City’s Homeless crisis will become catastrophic if we don’t save Public Housing

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

New York City’s greatest social struggle of the last third of a century has been government’s attempts to address homelessness, which CSS examined in its ground-breaking 1981 report, Private Lives, Public Spaces.  The problem of tens of thousands of men and women and families living in public spaces or trapped in the system of city-run facilities continues to loom large and intractable, driven primarily by the dire shortage of affordable housing.

The battles fought and lessons learned in moving New York City’s treatment of our poorest members to a more humane place have been many. Despite our social consciousness, progress over the years has been frustrating, incremental – sometimes for good, sometimes for less – and the victories hard-won.

Now, however, the Trump administration and Republican majority in Congress are poised to suddenly turn back the clock with an assault of misplaced priorities that would gut safety net programs, public and subsidized housing and healthcare. Trump asked inner cities: “What have you got to lose?” Quite a bit actually. This is far worse than the same sort of cold-hearted cuts in federal funding for low income housing and social services that triggered the homeless crisis in New York City in the 1980s.

The budget ax threatens to drop as New York City’s homeless population hits record highs, with roughly 60,000 New Yorkers in the shelter system. The city spent $1.6 billion last year on homeless services.  With so many people already without permanent homes, dramatically defunding programs for the poor promises to only quickly intensify the homeless crisis.  

More clearly than ever, the homeless crisis requires Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to take bold, immediate steps to improve the economic prospects of our most vulnerable citizens.  The best way to address the affordability crisis and homelessness is to shore up the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which already expects federal cuts of $35 million. It’s arguably the fastest and most cost-effective way to maintain affordable alternatives in the New York City housing market – some would argue the only alternative – for people living at or below the poverty level.

The mayor’s preliminary FY18 budget includes an additional $1 billion in capital spending to replace deteriorating roofs on NYCHA buildings over 10 years. Clearly not enough given NYCHA’s $17 billion capital improvement backlog, but a significant start that breaks the “firewall” that made NYCHA a stepchild to the mayor’s multi-billion dollar plan for building and preserving affordable housing in the private sector.  Meanwhile, the governor has pledged to spend $20 billion over five years on his own affordable housing initiative, but his record on restoring NYCHA infrastructure is weak.

Trump’s massive cuts to major federal agencies is no surprise. It mirrors the budget blueprint of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative anti-tax and anti-spending group that has long called for the most right-wing restructuring of federal spending in decades.   Trump has proposed a $54 billion increase in defense spending vs $10.5 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending over the next decade.

These cuts would have a nightmarish impact on housing.  It would eliminate the federal vehicles for government insured mortgages as well as slash Community Development Block Grants.  It would transfer subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers to the states, which would determine how, and to what extent, they will support low income housing with state and local dollars. 

There are about 140,000 Section 8 vouchers in New York City, which are funded by the federal government and administered by NYCHA, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal. There’s already a waiting list for vouchers that families tend to be on for years.  Even a simple freeze on Section 8 voucher funding, not to mention a reduction, would reduce the number of available vouchers and have a devastating effect on those waiting to get out of homeless shelters. The city’s already struggling ability to deal with the homeless population would be hobbled.

Trump’s budget also puts at risk de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which depends on the sale of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits by developers to raise capital. The planned reduction in federal corporate income tax rates would make the credits a less attractive investment vehicle. 

As Washington tightens the budget screws on domestic programs, the mayor and governor must turn their attention to the abysmal condition under which NYCHA residents live. What’s needed is a long-term Marshall Plan for NYCHA that commits at least a billion dollars over five years in state funds for major improvements to the authority’s aging buildings.

It’s not a question of resources – the state can tap some of the $17 billion in unexpended bank settlement funds to fix NYCHA’s infrastructure needs. Rather, it’s a question of standing up for the least among us and reaffirming values that are in keeping with New York’s history of successfully tackling tasks that range from substantively difficult to seemingly impossible, and emerging better for having done so.

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