Thursday night, the same day Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a preliminary budget focused on “fiscal discipline” and two days after Gov. Kathy Hochul laid out her priorities for the year ahead in her State of the State speech, 70,525 people slept in a New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter.
Thursday night, the same day Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a preliminary budget focused on "fiscal discipline" and two days after Gov. Kathy Hochul laid out her priorities for the year ahead in her State of the State speech, 70,525 people slept in a New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter.
That number—which included 22,419 children—represents a record high that's climbed in recent months, up more than 51 percent since Adams took office at the start of 2022, according to daily data tracked by City Limits.
The number doesn't include people who stayed in shelters run by city agencies other than DHS, what amounted to nearly 9,000 people in November, the most recent month for which that data is available. Nor does it count those sheltered at one of the city's four “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers” (HERRC), which housed 5,414 people in mid-December, or the thousands more estimated to sleep each night in the city's streets and public spaces.
"The increase in the shelter census, particularly in the second half of 2022, was staggering," said Jacquelyn Simone, former policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.
The dramatic uptick last year was fueled, experts and officials say, by the ongoing financial impact of the pandemic, the end of statewide eviction protections last year, rising rents, understaffed government agencies, a shortage of truly affordable housing and the arrival since last spring of more than 40,000 asylum seekers from the southern border that lawmakers say has strained the city's resources.
"It is the perfect storm," said Baaba Halm, vice president and New York market leader at Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing nonprofit.
In recent months, Mayor Adams has emphasized the uptick in migrants seeking shelter as the main force driving the city's homeless population, prompting the administration to open 74 emergency shelters in addition to the HERRC sites, including a short-lived, barracks-style tent facility on Randall's Island.
Adams earlier this week submitted an "emergency mutual aid request" to the state seeking funds and has repeatedly pressed the federal government for additional aid to address the crisis, which he's said has cost the city $1 billion this fiscal year so far.
"We are now seeing more people arrive than we have ever seen—averaging over 400 people each day this last week, with 835 asylum seekers arriving on one single day alone, the largest single day arrival we’ve seen to date. All this is pushing New York City to the brink," the mayor said Saturday, as he prepared to travel to El Paso, Texas to meet with local leaders along the border firsthand. "We are at our breaking point."
But some advocates argue the focus on people arriving from the border oversimplifies the situation, pointing to the housing and affordability crisis New York was facing well before migrants began to arrive in large numbers this spring. The number of apartments in the city available for low- and middle- income residents reached a 30-year low in 2021, and rent costs hit record-highs last year.
At the same time, homeless New Yorkers are spending more time in the shelter system—an average of 534 days for families with children in the most recent fiscal year—stymied by bureaucratic delays and rampant housing discrimination.
"This state has had a housing crisis, and an economic emergency for low income people, for quite a while," said Halm. "I think we're losing sight of the economic crisis in this state well before a confluence of all these other things."
'More of a sense of urgency' from the city
Since taking office last year, Adams has focused on the need for more housing development across the five boroughs, campaigning for New York to become a "City of Yes," with the goal of building 500,000 new homes over the next decade as part of his "Get Stuff Built" plan. He's pushed to convert underutilized hotels and office space into supportive and affordable housing, and to streamline the city's land use approval processes to speed up construction.
Late last year, the administration also introduced a number of reforms intended to make more people eligible for CityFHEPS, the city's rental assistance vouchers for low-income residents. While advocates applauded those changes, they say the city missed an opportunity to make more pressing fixes, including elimination of the so-called "90 day rule" which requires applicants spend at least three months in a shelter before they're eligible for the vouchers, what advocates say forces people to remain in the system unnecessarily.
They're also pressing the city to expand CityFHEPS eligibility to undocumented applicants, which would help alleviate some of the strain on current shelter capacity taxed by the migrant crisis.
"I worry that, especially given the demographics of the new arrivals, and the fact that the vast majority of them are not eligible for subsidies, that we're going to see an ever expanding [homeless] census," said Simone.
In general, she added, "I think we need more of a sense of urgency from the administration," when it comes to connecting New Yorkers in shelter to permanent housing. "It's not only more people coming into the system, it's fewer people leaving the system," Simone said.
Adams' preliminary budget unveiled last week includes $20 million to address homelessness—including funding for a new unit at the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) to crack down on landlords who illegally refuse to rent to voucher holders, enforcement that has been hampered in recent years by understaffing issues.
But homelessness advocates worry that Adams' focus on fiscal discipline in the upcoming budget cycle will further slow moves to permanent housing and keep people in the shelter system longer than they need to be. The mayor has proposed cutting at least 4,300 vacant city positions each year as part of his cost-cutting efforts, a move he says will save the city $180 million this fiscal year alone.
"Some will argue that vacancy reduction results in agencies not being able to do their jobs. Don't believe them," Adams said when announcing his budget last week. "There are 23,000 open positions still on the books, which leaves ample room in agency budgets to hire for critical roles."
Critics, however, point to existing problems at understaffed city agencies like the Human Resources Administration (HRA), where a 20 percent staff vacancy rate and a case backlog has left more than half of the city's food stamp applicants waiting for benefits. One woman told City Limits she was forced to pawn her engagement ring to afford groceries this past fall.
"In this very dire time we need all levels of government to function adequately and efficiently to address the needs of our constituents and neighbors," City Councilmember Diana Ayala and State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas wrote in a letter to the mayor last week, pushing back against the vacancy cuts at HRA, which also processes applications for CityFHEPS and emergency cash assistance.
"New York City cannot cut its way out of this crisis," former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, now president of the homeless services organization WIN, said in a statement in response to Adams' preliminary budget.
Simone pointed to vacancies in the city's supportive housing network—affordable apartments that come paired with social services, which the administration has touted as a key part of addressing the street homelessness crisis in particular. Nearly 2,600 such units are vacant, the New York Times reported in November. During the most recent fiscal year, just 16 percent of New Yorkers approved by the city for supportive housing were actually placed with an apartment, City Limits reported previously.
"We should be focused on quickly moving people into permanent housing because it is the right thing to do, and because it is an abomination that children are spending more than a year and a half in shelters on average," Simone said. "It's also the fiscally right thing to do—it's cheaper to subsidize someone's rent in a private apartment that to have them in shelter."
Hochul's focus on fair housing, but no push for 'Good Cause'
At the state level, Gov. Hochul has, like Adams, prioritized the need for more housing development. In her State of the State speech last week, the governor announced her plan to facilitate the creation of 800,000 new homes across the state over the next decade, in large part by requiring municipalities to meet set construction targets, with greater density planned for areas well served by public transit.
"New York faces a housing crisis that requires bold actions and an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Hochul said. “Every community in New York must do their part to encourage housing growth to move our State forward and keep our economy strong."
While some suburban lawmakers have already denounced Hochul's proposal, many housing advocates applauded the plan, saying ramping up supply will help lower rent and housing costs that have spiked in recent years, particularly for lower-income earners.
"Statewide, nearly half of renters are cost-burdened, in large part because New York has a deficit of almost 650,000 available rental units affordable for households making roughly $50,000 or less," Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, wrote in an oped for City Limits.
But others were disappointed the governor's State of the State failed to mention policies aimed more explicitly at protecting tenants and keeping New Yorkers in their homes. Evictions are increasing again after a pandemic moratorium, and in New York City, many low-income tenants are heading to court without the help of an attorney despite a city program that's supposed to guarantee free representation, as the frantic pace of housing court has moved eviction cases along faster than available attorneys can handle.
"While we are heartened that Governor Kathy Hochul plans to prioritize statewide affordable housing construction, tenants need relief now," the Legal Aid Society said in response to Hochul's speech.
"We can't just wait for new housing, which takes years to become available," echoed Halm, of Enterprise Community Partners.
They and other housing advocacy groups are pushing for the governor and Albany lawmakers to approve the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), which would create a new state rental subsidy for New Yorkers experiencing or at risk of homelessness, with tenants covering a portion of the rent up to 30 percent of household income.
A bill establishing HAVP has been introduced in the legislature the last few years, but supporters—which include major landlord groups, like the Real Estate Board of New York—hope the current crisis will spur lawmakers to take it across the finish line in 2023. The vouchers would be open to anyone who meets the eligibility requirements, regardless of immigration status.
"HAVP is designed to be maximally accessible, flexible, and non-discriminatory, making it the most effective program for moving homeless households into stable, permanent housing," dozens of advocacy groups wrote in a letter to the governor and Albany leadership in support of the bill last year. "We must offer people a pathway out of the shelters and off of the streets."
Housing rights organizers are also making a renewed push for the state to pass a "Good Cause" eviction law, which would prohibit landlords from evicting or removing a tenant without good reason, such as nonpayment, and set caps on annual rent increases—protections similar to those granted to rent-stabilized tenants.
Property owners have vehemently opposed the policy, saying it would limit their ability to afford building repairs and other expenses as well as remove problem tenants. Similar measures on the local level in cities like Newburgh and Albany have been met by lawsuits.
Supporters, though, say the legislation would merely protect tenants "against unjust evictions and unreasonable rent increases."
"Hochul’s housing plan uses a garden hose to solve a five-alarm fire," Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the advocacy group Housing Justice for All, said in a statement following the State of the State, which slammed the governor for not explicitly backing Good Cause.
"To truly solve the housing crisis, we need robust protections from rent hikes and evictions," Weaver said. "Rent increases are shattering records. Homelessness is surging. And more and more New Yorkers are losing their homes every day."