New York City Must Do Better for the Homeless in 2017

With the calendar turning to January and temperatures drop to sub-freezing depths, it is important to keep in mind those who have no roof over their heads, no place to shield themselves from winter’s bite: New York City's homeless.

Over the past year, numerous stories have been written about the unfettered growth in our city’s homeless population. It is time for the city to rise up and fix this problem. There's no doubt there are numerous contributing factors to the boom in homelessness, but there are ways we can alleviate it.

As a member of Congress, I have called for increasing federal funding to programs that help make housing more affordable, such as Section 8 rental assistance. I have also supported “income averaging” for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a bipartisan proposal that would bring more flexibility to an important federal tax incentive that promotes the construction and preservation of affordable housing. At the state level, I have lent my strong support to Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support initiative, an innovative way to redirect scarce federal and state resources toward those most at risk of becoming homeless.

Clearly, there are ways officials at all levels of government can work to end New York’s homelessness crisis, but the efforts of those closest to the problem have fallen far too short. The de Blasio administration can and must do more to keep families and individuals in their homes, and to help those who are forced out find viable, permanent housing.

The city can start by abandoning its shortsighted, costly attempt to convert hotels into shelters. Not only are hotels inadequate for meeting homeless families’ day-to-day needs, the approach uproots them from their communities, schools and opportunities to get back on their feet. The prevalence of hotels surrounding our airports puts an uneven burden on communities in Queens that are already struggling to meet their own needs. It is more than just unfair – it is an unsustainable, hasty patch for a problem that requires thoughtful, cost-effective, long-term solutions.

Rather than painting itself into a corner with top-down, pre-conceived approaches, the city should instead collaborate with its citizens on affordable housing development projects and interim housing proposals. Working with local communities and their elected officials would result in creative solutions that earn neighborhood buy-in. For example, unused or underdeveloped public land could be freed up to make space for affordable development, mitigating the astronomical real estate costs that often make such construction prohibitive. The City Council should also work to restore rental assistance programs that were pared back through fiscal austerity measures. Funds being spent on $800-a-night hotel rooms should instead be invested in preserving affordable units, subsidizing new ones, and enforcing rules that require landlords to accept tenants receiving rental assistance.

The holiday season often brings references to the works of Charles Dickens, but in this case, the wrong ones. Many struggling New Yorkers were hopeful when in 2013 they heard Dickensian allusions to inequality and a renewed focus on affordable housing, but as we approach 2017, we cannot grow even farther apart into “two cities.”  Homelessness must be seen as more than a political problem  - it is a moral imperative. And our city needs a serious course correction in how this problem is prevented and addressed. I hope that all of our government officials take the time to make their New Year's resolution a commitment to develop innovative solutions and to do better by our most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Congressman Joe Crowley is the nine-term representative from the 14th Congressional District of New York, which includes sections of Queens and the Bronx. He is a member of the Ways and Means Committee and serves as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives.