Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams unveiled ambitious housing goals last month, paving the way for hundreds of thousands of new homes in the city and state over the next 10 years..

But that means little to the more than 70,000 people who spent last night in city homeless shelters, or to the families facing record high rents, eviction and being priced out of their neighborhoods. Balancing long-term development with immediate solutions— like leasing up empty units and strengthening a frayed safety net — are key to stemming the surge in homelessness and getting more New Yorkers into stable, permanent housing, according to housing experts, landlords, tenants, elected officials and New Yorkers living in shelters.

“They’re focusing on new build, and I think that’s important for affordable housing. But it’s not going to solve the crisis in the meantime,” said Tiffany Zerges, a former sales and marketing agent living in a homeless shelter in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. “We need housing now.”

The main problem is that housing creation from the ground-up takes years to complete. Even turning an unused office building into an apartment complex — a goal shared by Hochul and Adams in a joint task force report — would take around four years, according to Mark Ginsberg, an architect specializing in residential conversions. And that’s if they start drawing up plans tomorrow.

“It takes a while to turn the battleship,” Ginsberg said.

Still, that doesn’t preclude the city and state from taking more immediate steps to get people into homes now.

“We can never accept that the problem becomes so enormous that we are resigned to there being tens of thousands of homeless people in this city,” said Baaba Halm, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners, which finances affordable housing development. “We should never get comfortable with that notion.”

Here’s what Halm and other experts recommend to spur more housing in the short term:

Streamlining moves into open apartments

NYCHA has about 6,000 vacant public housing units. Hundreds of supportive housing units for formerly homeless New Yorkers with special needs sit unoccupied and apartments available through the city’s affordable housing lottery can take over a year to fill.

Fixing bureaucratic obstacles, like onerous paperwork rules and repeated screenings, would streamline moves into those empty homes, including units specifically set-aside for people living in shelters, Halm said.

“We can speed up the approval processes and that would enable people to get into housing that exists now,” Halm said. “It’s housing that’s there, housing that can be utilized [if we] make things move quicker.”

Moses Gates, the vice president for housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Planning Association, recommended a universal waiting list for the affordable housing lottery system, rather than the current system of people applying for individual developments.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development said it already made changes to reduce eligibility paperwork and moved 711 homeless New Yorkers into affordable housing units from July to October 2022, 15% more than the same period the previous year.

“With this administration’s work to streamline move-ins and our advocacy across government, we’re moving people into housing faster and more seamlessly,” said HPD spokesperson William Fowler.

There are also tens of thousands of privately-owned apartments sitting vacant.

Landlords are looking for changes to the state rent laws they say will make their empty rent-stabilized apartments more profitable to fix up and lease. Tenant groups say the state should force them, or at least provide some kind of incentive, to rent the desperately needed apartments again.

New laws intended to crack down on illegal Airbnbs could also open about 10,000 units held off the market, NPR reported.

Unlocking units on the private market

Delays are a particular problem for homeless New Yorkers with rental assistance vouchers, and the landlords who rent to them.

Too often, bureaucratic hurdles prolong or ruin moves from shelters into privately-owned homes, said Catherine Trapani, head of Homeless Services United, an organization representing nonprofit providers

“You can have the best tool in the world, but if there isn’t a way to get through the approval process, you’re going to lose housing,” Trapani said. “Every piece of the puzzle has to come together in order to have a functioning safety net.”

The Department of Social Services, which runs the CityFHEPS rent assistance program for homeless New Yorkers, is missing around 20% of its budgeted workforce. The staff shortage is taking a toll on the agency functioning, from the processing of applications efficiently to cutting checks to landlords, she added.

Strengthening rental assistance

While tenant advocacy groups and the real estate industry differ on most policy ideas, they’re finding common ground in a push for a stronger statewide rental assistance program.

The proposed Housing Access Voucher Program is modeled after the federal Section 8 subsidy, considered the gold standard when it comes to rental assistance. The program would cover the bulk of the rent for New Yorkers who are homeless or at-risk of eviction at a cost of about $1 billion, its sponsors estimate.

The proposal died last legislative session in Albany and Hochul omitted it from her executive budget, but HAVP has made for interesting bedfellows among typically feuding factions – landlord and tenant advocates.

"Funding an expanded housing voucher program would provide immediate relief by helping tens of thousands of New Yorkers pay their rent,” said Greg Drilling, a spokesman for Homeowners for an Affordable New York, a coalition of landlord trade groups and the Real Estate Board of New York, backing the measure.

Housing Justice For All, a progressive statewide network of tenants and advocates, is on the same page. And they have the support of the Senate and Assembly housing committee chairs.

“We do need housing in the next 10 years, but to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the urgency of now is what is on my mind,” said Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan.

Homeless New Yorkers and housing experts also say the city needs to crack down on property owners and real estate brokers who discriminate against people with existing vouchers, like Section 8 and CityFHEPS.

“Source of income discrimination” is the most common form of housing discrimination, based on reports to the city’s human rights commission. Yet, the city has shrunk the unit tasked with enforcing laws against the pervasive practice.

“It’s something we desperately need to clamp down on,” said Barika Williams, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development.

Remember that hotel conversion plan?

Adams came into office pledging to turn empty hotels into 25,000 affordable apartments through a state fund to ease the conversions.

Fourteen months later, not a single hotel room has been converted through that state program, even after lawmakers revised it to cover more lodgings. Adams’ goal was complicated by a hotel workers union unwilling to cede jobs and the return of tourists to many of the once-empty sites.

That’s not to say it can’t still be done. The organization Breaking Ground completed one such project late last year — a conversion that began long before the state created the unused hotel conversion fund.

Scott Short, the CEO of the affordable housing developer RiseBoro, said his organization managed to turn an Upper West Side SRO into permanent supportive housing in about nine months early in the pandemic.

“When government and the private sector can be aligned, we can move quickly,” Short said.

Housing First at last?

If the Adams administration is serious about moving homeless New Yorkers from the streets and shelters and into permanent housing, they should just do it, said Milton Perez, an activist who spent five years in shelters before winning an affordable housing lottery in Brownsville.

The “Housing First'' approach eliminates onerous eligibility packets and preconditions, like sobriety, and has been used successfully elsewhere in the country, most notably Houston.

Perez, an activist with the organization VOCAL-NY, suggested offering more homeless New Yorkers empty units and then allowing them to complete lengthy income eligibility requirements from the comfort of their new homes.

“For most of these guys [in shelters], the issue is finding an apartment, qualifying and paying rent,” he said, adding that the city could then target more funding to mental health treatment and other needs.

The city has already started a modest “Housing First” program for about 80 men at a Brooklyn SRO run by the organization Volunteers of America. Perez urged officials to expand on the strategy.

“These barriers shouldn’t be there,” he said. “What we all have in common is that we need decent, affordable, safe housing.”