This op-ed, co-written by PTH member Arvernetta Henry and PTH Communications Director Sam Miller, appeared in City Limits on July...
Homeless New Yorkers Need Housing, Not Shelter!
Are you or someone you care about in need of housing? Struggling to pay rent from month to month? Stuck living with family because there’s no housing you can afford? On the street or in a shelter? Couch-surfing?
The bottom line is, there’s not enough housing to go around. And cities would rather spend a lot of money on arresting homeless people or warehousing them in expensive shelter than getting them actual housing.
That’s why we’re here. That’s what we do. And that’s why we need your help.
Because homeless people have a better plan. We collaborated with nonprofit housing developers to create the Gaining Ground Pilot Project, which would save taxpayers money at the same time as it develops housing, incubates small businesses, creates jobs, and slows down displacement from gentrification.
See below for a campaign overview and history, or check out these highlights of our recent housing work:
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The Root of the Problem
People are homeless because there isn’t enough housing, yet the city is full of vacant buildings and lots, partially-occupied condos, and warehoused apartments in public housing. The mainstream media presents homelessness as an issue of individual dysfunction – substance abuse, mental illness, laziness, criminal records, etc. Our members believe we need to focus on the systemic causes, and the bottom line is that people become homelessness when they can’t pay rent, and in a city like New York where rents continue to skyrocket and decent-paying jobs are drying up, that makes for a lot of homeless people.
There is a direct correlation between vacancy, gentrification, race, rising rents, displacement and homelessness. Buildings are kept empty because it is more profitable to hold onto them as investments to be sold when a neighborhood gentrifies. That’s why over 95% of the homeless families in New York City shelters are Black and/or Latino, and why the same neighborhoods of color where gentrification is hitting hardest also have the highest quantity of vacant buildings and are sending the majority of homeless people into shelter.
Wasting Taxpayer Resources
New York City pours nearly a billion dollars a year into a broken shelter system for homeless people – in most cases spending more than $3,000 to house a family or individual in overcrowded, unhygienic facilities located, in neighborhoods far removed from their children’s schools, family support networks, and medical providers, and more. This system isn’t simply failing to solve the problem of mass displacement caused by skyrocketing rents— – it’s making the problem worse. The city pays slumlords to shelter homeless families in apartments that could be rented out as truly-affordable housing, further reducing the housing options for very-poor people.
Homeless People Count
When homeless people first started organizing around vacant property, we were shocked to see that hardly anyone thought this even an issue anymore. In 2004, Bloomberg administration executives told us to our faces that there were no more vacant properties, and even nonprofit leaders within the so-called “housing movement” claimed that the problem had been solved. But homeless people were seeing vacancy everywhere, especially in the gentrifying neighborhoods they’d been displaced from.
So we decided to prove everybody wrong. And the best way to do that was to count vacancies ourselves. In 2006 we partnered with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to count empty buildings and lots in his borough, and found enough to house every homeless household in the city. In 2010, then-City-Council-Speaker Christine Quinn unconstitutionally banned us from public meetings for demanding a citywide vacant property count. In 2012 we released a report based on the citywide census of vacant properties we conducted with Hunter College, revealing enough potential housing for 199,981 people!
In 2014 Mayor Bill de Blasio released his administration’s comprehensive “Housing New York: A Five Borough, Ten-Year Plan,” and one of the central pieces happens to be “We will perform a comprehensive survey of all vacant sites in the City.” Which was exactly what we wanted… except almost three years later he still hasn’t done it, and his agencies are blocking the Housing Not Warehousing Act that would empower the city to do exactly that.
Big Problems Need Bold Solutions
Homeless people have solutions, not just complaints. And it’s not enough to count vacant property – we want to see these buildings and lots turned into housing.! Since 2004 we’ve been researching alternative housing models and legislative proposals from around the country and the world, looking for ways to bring about the kind of sweeping housing policy change we need here in NYC to solve such a huge problem.
To that end, PTH has helped catalyzed a city wide alliance to establish community land trusts as a strategy to create and preserve housing for extremely low income households. This dramatically shifts where our housing movement has been stuck for decades and challenges the assumption that “there is no money” or “space” to create housing for very poor people. Our members have taken the victory of our acclaimed vacant property count to a new level – the disposition of the property.
Our Housing campaign incorporates proven strategies to decrease warehousing from other cities, such as Boston, San Diego and Chicago, in a unique combination that we believe will create a replicable national model to create housing for the very poor. This combination includes:
- building a powerful city-wide coalition representing a cross section of interests including poor people’s led organizations, labor, faith based institutions, squatters, housing developers, urban planners, CBOs and academics;
- an annual city-wide inventory of all vacant buildings and lots;
- mechanisms to incentivize private landlords from warehousing vacant properties;
- a 50% set aside of housing developed from all vacant properties for homeless New Yorkers;
- expanding the definition of homeless to include severely overcrowded households;
- encouragement of proven models of housing development such as mutual housing associations and low income coops – and
- re-establishment of rent stabilization protections for vacant units once rehabilitated.
To prove that housing is a more cost-effective solution to homelessness than shelters, and that these alternative models can help stop displacement, our Housing Committee partnered with non-profit housing developers to create the “Gaining Ground” Pilot Project. The endorsement form for the program is right here – for more info, contact Housing Organizer Ryan Hickey at 646-314-6423!
Other Pieces of the Housing Puzzle
The creativity and experience of our members has taken our housing campaign into many exciting directions. We served as the NYC Anchor and helped organize a national visit to the U.S. by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Housing on her first official mission to the United States, to examine and report on the status of the realization of housing rights in the United States. We moved the New York State Legislature to pass legislation eradicating a tax credit that encouraged landlords to keep properties vacant above 110th Street in Manhattan. We created a Housing and Jobs Platform, linking the issue of low income and high rents to homelessness and conversely, the creation of housing for homeless and poor folks as a solution to homelessness and poverty. We played a central role in a national shift towards more aggressive direct action against the housing crisis, including homesteading, property takeovers, and legislative challenges to the rights of banks and landlords to keep buildings empty. Learn more about our Housing work and how you can get involved by contacting us, or following us on social media!