Public Housing Key To Reducing Homelessness

Of all the problems Mayor Bill de Blasio inherited, perhaps none is as deep, or as tragic, as New York City’s record and still-rising homeless population. Today there are more than 58,000 homeless New Yorkers, including 25,000 children, staying each night in our shelter system—a population nearly the size of a small city. 

While the Great Recession pushed many thousands into homelessness, shortsighted city policy needlessly fueled this crisis by ending programs long proven to effectively move homeless families out of costly emergency shelters and into stable, affordable homes. The result has been an enormous human tragedy, and a spiraling fiscal nightmare. Last year New York City for the first time spent more than $1 billion in a single year on sheltering our homeless neighbors, often in deplorable conditions.

Mayor de Blasio and his administration have already begun to shift the city’s response to homelessness, by moving families out of some of the worst municipal shelters and announcing new rent subsidy programs for some homeless New Yorkers. But the sheer magnitude of need requires that the city use every tool we have to reduce homelessness. Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio is still leaving one of our best tools on the table.

City Hall announced earlier this year that that it will set aside less than 13 percent of new vacancies—750 apartments out of 6,000 available units—in NYCHA public housing buildings for homeless families currently stuck in some of the city’s shelters. The set-aside units are still not accessible to the thousands of families living in the city’s domestic violence shelters. That is far less than mayors Koch, Dinkins, and even Giuliani, who all set aside about one-third of public housing apartments for homeless families.

In fact, with eight months left in the fiscal year, the city has already used up the entire allocation of 750 apartments. And each night more than 13,000 homeless families still languish in homeless shelters, with an additional 1,000 families sleeping in domestic violence shelters.

Administration officials have spoken about the need to move cautiously, but the homelessness crisis is simply too deep and too urgent for small steps.  Placing homeless families in public housing was enormously successful at helping vulnerable New Yorkers get back on their feet for more than 20 years. Very few families who are given these permanently affordable homes ever return to homelessness, unlike time-limited rent subsidies—which, when they expire, too often send families right back to shelters. In fact, the city’s disastrous decision to stop giving homeless families priority for NYCHA apartments was a key driver of the explosion of homelessness under the Bloomberg administration.

Some have argued that with a years-long waiting list for NYCHA apartments, it is unfair to let anyone—even homeless families—“skip the line.” But there is no simple line to begin with: NYCHA currently gives priority for many of its apartments to families already in homes they can afford who are earning as much as $67,000. Is it really smart policy to put families with no urgent need for housing before those who have been living in homeless shelters for as long as two years?

The NYCHA apartments the city allocated this year for homeless families is certainly an improvement over Mayor Bloomberg’s closed-door policy, but with hundreds of families coming into the shelter system each month, 750 apartments simply will not cut it. In the long run, Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan will offer affordable homes to many low-income New Yorkers who might otherwise become homeless due to ever rising rents. But it will be years before many of those units are available. Today there are enough homeless New Yorkers sleeping every night in our shelters to fill Yankee Stadium. They deserve our help, not half measures.


Stephen Levin and Ritchie Torres are members of the New York City Council. Torres is the chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing. Levin is the chair of the General Welfare Committee, which deals with homelessness and other social issues.