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. 

 

Two blocks on the corner

How do we know if a building fits the aesthetic and culture of a neighborhood? Who's to say?  Seems like it's up to the people of the neighborhood. Not some developer who trumpets hollow talking points about abstract cultural influences. Not the new arrivals for whom the building was built and who, yeah, might think a building fits the area's aesthetic because it fits the only aesthetic they've ever known – they didn't experience the brick townhouses before the introduction of glassy prefab slabs. They have no memory and little stake.

In neighborhoods choked and sabotaged by derelict governments and ignored by private investors, we hail modern, somewhat radical buildings that serve the community – for example, some of the funkier supportive housing developments for formerly homeless adults and families like Breaking Ground's Boston Road. The new apartments feature foreign colors and materials or tower above the old, but people tend to consider them progressive and as indicators of investment (which they are).

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Overpowering our convenient, default thought-processes

What did he do become homeless – What bad decisions? What drugs?

That is often still my first impulse when encountering a homeless person. I default to blaming the individual for his or her circumstances. And I’m a social worker!

I know that I’ve been conditioned to respond like that. I think we all have. It’s convenient and it offers a pat, comforting explanation for someone else’s horrible, complicated situation – They did it to themselves. Phew. Thus we cling to the easy narrative.  

It takes some education and experience to override that programming. I say “override” instead of “deprogram” because we can’t get rid of old neural pathways, we can only build newer, stronger, more appropriate ones that overpower the regressive, untenable ones.

The new, stronger pathway enables us to understand homelessness as a complex social problem that screws individuals, not an individual problem that inconveniences society.

I met a formerly homeless man the other day who told me he became homeless after years of "drinking, smoking weed and doing the wrong thing." For years, his brief, rehearsed story has likely served as a simple explanation to satisfy others.

How the hell does drinking and smoking weed explain homelessness? We all drink, smoke weed and do the wrong thing. Everyone of my friends and I would be homeless if all it took was binge-drinking. But we’re not homeless because we all have families with money [a safety net], an expectation of success [the benefit of the doubt] and a society set up to swaddle and coddle us [power].

It’s just a lot easier to tap into the narrative of ‘“irresponsibility” through substance abuse to explain homelessness. Dig a little beyond the superficial story to consider the real causes of homelessness and it gets depressing and uncomfortable.

That man could easily say, “I became homeless because society doesn’t consider housing a human right. My family was poor so I did not inherit wealth. I worked – I worked very hard for many hours – but did not earn a living wage. My income did not keep pace with my rent and the cost of living in the most expensive city in the country. When I could no longer afford to rent my apartment, I had to leave. I could not find another affordable apartment because thousands of people are trying to get the same tiny number of affordable housing units. I became homeless. I drank and smoked weed more when I became homeless because it was a cheap way to ease my anxiety and mood, which worsened because not having a home is fucking hard.”

This New Year’s Eve, I propose that we all resolve to overcome our convenient, default thought-processes when we consider homelessness. We can shake ourselves back to reality and logic when we catch ourselves tapping into the tired narratives that comfort us (“That person deserves to be homeless”).

To more easily accomplish this, we can start with the premise that housing is a human right and everyone deserves a home, regardless of their decisions (and then with the fact that we don’t even know what their decisions were).

 

"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.

Gentrifier Deniers

We know we're insufferable.

We know our behaviors alienate and displace long-time community residents.

We know we're trying to simulate authenticity in a sanitized faux-bohemia. Thus, we know we are pawns of wealthy developers.

We know we are strangers in a strange land acting like we own it. 

I think that's why we are so reluctant to acknowledge our role in destructive gentrification. Or why we compete at the "Who's Lived Here Longer" Game and the "Here's How the Neighborhood Has Changed Since I Moved Here" Trivia Contest. We're proving we have some roots. And We've seen some things.

I can comfortably consider myself one dripdripdroplet in a gentrification flood that drowns neighborhoods. I'm only one droplet! You know, if I evaporated, there'd be a thousand other white, upwardly mobile young droplets with parents who could cosign for this apartment very eager to leak in here.

It feels so good to deny personal responsibility like that.

But really, people like me and the other droplets need to acknowledge our erosive behaviors and fight to sandbag the existing community -- to protect low-income residents from displacement. We can't just blame the market or systems right now. We have to stand up for affordable housing development, new mixed-income buildings, low-interest loans to local home-owners, legal assistance to those facing eviction, government-backed housing vouchers, incentives for landlords who accept housing vouchers and prosecution of the nefarious slumlords who coerce lower-income tenants out.

Let the droplets collect in a reflecting pool so we can look at own behaviors.