Vote for the city you want.

Vote for the city you want. 

That's the message on PSAs in subway tunnels and on bus stop glass as New York City prepares for next week's mayoral and council primaries. 

The author Michael Greenberg posed a similar challenge in his widely read analysis of the affordable housing crisis in the New York Review of Books last month:

To what extent should a renter who fulfills the terms of his lease be shielded from the vagaries of real estate markets with their speculative booms and busts? More broadly, what kind of city do New Yorkers want to live in? What responsibility, if any, do we bear to make sure that our most besieged citizens are not pushed out by our current urban prosperity?

Last week, I left my job in Washington Heights and jogged southeast, through the NYCHA towers toward Harlem River Drive and over a pedestrian bridge to Harlem River Park. Three people sat on a dirty futon surrounded by shopping carts and boxes at the shady and secluded end of the bridge, just before it reached the sunny grass. On the other side of the overpass, a man slept wedged, almost hidden, between large gray rocks. 

What kind of city do you want?

In a Slate interview, Greenberg summarizes the power the City and – especially – the State wield over private developers but fail to deploy in address the humanitarian crisis. It's a key point in his essay:

There’s a tremendous amount of power that the city and the state have to shape the real estate market. They have more power than the private developers, because they have zoning power, they have tax break power. They can strengthen rent laws. They can weaken them. They can put lower-paying tenants in rent-stabilized and regulated apartments in jeopardy. They can make it easier for developers and speculators to push them out in a rising market.

In the first Democratic Mayoral Primary debate, moderator Brian Lehrer asked a hypothetical question to Mayor Bill De Blasio and challenger Sal Albanese about halting for-profit development until developers created a meaningful number of affordable units. Albanese embraced the idea, but De Blasio rejected it.

"He has basically turned over the city to big developers. That's the bottom line," Albanese said during the debate. 

The next day, when Lehrer hosted his fellow moderators Errol Louis from NY1 and Laura Nahmias from Politico on his WNYC show, they discussed Lehrer's affordable housing question.

Louis said that were such a for-profit freeze to take effect, construction crews would immediately work three shifts a day, every day to build the required number of affordable housing units so that they could resume building their money-making luxury towers. 

But instead, the city has given up. The city requires virtually nothing from developers aside from a bit of affordable housing for upper-middle class people with other options – not the truly needy families making less than $40,000 a year (Not to mention that to a few million people, $40,000/year sounds like a hell of a lot of money).

Greenberg writes that, in 2016, of the 6,844 new affordable units that developers built using the 421-a tax break/giveaway, only 35 percent or fewer than 2,400, went to "households making less than $40,000, the income level that is being most relentlessly pressured with eviction from older, 'undervalued,' rent-stabilized buildings."

What kind of city do you want?

A city that evicts its low-income citizens then ships them back in every morning from Central Jersey so they can care for our elderly? Rouses them from their municipal shelter cubicles so they can wash the clothes we drop off at the laundromat in their old neighborhood?

Or a city that integrates cultures and incomes? That takes care of the engines who make it run? 

I want a city no longer beholden to real estate developers, with the capability to design its own housing laws and to resist developers' influence over upstate lawmakers abetted by DINO senators and a fauxgressive governor, led by councilors with experience advocating for tenants' rights and affordable housing. I want a city where neighbors have an apartment, not a campsite under pedestrian bridges or a narrow space between boulders. 

 

An oz. of prevention more realistic than a lb. of cure in our weak welfare state

The City, State and Federal Government, in descending order, do a very poor job of helping those who experience homelessness get a home. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers contend with an insane rent burden (>50% of income on rent) and there's little relief in sight. The State has not fulfilled its commitment to affordable housing – a commitment announced to much fanfare by Gov. Cuomo in January 2016 – while the City has faced huge opposition from neighborhoods wary of any rezoning plan, even if creates affordable housing.

Yesterday, Dr. Kim Hopper – Columbia professor, cofounder of the National Coalition for the Homeless and an eminent activist-scholar on homelessness and homeless policy – wrote a CityViews editorial in which he summarized the seemingly intractable systemic roots of homelessness and expressed some cautious optimism about the efforts of the DeBlasio administration and some State lawmakers at homelessness PREVENTION:

Advocates argue that shelter should be a buffer, a last dignity-shielding redoubt, not a degrading penalty for failure to plan or cope. In a weak welfare state, it will probably never be that. But we can commit to making it a decent way-station, not a grim terminus. Better still would be targeting resources where they can do the most good—in prevention.

Unfortunately, because of out-of-control rent and little commitment to affordable housing development, shelters will remain an important part of dealing with the homelessness crisis, Hopper continued.

So there’s no evading this awkward truth: Whether as prevention, deterrence or respite, the shelter system will continue to anchor and belay the housing struggles of low-income New Yorkers. What was once a rude salvage operation targeting the disreputable poor is now an integral part of how those disfavored by fortune get by.

In such an environment, it’s folly to subscribe to “disparate missions” for housing and homelessness divisions within city government. It’s cynical for the state to play coy. Intensified preventive efforts and set-asides in existing housing will surely help; so would more rational institutional placement. But without a serious reckoning with what it will take to integrate affordable housing and shelter policy in the long run—and a significantly greater commitment from the city and state to creating housing affordable for those earning 30 percent of area median income or less—the specter of enduring mass homelessness will continue to haunt New York.

But if we can’t “build our way out of” this crisis, there is promising news on a parallel front. The “Housing Stability Support” policy being developed by State Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi draws upon the demonstrable success of a host of targeted (if often time-limited) rental subsidy programs, programs that have operated at varying degrees of visibility. Left to its own devices, of course, the private market is an inconstant partner. But the focus on enhanced demand (rental subsidies to be used in existing housing), in addition to expanded supply (developing affordable units as contingent “set asides”), is a welcome one. The devil, as always, will reside in the details.

There’s a work requirement for the right to the opportunity to access your rights

We’re discerning with our rights here in the United States. Critics might call it stingy, but that’s because they’re extravagant suckers, handing out rights to everyone and their immigrant mother.

You have to earn your rights here in this country.

You don’t have a right to your rights. Rights are a privilege and we’re teaching you responsibility and gratitude by distributing them in increments.

I’ve read the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know that Article 25 states:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

But that’s just phony universalist BS. Where’s the incentive to work if food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services are all guaranteed??? Whenever my kid tells me he's hungry, I'll just tell him to go into the kitchen, grab a red pen and punch up the verbs on his resume.

I concede that some rights are sacred. Like the right to a work requirement. We are, of course, bestowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and a work requirement to access a basic standard of living. What does that work requirement mean in practice? Who the fuck knows? Citizens have debated it since the nation's founding.

I think it means that if you find yourself homeless, you gotta be a cashier at a Dollar Tree to get a studio apartment. Or maybe that, if you can't afford healthcare for your children, you have to fold Little Caesars pizza boxes for at least 35 hours a week to enable them to see a pediatrician. Something like that. Who cares. WORK REQUIREMENT. Just flows off the tongue all easy and memorable the way the Framers intended. 

Now, if you're asking about an individual's right to work, you're asking the wrong question (again, we don’t just give out rights all willy-nilly).

Right to Work actually refers to the unalienable right of employers to erode the workers' rights that don't really apply anymore. Like the right to organize. Or to receive compensation when your hand gets crushed by a pallet of Ragu jars.

Still confused? I recently came across this opinion piece in the New York Times by Howie Husock, vice president of the  Manhattan Institute, a think tank that pumps out vital policy papers about why basic human rights are dependent on low-wage work at corporate behemoths.

Husock captures how this notion of a "right to housing" actually harms homeless kids and inspires them to be unemployed and pregnant later in life:

“For the families with children — many headed by single parents who had been doubled-up with family but were not literally on the street -- our strategies [for housing] should not be the same [as with single adults with mental illness]. We must acknowledge the risk that offering housing units will increase demand and even the formation of more such households, which are often homes to children who will face toughest type of poverty and greatest economic disadvantage. In other words, the “homeless” family problem is actually a subset of our challenge in assisting low-income, single-parent families without encouraging their formation.

Indeed, we must take care to avoid the risk that expanded government benefit programs—such as housing based on the combination of low-income and the presence of dependent children—may discourage the steps that will help improve a household’s long-term economic condition. As the University of Maryland poverty researcher Douglas Besharov observed in 2013 Congressional testimony, “Means-tested benefit programs undermine much of the good they do because their very structure creates substantial disincentives to work and marriage.”

This guy gets it. If a four-year-old had a job, she wouldn't be homeless. These kids needs to learn that there’s a work requirement for the right to the opportunity to access your rights. It just makes sense.

"This is a home and that has to be communicated the second you walk in the door"

All new tenants at Urban Pathways supportive housing sites – including community affordable housing tenants in mixed-use buildings - move into fully furnished units that include linens, cookware, flatware, shower curtains and lamps in addition to a bed and furniture.

At other housing sites, tenants must apply for and receive a One Shot Deal from the Human Resources Administration to cover the cost of moving and furnishing an apartment beyond a a bare bed, table and chairs. Urban Pathways pays for furnishings exclusively through private donations – including from corporations that understand the economic benefits of the Housing First model. 

"This is a home and that has to be communicated the second you walk in the door," said Director of Development Nancy Olecki during a meeting this morning at a mixed-use supportive housing site in the Bronx (mixed use means supportive housing units for formerly homeless people with mental illness and "regular" affordable housing units are integrated in the same building).

We visited a tenant – a former construction worker – who moved into his apartment from the Ward's Island Shelter, a massive and notorious institution in the East River, next to the Triborough Bridge. The man said he spent the past several years moving from shelter to shelter and crashing on his brother's couch. During our conversation, he mentioned participating in a healthy cooking program, helping an elderly neighbor flee her room when the fire alarm rang and routinely checking on another neighbor who had returned from the hospital.

I asked him when he had experienced that sort of community before. 

"This is my first place," he said, holding his tiny dog against his chest. "I've never had community like this before." 

The Home Stability Support program would save people from becoming homeless

The HUD FY2016 fair market rent (FMR) for a 2-Bedroom apartment in New York City is $1,571. Yet, a 3-person family with children that earns Public Assistance only receives $400 in shelter allowance, about 1/4 of what they need. It's more or less impossible to rent an apartment for your family if you receive Public Assistance without some sort of additional (and rare) housing voucher like Section 8.

There are currently more than 80,000 people in New York State who receive PA and who pay rents 1.5x higher than their shelter allowance – including 21,000 who pay rents 2.5x higher. Home Stability Support is a statewide rental supplement that would enable New Yorkers at risk for homelessness to find an apartment and prevent eviction.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, "HSS would cost $11,224 per year for a household of three in New York City – a mere fraction of the $43,880 it costs annually to provide temporary shelter to a homeless family."

New York State originally instituted the shelter allowance to pay the cost of housing for low-income individuals and families unable to otherwise afford rent, but the allowance has not kept up with rising rents in the past few decades since the law changed in 1975. 

Citywide, the rapid FMR increase has been significant for most people but crippling for low-income individuals. Consider Kings County (aka Brooklyn). In 1983, the FMR for a 2-BR apartment was $420 (the current shelter allowance wouldn't even cover that). Now it's $1571.  In 2008, 2-BR FMR increased by nearly 11%. In 1994, it increased by more than 20%. Last year, it rose by more than 6%. 

This problem isn't new. It's just exploding. An article in The New York Times  explored the very same issue more than 23 years ago:

Less than six weeks before Gov. Mario M. Cuomo must propose next year's state budget, his administration is considering pressing the Legislature for the first increase in rent subsidies for welfare recipients since 1988 . . .  The rent subsidy, which is known as the shelter allowance, is so low -- $286 a month for a family of three in New York City -- that many families on welfare have been forced into homelessness, lawyers and other advocates for the homeless say. The median rent in the city, according to a recent report on housing vacancies, was $475 in 1991.

Back in December 1993, when the article was written, there were  5,100 adults and 7,500 children in the city's family shelters. Today, the population has more than tripled.

Even if you typically oppose subsidies that lift low-income families with children out of homelessness and poverty, check your small-government impulses for one moment and use the other parts of your brain: New York City is already paying a billion dollars just to warehouse people in temporary, substandard municipal shelters. We would save hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize permanent housing for families – and that's not including all the attending social benefits of housing, especially for homeless children who have zero power over or responsibility for their living situation.