The surge of homeless people across New York City, and the new approaches to deal with it, have caused both hope and concern recently.
The Broadway Family Plaza, a new transitional housing facility at 5731 Broadway, is a genuine success story. This is important to understand as we examine the overall crisis of housing and homelessness in the city, and in Kingsbridge, Riverdale and Marble Hill.
At Broadway Family Plaza, most adult residents have jobs. Professional staff help them prepare for or keep their jobs, and have placed some in permanent housing. The 170 children at the facility go to school. There is an after-school program. Other activities are planned: mentoring, tutorial services, summer recreation and sports programs, a Girl Scouts chapter, etc.
But is it enough? The city’s homeless services department is asking community boards to help find suitable sites for more high-quality transitional housing. Community board members and local politicians ask why this problem exists, and what can be done about it.
New York’s homeless population is now 77,000, according to a Feb. 28 story in The New York Times. That’s up from 60,000 last year, an increase of 17,000. There were roughly 36,000 new applications for homeless services last year. So possibly some 19,000 or more people overcame homelessness since then.
Why the increase? Something is working — 19,000 or more people are back in homes. But something remains very wrong: The figures continue to climb.
The city wants to house homeless people in communities in which they became homeless, so they will be better positioned to find permanent housing, and their kids can go to schools close to their former home. School District 10, which includes Community Board 8, has about 2,600 students in shelters. Nearly half of these students attend schools in CB8.
Rent increases and reduced income are major causes of homelessness. Also, the city lost about 150,000 rent-stabilized apartments between 1994 and 2012. Also, “too many landlords are removing their existing tenants as the key to higher profits,” according to one advocacy group.
The city is now helping tenants fight evictions, providing free legal services, emergency rental assistance, and a broad campaign to prevent homelessness.
And the city has a five-year housing plan to “build or preserve” 200,000 affordable rental units.
The “preserve” part would keep 120,000 units from becoming deregulated. Most of the “build” part involves tax breaks to developers, to provide a total of 80,000 “affordable” rental units in new market-rate buildings.
The city got 6,844 new “affordable” units in 2016, but only about 2,400 of those were for households making less than $40,000. Those with incomes under $25,000 for a family of three were basically left out.
Incentivizing “affordable housing” in market-rate developments has fueled gentrification: market-rate apartments displace low-rent housing, driving out the poor residents.
So a deal with developers for not really affordable housing is actually increasing homelessness.
In the Bronx, resistance to gentrification, landlord harassment and displacement has a long history. Community Action for Safe Apartments, or CASA, has fought and won against landlords in court, fought for the right to counsel for tenants facing harassment, and a certificate of no harassment law to prevent harassing landlords from getting city building permits.
CASA calls for an affordable housing subsidy program for incomes up to $56,000. It could use funds currently devoted to homeless services, together with new tax funds.
Another plan, the Gaining Ground Pilot Project, would preserve and build permanently affordable housing, and force landlords to stop warehousing vacant units. The mayor recently unveiled a plan of this type, expecting to get 1,100 housing units back to rent stabilization, and 800 families out of homelessness.
A coalition is calling on the governor to fund and create 20,000 units of supportive housing, fully fund the Homes Stability Support program (a statewide rent supplement for low-income families), provide legal services and rental services to homeless people, and more.
The city plans to open 90 new shelters and expand 30 existing ones, replacing hotel rooms and “cluster” apartments currently used as shelters. This should lead to shorter stays in shelters. DHS has projected average shelter stay at 12 to 14 months.
Some community districts shoulder a disproportionate share of shelters. In the northwest Bronx as a whole, significantly more people have become homeless than are sheltered here. Broadway Family Plaza has 83 units — enough for about half the current shelter population coming from CB8 neighborhoods.
Welcoming Neighbors Northwest Bronx wants to do whatever is possible to help make this new approach a success. Our members serve on the advisory board at the new center. We mobilized to make Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas exciting and memorable for the center’s children.
We are preparing to launch tutorial and mentoring programs with the center’s professional staff. Volunteers are encouraged to help.
The author is a member of Welcoming Neighbors Northwest Bronx.