Posted on February 28, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday, P-cubed News, Roosevelt House Faculty Forum

Dasani Coates and her siblings in the room they shared with their parents in a Brooklyn homeless shelter.

Image Credit: Ruth Fremson, New York Times

By Shyama Venkateswar

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 400 homeless children and their families would be moved from their current shelters to either a new temporary shelter or subsidized permanent apartment. This news might have gone largely unnoticed were it not for The New York Times’ recent five-part series on an 11 year old homeless child, Dasani Coates, and her family living in squalor at one of the city’s homeless shelters. The articles, accompanied by vivid photographs, chronicled the daily life of a Dasani, struggling to survive with her family in crowded, unsanitary and dangerous conditions. This was, in its essence, the “tale of two cities,” which the Mayor alluded to during his election campaign; a story of New York’s most vulnerable members – 52,261 homeless people, including 22,514 homeless children – trapped in cycles of cycles of poverty with limited opportunities to break free from their precarious existences.

Addressing the plight of the growing homeless in NYC is an important first step for the new Mayor who sees income inequality as a “quiet crisis” that needs urgent attention.  No other city in the United States is defined by the enormous gap between the wealthy and those in poverty.  In 2012, more than 21 percent of city residents were living in poverty, defined as just over $23,000 a year for a family of four. At the same time, New York City has 70 billionaires and almost 400,000 residents with assets of over $1 million.

The income divide manifests most greatly in New York’s housing market. Under the Bloomberg administration, the city steadily attracted luxury development which received $1 billion a year in government subsidies under an old and controversial tax exemption program – ‘421a’ – intended to encourage residential development. While investments in high-end properties were being actively solicited and developed, the market for affordable housing severely contracted. Despite the steady climb in the number of people living under the poverty line since 2009, vacancy rates for $1000 per month apartments were about 1 percent in 2011.

By the time Mayor Bloomberg left office, the city’s homeless population reached a record level of more than 52,000, the highest number since the Great Depression. Several specific policy changes can be attributed this increase. From 1990 onwards, the city moved 53,000 homeless families into permanent housing through a federal subsidy program.  Bloomberg, however, reversed that policy and created instead a short-term rent subsidy program that was terminated in 2011 by the state pushing thousands of families into the shelter system. Housing insecurity among middle and working-class families continues to grow as 10,000 rent-regulated apartments are lost in our city each year, creating a perpetual housing shortage.

Creating affordable housing for millions of New Yorkers should be at the centerpiece of any policy agenda aiming to decrease the ever-widening income gap, and luckily, the new de Blasio Administration seems to understand that. The Department of Housing Preservation & Development says that it plans to add 165,000 units of affordable housing across the five boroughs by the end of the fiscal year 2014.

In addition to construction and preservation of affordable housing for low-income families, other measures include the enforcement of housing maintenance codes with enforceable penalties, providing more incentives to not-for-profit and community-based developers, expanding homeownership among underserved communities through innovative strategies like those offered by the nonprofit lender, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation, and strengthening of tenant protections. Providing greater resources to the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) would be a critical aspect of a comprehensive plan for housing in the city.

And what of the homeless shelters that provide beds to 53,270 men, women, and children each night in NYC? This staggering number represents only those in shelters – another additional 5,000 homeless adults and children arrive each night in other public and private shelters; many prefer to remain in the streets. The New York Times story of Dasani Coates prompted city officials to schedule hearings on the status of family shelters, and in the aftermath of the public outrage generated by the articles, the city has outlined a plan for changes in the two shelter facilities. In addition to removing children and their families and placing them in other shelters or in permanent housing, other changes to the two shelters are in the process of being implemented at a cost of $13 million– increasing security, upgrading the facilities, refurbishing the rooms, and creating a culinary arts program on the ground floor of one of the shelters.

Other shelters in the city – 151 family facilities – presenting a range of hazards for the inhabitants living there have yet to receive the kind of scrutiny or an increase in resources drawn by the two shelters in the articles. While Mayor de Blasio is working out details with Governor Cuomo on a possible rent subsidy program that will require state funds, he is yet to announce a comprehensive plan to address homelessness in the city.

Long-term policies to address livable wages and benefits for low-income communities and creating access to affordable housing in the city are concrete steps towards breaking down the entrenched socioeconomic divide in the city. Both sets of policies need to go hand in hand to address the new Mayor’s commitment to remove the “root causes of inequality that keep the city’s residents so far apart.

Dr. Shyama Venkateswar is the Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Public Policy Program. Follow her on Twitter: @DrSVenkateswarlike the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House on Facebook and follow @PcubedatRH on Twitter.