The need for affordable housing doesn’t really seem debatable. It’s common knowledge that both New York — and the country as a whole — are deep in a disastrous housing crisis. Despite last year’s tenant victories that granted New York tenants a modicum of protection against arbitrary evictions, the plague of homelessness continues unabated.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson released a report Jan. 30 stating that approximately 80,000 New Yorkers currently experience homelessness — the number keeps increasing.
Many more live on the brink, due to rent increases, reduced income, and rapacious landlords.
The New York State Home Stability Support bill, co-sponsored in the senate by Alessandra Biaggi, is an effort to recognize and stem this crisis. It’s a statewide rent subsidy proposal to bridge the difference between inadequate public assistance shelter allowances and actual rents for families and individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
It would help, but it’s not enough.
The Housing Justice for All coalition — which includes Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Community Action for Safe Apartments (or CASA), NYC Communities for Change, Make the Road NY, and many others — says New York state needs at least 600,000 new units of social housing. That is, housing that is permanently affordable and democratically controlled.
Social housing would, by definition, be held off the speculative market through public or non-profit ownership. It would be a truly meaningful approach to solving the homeless crisis.
Meanwhile, the 400,000-plus residents of the New York City Housing Authority face a nightmare of instability in their homes. After the federal commitment to support public housing was abandoned politically a generation or more ago, NYCHA buildings have deteriorated, and the NYCHA management system fell apart.
NYCHA needs $30 billion to cover basic repairs, according to Data for Progress, the think tank that helped U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduce a Green New Deal for Public Housing bill last November.
“We must build the political will to combat both the affordable housing and climate crises,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, speaking at the bill’s launching ceremony.
In the Bronx, resistance to gentrification, landlord harassment and displacement has a long history. CASA has fought and won against landlords in court, fought for the right to counsel for tenants facing harassment, and for 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 permanent affordable housing and force landlords to stop warehousing vacant units. Last July, Ocasio-Cortez said that “for every one person experiencing homelessness here, there are about three vacant apartments. Inequality is a crisis, and a bold 21st century effort on poverty must advance.”
The Housing Justice for All coalition is calling on Gov. Cuomo to renew and expand his 2016 commitment to build 20,000 units of supportive housing, fully fund the Homes Stability Support program, provide legal services and rental services to homeless people, and more.
There could be another approach: Recognize that having a home is a human right, and make a law that vacant apartments must be made available to anyone, or any family, who needs them.
Simple and fair, right?
The author is a coordinator for Welcoming Neighbors/Northwest Bronx, and an activist with the Fair Housing for All coalition.