Legislation designed to put a dent in homelessness

Intro. 1211 calls on affordable housing developers who receive subsidies from the city, to set aside 15 percent of all preserved or newly created units for homeless families. Current city policy sets that number at just five percent. 

Activist Nathylin Flowers Adesegun calls on Mayor de Blasio to ratchet up housing for the homeless, at City Hall rally  on Dec. 11.

Councilman pushes for big increase in apartments for the homeless

New legislation being introduced in the City Council would, if passed, require some developers to triple the number of apartments they must set aside for homeless families. 

Intro. 1211 calls on affordable housing developers who receive subsidies from the city, to set aside 15 percent of all preserved or newly created units for homeless families. Current city policy sets that number at just five percent. 

Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who has introduced the bill, joined housing advocates from Coalition for the Homeless, Housing Works, VOCAL-NY, and Neighbors Together on Dec. 11 to stage a teach-in at the entrance of City Hall. They aimed to draw attention to what they say are the shortcomings of the mayor’s current housing plan.

“By no way am I saying this bill will address homelessness completely. But it will make a dent,” said Salamanca in a phone interview, then added angrily, as if addressing the mayor, “You call yourself a progressive leader? Your plan lacks everything progressive.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office, Jaclyn Rothenberg, countered that de Blasio has “set a new standard by requiring a minimum 10 percent of apartments in virtually all affordable developments be set aside for homeless New Yorkers.” But Salamanca and the advocates contend that the mayor’s 2017 Housing New York 2.0 plan calls for just five percent set asides for homeless families, not 10. Even 10 percent, they add, wouldn’t be enough in the face of the current crisis. 

More than 60,000 New Yorkers sleep in a city shelter every night, according to data from the Coalition for the Homeless. And the Citizen’s Committee on New York says that more than 60 percent of families entering homelessness came from just 15 community districts in the city, including Mott Haven and Hunts Point. 

On Jan. 14, the proposed bill received a hearing at City Hall. So far, 30 council members have announced their support for the bill. At a Community Board 2 meeting in Hunts Point in December, Salamanca suggested that council members from wealthier districts who have not signed on should set aside their fear of angering developers and do so.

“The mayor needs to take leadership on this issue,” said Jaron Benjamin, Vice President of Community Mobilization at the Bronx-based nonprofit Housing Works. “He needs to listen to homelessness advocates when they say that he’s going to have to extract a better deal from developers. He’s going to have to fight a little bit harder.”

There are signs that the mayor is feeling the heat. According to data from the Coalition for the Homeless, shelter occupancy is up 64 percent since he was inaugurated in 2010, and the issue of homelessness has overshadowed every other issue in the city’s news cycle ever since. In December, de Blasio admitted on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC that spiking homelessness during his tenure as mayor amounts to a policy failure. 

Still, the mayor is showing little sign of bending. According to the spokeswoman, the emphasis on new construction in the proposed bill is more expensive and slower than “providing rental assistance” directly to low- and middle-income New Yorkers would be. 

In a report issued by the City Comptroller’s office in November, Comptroller Scott Stringer followed suit with Salamanca’s plan, recommended replacing the “regressive” Mortgage Recording Tax on home purchases with a more progressive tax structure to help finance tripling the number of apartments for the homeless.

But a spokesman for a trade group that represents construction companies criticized the bill.

“The legislation is more like a slogan than a policy,” said Robert Altman of the Queens-Bronx Building Association in a phone interview. Developers, he said, will not be able to make their money back on rental properties that go to families with very little or no income. “If the homeless can afford to pay for it, fine,” said Altman, adding that an additional subsidy from the city was the only way to make a 15 percent set-aside viable, but that there is no such provision in the bill.

Salamanca points to his South Bronx district, where he has used his clout as head of the Council’s Land Use committee to pressure developers receiving city subsidies to build in the district, to set aside 15 percent of new units for homeless families. Developers remain eager to build in the neighborhood despite that, he said.

In addition, the councilman contends that taxpayers are getting a raw deal from landlords under present policy because the city pays “way above market rate” to house families in shelters, whereas providing those families with housing  subsidies would save the city money.

Jessica Clemente, Executive Director of Melrose-based community development organization Nos Quedamos, says that Salamanca’s bill doesn’t go far enough. Although 15 percent is “a step in the right direction,” the city should call for up to 25 percent of apartments to be set aside to truly make a dent in the current crisis. Private developers, Clemente added, should be required to set aside units for the homeless as well. 

“They get all kinds of tax benefits—how’s that coming back to the city?” she said. “Maybe there’s a way [private developers] could pay for some of this.”

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