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THE NEW YORKER ON NYC HOMELESSNESS: BLOOMBERG POLICIES MADE IT WORSE

Posted by Tim Murphy , October 22, 2013

THE NEW YORKER ON NYC HOMELESSNESS: BLOOMBERG POLICIES MADE IT WORSE

The PATH Center in the Bronx: Bloomberg’s mothership to process the homeless.

This week’s New Yorker has a very long, excellent story by Ian Frazier on homelessness in NYC. Consider it a postmortem of the issue under Bloomberg, and it’s fair to say that the story makes a strong argument that Bloomberg policies—specifically, ending the prioritization of homeless people and families for permanent subsidized public housing and Section 8 housing—have led to a sharp rise in homelessness in the city during his tenure.

Housing Works, of course, has repeatedly criticized Bloomberg for opposing capping rent for poor NYCers with HIV/AIDS at 30 percent of their income. (This is something that likely next mayor Bill De Blasio says he supports.) The New Yorker piece puts this refusal in the larger context of Bloomberg’s systemic denial of affordable permanent housing for the city’s poorest and most unstable, especially families with children. The story lays bare the mechanisms behind Bloomberg’s cold theory that such folks should seek any other port in a storm, even relocating to far-flung cities, before the city is forced to give them a decent, permanent home. Obviously, the story also suggests a road map for how the city’s high rates of homelessness may be humanely and durably decreased under a new mayor.

Click the link above to read the whole story, but if you’re just interested in the policy meat, as opposed to Frazier’s in-depth chats with homeless people at shelters throughout the city, read these excerpts:

“It’s inescapably true that there are far more homeless people in the city today than there have been since “modern homelessness” (as experts refer to it) began, back in the nineteen-seventies… Most New Yorkers I talk to do not know this. They say they thought there were fewer homeless people than before, because they see fewer of them. In fact, during the twelve years of the Bloomberg administration, the number of homeless people has gone through the roof they do not have. There are now two hundred and thirty-six homeless shelters in the city. Imagine Yankee Stadium almost four-fifths full of homeless families; about eighteen thousand adults in families in New York City were homeless as of January, 2013, and more than twenty-one thousand children. The Coalition for the Homeless (CFH) says that during Bloomberg’s twelve years the number of homeless families went up by seventy-three per cent. One child out of every hundred children in the city is homeless.”

***

[Patrick] Markee [of CFH]: “So, ignoring all that data, Bloomberg ended homeless people’s priority for subsidized public housing, and for Section 8, a federal subsidy that pays the difference between thirty per cent of a renter’s income and the market rent of his apartment. Section 8 is permanent once you’ve been approved for it, and studies show that nearly ninety per cent of the people who get it are still in their own apartments five years later. A certain number of homeless people annually had been given priority over other applicants to receive Section 8. The policy had worked forever, and they ended it.”

[Linda] Gibbs [deputy mayor, NYC Health & Human Services]: “We discontinued Section 8 priority because of its dwindling availability, and because we discovered that the chance of getting Section 8 was operating as a perverse incentive, drawing people to seek shelter who otherwise would not have done so.”

Markee: “The theory of the ‘perverse incentive’ has been disproved over and over again. Most people who become homeless do not get themselves in that predicament in order to receive a rent subsidy. If a small number actually do take that unlikely route, the net effect on the shelter system is greatly outweighed by all those who leave homelessness permanently after getting a subsidy.”

But in 2011 the state, facing a budget shortfall, withdrew its funding for Advantage; and the city, unable to afford it without the state, ended the program. As the loss of the subsidy took hold, thousands of newly installed renters couldn’t pay their rent, and many of them eventually returned to the shelter system.

The collapse of Advantage contributed greatly to the rise in homeless numbers during Bloomberg’s third term. Most of the heads of households in shelters whom I’ve met, like Christina Mateo, say that they became homeless because they lost Advantage subsidies. Some say that getting their own apartments only to lose them again was worse than not getting them in the first place.

***

Manhattan is now America’s most expensive urban area to live in, and Brooklyn is the second most expensive. Meanwhile, more than one in five New York City residents live below the poverty line. Nearly one in five experiences times of “food insecurity” in the course of a year—i.e., sometimes does not have enough safe and nutritious food to eat. One-fifth of 8.3 million New Yorkers equals 1.66 million New Yorkers. For people at the lower-middle and at the bottom, incomes have gone down. The median household income in the Bronx is about thirty-three thousand dollars a year; Brooklyn’s is about forty-four thousand. Meanwhile, rents go steadily up. A person working at a minimum-wage job would need 3.1 such jobs to pay the median rent for an apartment in the city without spending more than thirty per cent of her income. If you multiply 3.1 by eight hours a day by five days a week, you get a hundred and twenty-four hours; a week only has a hundred and sixty-eight hours.

***

Patrick Markee has said that any real attempt to take on these problems will involve the restoration of Section 8 and public-housing priority, creating a new rent-subsidy program, passing living-wage laws, and building more low-income and rent-supported housing.

***

Bill de Blasio, the probable next mayor, wants to ease the D.H.S. restrictions determining who qualifies for shelter, set aside public-housing vacancies for the homeless, come up with a new rent-subsidy plan involving a voucher system by which rent-challenged tenants can afford their own apartments, and build a hundred thousand new units of low-income housing. Campaign contributions he has received from slum landlords who profit from running crummy shelters worry some observers, and should; the condition of the homeless can always get worse, while the financial reward for housing them can be enormous. De Blasio and his defenders say that he has always stood up to slumlords and wants to get rid of the expensive shelter housing they provide. In any event, the near future will likely bring a major revision of Bloomberg policies, and another shakeup of the world of the homeless will occur.

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