City Council Wants NYCHA to Set Aside 2,500 Units a Year for Homeless Families

Council members request more NYCHA units at City Hall.

Council members request more NYCHA units at City Hall.

City Councilmen Steve Levin, Ritchie Torres and other city council members are calling on the de Blasio administration to increase the number of NYCHA units allocated to homeless families from approximately 750 a year to at least 2,500.

“We are here today to call on the administration, to call on the New York City Housing authority to dedicate 2,500 units per year of permanent and stable affordable housing in NYCHA for families in the shelter system,” Mr. Levin said at a press conference this afternoon. “That is on top of their other efforts of creating a new subsidy program for working families and other families that have chronic barriers to housing.”

As the Observer reported in early June, the de Blasio administration has identified 3,200 units to be set aside for homeless families in the next four years, roughly 750 units per year—a vast reduction in the number of placements under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations (annual NYCHA placements topped 3,000 under the former mayors, though Bloomberg later eliminated all preferential placement for homeless families), but one that New York City Housing Authority commissioner Shola Olatoye has defended as inevitable given the reduction in federal Section 8 funding, as well as other public housing priorities—relocating victims of domestic violence, preserving income diversity, etc.—that the authority is trying to meet.

However, city council members are arguing that 750 units, given the unprecedented scope of the city’s homelessness problem—a record 53,000 people currently in the shelter system—is drastically insufficient.

“Unfortunately that is not enough, 750 units per year is nowhere hear the type of solution that we are going to need if were going to make real and meaningful change here,” Mr. Levin said. “Right now, today, New York City is facing an unprecedented crisis.”

Coalition for the Homeless president Mary Brosnahan said that the administration needed to calibrate their solution to the massive scale of the problem. “Without making full use of this critical and cost-effective resource, it is hard to see how New York City can reduce the tragic and unacceptable number of families sleeping in our shelters every night,” she wrote in a release.

In response to the Observer‘s request for comment, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration wrote that “NYCHA is only one part of the solution, the administration is stepping up efforts to increase prevention, anti-eviction efforts, and rental subsidies to reduce homelessness.”

The spokesman pointed out that it would be the first time in nine years that placement preference would be given to homeless families and that “we are using this scarce resource mindfully, focusing on relocating families with children to these apartments and investing in intensive follow-up, thus reducing a family’s odds of returning to shelter.” (And scare it is; there are currently 247,262 families on the waiting list for public housing.)

City Council representatives said that they were aware of the financial constraints that NYCHA is facing and that housing more homeless families would mean less rental income for the authority—NYCHA rents are set according to household income level, so that housing more homeless families would undoubtedly mean a drop in the agency’s rental revenue—but pledged to look for ways, such as eliminating the cost for city services that the authority must currently pay for—that would help make up the difference.

The council also pointed to the fact that 30 percent of homeless families are working families and could be prioritized on NYCHA’s working families waiting list.

Mr. Torres, chair of the public housing committee, said that the issue was “deeply personal” for him.

“I grew up most of my life in public housing and the one thing that stood between my family and homelessness was public housing,” he said. “We know that public housing is a proven tool for reducing and preventing homelessness and we are failing to use that tool to the greatest possible effect.”

Mr. Torres also expressed skepticism about the impact of the proposed measures, calling the mayor out for a homelessness solution that fell short of the standard set by his affordable housing plan.

“The fact is that the mayor is failing to set aside enough units to leave a dent in the crisis,” he said. “This is an ambitious mayor, he has an ambitious housing plan. This is too timid to be part of his housing plan.”

“We are doing less than we can do,” he continued. “And that is something for which the city and for which the mayor can be rightly held accountable to.”