There are more people languishing on the waiting list for public housing then there are total public housing units in New York City, as the number of people on the waiting list soared this year to 270,000 people. The total amount of public housing units in New York City (which are all occupied) is 178,900.
The New York Times profiles the dreaded "list" that determines when an individual or family can move into public housing. Like many things that provide assistance to the poor, it's both confusing and arbitrary.
The Times of tells of the trials of Lottie Mitchell, who is currently living in a homeless shelter with her 35-year-old disabled son. She's been on the waiting list for the last four years, and has had to navigate a system that actually demotes people's position on the list for becoming homeless (that's thanks to a 2005 decision by the Bloomberg administration that took away preferences for homeless people staying in city shelters).
If the need is so great, why doesn't the city just build more public housing to keep families off the street? Look no further than the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which slashed the federal government's investment in public housing, focusing instead on housing vouchers and requiring new construction projects to set aside space for affordable housing. Since then, building new public housing hasn't been financially feasible for the city. And with further cuts to housing subsidies by the federal government over the past few years, even options like Section 8 housing (which awards vouchers) are no longer possible.
As NPR pointed out earlier this month, the Bloomberg administration has built a good amount of "affordable" housing. Unfortunately, that housing isn't very affordable for many people, and the new developments that house these affordable units (often luxury condos) have raised the price of living to unsustainable levels around the city.