Opinion

The City Council’s Fair Share bill is unfair to homeless families

By Shelly Nortz |  

August 22, 2017 |  

New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Council Speaker during a preliminary budget hearing. (William Alatriste for the New York City Council)

New Yorkers understand that homelessness is a serious problem: 93 percent say it is a very serious (69 percent) or serious (24 percent) problem, according to a May 2017 Quinnipiac University poll. We notice that there are more people on the streets and we feel compassion for them. We know when more needs to be done and how to distinguish the difference between intelligent solutions and misguided policies. Another Quinnipiac poll in November 2016 showed that 93 percent of New Yorkers feel sympathy for those who are homeless and 73 percent of us feel New York City is doing too little to help our neighbors without homes.

We also know that homelessness is at its root a housing problem, and that those who are barely making it economically or emotionally are the most vulnerable to losing a home. Far too many are precariously housed: Three out of five New Yorkers lack sufficient savings to pay for three months of living expenses, according to the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. Seventy-three percent of low-income households have rents that exceed half of their incomes. A NY1-Baruch College poll last year found that two out of three New Yorkers believe they could be priced out of their own neighborhoods.

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Against this bleak backdrop, public policies to address homelessness and the need for more affordable housing are now front and center. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have pledged multi-billion dollar supportive and affordable housing plans. And Mayor de Blasio plans to open 90 new shelters better designed to serve a record homeless population than the “cluster sites” and hotels that provide poor quality shelter far from where individuals and families once lived.

Unfortunately, as some new shelters were set to open recently, local “Not in My Back Yard” opposition has fed protests and spawned lawsuits aimed at blocking shelters over concerns about the mental health of homeless people and claims that neighborhoods are becoming “oversaturation” with unwanted facilities. At the same time, the City Council is considering a package of bills to amend the City Charter’s “Fair Share” rules to prohibit siting of shelters and other facilities serving people with disabilities in neighborhoods deemed to be oversaturated.

The proposed changes are fraught with harmful provisions that would hamper the city’s ability to fulfill its legal and moral obligation to shelter homeless individuals and families. Even if prompted by well-meaning objectives, the amendments could also unintentionally foster discrimination against those with disabilities – which would violate Federal Fair Housing laws and jeopardize the city’s federal affordable housing funding. The bills would also require the disclosure of sensitive information about the target populations served in various facilities – a violation of the privacy rules that protect victims of violence, people with disabilities and those with AIDS/HIV.

It makes no sense to pander to the vocal critics of shelters and mental health facilities when New Yorkers actually support creating them.

The notion of distributing shelters proportionally throughout the city sounds innocuous enough. But the Council’s proposed “Fair Share” package would be far from fair for homeless families and New York communities.

First, there are immediate practical implications: At a time of record and growing homelessness, the bills would make it nearly impossible to open new, urgently needed shelters in many neighborhoods – without making it any easier to open shelters in other places, and without the additional resources the city would need for more expensive properties. With the shelter system facing a chronic capacity crisis, any delay or restriction in opening new shelters would just force the city to rely on more costly and remote hotels. And if shelters were to be blocked altogether as proposed, it could send us back to the dark days when dozens of families slept each night on the floors of government offices, or even on the street. That would be a cardinal violation of the city’s duty to provide safe shelter for homeless men, women and children, and one that would directly contradict what New Yorkers expect of their elected officials.

Second, is the deeper problem: The impact of the proposals. The mayor’s plan to open new shelters is a long-overdue attempt to keep newly homeless families as close as possible to their communities of origin. This would enable kids to stay in their neighborhood schools without long trips, help parents stay close to their jobs and help homeless families maintain contact with friends, kin, clergy and other social supports in their communities. Continuity in their own neighborhoods can potentially shorten a family’s shelter stay and reduce the trauma of homelessness for their children.

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It makes no sense to pander to the vocal critics of shelters and mental health facilities when New Yorkers actually support creating them. In the May Quinnipiac poll, 73 percent said they support building 90 new city shelters – by great majorities across all boroughs, races, ages and genders. And a majority in every borough (57 percent city-wide) would support building a new shelter near where they live. Our policies should be crafted in a way to best help homeless families, not to appease a vocal minority motivated by NIMBYism.

The best solution, of course, is fighting homelessness itself. Despite the myth that the problem is intractable, the Council and mayor have already seen success in preventing evictions and protecting tenants by making sure they have access to help with rent payments and arrears as well as legal representation in housing court. We understand that some community members feel their neighborhoods are overburdened by the Mayor’s plan. Regrettably, by planning to reduce the number of people in shelters by a mere 2,500 people during the next five years, the city has missed a golden opportunity to help far more people leave shelters for homes of their own.

There is much more the city can do right now to decrease the need for new shelters, and it can start by prioritizing more vacancies in public housing for homeless families. Many communities maximize the use of public housing to help families become stable, shorten shelter stays, and reduce the public cost of operating shelters. The city can also use Section 8 vouchers for homeless families who need them most. It can target more of the mayor’s plan to build affordable housing for extremely low-income and homeless New Yorkers. Finally, it can accelerate all of its affordable and supportive housing development. After all, it costs far less to build it now than it will later.

It is easy to oppose a new shelter in your community. But the right response is to help our neighbors get back on their feet, not make their lives harder as the proposed “Fair Share” policies would do. Let us lead with compassion and a commitment to solving homelessness by providing enough truly affordable housing for those most in need – that is the best way to achieve fairness for all.

Shelly Nortz is the deputy executive director of policy for the Coalition for the Homeless. 

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