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.