Among the cornerstones of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to address the city’s unprecedented homelessness crisis—the number of New Yorkers spending the night in shelters has hovered at 53,000 since January—is the prioritization of NYCHA housing and Section 8 vouchers for homeless families.
But at a city council budget hearing this afternoon, New York City Housing Authority commissioner Shola Olatoye said that the housing authority has identified approximately 3,200 units to be set aside for homeless families over the next four years, a lower percentage of units than were set aside under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. The former mayors set aside approximately one-third of total NYCHA units for homeless families before Mr. Bloomberg ended preferential placement and the homeless population boomed.
“Are you setting aside less than under Giuliani?” Councilman Ritchie Torres asked Ms. Olatoye point blank.
“Yes, we are,” she said.
Upon hearing the number, councilmembers expressed skepticism that 750-800 units a year would be enough to make a significant dent in the homeless problem, even in combination with the de Blasio administration’s other homeless initiatives. During recent testimony at a budget hearing for the Department of Homeless Services, Councilman Stephen Levin said that under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 3,418 NYCHA units a year were set aside for the homeless. Councilman Brad Lander, meanwhile, advocated for NYCHA allocating at least 2,500 units a year to homeless families at the same hearing.
“Why are we setting aside less units when homelessness has risen?” asked Mr. Torres. “Why not maximize public housing units to the families greatest in need? Why are we restricting housing units on the basis of need—shouldn’t that be the core factor of how we distribute the units?”
In accounting for the comparatively low number of units, Ms. Olatoye pointed to a significant reduction in federal funding since Mr. Giuliani was mayor—and indeed, the Section 8 program has been frozen for several years—and a desire to foster income diversity in public housing.
“It is a finite resource,” responded Mr. Torres. “All I’m advocating is that we maximize the availability of that finite resource for families in need.”
In the fight against homelessness, the NYCHA units are intended to supplement Section 8 vouchers that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will also distribute preferentially. When we spoke with HPD commissioner Vicki Been last month, she told us that there “were a very limited number of unattributed vouchers, about 600″ from recipients who had left the program or moved out of the area (the Section 8 waiting list has been closed for years).
Other de Blasio initiatives to end homelessness, while widely lauded as moving in the right direction, also fall short of those taken under the last two administrations. Among them, a proposed rental subsidy program that would serve 801 families annually, for a total of 3,204 families over three years. Which, while clearly beneficial, would be far less than the 5,000 families served each year under Advantage, a Bloomberg-era rental subsidy program that ended because of a dearth of state funding.
State funding remains a challenge: the de Blasio administration, though it notched a minor victory when it persuaded the state to allow homelessness funding to be used for permanent housing rather than just temporary shelters, has yet to secure state funding for its rental subsidy program.
Moreover, the housing authority, while receiving more federal funding last year than projected in its budget and making significant progress on its repair backlog, is still struggling to maintain its vast public housing empire. Among the other topics discussed at the budget hearing were the 57 community centers that are slated to close at the end of the month if the City Council does not provide $10 million in funding. Security, with a three percent uptick in violence so far this year, is also a key concern.