Opinion: Success of Mayor’s Housing Plan Proves We Can Do More for Homeless NYers

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homeless outreach

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor de Blasio joins with HRA Commissioner Steven Banks and NYCEM Commissioner Joseph J. Esposito at a 2016 homeless outreach project.

The de Blasio administration just announced that its Housing New York affordable housing plan has financed over 135,000 permanent housing units since the mayor took office in 2014. This unprecedented, record-setting pace puts the administration on track to meet the plan’s audacious goal of creating or preserving 300,000 affordable housing units over twelve years.

And yet, instead of accolades, many advocates continue to hound the mayor with criticism. They say the plan is not creating enough permanent housing specifically for homeless New Yorkers. When confronted in the gym, on the radio and now in presidential forums, the mayor bristles, perhaps understandably – the past year saw Housing New York finance 2,682 homeless units, the most in one year ever.

The thing is, the advocates are right: in the face of today’s mass homelessness, the mayor’s affordable housing plan shouldbe creating more units for homeless New Yorkers. It’s the best chance we have to actually decrease our unforgivably high shelter census. The good news is that the city’s surprising success to date provides the very foundation that will make it possible to build even more housing for homeless people.

Many of us housing experts were skeptical that the administration would be able to meet Housing New York’sambitious development targets (which were revised upward from an initial 200,000 units over ten years, to 300,000 in twelve). We are happy to be proved wrong – particularly because the plan is on pace to produce many more apartments affordable to the poorest households than previous affordable housing development initiatives under Mayors Bloomberg, Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch. The more deeply affordable an apartment is, the more challenging and expensive it is to finance. It is a testament to the energy, expertise and creativity of City Hall and the city’s housing agencies that they have found the resources and mechanisms to go both bigger on unit numbers anddeeper on affordability.

So why all the unhappiness? Well, for one, there are more homeless families and individuals than ever in New York City – close to 60,000 people sleep in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters every night. And there’s a real shortage of housing affordable to New Yorkers with the very lowest incomes: the vacancy rate for apartments renting for less than $800 a month is just 1.15 percent. As a result, 368,000 households earning $42,000 a year or less pay more than half their take-home pay on rent. Many of these New Yorkers are one financial crisis away from entering the shelter system.

Unsurprisingly the housing crisis is hitting homeless and very poor people hardest. Despite the de Blasio administration’s substantial investments in homeless rental vouchers and anti-eviction measures, the city’s capital housing plan is not building enough housing for homeless New Yorkers. Right now, it is the weak link in the mayor’s efforts to reduce homelessness.

To change this, a coalition of homeless advocates and providers came together to form the House Our Future NY campaign, calling on the administration to set aside ten percent, or 30,000 units, of the capital plan’s housing for homeless New Yorkers. In our view, this is a reasonable goal: Mayor Koch’s 1986 10-Year Housing Plan had a ten percent homeless set-aside, and the 11,552 homeless units financed by the de Blasio plan so far already comprise 8.5 percent of the housing created to date. Getting up to ten percent is not too big a lift, and our organization, Gateway Housing, was quick to sign on in support of the campaign.

It is true that additional demands by House Our Future NY will make it more challenging for the city to achieve the 30,000 homeless unit target. The campaign wants 24,000 of the homeless units to be newly constructed, and have them counted in addition to the 15,000 units of supportive housing with services de Blasio has already promised over the next 15 years under his NYC 15/15 initiative.

These added conditions won’t make it any easier to achieve the campaign’s 30,000-unit target. After all, it costs more to build a new affordable unit than to preserve an existing one, and the city has always included supportive housing in its counts of homeless units. But the city’s housing agencies have a habit of exceeding expectations, and we are confident they will find ways to make these new, more ambitious homeless housing targets.

There are a number of strategies they can employ:

Deeper capital subsidies: The plan’s affordable apartments that will be newly constructed for low income households can be made more deeply affordable, so that they’re within reach of homeless families’ extremely low incomes. Turning 1,200 new construction low income units a year into homeless units will cost an additional $144 million in annual capital investment. That’s an increase of less than ten percent over Housing New York’s $1.7 billion outlay last year.

Project-based rental subsidies: The city can also provide project-based rental subsidies to allow homeless families to move into some of the 60,000 Housing New York units being built for middle-income households. While the city’s rent subsidies have helped thousands of homeless people move into permanent housing, thousands more have rental vouchers, but remain stuck in shelter – there just aren’t enough apartments for rent at the low rates the vouchers pay. Market-rate housing affordable to middle income New Yorkers already enjoys a relatively healthy 7.42 percent vacancy rate. Surely, some of the affordable middle-income units the mayor’s plan is building could be redirected to the approximately one in three homeless families who have a working head of household, by giving these families a project-based voucher at a rate high enough to pay the middle-income-level affordable rent. Using some part of rent subsidy funds in this way would house homeless families immediately, provide a pathway out of intergenerational poverty for homeless children,and increase the city’s housing stock.

Preservation vacancies and re-rentals: The administration’s new preservation policy requires that existing buildings that are rehabilitated and refinanced to preserve affordability must reserve existing and future vacancies for homeless households. This policy change will provide thousands of new vacancies for homeless households in the next five years.

Nonprofit- and city-owned shelter redevelopment: Gateway Housing is working with several shelter providers to redevelop city-owned or nonprofit-owned shelters on large lots into new, better shelters andnew permanent affordable housing on the same site. The city can develop more than a thousand units of permanent housing for formerly homeless tenants in this way – without paying for the rising cost of land acquisition.

New rent subsidies and homelessness prevention efforts have helped the de Blasio administration finally slow the explosive growth of the city’s shelter system – stabilizing it at a cost of over $2 billion a year. We now have to do all we can to begin reducing it, not only to rein in public costs and achieve substantial savings, but to spare a new generation of children the trauma of homelessness.

The best way to do this is to devote a larger share of the city’s affordable housing production to homeless households. It will not be easy, and it will not come cheap. But we cannot afford to stand pat. The de Blasio administration’s recent success building as much housing as it has already is the very reason we know it can do even more for homeless New Yorkers in the remaining years of the Housing New York plan.

Ted Houghton is the President of Gateway Housing, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the homeless shelter system by creating nonprofit-owned, purpose-built transitional residences, with innovative financing methods and service models using evidence-based practices. Ted was previously the Executive Deputy Commissioner of New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) from 2014 to 2015 and the Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York. Brendan Cheney is the Associate Director of Gateway Housing. Brendan was previously a senior housing policy analyst at the New York City Council, a budget and policy analyst at the Independent Budget Office and a data and policy reporter at Politico States.

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