“Solving” homelessness without understanding the problem

Homelessness, like most crises, is a complex problem that requires a multifaceted approach to spur a viable solution for New York City’s roughly 62,000 homeless New Yorkers – a census that includes almost 24,000 children. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to fight homelessness is commendable in that it creates reasonable expectations about what it will take to address this problem, and how long it will take to get us there.

But his plan also highlights the disproportionate weight of homelessness on particular communities.

The majority of the city’s shelter population comes from central Brooklyn and central Bronx, according to data from the Department of Homeless Services. The mayor’s plan to build shelters in areas where people would be closer to their families could place an unfair burden on communities of more color. It’s not surprising that these are the communities hit hardest by homelessness, as they are also notoriously starved for resources including safe, affordable housing. These communities lack investment in quality low-income apartments, and often times, this concentration of substandard housing in these communities helps neighborhood segregation persist.

We must also remember the country’s subprime mortgage crisis that disproportionately impacted black and brown communities, forcing scores of families into foreclosure. The mayor’s proposal and the City Council’s plan on fair share highlights the double need to distribute shelters in an equitable manner, while weighing the need for people to be closer to their families and friends. While the plan is well intentioned, a full solution must include a connection between homelessness and the lack of affordable income-targeted housing in a clear, concrete manner.

Too often, we discuss homelessness and housing affordability as two separate issues, when of course they are inextricably linked. The need to find temporary shelter is very real and cannot be ignored. Shelters and temporary housing is needed to provide relief to this acute part of the problem. We then need to connect these efforts and double our commitment to preserving and building permanent real affordable units to address the chronic homelessness crisis.

Recent announcements by the mayor jointly with the City Council are great examples of this two-pronged effort. Providing legal services for all tenants facing evictions helps preserve housing, preventing frivolous evictions that add to the homeless population. Additionally, pushing the affordability of housing units to low and extremely low Area Median Incomes within the administration’s housing plan responds to a need many advocates and elected officials have been pushing for.

Still, we have to be more creative and take seriously proposals like legalizing basement apartments, bringing them out of the shadows and creating incentives for these units to remain affordable. Many two- and three-family homes across the city present a trove of opportunities to bring thousands of units on line, provided they are safe to inhabit.

We should also look back at missed opportunities to create real affordable housing solutions, such as the recently passed Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) initiative. The program requires affordable units in the development of residential buildings when developers build in an area zoned for MIH. However, the policy still allows developers to not build for the lowest-income tenants of the city. While MIH is in fact the most “aggressive” approach in the country, it inexplicably fell short. The policy ignores a fundamental issue about mandating affordability in neighborhoods that have historically resisted economic integration. Revisiting MIH could not only help with chronic homelessness, it can help with persistent segregation in the city, from housing to school choice.

Everything that has to do with homelessness must be viewed through the lens of housing. My hope is that we have a true partnership between the administration and the City Council members that represent the city’s hardest hit communities. At minimum, a reality check has been given, which begins to reframe the public mindset on this crisis. For too long, too many people have said they want to solve the homeless situation, but what they really meant was that they don’t want to see the homeless. Not understanding that nuanced difference has brought us to this point.

Jumaane Williams is a New York City Councilman representing the 45th District in Brooklyn. He is the chairman of the Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings.