Banks, the first head of the city’s revamped Department of Social Services, said he would be departing at the end of the year to take a job as special counsel at a Manhattan-based white shoe law firm, leaving his role for Mayor-elect Eric Adams to fill in the next administration.
New York City Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks will leave his post Dec. 31 in order to take a role with a Manhattan-based white shoe law firm, he told staff members in an email Monday. His announcement to staff ends speculation that he would continue to chair the agency under Mayor-elect Eric Adams, and opens a position tasked with ending New York City’s ongoing homeless crisis.
Banks, the former head of Legal Aid who frequently sued the city on behalf of homeless New Yorkers and helped secure a right to shelter for all residents, was tapped by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 to lead the Human Resources Administration (HRA). De Blasio decided to merge HRA and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) into the Department of Social Services (DSS) and named Banks commissioner in 2016. Banks is one of just three agency heads to last the full duration of de Blasio’s eight years in office, and was widely expected to continue in that role under Adams.
On Monday morning, Banks notified DSS staff that he would be leaving at the end of the year to take a job as special counsel for pro bono practice at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP starting Feb. 1.
“Serving as your leader and your colleague for these past eight years has been an honor and a privilege of a lifetime,” he wrote in an email shared with City Limits. “But I know that for change to fully take root it cannot be dependent on a leader continuing to serve indefinitely and that lasting change occurs when it continues beyond a single agency head.”
Banks began leading the city’s response to its homelessness crisis as the number of people staying in DHS shelters surged to historic levels—upwards of 60,000 people per night between 2015 and 2018 after doubling under de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg. The DHS shelter population has since dropped to fewer than 46,000 people, a decrease driven by a significant reduction in the number of families with children residing in shelters, according to the city’s most recent daily census. At the same time, the number of families rejected for shelter placement has risen and the number of single adults staying in shelters has surged.
Homeless New Yorkers and their advocates say Banks achieved major victories in terms of prevention—like establishing the right to an attorney in housing court and the expansion of emergency rental assistance grants—but failed to implement his vision for more quickly moving people from shelters and the streets into permanent housing.
“He coordinated the city’s efforts to reduce evictions over the last eight years, which are miraculous and unprecedented,” said Legal Aid attorney Joshua Goldfein, a former colleague of Banks. “But he could not accomplish his goal of ending homelessness because he was not given the resources by City Hall, which siloed housing policy from homeless policy.”
Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Dave Giffen said Banks has had “an impressive public service career dedicated to helping homeless and low-income New Yorkers, having brought and resolved landmark litigation on their behalf and worked from inside City government to shepherd critical reforms in recent years.”
But other advocates framed Banks’ tenure as a disappointment and cited the tens of thousands of people staying in shelters, as well as the rising number of sweeps, or clean up operations, that DSS has participated in to force homeless New Yorkers out of public spaces.
Shams DaBaron, an advocate who has experienced homelessness and goes by the name “Da Homeless Hero,” welcomed news of Banks’ departure, saying the DSS commissioner seemed to prioritize shelters rather than permanent housing solutions—though Banks had his hands tied by de Blasio, DaBaron said.
“It’s an opportunity to bring in someone who can reorganize DSS and who is committed to eliminating the bureaucracy and finding ways to address housing,” DaBaron said Monday. “But we have to be careful because a lot of the problems we saw in this administration were at the direction of the mayor.”
Craig Hughes, a social worker and organizer at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, said Banks’ policies and strategies ended up harming many homeless New Yorkers, particularly families and individuals bedding down in public spaces.
“If we are serious about what happened over the last eight years, we should be talking to some of the 6,000 people who went through sweeps coordinated by DSS, some of the thousands of families who couldn’t get into shelter, some of the thousands of people who went through trauma during the moves from hotels to shelters against public health guidance,” Hughes said, referring to the June decision to end the use of hotels rented out to stop the spread of COVID-19. “Those are the people who should be reflecting on Banks’ legacy, whose voices matter most and who can give an honest assessment.”
Banks came into city government after three decades as one of New York City’s fiercest advocates for the rights of people experiencing homelessness. As head of HRA and, later, the reorganized DSS, he immediately sought to institute policies that stemmed the number of newly homeless individuals and families—often New Yorkers evicted from increasingly expensive apartments and unable to find another affordable home.
DSS said 29,000 New Yorkers avoided homelessness thanks to the city’s right to counsel program or emergency assistance grants, known as One-Shot Deals. More than 145,000 people have exited the shelter system since 2014, DSS added—a stunning illustration of the extent of the homelessness problem over the past decade. Roughly 16,000 of those moved into permanent supportive housing, DSS said.
The number of people staying on the sidewalks or in public spaces has also decreased, according to the results of the city’s annual street homeless census. But advocates say the tally is a significant undercount fueled by enforcement intended to move people off the streets beforehand.
As head of HRA, Banks led efforts to expand access to city benefits and entitlements, including streamlining the food stamp application process and overseeing a recent boost to the value of CityFHEPS rental assistance vouchers for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. The CityFHEPS increase, voted on by the City Council in May, came after years of resistance by the de Blasio administration.
During his tenure, DSS also ended the city’s reliance on poorly maintained private apartment buildings for use as “cluster site” homeless shelters—a key goal of de Blasio’s Turning the Tide on Homelessness plan. The city has facilitated the purchase of more than 1,200 units in those former cluster site buildings and turned them into permanent affordable housing, though problems at the properties have lingered.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Banks implemented a plan for moving nearly 10,000 New Yorkers out of dormitory-style homeless shelters and into private or semi-private rooms in commercial hotels, an undertaking praised for reducing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. The end of that program highlighted the policy differences between Banks and his boss, de Blasio, and the limits of his role leading the agency.
Banks and DSS officials faced significant backlash when the agency and its nonprofit partners—under the direction of de Blasio—began moving people out of the hotels and back into shelters in June, an initially chaotic process that left many residents unaccounted for and stranded people with disabilities in sites that did not meet their needs. Banks did not agree with the decision to end the use of hotels, according to multiple people working for DSS and the city, but went along with the plan.
In a statement on Monday, de Blasio praised Banks’ “unwavering commitment” to low-income New Yorkers and those experiencing homeless.
“For the past eight years, Commissioner Steve Banks has been a fearless advocate for the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” the mayor said. “From implementing the first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel Program, to ensuring services are readily available to those in need, Steve has delivered transformative change, moving mountains to make life better for millions of New Yorkers.”
News of Banks’ pending departure surprised many in the agency, including staff members who shared his email with City Limits, as well as advocates and some top city officials. For months, Banks seemed likely to remain atop DSS, at least temporarily, under the next mayor.
As recently as Friday, a person close to the Adams campaign and transition told City Limits that Banks would continue on as DSS commissioner, calling it a “done deal.”
“Even if you don’t like him, you have to keep him on or the whole house of cards could come tumbling down,” said the person, who was not authorized to speak to the media about appointments. “That’s not an area where you want chaos.”
Advocates have urged Adams to improve coordination between city homeless and housing agencies and bring them under the authority of a single deputy mayor. Adams has said he is open to that idea but has not said who he might select as the next DSS commissioner.
On Monday, Adams’ spokesperson Evan Thies said the mayor-elect was still evaluating potential candidates.
“Steve Banks is a skilled and accomplished public servant, who has navigated complex government problems to find essential solutions on behalf of New Yorkers,” Adams added in a separate statement.