Steven Banks, the city's social services commissioner who led the de Blasio Administration's effort to reduce homelessness, will step down at the end of the year, ending a mixed eight-year tenure that drew criticism from both homeless advocates and those opposed to the city's shelter expansion plan.
A former Legal Aid lawyer, Banks plans to join the Manhattan-based law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, where he will lead its pro bono practice, according to a press release. City Limits, the New York Post and the New York Times reported news of Banks' resignation.
When he was first tapped in 2014, Banks was hailed as one of several activists who could bring progressive change in the city's policies toward the poor. For two decades, he was viewed as a sharp and undaunted critic of both the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations and their approaches towards homelessness.
As the head of the Department of Social Services, Banks managed a staff of 16,000 city employees with an annual budget of $12 billion.
His supporters said Banks’ biggest accomplishment has been in helping those facing evictions gain a right to legal representation, a widely-praised initiative that helped around 100,000 New Yorkers, according to the mayor's office.
In a statement, Dave Giffen, the executive director of Coalition for the Homeless, said, "Commissioner Banks has had a long and impressive public service career dedicated to helping homeless and low-income New Yorkers, having brought and resolved landmark litigation on their behalf and worked from inside City government to shepherd critical reforms in recent years."
But homelessness skyrocketed under his leadership. In 2014, the number of people sleeping in a homeless shelter every night averaged around 53,000 per month. It climbed to a peak of more than 63,000 in 2018, a roughly 19% increase.
In recent years, the shelter population has since fallen back under 50,000, largely due to a halt on evictions that has kept more families out of the shelter system. That eviction moratorium is expected to end in January.
De Blasio has himself cited homelessness when asked about his biggest failure. Meanwhile, experts, including homeless advocates, consistently faulted the mayor for failing to build a sufficient amount of affordable housing for very low-income New Yorkers — the root cause of homelessness, they argued.
In 2019, after significant pressure from activists and City Council members, the mayor approved legislation that forces developers of certain projects to include units for the homeless.
Some of the harshest critics of Banks were those who opposed the city's expansion of homeless shelters and use of hotels during the pandemic to temporarily house individuals.
“Silver Lining Alert: Warehouse shelter sham artist Steve Banks is finally on his way out," said Queens City Councilmember Robert Holden, in a statement.
He accused Banks of running an "unchecked business for the shelter-industrial complex at the expense of the homeless and our neighborhoods" and called for an investigation. Recent in-depth stories by the New York Times have uncovered unethical or illegal practices by homeless shelter operators who have won lucrative contracts from the city. The mayor has said the city has no choice but to use outside contractors to help manage a massive network of shelters and services.
At the same time, homeless advocates criticized what they saw as the city’s increasingly aggressive approach toward removing homeless New Yorkers from street encampments and subways. Last year, activists decried a decision by the city to move homeless men from an Upper West Side hotel called the Lucerne as a surrender to NIMBYism.
Still, news of Banks' departure came as somewhat of a surprise. There was speculation that Banks would continue in the post after Mayor-elect Eric Adams praised him as someone who brought "fresh ideas."
De Blasio did not address Banks' impending departure during his morning press briefing. However, the law firm's press release did include a statement from the mayor.
"For the past eight years, Commissioner Steve Banks has been a fearless advocate for the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” de Blasio said. "His unwavering commitment to serving the most disadvantaged and building a fairer city makes him the perfect choice to join Paul, Weiss to provide pro bono legal aid."