This month, the City Council and the House Our Future NY campaign convinced Mayor de Blasio and his administration to build significantly more permanent affordable housing for homeless New Yorkers. But even as we celebrate this new commitment, another council vote just two weeks before demonstrated that the mayor and the city council still have to get serious about investing in the creation of new, better shelters as well if we are truly going to solve homelessness in our city.
The Council’s action makes it the law that every newly constructed affordable housing project over a certain size must set aside at least 15 percent of its units for homeless households. This historic legislation is expected to generate as many as a thousand more units a year for the city’s families who need housing most.
Gateway Housing was an early supporter of both House Our Future NY and the legislation sponsored by Council Member Rafael Salamanca, so we’re more than pleased to see the Mayor’s ambitious affordable housing development plan finally devoting more of its resources to addressing homelessness. But the victory is incomplete: just a week before, the Council used its power to stop construction of a new type of model shelter just as essential to our efforts to break the intergenerational cycle of homelessness in New York.
In the earlier vote, the Council transferred ownership of almost a full block of city-owned land at 515 Blake Avenue in East New York to HELP USA, a respected nonprofit provider that has operated a 191-unit family shelter at the site for almost 30 years. HELP’s original plan was to replace the worn-out facility with a state-of-the-art shelter caring for the same number of families, and add 326 units of new affordable permanent housing, along with stores and other community amenities.
HELP used its decades of experience to design a shelter that put the needs of homeless families first. The temporary apartments would have been more spacious, the program space more inviting. The shelter would have been broken into smaller, more manageable sections, and would have had licensed childcare and outdoor play areas.
But the local council member Inez Barron demanded that this new and greatly improved facility be taken out of the development entirely, claiming her district was saturated with shelters. Her opposition may have been good politics for her, but it’s terrible policy for the people of East New York.
With over 100,000 New Yorkers becoming homeless each year, and the average New York City shelter stay lasting more than a year, East New York and neighborhoods across the city need more high-quality shelters, not less.
Gateway Housing is working with nonprofits and government to do exactly this, creating nonprofit owned and operated shelters that look more like housing, and are integrated with new, co-located permanent affordable housing.
Nonprofit-owned shelters are better shelters: they are designed with residents in mind, are less expensive to build (because there’s no profit) and are good long-term investments for the city because they will be available to the community in perpetuity (not just until the lease runs out). And if the project uses city-owned land, as this one did, the costs are lower still.
The redeveloped HELP USA shelter would have also offered homeless East New York families and children a place to stay close to home, keeping them connected to their schools, doctors, houses of worship and networks of support.
More than 2,800 homeless people sleeping in the city’s shelters tonight come from East New York. But without the Blake Avenue shelter, there will be fewer than 1,700 shelter beds in that Brooklyn neighborhood, 500 of those in crowded hotels inappropriate for raising children. By blocking the HELP One shelter redevelopment, the council member guaranteed that at least 1,600 East New Yorkers experiencing housing emergencies will either have to stay in substandard hotel rooms, or in shelters far from their community. It’s hard to see who benefits.
We would love to solve homelessness just by building more permanent housing. But, as much as it helps, more housing alone is no longer enough. A crowded, high-cost city like New York will always need shelters, especially in today’s heated real estate market.
Let’s take a moment to celebrate the new 15% homeless housing setaside. Give a pat on the back to Council Member Salamanca, General Welfare Committee Chair Steve Levin, Speaker Corey Johnson and the many people in the de Blasio administration who figured out a way to fund and implement this historic commitment.
But we can’t afford to be satisfied with this achievement, because the choice is no longer as simple as shelter versus housing. Housing is clearly the solution to homelessness. But we also need shelters and the choice there is good shelters or bad. If the mayor and the city council are truly serious about addressing homelessness, they must commit to redeveloping and building more high-quality, nonprofit-owned shelters. They should start by finding a site for a new shelter in East New York.