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Homelessness is Getting Worse in New York City

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I believe that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a very successful mayor, and New York City has benefited greatly from his leadership. However, one of the striking failures of his administration has been its inability to address the problem of homelessness. New York City's homeless population continues to grow. According to New York Daily News reporter Tina More:

"The Coalition for the Homeless reports that more than 43,000 homeless individuals -- including 17,000 children, another all-time monthly high -- stayed in shelters each night in April."

As shocking as this may seem, it is unfortunately not really news. The explosion of family homelessness is well known among housing and homeless policy experts in New York City. I sit on the board of directors of the nonprofit Homes for the Homeless, and its Director Ralph Nunez and its Board Chair Leonard Stern have been leading discussions of these trends for several years. When I wrote about this issue two years ago I noted that:

"New York City is suffering from the national recession, and the poorest among us are suffering the most. On the evening of June 4th [2010], the City's shelter system housed 35,469 people, including 14,578 children. Homelessness is not simply a result of the bad economy; it is also caused by the shrinking number of affordable housing options available to poor and working people in New York City."

When Ralph Nunez told my fellow board members last week that New York City's homeless problem was exploding, he wasn't kidding. Even as the city's economy improved over the past two years, the number of homeless children grew by 17 percent from 14,500 to 17,000 and the number of homeless individuals grew by 21 percent from 35,500 to 43,000. This is a problem that is not going away and shows signs of growing dramatically worse.

While homelessness is primarily caused by poverty, within the city of New York it is also caused by an insufficient supply of affordable housing for the working poor. I suppose that the good news part of this story is that the city's housing stock is no longer being abandoned or burned for insurance cash. Since 1990 New York has come back strong and has been transformed into a premier global city. Its economy is now almost completely post-industrial with strengths in finance, information, education, research, media/entertainment, health care and tourism.

The down side of this economic success is that the well-to-do are pushing out the poor. Poor neighborhoods throughout the city are gentrifying at an incredible pace.

Homelessness is a difficult and complicated problem, and while it may never be solved, here in New York City we need to develop creative and innovative programs to start reducing rather than increasing homelessness. New York City's failure is not the result of a lack of effort. A great deal of affordable housing has been developed and maintained under Mayor Bloomberg. According to the City's Rent Guidelines Board:

"HPD and HDC starts are part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace Plan, first announced in 2006. The original five-year, $3 billion commitment of 65,000 units is now an 11-year commitment to build and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2014. This $8.5 billion plan will ultimately provide affordable homes for 500,000 New Yorkers... As of March 2012, HPD and HDC have created or preserved almost 130,000 units of housing under the New Housing Marketplace Plan, almost 80 percent of the total planned."

Even though these affordable apartments have been built, there are not enough of them to provide sufficient housing for the homeless. New York is making progress in creating affordable housing, but the pace is too slow to keep up with the city's needs. This is not a problem that can be solved by the free market. Creative and aggressive government action is needed.

A free market in housing cannot operate in New York City for two reasons. The first is that housing regulations do not allow substandard and dangerous housing to be built. When we had an unregulated free market in housing poor people lived in tenements that were crowded and dangerous. While dangerous conditions remain, they are now illegal. The second is that the city is largely out of vacant land to build on. New York City is becoming more like London, Paris and other world cities. The closer you get to the center of the city, the more expensive the housing. At one time New York had tenements and nearby factories where the working poor could work and live, today all of that is gone. Bodegas have given way to Starbucks and tenements to luxury high rises.

Historically, New York City neighborhoods have often risen only to fall. But it seems like the days of declining New York City neighborhoods may be ending. The housing options for New Yorkers at the bottom of the income scale now include:

• The nearby working class suburbs,
• Illegally divided apartments,
• Doubling up or sharing homes with friends or family; or
• Homeless shelters.

In the past, the strategies used by the city's government to promote affordable housing were various forms of price limits on rents or direct construction of apartments. Unfortunately, New York's rent regulations caused landlords to allow buildings to deteriorate and reduced new construction. Once the price regulations for new apartments were eliminated, private apartment construction boomed. But public construction of housing projects has ended. One way that apartments have been built for the working poor is that the city has allowed developers to build larger buildings than permitted by zoning in return for a negotiated number of subsidized apartments.

New York used to have rent control (some still remains) and used to build housing projects. New York City has 400,000 people living in 334 housing projects, and 235,000 who get rent subsidies through the federal section 8 housing program. Still, more is needed. According to the Housing Authority's webpage: "On February 1, 2012 there were: 163,965 families on the waiting list for Conventional Public Housing." All of these housing trends have led to the city's growing homeless crisis: A more attractive city, the absence of new public housing and inadequate subsidies.

Of course, the argument can and has been made that people who can't find housing should simply leave the city. Since New York State's constitution assures the right to shelter, this might simply have the effect of driving the city's problem to the New York suburbs. Moving homeless people from New York City will not end the problem. People will continue to come to New York City with the hope of a better life. That has been New York's appeal for over three hundred years. Many of the city's homeless are the working poor. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 44 percent of the nation's homeless hold jobs. As tragic as this is for the job holder, think about the impact this has on children. In New York City, homeless children find themselves moved from school to school as the kids bounce around from relative to friend and from friend to city-contracted shelter and back again.

While nonprofits such as Stern and Nunez's Homes for the Homeless can soften the impact of homelessness, they can't eliminate them. Homes for the Homeless provides education and recreation programs, child care meals and even summer camps, but they can't end the insecurity and pain children experience when they have no place to call home. When I wrote about homelessness two years ago I wrote that New York was lucky:

"... to have wealthy people like Leonard Stern who are willing to translate their understanding and awareness of homelessness into action. Stern wedded his business savvy with Ralph Nunez's understanding of New York City's politics and social service bureaucracy to create Homes for the Homeless. If you need to a bit of inspiration, check out this video entitled "HFH Overview" in their video archive that tells the story of this remarkable organization."

Homes for the Homeless is a wonderful organization, but nonprofits can only do so much. The scale of New York's homeless problem requires action by government. Despite real efforts to build housing and reduce the number of New York's homeless, Mayor Bloomberg and his team have failed. Homelessness in the face of this city's incredible wealth is a moral outrage. It is a disgrace that we have 17,000 children in New York without a place to call home. Mr. Mayor, this is a crisis worthy of your focus and attention: In the immortal words of Yoda -- "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."