This summer, New York City rolled out what has the potential of being the most significant housing initiative since the 1980s: Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “New Housing Marketplace.” If fully implemented, the mayor’s plan could produce and preserve 65,000 housing units during the next five years.
When the mayor announced the plan on December 10 of last year, he talked about targeting roughly $3 billion in city money toward the housing effort.
Everyone agrees that New York City must increase its housing supply––and especially its stock of units affordable to working, low income, and homeless residents. The signs are clear: the city’s vacancy rate is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s and more than one-quarter of all tenants pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
The worsening housing situation combined with the recent recession have pushed many families beyond the limits of their resources. More and more households are living in overcrowded, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions––and the numbers of homeless families with children are at record levels.
The number of homeless people living with HIV/AIDS continues to climb, while the city has continued its policy of using costly, yet deplorable commercial single room-occupancy hotels and unhealthy illegal rooming houses to create an emergency housing system. According to October statistics from the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), more than 3,000 people living with HIV or AIDS are currently served by such “temporary housing” solutions.
While the city is willing to pay between $1,500 and $2,200 per room/per month––yes, that’s right, this means no kitchen or bathroom––officials have begun abandoning the Giuliani administration’s standard practice of granting rent subsidies at least to the limit of the federal government’s Section 8 one-bedroom level, currently $860 a month. A homeless person living with AIDS who manages to find an apartment at that rent therefore has no guarantee that his or her lease will be approved by HASA.
In focusing on creating and preserving tens of thousands of housing units, Bloomberg’s plan could be a critical step in the right direction. But as many anticipated, it is not enough. In fact, for people living with HIV/AIDS, the plan risks becoming meaningless. Out of the 65,000 units of housing being planned, only 1,200 are intended for homeless people living with special needs, and so far not one single unit of housing has been proposed under the mayor’s initiative for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS.
But all is not lost. There is still time for the city to reverse this course, and begin to turn the tide on homelessness.
Two and a half years ago, Housing First!––a citywide coalition of community, business, civic, labor, and religious organizations––recommended a 10-year, $10 billion plan to build and save more than 185,000 homes. The campaign, brilliantly drawing as it did on such a wide array of constituencies, put pressure on the mayor, who in time responded with his historic commitment regarding the 65,000 units over five years. But Bloomberg hasn’t invested his prestige or energies in ensuring that the housing goes to those who need it most.
Nor is it even clear that his announcement of $3 billion in new city funds for housing creation is as significant as it seemed at first blush. Projections of the city’s 10-year investment of capital funds in housing contained in the mayor’s executive budget are down $1.2 billion from earlier numbers produced under Giuliani, suggesting that the real increase in commitment may be $1.8 billion rather than $3 billion.
The city’s efforts on housing are obviously hampered by the poor economy and the resurgent budget crisis. As the city’s economic and budget situation improve, however, we must press the mayor to expand the scope of his initiative to match the goals of the Housing First! plan. This means increased capital investment in the years ahead to create more housing for working New Yorkers and a greater focus on the housing needs of the our vulnerable neighbors––senior citizens, homeless families, and individuals with special needs, particularly homeless people living with HIV/AIDS.
In addition, immediate attention must be paid to the fact that New York City’s existing structure to assist homeless individuals in finding and remaining in housing has begun to crumble around us. Illegal evictions and lock-outs have reached epidemic proportions while legal services programs that have traditionally protected the rights of vulnerable tenants continue to suffer devastating funding cuts.
Other services for tenants and the homeless are also under fire. The city’s Continuum of Care Coalition, a broad-based group of homeless housing providers, advocates, and consumers created under federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines to distribute money for homeless housing initiatives serving special needs communities, this year faced an agonizing choice. In order to free up dollars for desperately needed housing construction efforts, the Coalition had to cut other programs providing housing-related supportive services to those escaping homelessness by $16 million.
Choosing to destabilize formerly homeless people with special needs by cutting supportive programs in order to build new housing so that a few more homeless people can finally have a place to live represents no real choice at all. In each of the past two years, the Coalition has had an average of only about $75 million in such HUD money to distribute, so a $16 million cut in services was significant.
In one other key policy area, Bloomberg’s practice, carried over from the Giuliani administration, is hurting the effort to address homelessness among HIV-positive New Yorkers. For reasons the U.S. government has never explained, the city continues to be allowed to divert federal funds delivered through the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) programs to paper over personnel expense shortfalls in city welfare centers serving HIV-positive clients. Six years ago, New York City had more than $20 million annually in HOPWA money to build new housing for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. This year, that same budget line for new construction is only $5 million.
A few short-term steps can increase capital funding for housing. The city should:
End the diversion of HOPWA money and earmark it for the Housing Preservation and Development Program;
Make certain that federal Community Development Block Grant funds make their way into city capital programs that preserve existing units and build additional affordable housing units ;
Advocate that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s commitment to affordable housing be increased to at least the $293 million level initially proposed, but then backed off of, by Bloomberg;
Assist New York City homeless providers in their advocacy in Washington to ensure that the Continuum of Care Coalition is able to maintain both its supportive services and its housing construction efforts;
Revisit the unfulfilled Battery Park City funding commitments originally made to affordable housing production.
The greatest tangible benefits to date in the Bloomberg housing efforts have come in advancing administrative, zoning, and regulatory reforms supported by Housing First!. But more must be done to ensure that optimal incentives for affordable housing are created in rezoned areas, that unrestricted auction of city-owned land is the disposition method of last resort; and that landlord code violations are strictly enforced, through financial penalties and restrictions on city agencies doing business with the offenders.
The challenges of housing a vibrant, growing city are formidable. But only through a sustained and comprehensive effort will we ultimately be able to ensure that all New Yorkers have a safe, decent, affordable, and medically appropriate place to call home.
Jennifer Flynn is the co-director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network, a membership organization comprised and led by low-income people living with HIV/AIDS working in a unique coalition of non-profit housing providers and AIDS service organizations to advocate for sound public policies, particularly related to housing, for all New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. For more information on the group, visit nycahn.org.