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Analyzing the Mayor's Housing Plan - Part 4

June 19, 2014

While much attention has focused on Housing New York’s ambitious 200,000-unit affordable housing development goal, the plan is also notable for going beyond production to employ other strategies to address the problems related to the city’s housing crisis.  In particular, Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for the way the plan takes additional actions to reduce homelessness, even as it targets more of the City’s affordable housing production to the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Bringing Good Homelessness Prevention Policy to Scale:   

This is the fourth of five blog posts analyzing Housing New York, the Mayor’s new ten-year plan for affordable housing development, chapter-by-chapter. This week focuses on Chapter Four: Promoting Homeless, Senior, Supportive, and Accessible Housing.

While much attention has focused on Housing New York’s ambitious 200,000-unit affordable housing development goal, the plan is also notable for going beyond production to employ other strategies to address the problems related to the city’s housing crisis.  In particular, Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for the way the plan takes additional actions to reduce homelessness, even as it targets more of the City’s affordable housing production to the most vulnerable New Yorkers.   Chapter Four of the plan, Promoting Homeless, Senior, Supportive and Accessible Housing, offers some promising policy changes and initiatives that may finally address some the city’s seemingly intractable challenges. These actions have a good chance of succeeding, if they are implemented at a scale approaching the size of the need.

The plan’s fourth chapter offers four key strategies. The first of these, “Assist Homeless Individuals and Families,” focuses on expanding homelessness prevention and assistance activities.  These include anti-eviction legal assistance, “one-shot” emergency rental payments and neighborhood stabilization services, as well as increasing the availability of ongoing rental subsidies.  One component of the planreinstates homeless families’ priority for Section 8 rental assistance vouchers and public housing apartments units controlled by the New York City Housing Authority. This reverses a damaging policy of the Bloomberg years based on the perception that families would purposefully enter the homeless shelter system to “cut the line” for vouchers or public housing, which led to the preference being taken away. History has proved this perception false – in fact, after this policy change was made and the preference was no longer available, homelessness skyrocketed to its current levels, with over 53,000 individuals and family members in the shelter system per day, of which over 23,000 are children.

The restoration of a homeless priority for NYCHA apartments and rent subsidies is a welcome change, but in itself, it won’t be enough to make a noticeable dent in the homeless population.  Indeed, some homeless advocates are already saying the 750 NYCHA units a year the administration has proposed to make available to homeless families are not sufficient (the number of Section 8 vouchers to be set aside for homeless households has not yet been announced).

With both vacant public housing units and Section 8 vouchers in short supply, the plan acknowledges that some sort of additional rent subsidy for homeless households will be required, citing City tax levy or federal HOME and TANF funds as potential sources. But the plan doesn’t address the need for State resources (previously the primary funder of local rent subsidies), and commits only to a pilot program. With so many families in shelter each night, the City will need the State’s help to scale up any subsidy pilot quickly. 

Finding new, creative options for financing homeless shelters is also a focus. One important part of the plan is that it will look to reduce reliance on privately owned apartments converted to emergency shelter. This would prevent the loss of affordable, rent-stabilized stock in outer borough neighborhoods, like parts of the Mid-Bronx and Eastern Brooklyn, which has suffered as significant number of rent-stabilized apartments have been converted to use as homeless shelters (which are far more lucrative for the owner). Leveraging some of money saved from reducing subsidies to private-landlords-turned-shelter-owners would not only lead to better housing situations, it would also save money overall, including financing sources that could be used for more affordable housing. Emergency homeless shelters are one of the most expensive places to house people, often costing the government in excess of $3,000 a month. Reducing our homeless population, and building more fiscally sustainable housing to replace the rampant conversion of rent-stabilized apartments would be one of the best ways to reduce spending on shelter.

The plan’s second strategy proposes to develop new supportive housing for both homeless families and individuals. Supportive housing is one of the best investments a city can make – homeless shelters, hospitals, and other emergency interventions are all much more expensive to the taxpayer than creating stable, affordable housing with on-site services that allows homeless, disabled and chronically ill people to reduce, and often avoid, utilizing these services. The most recent, peer-reviewed research has shown that each unit of supportive housing in New York City actually saves more than $10,000 dollars in other public spending – after subtracting the costs of the housing and on-site services. Housing New York’s approach recognizes this, and makes a firm commitment to expanding supportive housing.

The plan does not provide a goal for the number of supportive housing units to be produced, however, as half of the capital funding, and most of the ongoing service and operating costs, have been traditionally borne by the State.  The administration will have to negotiate a new agreement with the State to set production targets for new supportive housing.  In a promising development, the Governor has recently signaled not only a willingness to collaborate, but has also suggested a means for paying for the State’s share of the considerable cost (and, for the first time, expand the initiative statewide). It remains to be seen whether the Mayor and Governor will agree on a development target big enough to house all chronically homeless New Yorkers, estimated by some advocates to be around 30,000 units over ten years.

Some of the apartments for homeless families can be included in mixed-income buildings. Most formerly homeless families cannot pay the rents typical to low-income housing built with federal resources, which assume rents more suited to people with higher (though still relatively low) incomes. Finding stable housing is often the step that leads to getting a steady job, and rental support for housing is typically needed when families first get out of the shelter system. Traditionally, Section 8 vouchers have helped provide this subsidy; however, Section 8 vouchers are becoming increasingly scarce. As a result, the plan’s suggestion to have rents paid by higher-income tenants cross-subsidize lower rents for the formerly homeless households in mixed-use developments not only makes fiscal sense, it also fits in with the City’s overall focus on mixed-income communities. The city also commits to trying to use new rent subsidies to help families leave the shelter system for the newly-created subsidized housing.

Senior housing is a third focus of the plan. The largest demographic story in New York is the aging of our population. Confronting seniors’ housing needs head-on is a necessity, and the plan has several proposals to do so. For example, the plan proposes to streamline and expand outreach to increase use of the Senior Citizen’s Rent Increase Exemption, which offers landlords a tax credit in exchange for freezing rents paid by low-income seniors in rent-stabilized apartments.  To keep pace with the rising cost of living, the State Legislature and City Council recently increased income eligibility for SCRIE, from a top limit of $29,000 to $50,000 annually. The plan takes advantage of this change, and also proposes changes to zoning regulations to encourage production of new senior housing, like reducing minimum apartment size and parking requirements.

The city is also looking to increase the supply of senior housing, and specifically notes NYCHA campuses as a possible development opportunity. Looking to develop more senior housing on NYCHA property makes sense – NYCHA residents are aging, with 20% of NYCHA residents 62 years or older. Many NYCHA campuses are already NORCs (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities). A way for NYCHA residents to age in place, in new senior housing, would not only be a service to the existing residents, it would also free up much-needed NYCHA apartments for families. And the services and facilities that come with the new senior housing could benefit all senior residents throughout the NYCHA campus, not just those in the new senior housing.

Proposals focusing on populations other than homeless people and seniors are a fourth part of the plan: working to end veteran homelessness, improving coordination to help disabled individuals find housing, and assisting stable residents to move out of supportive housing are all mentioned, although specific details will be forthcoming. With the exception of a proposal that the city revamp zoning regulations to facilitate construction of community facilities with sleeping accommodations, better interagency coordination makes up the bulk of these ideas.

Altogether, this is an ambitious chapter, dedicated to making real progress on ending homelessness, providing for our aging population, and supporting disabled New Yorkers, in a fiscally responsible way. It appears that the plan will provide the network of non-profit supportive housing developers and service providers with real tools to do their job over the next ten years. And if the administration can identify enough new resources to implement these ideas on a grand enough scale, we will see measurable improvements in the way we house our most vulnerable citizens. 

ANHD’s blog schedule on the Mayor’s Housing Plan (read prior blogs here):

  • Wednesday, May 28th: Fostering Diverse, Livable Neighborhoods
  • Wednesday, June 4th: Preserving the Affordability and Quality of the Existing Housing Stock
  • Wednesday, June 11th (Revised – Thursday, June 12): Building New Affordable Housing for All New Yorkers
  • Wednesday, June 18th:  Promoting Homeless, Senior, Supportive, and Accessible Housing
  • Wednesday, June 25th:  Refining City Financing Tools and Expanding Funding Sources for Affordable Housing

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