Opinion: New York state has a responsibility to pay the costs of housing migrants

There’s no reason why New York City alone should bear the burden of paying to house asylum-seekers.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference at One World Trade Center on June 15, 2021.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference at One World Trade Center on June 15, 2021. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

When I was serving as Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Clinton administration, I would often refer to our nation's cities as “canaries in the coal mine.” Today, we face a virtual urban crisis, albeit unacknowledged. We know the equation causing our decline: political polarization and extremism paralyzes politicians with fear, and they avoid difficult and controversial problems rather than trying to solve them. 

The migrant issue is a glaring example of failed federal policy compounded by state and local government failures.

Take New York City as an example. The federal government, which created the problem, has provided virtually no assistance of any kind. The state government has purposely located migrants only in New York City and then only provided a modicum of financial assistance. How can this be allowed to happen? Let’s start by separating the political spin from the facts.

Myth #1: New York City alone should house all migrants because it is a “sanctuary city.”

False. New York City is a sanctuary city, but New York state is also a sanctuary state. The Assembly passed a resolution to that effect, and myself and all state leaders have taken that position many times. No state leader claims the opposite. Moreover, the definition of a “sanctuary” city or state is mere rhetoric and has no legal effect. The term was popularized when Trump was threatening to deport “illegal“ immigrants and those opposed to such deportations offered “sanctuary“ status. Even this was illusory, because the federal government always had the power to deport. 

The “sanctuary” concept is further irrelevant as we are no longer talking about “illegal” immigrants but rather asylum-seekers who are here legally pending their asylum hearing. Many Democratic cities and states have claimed “sanctuary” status. It does not explain why New York City has received more migrants than any other city in the country or why the state is excused of responsibility or participation.

Myth #2: New York City has a “right to shelter law” and is therefore the only city in the state that has a responsibility to house migrants. 

False. New York City agreed to a legal settlement to stop a lawsuit brought by homeless advocates in the 1980s. The lawsuit was based on Article 17 of the New York state – not city – constitution, which states: “The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine.” The basis of the suit against the city was that it was a “subdivision” of the state. But the same lawsuit can be brought against any subdivision of the state: any county, city or town. This suit would be most powerful against the state itself as the “right to shelter” is primarily the state’s obligation.

The lawsuit and the settlement were brought to resolve the 1980s homeless problem. The framers of the state constitution anticipated changing circumstances and therefore stated in Article 17: “the manner, and means (of the aid for the needy is) to be determined from time to time by the legislature.” That time has come. The settlement of the lawsuit, and the city and state current obligation for migrants, can be clarified and qualified by a simple act of the state Legislature. Do it!

Myth #3: The financial burden of housing migrants should be paid by New York City taxpayers.

False. New York City is already in the unfair position of housing all the migrants because state and local politicians don’t want to suffer the same political fate as Mayor Adams. To add insult to injury, not only is New York City housing the migrants but it is also paying the overwhelming majority of the cost of housing them. Is this in any way fair or feasible? 

In Chicago, which is second only to New York City in having the largest migrant population, the situation is reversed. In Illinois, the state and county pay the lion share of the cost with the city of Chicago only paying a fraction – about 20%. In New York, the city currently pays about 66% of the cost. Mayor Eric Adams has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get the state to pay 50% of the cost. 

I think the state should pay the entire cost of housing migrants, given the fact that the city bears the entire burden of housing and managing the migrants, and the city is already suffering post-pandemic with crime, homelessness, low vacancy rates, congestion pricing and high taxes. People are voting with their feet and leaving. Remember, the city produces most of the revenue for the state. It is all very shortsighted.

There is no doubt that the ultimate solution to this problem lies with the federal government, but in the meantime, we have over 100,000 migrants in our city. They will be here for years until the date of their asylum hearing, and more are coming every day.

We should stop running from this issue and instead develop a comprehensive, intelligent policy that treats both migrants and taxpayers fairly.

If politicians acted responsibly and bravely, they could craft a policy and program that helped the migrants while also helping the state economy. There is no doubt that politics are intense today, but denying or ignoring a problem never solves anything. It only makes it worse.