Opinion: De Blasio overplayed hand on supportive housing

Opinion: De Blasio overplayed hand on supportive housing

Opinion: De Blasio overplayed hand on supportive housing
November 20, 2015

There is a perception circulating in New York City that Mayor Bill de Blasio has been slow to acknowledge the city’s full-blown homelessness crisis, with 60,000-plus individuals living in shelters and on the street. While conservatives and the tabloids have been the primary culprits in feeding this notion, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has certainly played an outsized role in stoking that fire – declaring in not-so-subtle terms that his mission is to “save New York City.” Now, members of de Blasio’s own cabinet are following suit, with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton admitting on Thursday that the administration made a “mistake” by “not validating what we all were seeing.”

Evidently, the mayor has sought to debunk this idea that his administration is sitting on its hands as panhandlers run rampant in the street. He announced on Wednesday that the city would commit to building 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years, breaking precedent by funding the construction outside of the framework of the NY/NY initiative – a joint city and state program that has created 50,000 supportive housing units statewide since its inception in 1990.

City Hall and the governor’s office were at a stalemate over who would pay the service and operating costs for a fourth NY/NY agreement (typically 100 percent funded by the state), as well as the number of units they would build – Cuomo offered a tepid 5,000 statewide, 3,900 in the city, over five years, while de Blasio countered with 12,000 statewide.

But by circumventing the structure of NY/NY, it is not clear what de Blasio gained other than an opportunity to score political points against a governor who has delighted in making him squirm.

The beauty of the NY/NY agreement is the balance of resources between the city and state – with the latter typically picking up 100 percent of the tab for service and operating costs, while splitting the cost with the city to house the target populations. That give and take is the primary reason why this program has endured through both Republican and Democratic city and state administrations over the last 25 years. Both sides could hold each other’s feet to the fire to make sure the program had the necessary capital and would not be subject to petty politics. Without that level of security, if de Blasio fails in his 2017 re-election bid, there is no guarantee that his predecessor won’t undo the program.

The kicker here is that there is no appreciable improvement in the deal that de Blasio announced from what both sides put on the table during budget talks. If the stalemate to closing NY/NY 4 was the breakdown of funding, the mayor basically conceded to the state’s demands of closer to a 50/50 breakdown – the city is now paying 100 percent of the service and operating costs of the 15,000 units, as opposed to 50 percent of those costs for a more robust program.

De Blasio could have easily come to the bargaining table with the same proposal in hand, and challenged the governor to put up the capital for more citywide supportive housing. Even if Cuomo refused to budge on the number of units, an NY/NY 4 with 20,000 statewide units (18,900 in the city) is nothing to shrug at, and much closer to the 35,000 statewide units that housing and homeless advocates say are necessary to stem the boom of individuals and families living on the street.

And it’s not as if the mayor’s supportive housing announcement came after months of continuous back and forth with the state. Sources familiar with the NY/NY talks say they never really intensified after Cuomo’s initial offer and de Blasio’s counterproposal, with sporadic dialogue between budget personnel at city and state housing agencies that never rose to the principals at City Hall or the governor’s office.  

So in the end, de Blasio gained a measure of control over supportive housing construction – likely focusing it toward the shelter and street population as opposed to long-term shelter stayers and high-use Medicaid patients that the state would like to target. But the mayor also missed an opportunity to, at least temporarily, declare an armistice in his ugly battle with Cuomo.

If this is, as many advocates suggest, a calculated play to nudge Cuomo back to the table, then the mayor has once again grossly underestimated the vindictiveness of his counterpart. Cuomo is far more likely to redirect the money he budgeted for NY/NY 4 to an entirely statewide program (where financing would ultimately be cheaper), shutting out New York City entirely.

On a purely political level, Cuomo already appears to be plotting his revenge against de Blasio. Politico New York reported on Thursday that the governor threatened to cancel funding for federal tax-exempt bonds, or volume cap, that would finance the mayor’s affordable housing plan. While a follow-up report on Friday suggested that the two sides were still negotiating a fair allocation of bonds to the city, the posturing tactic is clearly an indication that Cuomo will go at any length to neuter de Blasio.

Of course, while the mayor may have overplayed his hand in taking sole ownership of NY/NY, lest we forget, it was Cuomo who saddled him with the homeless boom in the first place by canceling the Advantage program, which provided rental subsidies for homeless families seeking to transition to supportive housing. Had Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg not put the program on the chopping block in the name of austerity, perhaps we would have a more comprehensive, cooperative solution to the homeless crisis, rather than the perpetuation of a political feud with no end in sight.

Nick Powell