Ms. Gay is a member of the editorial board.
Politicians in New York, faced with a housing crisis that has driven more than 80,000 people into homeless shelters and renters to the brink, are simply throwing up their hands.
In Albany, state legislators appear prepared to go home this month without having delivered on a single major piece of legislation to ease the crisis.
At City Hall, Mayor Eric Adams, overwhelmed by the record numbers of people experiencing homelessness, is now seeking to do away with the city’s 42-year-old mandate in which anyone in need who asks for it has enjoyed the right to shelter.
The mandate, unique among America’s large cities, grew out of a 1979 state court ruling, Callahan v. Carey, that said the New York State Constitution established a right to shelter. The case is named for Robert Callahan, one of several plaintiffs who sued the city and state in 1979 after being denied shelter. In 1980, Mr. Callahan died on a city street. In 1981, New York City settled the case in a consent decree imposed by the court, agreeing to provide the most basic of human needs to those who cannot provide for themselves: a clean bed, toilet paper and a bar of soap.
On May 10, with migrants bused from the southern border overwhelming the city’s shelter system, Mr. Adams issued an emergency order suspending parts of that mandate. On May 23, the Adams administration went further, asking a court to narrow the 1981 consent decree by permitting the city to deny shelter if it lacks the resources to do so.
Agreeing to that request by effectively abolishing the right to shelter would be a grave mistake. It would put people experiencing homelessness at extreme risk. The policy change could also transform the streets of New York City by filling them with thousands of people who have nowhere else to go.
Mr. Adams has justified his actions by pointing to the migrant surge, which is a real challenge for New York, and could cost up to $3.7 billion through the end of the 2024 fiscal year. The federal government, which supervises immigration, should pick up that cost.
But the surge only exacerbated New York’s homelessness problem; it didn’t cause it. Even in January 2022 — before migrants began arriving in large numbers — about 50,000 New Yorkers were living in shelters.
The overriding cause of homelessness in New York City is the housing crisis, a critical lack of supply that has gripped the region, sending rents skyrocketing.
That crisis isn’t helped by a mayor who throws up his hands, scapegoats migrants and abandons the city’s commitment to unhoused people.
Likewise, the state expects more from leaders in Albany like the Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, and the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins. They failed New Yorkers by allowing NIMBYs and suburban opponents to thwart a plan from Gov. Kathy Hochul that would have slashed the archaic zoning laws across the region that are choking off its housing supply.
New York needs that plan, known as the Housing Compact, and hopefully Ms. Hochul can resurrect it over the coming year. Albany also needs to deliver on so-called good cause eviction, which would afford critical protections to renters, helping them stay in their homes.
In the coming days though, Ms. Hochul, Mr. Heastie and Ms. Stewart-Cousins can at least agree to policies that the governor has called “low-hanging fruit,” some of which could be achieved by executive order. What would that look like? For starters, it would mean extending the deadline for the property tax break known as 421a, an imperfect but necessary tool that offers tax relief to developers for setting aside a portion of the units as affordable. Albany can also remove caps on the size of new residential buildings in New York City, paving the way for the higher-density projects the city badly needs. It can begin to allow more accessory dwelling units, or guest apartments, to be built in the region.
At City Hall, there are things Mr. Adams can do to better manage the surge in homelessness without bulldozing the constitutional right to shelter. The most urgent task is getting as many people out of the shelter system and into the permanent housing that is available, right now.
The municipal government can do this, but it needs Mr. Adams’s help. City officials, Legal Aid attorneys and advocates who work with homeless New Yorkers say the mayor can begin by tackling the citywide staffing shortage, moving swiftly to hire more workers at agencies that serve the poorest New Yorkers.
At the Department of Homeless Services, more and better-trained workers are needed to help shelter residents apply for city housing vouchers, an onerous process that should be streamlined. “It’s harder than doing your taxes,” Dave Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, told me.
The Human Resources Administration also needs more staff members to process the housing vouchers. Advocates for homeless New Yorkers say it has become commonplace for the city to take months to send the first rent check to landlords through the voucher system, leaving people languishing in shelters. The city’s Commission on Human Rights needs more staff members too, to enforce laws against discrimination by landlords who refuse to rent to tenants with housing vouchers. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development needs more workers to negotiate the deals that turn existing housing into affordable housing.
Mr. Adams can also eliminate a rule that requires shelter residents to wait 90 days before qualifying for rental assistance toward permanent housing. And, along with the City Council, he can increase funding to groups like the Legal Aid Society, which are essential to fighting evictions and keeping New Yorkers in their homes and out of city shelters. Evictions are rising, and the share of tenants represented by an attorney in housing court has plummeted over the past year, from 65 percent in February 2022 to just 38 percent this March, according to a tracking system maintained by a coalition of housing and community groups.
Part of the problem is high turnover among housing lawyers at nonprofit groups. Some of these attorneys told The Times they are not only grappling with high caseloads but are also themselves struggling to afford to live in New York City. The city’s legal nonprofits are asking the city for an additional $351 million to staff up, plus $125 million to account for increased salaries and benefits to remain competitive. Legislation like “good cause” would probably greatly reduce these caseloads. Until then, increasing funding to legal services would be taxpayer money well spent.
These measures alone won’t solve the crisis. City housing officials estimate there are fewer than 10,000 units of nonluxury housing available throughout New York City. Building more housing, quickly, is the only way forward. If they were doing their jobs, New York’s politicians would be focused on exactly that.
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Mara Gay is a member of the editorial board. @MaraGay