Housing for the Homeless

Over the course of the past year and a half the issue of homelessness in New York has been growing more and more visible to the public eye. According to coalition for the homeless, 2016 saw the highest level of homelessness in the city since the Great Depression. While the population of the city has obviously grown, the growth in admittance to city run shelters is truly sobering:


As the issue has grown, so too have the political ramifications for a mayor who centered his 2013 campaign on a “Tale of Two Cities,” vowing to fight an increasing divide between the increasingly wealthy folks pouring into the city and poorer communities. In September of 2015, deputy mayor for Health and Human Services (the main agency overseeing homeless services) Lilliam Barrios-Paoli resigned, and was quickly followed by Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor quitting abruptly in December of 2015. In November of 2015, in response to a call from de Blasio for the state to “step up” and help shoulder some of the costs associated with homelessness, an aide to Governor Cuomo took a shot at the mayor in the press by telling the Daily News “[I]t’s clear that the Mayor can’t manage the homeless crisis” and suggesting that maybe de Blasio isn’t smart enough to solve the problem. While we’ve all come to expect the perpetual pissing match between our dearly beloved mayor and governor, this exchange was particularly pointed. In April of last year, the report summarizing the state of homelessness ordered by the mayor was released. This report brought together staff from City Hall, the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Homeless Services and the Mayor’s Office of Operations to systematically examine why things had gotten so out of hand. Out of this report grew the current proposal to build 90 new shelters around the city.

All of this, of course, has taken place against the broader discussion of the city’s role in promoting housing development. From the conversation surrounding the  renewal of the 421-a program (which provides tax incentives for building on vacant or mostly vacant land in the city) to last spring’s drawn out battle surrounding Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (a program requiring developers to designate a certain percentage of their units as affordable for a fixed amount of time), to the wildly popular new blog Thoughts About Cities, it seems like all anyone is talking about these days is housing (or maybe that’s just what I read?).

What, then, is the immediate backdrop behind the current situation? New York City is under legal requirement to provide a bed for anyone who enters a public shelter looking for one. When there are no available beds, families are generally put up in motels around the city. As the homeless population has risen much more quickly than shelter beds, the result has been an enormous increase in the cost to the city – the Times reported last month that the City spends around $400,000 a day on hotel rooms. Moreover, the rise in homelessness that has bedeviled the mayor for the past three years will almost certainly be used against him as his campaign for re-election this fall ramps up. It’s no surprise, then, that the de Blasio administration is making this push now.

I’ve been following the conversation with interest because one of the most strenuously opposed shelters is supposed to open this week two blocks from my apartment at 1173 Bergen Street. Whether or not it will in fact open is unclear at this point due to community opposition [UPDATE: The opening has been indefinitely postponed]. As Gothamist reported last week, the shelter is supposed to have 100 beds reserved for men over the age of 62. The building, nestled among the Brooklyn brownstones, wasn’t being used for anything prior to its renovation. But the backlash against this shelter raise much more interesting questions than the anger directed at the proposed shelter in Maspeth last fall. The neighborhood of Maspeth, Queens, had no shelters when the mayor proposed the siting last fall, despite the fact that around 250 people from the neighborhood lived in city-run shelters outside the neighborhood. The conversation was characterized by classic NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) lines such as the anonymous resident assuring the local reporter, “We’re not against homeless people, we’re just against where the shelter is.” Whether or not you find their story sympathetic, it was hard to deny the fact that this community wanted to keep the unhoused folks “over there” – anywhere but Maspeth. Maspeth residents were ultimately successful in their fight to keep the shelter out.

Crown Heights, however, is different. As the Daily News reported earlier this month, Brooklyn’s Community Board 8 (in which the Bergen Street shelter is located) already has 679 homeless beds. This figure is far higher than neighboring Community Board 6 in Park Slope. CB6 (the mayor’s neighborhood, current residence at Gracie Mansion not withstanding) has just 267 beds, despite having roughly 10% more residents. Community Board 8 sits in an area that was historically red-lined, is 67% black, and has a poverty rate of 26%. Community Board 6, on the other hand, is 75% white and has a poverty rate half that of Crown Heights. The concentration of existing shelter beds, minority population, and poverty have led to understandable claims that the neighborhood has become a dumping ground for the unhoused. Moreover, as Nikita Stewart  explained earlier this month, the current plan “runs directly counter to a new City Council effort to strengthen the Fair Share Law, aimed at equitably spreading social service and other programs and amenities around the city.” (To be sure, CB6 is not the neighborhood with the lowest level of shelter beds, nor is Crown Heights the highest – though their adjacency does make the discrepancy jarring)

On the other hand, the City has argued that as they site the new shelters, they are looking at placing them in the districts experiencing the highest levels of homelessness and poverty. The thinking behind this is simple: people (in the case of the Bergen shelter, senior men) should have the option to have shelters in their communities. These guys likely have friends and family in the neighborhood, and one can make the argument that siting shelters in these districts respects the existing community. These ties could also lead to informal dissemination of job opportunities through casual interaction. The well-known but unremarked-upon secondary fact is that property tends to be less expensive in these areas, leading to a lower cost per bed – something that should be taken into account.

Unfortunately, the City has put the neighborhood in an impossible spot. They either complain about the location of the new shelters and come across as heartless, or they simply allow the City to assume that there will be less resistance to unpopular policies in poorer communities of color. Luckily, the press has distinguished this case from the case of Maspeth last fall and largely refrained from casting Crown Heights residents as NIMBYs. Indeed, while residents are currently pointing to the discrepancies in the locations of the shelters, calls for reductions of current shelter beds are muted. The current debate is centered not on whether Crown Heights ought to have any shelter beds, but rather about the inherent fairness of concentrating homeless shelters in historically marginalized communities.

This is a tough one for me. On the one hand, the idea of a homeless shelter down the street doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, my system of ethics compels me to provide shelter for the unhoused without reservation, so resistance to a shelter at any level is uncomfortable for me. On the other hand, to ignore the historical complexities of the issue would be a mistake. Traditional public housing projects have often failed in the past in large part because the concentration of poverty in a particular district prevents the formation of social ties that can often lead to better opportunities for lower income folks. Furthermore, much of the current concentration of poverty in minority areas can be directly traced to racist housing policies employed by the federal and local governments. To now say that these neighborhoods are alone responsible for dealing with the results of those policies is wrongheaded and cruel. What’s more, the willingness of the City to back down from the introduction of a single shelter bed in Maspeth (a whiter and wealthier area than Crown Heights) means that any imposition of the current plan over the objections of residents becomes, rightfully, much more loaded. So, while I do want the City to continue to build shelter beds, I have to agree with my neighbors that the placement of this shelter is ill-advised. The City ought to be taking current beds and historical factors into consideration when siting shelters. If, however, 1173 Bergen does open as a shelter to senior men, I look forward to chatting with them on the stoop, hearing their stories, and welcoming them to our neighborhood.

Historic Preservation: Good or Bad For Communities?

Remember when this dress was a big deal? The morning it blew up, my colleague and I were in the office early. No doubt we each had a filing due soon – it was rare for only a couple people to be in the office. We looked at the picture, then spent the next few minutes talking about how dumb it was. Only after five minutes did I say, “The image must be off. It’s just so obviously white and gold.” Turns out, as we’d spent five minutes talking about how ridiculously obvious the color of the dress was, we had actually been seeing it differently the entire time. He thought it was blue and black (he was technically right).

Why bring this up? Well, I was reminded of the encounter the other day when a friend and I got into a conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of historic preservation districts (Wait! Don’t go! I promise this is as interesting as The Dress!). I understand why they’re politically unavoidable, but consider them a big problem. She, on the other hand, was surprised to find that I would be opposed to them. She was especially surprised that I was opposed to them as someone engaged in urban planning and interested in creating livable, lovable communities. Conversely, I was shocked that someone who had studied these things in a formal way thought highly of them. We see historical preservation completely differently.

Why am I so against historic preservation districts? And why was my friend, who has studied urban planning and for whom I have tremendous respect, surprised by that? I can answer the first, but am hoping you’ll chime in if you think I’m wrong. Because to me, it seems pretty obvious. Simply put, these districts directly lead to a constriction of the housing supply. The best example that I can think of in New York is the SoHo neighborhood. Last year, Kelsey and I went on a Jane’s Walk in SoHo. The walk was led by two women whose families had (independently) moved into the neighborhood when they were kids. They had fond memories of their artist dads painting in the lofts, and of the excitement coming from living in an area where residential living wasn’t yet allowed by the zoning code. They could live here, in Manhattan, virtually for free. In case you’re unfamiliar, SoHo is home to some truly great architecture. Some of the very earliest cast iron buildings anywhere in the world can be found in the area. On account of these buildings the entire area is protected by historic preservation laws, and therefore no building can be knocked down, built upon, or changed in any way without jumping through endless loops.

SoHo area has loads of cultural cachet (remember the artists in their lofts?). It’s centrally located in Lower Manhattan with great access to transit. The buildings are beautiful. Plus, the historic designation makes it that much cooler. You can probably imagine the result of all this even if you haven’t seen it in person. It feels like a giant, stunning outdoor mall. The Apple store occupies the historic post office – and that’s only the beginning. Only the most expensive stores and biggest businesses can afford the retail space, and the price of all housing units have gone through the roof. Because what happens when demand increases dramatically but supply is fixed? Here’s your Econ 101 reminder of the day (if supply and demand charts haven’t been drilled into your brain by merciless professors, this will likely make you more confused and not be helpful):


The price goes up! In the case of SoHo case, a lot. The beautiful buildings are preserved (and made into altars of capitalism), but the artists and their families who moved into the area in the sixties and seventies could never, ever, ever afford to live in the neighborhood now. To put it simply, the buildings have been preserved at the expense of the community of people who lived there. The same story has played out across the city, from Greenwich Village to Bed-Stuy. Historic preservation ultimately means that the buildings in a neighborhood are protected while the people are priced out. (I spent loads of time this weekend looking for census-tract level rental prices, hoping to show systematically that rents in historic districts have gone up more than comparable areas, but couldn’t turn up that data anywhere. If anyone knows if it exists, give me a shout!).

The opposing argument, which I won’t be able to make nearly as well, says that buildings impart a sense of place, of history, and of culture. There is a lot of literature supporting the notion that the streetscape has a big impact on the way that pedestrians interact with one another, the use of public space, and more. What’s more, impressive architectural districts (like SoHo and the Village) can drive tourism, leading to higher tax receipts for the city. What’s more, people feel connected to the way their neighborhood feels, and putting controls on any changes can seem like the easiest way to keep things as they are.

But the fact of the matter is that communities are constantly changing, especially now as wealthier people are moving back to the city. Despite the rhetoric, the choice is not between “Historic preservation to prevent development and ensure continuity of the community” and “allow people to build.” Rather, neighborhoods have to choose between keeping the buildings the same while the area becomes too expensive for many current residents (especially, but because of property taxes not exclusively, renters), or destroying some current buildings but adding enough units to keep prices relatively stable and therefore maintain affordability for the current community. I’ll argue till I’m blue in the face that maintaining affordability for the existing community is more important than maintaining a whole neighborhood worth of buildings.

Now, there are many reasons to be skeptical that a free-market approach will maintain affordability for a neighborhood. For instance, as Rick Jacobus pointed out last year at Shelterforce, new development in an area can actually stimulate demand in that neighborhood. Big, shiny new buildings can signal that an area is up-and-coming, and thereby induce more demand than their additional units absorb, leading to the paradox of increased supply and increased prices. That said, increased supply must lead to lower prices at the metropolitan level, even if it does have wacky effects at the hyper-local level. Ultimately, any restriction on building will lead to higher rents across the region.

There’s also reason to believe that the market won’t save buildings that do deserve to be preserved (Penn Station and the Metropolitan Opera House come immediately to mind). And in fact, there may be some public benefit to freezing a whole street in a particular moment in time. While the market will always do some historic preservation on its own (there will never be a time when a fancy person won’t pay huge sums to live in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights), a strong argument can be made that certain buildings deserve to be protected from market forces. History, beauty, and civic pride are all worthy aims. However, any conversation that doesn’t frankly admit that historic preservation ultimately prioritizes the buildings over the people living in that district is a dishonest one. A city can reasonably say, in some select instances, that the public benefit realized through preservation is higher than the cost borne by the individuals – we have to make difficult trade-offs in cities all the time. It’s just that, in the case of historic preservation, we usually pretend that we’re helping the people we’re displacing. We say we’re protecting communities; instead, we’re protecting brick and stone. I can’t help but think that if we were honest about the decisions we’re making, we’d be a lot more reluctant to blanket whole neighborhoods with historic preservation designations.

So that’s how I see the dress: white and gold, no way about it. Historic preservation can serve a use, but it always prioritizes buildings over people. It drives up rents for local businesses, drives up rents for current tenants, and drives up property taxes for homeowners. Residents of an area may want historic preservation, but these folks fall into one of three groups: those who don’t know historic preservation will cause costs to go up, those who are relatively well-off enough to be able to pay more in return for freezing development (and are indifferent to the challenges this constriction puts on their less well-off neighbors), and those who are hoping to profit from an increase in home values. None of these build community. Historic districts are beautiful, but we shouldn’t ever lose sight of the fact that cities are for people, not for buildings.

How do you see the “dress” of historic preservation? Do you think it can be good for local communities? Why? I’m curious in hearing an opposing argument.

Social Services in the Suburbs

The past few months have seen a slew of articles critiquing the common narrative proclaiming the renaissance of the city in America. In fact, only a small slice of the US population (the young, the white, and the educated) is becoming more urban. While those with the most economic and social capital move to the cities, everyone else is still moving into less dense, more spread out, and more car dependent neighborhoods. This trend has wide-ranging implications for how we administer social services to the poor.

Measuring a city’s ability to serve its low-income residents is notoriously tricky. Cities providing the fewest social services to their residents are often abandoned by those residents, leading to artificially low rates of poverty. Cities with robust safety nets often see the reverse effect. The difficulty of analyzing the effectiveness of these policies often distracts from a more fundamental question: Do cities have a unique ability to care for the poor by virtue of their density? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Here in New York City, representatives from Riders Alliance and others have been pushing for subsidized MetroCards. This is hugely important, as reliable access to jobs and services vastly increase the earning potential for lower income residents of the city. A subsidized MetroCard, or its equivalent, is much less effective at ensuring economic access in a less dense region without a sufficient network of public transportation options. What, in the suburbs, would a program like this look like? Subsidized car ownership certainly doesn’t make much sense. The result is often bleak: The Federal Highway Administration estimates that transportation costs consume 25% of the average family income in auto dependent areas, but only 9% of family income in denser regions. While the poor in every city are the most likely to use public transportation, public transportation is not an effective link the wider community in suburban areas built on the expectation of ubiquitous car ownership. A family is forced to choose whether they will be at the mercy of a stigmatized, ineffective public transit system or pump a quarter of their income into car ownership.

Similar arguments can be made for everything from soup kitchens to food pantries, from job training sites to homeless shelters. In areas where people are spread out, these social services don’t have the dense concentration of users that enable them to be cost effective. The effective, efficient provision of social services are dependent on density.

Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans have been the subject of intense debate. These plans have often centered on the issues of displacement and neighborhood ownership. With good reason, many have lamented that the city is becoming increasingly unaffordable and that the character of long established neighborhoods is at risk. Much ink has been spilled about rising prices forcing lower income residents to leave the city behind, and the potential impact of losing touch with the network and support system often attendant in neighborhoods. We have rightly lamented the loss of community, but we have not paid enough attention to the economic and employment effects of those being displaced from the city. Unfortunately, low income residents being forced to leave the city due to rising prices are losing more than just community- they are losing access to dense, urban neighborhoods that are uniquely suited to provide them with the services they need.

Gentrification will continue to be a loaded, tense word for years to come. Rents will still be much too high for too many people. But as we continue to disagree over and to debate the merits of plans for affordable housing, we cannot lose sight of the fact that more than just community character is at stake. If we are unable to accommodate our lower income neighbors, we will be forcing them to move to areas systemically unable to provide for their needs anywhere near as effectively as the cities they currently live in.