“Legal status should not be a determinant of the quality of life you can live nor the access you have to shelter. Having a safe, stable place to call home is foundational to well-being and critical for children’s development.”

Adi Talwar

The first of three buses from the Texas border arriving at Port Authority in Midtown Manhattan on Aug. 10.

New York City approaches yet another winter in crisis. Thousands are without a home, opting for shelters, subways, or the streets. Still thousands more are bracing for their coldest winter ever after being inhumanely bussed here from Texas to make a political point. Many of our newest New Yorkers don’t have a winter coat—let alone a place to live.

The recent debate over the now-shuttered tent shelter on Randall’s Island underscores just how severe this housing crisis has become. There are the average 62,000 New Yorkers who rely on the shelter system, and untold thousands more either don’t trust it or can’t find a bed, and the 22,000 newest arrivals—many of whom will stay here after being granted asylum. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation that requires the city, state, and federal governments to provide immediate and long-term relief.

Step one is opening housing access for asylum seekers. Mayor Eric Adams’ recently announced reforms to the City Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) housing voucher program was a major step forward to help New Yorkers exit the shelter system and enter permanent housing. It’s the kind of barrier-lifting solution needed to ensure the health and stability of all New Yorkers.

While we applaud the Adams administration’s reforms, we urge the mayor to expand access for all housing voucher programs to people regardless of their immigration status. Legal status should not be a determinant of the quality of life you can live nor the access you have to shelter. Having a safe, stable place to call home is foundational to well-being and critical for children’s development.

We also believe the state must show leadership on this issue by passing and funding the Housing Access Voucher Program, which would offer a market rate rental subsidy for undocumented folks, including those living upstate in municipalities too small to support their own programs.

This is a necessary step to ensure no obstacle is left in place, but it is only part of the equation. We need to make sure the housing stock is in place for people to access. Right now, our current stock is aging and shrinking as New York’s population swells to 9 million. We have relied on a patchwork of incentives to create affordable housing, which many still cannot access. According to the planning firm AKRF, the immediate housing needs are for 227,000 new units, and at 556,000 by 2030. New York is off to a slow start as just 14 percent of that need is actually in the development pipeline. 

Part of the solution is in the 21 percent of Manhattan office space that sits empty while you read this. Not all workers are going back to the office but everyone needs a home. How can we let people be without a place to stay while 30 percent of Midtown East’s office space is vacant? 

At the height of the pandemic, Albany passed legislation that would ease the ability to convert office space into affordable housing; the House Our Neighbors with Dignity Act. These conversions can create units much faster than ground-up developments, which have become costlier and longer to complete. It would also deliver housing to transit-rich areas that are closer to wraparound services. 

The next question is who will pay for it? That’s where the federal government must step in. After World War II, Washington embarked on a massive investment in affordable housing. We once replaced tenements with brand new buildings that put an emphasis on light and fresh air. If we could pay for that, we can certainly pay for this. 

Cynics might rightfully say that such an investment would be impossible in a divided Congress. To Democrats, we would remind them of their election season pledges to fight every day for those migrants. To Republicans, we ask them to consider the revenue this would generate in the long-term, especially for subsidized red states like West Virginia, Alabama, and Kentucky.

We need such a moment again. People experiencing homelessness need a stable place to live. Our newest neighbors need a place to call home. We all need affordable housing. The midterm elections showed all of us that voters want leadership focused on solutions for today, not people who scream over someone who crossed the border yesterday. We hope our elected leaders will listen.

Younus is the Senior Director of Organizing and Strategy for the NY Immigration Coalition. Loonam is the Housing Campaign Coordinator for VOCAL-NY.