This is part of our One Issue Explainer series, where we break down where mayoral candidates stand on issues concerning New Yorkers. What do you want to hear about? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: One Issue Explainer)
The next mayor of New York City will inherit a homelessness crisis that has strained the city's shelter system, stoked an angry backlash from some residents, and undermined Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing legacy. Since de Blasio took office in 2013, the city's shelter population has risen to record-levels, from roughly 50,000 to more than 63,000 in 2019, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Under its right to shelter mandate, the city must provide temporary shelter to any eligible person on any given night. As a result, the city spends more than $3 billion a year on homelessness, through a patchwork of programs and services overseen by 19 city agencies.
During the pandemic, the number of shelter residents actually dropped; as of January, there were under 56,000 individuals. But Giselle Routhier, the policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said the trend is misleading. The population of single adults living in shelters has in fact steadily climbed during the coronavirus crisis, but has been offset by fewer families seeking shelter, a change that Routhier attributed to the state's eviction moratorium — "Families who normally would have been evicted into the shelter system have not been," she said.
Which is why the end of the moratorium in May is a looming concern among city officials and homeless advocates. Depending on whether the moratorium is extended and if there is another round of federal rent relief, homelessness could skyrocket.
So far, the eight leading Democratic candidates have voiced support for several short-and long-term solutions: raising the limit on rental vouchers provided by the city; building more so-called "safe haven" shelters that have fewer restrictions and are specifically intended to bring in adults living on the the street; increasing the number of new and rehabbed affordable housing stock that are specially set aside for homeless individuals; and building more supportive housing, a city-and-state venture which integrates rent-subsidized housing with social services like mental health counseling and job training.
Discerning the nuance in their positions can often be difficult, but here is what the contenders have said via our Gothamist/WNYC survey, their campaign websites, op-eds, news stories, and mayoral forums on their approach to battling homelessness.
Adams has often criticized the city's bureaucracy as one of the central obstacles in meeting the needs of New Yorkers.
Most recently, he accused the city's Housing Preservation and Development Department of holding back vacant affordable units because of “red tape." Going back as far as 2018, he has proposed creating a real-time database known as HousingStat, which borrows its name from the NYPD's famed CrimeStat system.
In addition to raising the limit on rental vouchers, his near-term solution to housing homeless New Yorkers, particularly single adults, would require having the city purchase vacant hotels in the outer boroughs, where there has been excess capacity due to covid.
As Brooklyn borough president, Adams has recruited local clergy and community groups to provide services to men and women in shelters. In 2017, after initially expressing doubts, he worked with Mayor de Blasio on a heavily contested plan to build 90 shelters across the city, serving as a mediator between the city and community groups.
A former NYPD captain, Adams is not in favor of removing police involvement in all aspects of outreach and response to homeless individuals. He has instead argued for better training and the development of crisis response teams that would draw on support from mental health and other professionals.
As a former New York City housing commissioner who went on to become housing secretary under President Obama, Donovan treats housing policy as his wheelhouse. He is among the few candidates to have published a detailed plan outlining his strategy on ending homelessness. It includes creating a new rental assistance program that he says could eventually serve 200,000 low-income households a year. Funding would come from both city and state, but the bulk of the money—$1 billion, to be exact—would come from the federal government.
Similar to Adams, Donovan has also proposed creating a new streamlined process for assigning affordable units that he says will take pressure off the city's shelter system.
He has called supportive housing, in particular, "one of the most effective pathways to addressing the ongoing homelessness crisis," and has said he would build 2,000 units of supportive housing a year, in part by taking advantage of underutilized hotels.
Donovan has also said he would target the housing needs of vulnerable populations, such as formerly incarcerated individuals, families, especially pregnant mothers, seniors, and domestic abuse victims.
He does not support removing police involvement in all aspects of outreach and response to homeless individuals, citing instances of violence which he said police are best equipped to handle.
Like her rivals, the city's former sanitation commissioner has put an emphasis on developing more affordable housing in addressing the homeless crisis. During mayoral forums, she has often said that the city needs to move from "a shelter strategy to a housing strategy."
She has added that the city's goal should be to move people directly into housing with supportive services as opposed to shelters. Towards that end, she has proposed having the city buy empty commercial buildings and converting them into 10,000 permanent supportive housing units.
Among the newer ideas introduced by the candidates, Garcia has proposed opening 10 "drop-in centers" across the city that would offer free use of bathrooms, showers, and WiFi. At the same time, such facilities would allow social workers the opportunity to engage with the city's street homeless population, whose members are often the least inclined to accept social services.
To alleviate pressure on the shelter system, she said would build 50,000 low-income units that are targeted for those who make below 50% of the area's median income, which comes out to $51,200 for a family of three.
As yet another critic of the city's bureaucracy, she said she would appoint a single deputy mayor that oversees both housing and homelessness and order the 19 city agencies that play some role in homelessness to complete a 60-day review of their policies.
On NYPD response to homeless individuals, Garcia said she would support embedding qualified mental health professionals in the police department.
The former Wall Street executive has summed up his prescription for fighting homelessness with three stated goals: "prevention, services and a pathway to permanent housing."
McGuire has said that he would seek to prevent homelessness by increasing rental subsidies to low-income New Yorkers. That includes Section 8 vouchers, which would require approval from the federal government.
He has spoken about providing more services for homeless individuals in the form of mental health facilities, job training, and child care. In particular, McGuire has called out a need to assist formerly incarcerated individuals transition into their new lives.
He also supports a non-police response to calls regarding homeless individuals, instead proposing the creation of a 24-hour Emergency Social Services system.
Morales has touted her experience on homelessness issues as the nearly decade CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, a social services nonprofit in the Bronx. At a mayoral forum on homelessness last month, she delivered a memorable zinger at one of her opponents, Scott Stringer.
“I just want to say, that unlike Scott, I’ve actually been talking to the people that are homeless for the last 15 years,” she said.
She has pledged to end homelessness in New York City in 10 years.
But similar to Stringer, Morales is relying on a bottom-up and progressive approach: she said she would overhaul the city's affordable housing policies and prioritize lower-income housing. Specifically, her plan calls for shifting from private sector development to non-profit and publicly developed housing.
Under such a strategy, she has said that she would look to vacant apartments, hotels, commercial and office spaces facing foreclosures as sources for housing, and give priority to homeless families and individuals. She would be amenable to using eminent domain to create more supportive housing.
On 911 calls involving homeless individuals, Morales has said that she would create a team of first responders, separate from the NYPD, to handle non-criminal public safety issues.
As city comptroller, Stringer criticized de Blasio for exacerbating the homelessness crisis by leaving out the poorest New Yorkers in the city's affordable housing initiative. As a candidate, he has campaigned to solve homelessness by building more equitable housing through city-and nonprofit-led initiatives.
In a housing brief that rivals only Donovan's in terms of detail, he estimates that 40,000 affordable units alone can be built on roughly 3,000 unused parcels.
Aside from housing production, Stringer has said that he would work with the state to increase the city's supportive housing network by an additional 30,000 beds over the next 10 years, add more safe haven shelters, and provide housing vouchers to those living on the streets.
Stringer has singled out domestic violence as the leading driver of homelessness in New York City, especially among families. He has said that both the city and state must expand the capacity of shelters that specialize in domestic violence and work to reform legal and rental assistance to domestic violence victims.
Like many of the candidates, he has also called for ending "agency silos" around social services and homelessness and for focusing on intervention so that fewer individuals enter the city's shelter system.
Stringer has said he is against law enforcement responding to crises involving homeless individuals.
Wiley, a former civil rights lawyer who also worked as counsel to Mayor de Blasio, has rooted her homelessness strategy on keeping more people housed during the ongoing pandemic and recovery period. Her plan to end evictions calls for extending and expanding the state's eviction moratorium, backed up with federal rent subsidies for those facing the immediate risk of eviction and mortgage assistance for small and nonprofit landlords.
To address the current homeless population, she has proposed a mix of solutions: repurposing hotels and commercial space, adding more safe havens, and expanding vouchers.
Building supportive housing would be a "key pillar" of her yet-to-be-released housing plan. She is also in favor of eliminating congregate shelters, in which individuals live in close and shared quarters, and would convert such shelters to supportive housing.
Last September, Wiley took one of her first stands as a candidate by joining homeless advocates in protesting de Blasio's decision to move nearly 300 homeless men who had been assigned to an Upper West Side hotel called the Lucerne after some residents waged a campaign against them. The battle at the Lucerne became one of the major flashpoints over the city's location of homeless shelters.
"Though none of the Lucerne are us, we are all New Yorkers," Wiley said at the time. "We must have public safety that includes their safety."
Wiley has also said that she supports a model of 911 response in which mental health and EMT workers join police officers, and where non-emergency situations are not routed through 911.
In keeping with his background, the former tech entrepreneur has promised to bring better management to the numerous city agencies that have a hand in homelessness policy. He has cited the use of "data-driven metrics, coordinated partnerships, and accountability standards" along with so-called “one-stop-shops” that he said would connect New Yorkers to a suite of social services.
Yang was among the first candidates to call on the city to buy up underutilized hotels for homeless New Yorkers, specifically as supportive housing. He has also called for the building of more affordable units, including micro-units, a once trendy concept, that he said could house financially insecure single adults that might otherwise require shelters.
In another departure from his rivals, he has said his administration would involve input from shelter residents through the creation of an advisory board consisting of 40 shelter residents that would be required to meet with city housing officials on a monthly basis.
To drive the creation of more housing for the poorest New Yorkers, he has said he would dangle more incentives before developers under the city's existing mandatory inclusionary housing policy.
Regarding NYPD response to homeless individuals, Yang said he would try to shift those responsibilities away as much as possible to non-law enforcement agencies, but cited life-threatening instances where it is appropriate for a police officer to handle.