Candidates for the role of Mayor of New York City in 2021 came together to discuss housing and homelessness this afternoon at the West Side Tenants Conference hosted by Hell’s Kitchen based Housing Conservation Coordinators.
Candidate Joycelyn Taylor told the zoom call audience: “You address homelessness by giving homeless people addresses. We need to get away from this system where people have to go into a shelter to qualify for an affordable apartment.”
“We also have to understand that homelessness has become a business. I met a young lady at a town hall on homelessness. She’s been living in a shelter for five years. We have 60,000 homeless people in this city. We’re spending $3.2 billion a year, which is about $53,000 per person. So in five years, we’ve spent $265,000 to keep a person in a homeless shelter. We have to look at how we’re utilizing that money and make sure we use it in a way that creates long-term stable housing.”
New York City Council member Carlos Menchaca thought the numbers were higher. “The number of dollars that we’re throwing at housing folks in shelters goes up to $90,000 a year for a person in our system,” Menchaca said. “Why don’t we give that to them to be able to go back into the market, find an apartment, and stabilize themselves? If we make sure that we have case management that is actually addressing the needs, then this is the kind of opportunity that we have in the city to do something bold and big.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was clear that “we need to stop viewing it as a one size fits all” when looking at homelessness. He defined three categories: children and families, single adults, and those dealing with mental health illnesses.
Adams said he would work to keep families from losing their homes and going into shelters. His solution for single adults was to retrofit rooms in outer-borough hotels, to create apartments with wraparound services within the location. On those with mental health issues, he said: “You have a revolving door process on street homelessness, which is overwhelmingly these men and women. They’re afraid to go into shelters. We need to support them, not allow them to go to Bellevue, get medicine for one day, and then put them back into the street.”
Kathryn Garcia, who gave up her post as chief at the Department of Sanitation to run for mayor, was clear that “housing really is about healing.” Like many candidates, she saw an opportunity in the distressed commercial and hotel market for conversion to much needed housing. “We need to be creative with what’s happening with commercial property and hotels, and grab them up if we can.”
Shaun Donovan, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, said: “The cruel math of affordable housing is that you could subsidize every single dollar of building an apartment and still a family couldn’t afford just the operating expenses of those units.”
Donovan shared his frustration with the current system: “We need to change our city’s rental assistance program. Think about this — right now, you have to go to housing court or go to a shelter to get rental assistance from the city. How wrong is that? You have to disrupt your family and put them at risk to get the help that you need.”
Dianne Morales spoke as someone who has “operated shelters for the last decade.” She shared: “I can tell you that our system is fundamentally flawed. It is focused solely on moving people out of the shelter system and not actually providing them with the support they need to attain and maintain stable housing over the long term. So we end up with a cycle of people being pushed out of the shelter system because that’s what the shelter system rewards — placement. The reality is that those people are not placed in housing in such a way that they’re able to actually maintain it.”
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer railed against the performance of the current Mayor. “Bill de Blasio should bring every not-for-profit provider housing expert into City Hall (safely) and make sure that we take care of the people who are languishing in so many hotels and dangerous shelters, and through a combination of finance and a combination of compassion and expertise, he should be leading this city at a moment of great crisis. The mismanagement of this administration really hurts the most vulnerable people. The way he is taking the men at the Lucerne Hotel and moving them around as if they’re just collateral damage to a failed mayoralty and a failed housing plan — we have to do better.”
Maya Wiley, who served until recently as counsel to the Mayor de Blasio, spoke passionately about homeless men staying in place at hotels, referring to Shams DaBaron, the de facto representative of the men at the Lucerne and Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, which initially formed in response to neighborhood opposition.
“Shams Baron and the men of the Lucerne — you stay! Open Hearts Upper West Side, you get lifted up as a model,” said Wiley. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that we are housing folks appropriately to their needs. We will bring in community-based organizations and not-for-profits that are experts in how we do this, like ensuring we don’t have more than 100 people in one place if we need to give them drug rehabilitation services.”
Wiley finished with a challenge. ” Anyone who wants to come with a lawsuit that says not in my backyard, we say, ‘okay, here we go —court!'”
The Mayoral candidates on the panel today were Eric Adams, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Carlos Menchaca, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Joycelyn Taylor, and Maya Wiley. Not all mayoral candidates were present on the zoom call, although all were invited. The Q&A was hosted by Ben Max, Editor of the Gotham Gazette. Photos of the candidates are from the zoom call or their Instagram pages. Some direct quotes have been edited for clarity.