emailed statement last month.
Advocates & opponents raise different objections
Many hotels in the DHS system pose problems for parents, from child care on-site to commutes , advocates say.
“Those hotels are often in very faraway places. It’s extremely difficult to get your kid to school if you’re out by JFK and the school’s in the Bronx,” says Kliff, the Legal Aid attorney. “It can be really tough for families just to meet their basic needs.”
Raysa Rodriguez, the vice president of policy and planning at shelter and supportive housing provider Women in Need, agrees. Her organization supports ending shelters at commercial hotels and a “long-term plan” to build more full-scale Tier II shelters, Rodriguez says in a statement.
“The city recognizes that its model for handling the record number of families with children entering shelter is inadequate,” Rodriguez says.
Protesters have focused on the hotel shelters during demonstrations outside Banks’ Brooklyn home. Shelters at hotels create a financial incentive for landlords to take advantage of the city’s legal mandate, says one Queens civic group’s founder.
“You can’t just keep throwing money at the problem. You can’t help all the homeless people across the country,” says Jennifer Chu of Elmhurst United. “There are a lot of communities that are opposed to these policies.”
Elmhurst United, started in 2014 in response to the full shelter conversion of Elmhurst’s former Pan American Hotel, has joined with other civic groups in protests. Chu described the right-to-shelter mandate as a magnet for out-of-state people rather than a moral obligation.
Just over 11 percent of the people who moved in to DHS shelters in the final six months of 2016 did so from out of state, according to the agency’s latest statistics.
On the other hand, the Coalition’s website cites as a myth the view that “out-of-towners abusing the city’s right to shelter” caused the crisis. Many families categorized as non-City residents in fact lost housing on Long Island or in New Jersey and returned home to New York.
Both Chu and Juniper Park Civic Association president Robert Holden said they support ending the right-to-shelter mandate. And the city would be better off spending the money used on hotel shelters for affordable housing production or rent subsidies, Holden said.
DHS officials shelved plans in October for a shelter at the former La Semana Hotel on West 24th Street in Manhattan after community opposition. The agency also scaled back plans to convert a Maspeth Holiday Inn Express into a shelter following protests led by Holden’s group.
The agency rented rooms for 30 men instead, but the site has remained a flashpoint for protest and political opposition to Mayor de Blasio. Democratic State Sen. Tony Avella announced his 2017 mayoral run at an event outside the Maspeth hotel on Dec. 18th.
About 20 like-minded neighborhood groups citywide have joined into a partnership they are calling “NYC United Civics,” Holden says.
“We formed a coalition of groups around the city that are fighting these shelters that are put in hotels in their neighborhood,” he says.
“What we’re simply trying to do is protect our quality of life. Putting homeless people in hotels is never a good idea. Even the administration knows that.”
Holden’s group also recently protested a proposed shelter in Ozone Park and a planned hotel in Jamaica he predicted would turn into a shelter. A representative from a group against another proposed shelter on Coney Island also reached out to him.
“The community can make a difference if there’s a public outcry and they’re doing their homework,” Holden says. “If we’re united, we can stop this, or at least effect some change.”
Is there a way out?
Homeless advocates and city officials defend the use of the hotels as a stopgap measure. About 11,000 people still lived in cluster sites in December as the city employed all means possible to keep people out of the cold, according to DHS officials.
Homeless prevention programs initiated by the de Blasio administration cut down on evictions by 24 percent, while rental subsidies and other aid helped 50,000 people move out of shelters or avoid them altogether, DHS officials said.
Over 12,500 vouchers accepted by landlords have led to new housing for 32,500 people during de Blasio’s term, and more than 4,400 apartments in New York City Housing Authority buildings have provided homes for over 15,200 people.
Kliff, the Legal Aid attorney, pointed out that many shelter residents keep living in the DHS system for months trying to find an apartment where the building owner will honor their vouchers.
“We have so many clients who are in shelters with vouchers and can’t get out,” she says. “You mention you want to use a voucher and it’s ‘Oh we’re full.'”
Stringer’s office also reported that homeless people often have difficulty getting landlords to take the vouchers. DHS officials pledged to enforce anti-discrimination laws but noted they cannot force landlords to take a tenant.
The Coalition praised de Blasio’s administration for a “prudent shift to housing-based solutions” in its 2016 “state of the homeless” report. The administration also took steps to give homeless families priority in federal housing programs, such as Section 8, according to the report.
The administration’s rental assistance programs and tenant housing court efforts are showing progress, Councilwoman Rosenthal says. The number of homeless people living in shelters each night grew by much less in 2016 than it did in 2015, she notes.
“That’s a win, but it’s sort of this confluence of problems,” Rosenthal says.
Administration officials estimated that the daily homeless census could have grown as large as 68,000 people without their responses to the crisis. The administration’s supportive and affordable housing programs will further reduce the census over the long term, they predicted.
De Blasio’s deputy press secretary, Aja Worthy-Davis, mentioned the political difficulty of opening any new full-scale shelters when asked about the use of commercial hotels.
“This is a crisis decades in the making and it won’t be solved overnight,” Worthy-Davis says in a statement.
“There’s no doubt that hotels are not ideal for homeless New Yorkers, but until we get citywide acceptance that more shelters are needed, hotels remain the only short-term option for keeping many New Yorkers off the streets.”
Hofmeister, of Legal Aid, says the administration could also strike more deals with developers for housing for the homeless during the zoning approval process for new projects. The Coalition called for more apartment units aimed at the homeless in housing sponsored by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
In the shorter term, though, administration officials are “doing what they think they have to do” under their right-to-shelter obligations, Hofmeister says.
“I would like to believe that if there are other options available besides hotels or cluster sites, that they would be using them,” she says. “They’re going to need a place to put people. I don’t know that there’s any other option out there.”