Between the year 2000 and the start of the pandemic, the number of homeless families in New York City roughly tripled. According to the 2019 HUD “point in time” count, homeless parents and their children made up more than half of the city’s total shelter population— 43,000 people living in family shelters, including almost 25,000 children under the age of 18. 95 percent of those families were Black and Latino and 69 percent were led by single mothers.
Though the number of homelessness families were beginning to decrease in 2019 and declined further during the pandemic, many advocates believe the count could increase dramatically once the current eviction moratorium fully ends. The citywide unemployment rate has tripled, with rates far higher in our most hard-hit neighborhoods.
So, how will the next mayor respond to this ongoing and potentially worsening crisis?
We sat down with six mayoral candidates for an estimated 30 minutes each, and asked them roughly the same questions. You can view each of their interviews separately below, as well as view how all the candidates answered specific questions, to easily compare them.
To help us delve deeply into these issues, we worked with the Family Homelessness Coalition fellows, who helped us develop important questions for this year’s mayoral candidates based on their knowledge and personal experiences of homelessness in New York City.
Remember that the primary is June 22, early voting begins Jun 12, and for the first time in a mayoral race, voters will be able to rank up to five candidates in order of preference.
We invited the eight major Democratic candidates, based on polling and fundraising, to participate. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal and city housing chief Shaun Donovan, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, nonprofit leader Dianne Morales and Comptroller Scott Stringer agreed to interviews. Maya Wiley and Andrew Yang did not.
The candidate interviews
Answers to specific questions
Root Causes of Homelessness
Your Big Pitch to End Family Homelessness
A “Housing First” Model for Families?
Your Housing Plan for Domestic Violence Survivors
The Neighborhoods Chosen for Homeless Shelters
Moving the Money from Shelters to Housing
Voucher Troubles & the Ending Eviction Moratorium
Supporting Our Homeless Students
Your Plan for the Homelessness Bureaucracy
Beyond Housing Solutions
Some key background
There are also two Republicans running for mayor, Guardian Angels founder and radio personality Curtis Sliwa and Fernando Mateo, a veteran advocate for taxi drivers and bodega owners. At the time this project was being prepared, it was not apparent there would be a Republican primary. Unlike most of the Democratic candidates, neither Republican candidate has discussed housing or homelessness at any length to date. After a Republican nominee is selected on June 22, City Limits will request an interview to discuss family homelessness.
The videos included in the “Answers to Specific Questions” section collected responses on a particular topic from each interviewed candidate, but questions were not always worded or stressed the same way. For instance, for the “Beyond Housing” video, most candidates were asked what issues beyond housing must be addressed to get at the root causes of homelessness, but Donovan and McGuire were also prompted in our question to consider the racial disparities in the homelessness population. In addition, we phrased several questions somewhat differently to Stringer. For instance, for the “Housing Plan for Domestic Violence Survivors” question, we asked him to address domestic violence issues, we did not ask him specifically about how he’d help DV survivors stay home, or how he’d help survivors access homeless set aside units in new affordable housing. Our question on “Housing First” sometimes stressed the issue of helping families who have emerged from shelter stay housed, and sometimes placed more stress on supportive housing or the “housing first” concept. For other variations and to watch each conversation in full, check out “The Candidate Interviews” above.
A few of the candidates raised issues that require a little clarification:
Multiple candidates say their approach will differ from the prior administration by building housing affordable to those truly in need. It’s worth remembering that the De Blasio administration did “build or preserve” nearly 28,800 units of housing for families making less than 30 percent AMI (roughly $30,000 for a family of three) though one can still make an argument that this wasn’t enough to address the existing need.
Stringer at one point says that De Blasio “built affordable housing but he built more housing for families of three making $150,000 a year than for families of three making less than $40,000 a year.” While certainly many market-rate units supported by tax breaks have popped up during De Blasio’s tenure, the units De Blasio includes in his affordable housing numbers actually includes more for families making less than $30,0000 than they do for those in the $150,000 range.
Stringer also mentions the necessity of reforming “lease to termination” laws for domestic violence—something he also pushed in his October 2019 roadmap to supporting domestic violence survivors. But thankfully, in December 2019, a law did pass in Albany that makes it easier for domestic violence survivors to break a rental lease.
When asked what she would do about the fact that the voucher rules keep changing, and how she would ensure that people with vouchers aren’t displaced simply because the city is not paying its portion, Garcia said the city should pay its bills, that it’s legally required to pay its bills within 30 days, and that the voucher rules need to remain steady. She added, “It’s one of the things that actually the comptroller’s office is supposed to do, is make sure the bills get paid if there are contracts in place, and obviously there is.” Asked to comment on this, a representative for Comptroller Stringer said, “Any delays in payment is a result of City agencies failure to approve payments on time. Any commissioner knows that it’s their responsibility to initiate and ensure these payments can be completed, but it’s no surprise, given City Hall’s poor track record, that a former de Blasio commissioner is trying to pass the buck.”
In his interview, Adams calls for reviving the Advantage Program, a housing subsidy program for homeless New York created—as well as ended—by the Bloomberg administration. However, the De Blasio administration did indeed revive rental subsidies for homeless households and those at risk of homelessness with a number of new subsidies. In 2018, those programs were consolidated into the CityFHEPS voucher (to be distinguished from the state’s FHEPS voucher).(Adams does mention, as do several other candidates, the necessity of raising the value of the “FHEPS vouchers.”
Adams also said there needed to be stronger enforcement against voucher discrimination. He called for staffing up the Human Rights Commission, sending “a loud message to those agents and brokers” that includes suspending licenses for discrimination, and increased fines to landlords. To quote, “one time, $10,000, do it twice, $20,000, you do it three times, $30,000. We must make abusing people and denying housing too expensive to do so. Right now it is not.” To clarify, however, it is state authority to revoke and suspend real estate licenses, and the City Commission on Human Rights can already issue penalties up to $250,000 for housing discrimination. Fair housing advocates say what’s needed right is substantial funding for systemic testing investigations.
McGuire at one point says, “We have tier 2 housing where our children are living. No refrigerator, no stove, maybe one microwave, vouchers that don’t work. I’m thinking about what is taking place and what works and so much does not work.” Just to clarify, however, there is no such thing as tier 2 housing; there are tier 2 shelters, which generally do have kitchens, but families also stay in other types of shelters like commercial hotels, which do not have kitchens.
Morales envisions an abundance of local, community-based service centers—one stop shops where a New Yorker could get all their needs met in a single space. It’s worth acknowledging that the De Blasio administration did increase the number of Homebase Centers, which provide homeless prevention services and aftercare services, from 14 centers in 2014 to 23 centers in 2020,. Last year the City Council recommended, however, the creation of a new pilot program that would provide services to families before they hit a point of crisis, enhancements to the existing Homebase program, and efforts to make more communities aware of these services.
Morales also says, “Only one percent of the families that exit the shelter system with subsidized housing are back within a year—that speaks to the cycle of homelessness.” To clarify, the statistic she’s referring to is that only one percent of families that exit the shelter system with some kind of subsidy end up homeless again within a year, as opposed to 20 percent of families who exit without some kind of subsidy.
Donovan and Morales blast the city for spending $3 billion on “hotels and shelters,” or on “the shelter system.” In truth, that figure also actually includes rental assistance like voucher programs, eviction prevention services. Still, they’re right that the majority was spent on shelters—in FY 2020 about two thirds of that $3 billion.
City Limits coverage of family homelessness is sponsored by the Family Homelessness Coalition. All editorial decisions are made solely by City Limits and it alone is responsible for the content and any errors within.