Bloomberg’s Housing Policies A Failure

Bloomberg’s Housing Policies A Failure

March 2012

By any measure—even his own—Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s housing policy has been an abject failure. In 2004, his third year in office, Bloomberg announced with great fanfare a plan to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds over five years. Instead, due to policies both misguided and inadequate, homelessness has increased by a third, some 10,000 additional people. For the first time, there are now more than 40,000 homeless people sleeping in city shelters each night, including over 17,000 children. That number increased by 10 percent in the last six months of 2011 alone.

The reasons are not hard to see. While millions of New Yorkers live at or below the poverty level, and millions more are just above, the supply of affordable housing has been steadily decreasing. A study released in 2011 by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Community Service Society showed that the city lost 569,700 units of affordable housing between 2000 and 2007, from a combination of vacancy destabilization, rent increases, and the loss of subsidized units. Mayor Bloomberg’s policies have failed to preserve existing affordable housing or to create enough new affordable housing to make a significant difference. The result is that the number of homeless people has grown, and his administration’s treatment of them has been callous and cynical.

Bloomberg’s 2004 plan to reduce homelessness was based on a combination of increasing the housing supply and eliminating what he characterized as incentives to become homeless—the supposed ease of finding a place in a shelter, and the notion that people chose to enter shelters as a way to get permanent affordable Section 8 housing. 

The Bloomberg administration has attempted several times to institute draconian restrictions on access to shelters, including making people “prove” they have no other housing options—this primarily affects those who are doubled up in overcrowded situations with relatives or friends, often in untenable situations—and by imposing punitive codes of conduct, with violations resulting in being put out of the shelter. Time and again, in response to challenges brought by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, courts have ruled those proposals illegal.


Revolving Door

The mayor’s programs to move families out of the shelter system have been seemingly designed to fail, once he reversed the policy of giving homeless families priority for permanent affordable housing. First, he instituted the Housing Stability Plus (HSP) program, in which low-income families were given five-year rent subsidies that decreased by 20 percent each year. As, given the shortage of living-wage jobs, there was no way that many families could afford to pay an increasing share of their rent, HSP predictably became a revolving door back to the shelter. 

Next, Bloomberg introduced the so-called Advantage program, offering a one- or two-year subsidy, after which the tenant would be responsible for the full rent. Again, foreseeably dis-Advantaged tenants have ended up back in the shelters. To make matters worse, last year the mayor announced plans to cut off Advantage payments even for tenants whose subsidies had not expired, and he has resisted efforts in court to force the payments to continue. As a result, thousands of families are at immediate risk of becoming homeless again. 

The mayor’s plan to expand the affordable-housing supply has been similarly ineffective. In 2002, the New Housing Marketplace Plan initially called for 65,000 units to be “built or preserved” by 2008. In 2006, it was expanded to provide for 92,000 new units and another 73,000 to have their affordability preserved despite the loss of existing subsidies. Then the plan was changed again: The number of new units was cut almost in half, to 54,500, with another 105,600 slated to be “preserved.” 

The plan’s definition of “affordable” is highly questionable. As a September 2011 City Limits article showed, many of the new units are affordable only to households with annual incomes over $100,000. In other cases, owners have received low-cost loans to renovate their buildings, creating an incentive to displace low-income tenants and replace them with wealthier ones. In any case, the number of new units created by the plan that will be affordable to low- and moderate-income tenants is less than 10 percent of the number of affordable units lost over the last decade because of the weakening of the rent-stabilization law.


Fiddling While Rome Burns

Mayor Bloomberg has stood on the sidelines or vacationed in Bermuda during important battles to preserve New York City’s largest stock of affordable housing—its one million rent-regulated apartments. He has abandoned his earlier support for restoring the city’s home rule over our rent and eviction laws—taken away in 1971 under another Republican billionaire, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and placed under the control of the state legislature in Albany, which at the behest of the real-estate industry, has drastically weakened regulations over the past 15 years. Despite a tremendous tenant mobilization in 2011 that won minor improvements in the law, weak rent regulations still result in the loss of tens of thousands of affordable apartments each year. (“Everything is Broken,” Tenant/Inquilino, Mar. 2011)

Bloomberg has slashed the budget for code enforcement, and as a result thousands of families have had to endure hazardous conditions or been forced from their homes. The mayor has also failed to support a right to counsel in Housing Court, where some 25,000 families are evicted each year, most of them unable to hire a lawyer or to obtain help from  the woefully underfunded providers of free legal services.

Fortunately, Bloomberg’s third and final term will end next year. The next mayor must reject the failed policies of this administration and address New York’s chronic and acute housing crisis. He or she must take effective action to preserve all existing affordable units, create new units that are truly affordable to the people who need them most, provide humane and adequate shelter for those who are homeless, and allow homeless families and individuals to find permanent affordable housing.