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Cluster sites explained: De Blasio's shutdown plans, history and more

All cluster sites, like the one where two

All cluster sites, like the one where two toddlers died of burns from a radiator explosion in 2016, will be closed by 2021, Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed. Photo Credit: Theodore Parisienne

Cluster sites have long been regarded as unsafe for the city's homeless population, and now there is a new plan to shutter them for good. 

The program, which houses the homeless in privately-owned apartments that are paid for by the city, is opposed by housing advocates and a handful of politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who unveiled a revamped plan in February to shutter the sites permanently by 2021.

The mayor has said he's prepared to use eminent domain in order to accomplish his goal of turning a portion of the cluster sites into affordable housing units for homeless families.

According to the city Department of Homeless Services, there were 2,272 families living in roughly 180 cluster sites across the five boroughs, as of Dec. 4. 

Learn more about cluster sites below.

The inception of the Cluster Site Shelter program

Originally called the scatter-site program, the initiative began as a temporary, emergency solution for the city’s homeless population in 2000 under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

Between 2000 and 2004, about 13,375 families lived in such housing units, the Institute of Children and Poverty said in its Uncensored: American Family Experiences with Poverty and Homelessness report. In 2002, 2,000 cluster apartments housed a quarter of the city’s homeless families, according to The New York Times. At the time, the city paid $2,900 per month for every unit, accruing $33 million in housing expenditures for cluster apartments alone, The Times report said.

Over the years, as the city's homeless shelter population continued to grow, infrastructure to accommodate those in need became insufficient. This increased the city’s dependency on temporary housing initiatives, such as the cluster site program, according to Turning the Tide of Homelessness in New York City, a report and action plan released by the mayor's office in 2017.

The number of shelter residents in New York City was 23,868 when Giuliani became mayor, the report said. That number increased to 31,009 when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, and hit 51,470 — a high not seen since the Great Depression — when de Blasio became mayor in 2014, the report added.

De Blasio’s plan to shutter cluster sites

On Jan. 4, 2016, de Blasio announced a three-year plan to shut down all of the cluster apartments, for which the city paid $125 million per year, before 2019. The idea was to turn all of the 3,000 units in more than 260 buildings into permanent housing for the residents, or move them to a shelter by Dec. 31, 2018. 

De Blasio then released his Turning the Tide of Homelessness in New York City action plan in February, which pushed the deadline to close all cluster sites 2021.

The borough-by-borough plan will offset the cluster closures by opening 90 new shelters and expanding 30 existing ones, with the main goal of housing New Yorkers closer to the neighborhood where they grew up in order to minimize their displacement.

The guiding principle for the plan is to make sure that they have "the opportunity to be sheltered closer to their home boroughs, support networks and anchors of life, including schools, jobs, health care, family, houses of worship, and communities they called home."

The mayor introduced a new strategy in achieving this goal in December, which involves negotiating with the private landlords to sell their property to nonprofit developers chosen by the city so that the cluster units can be turned into affordable housing.

The new affordable housing created as part of de Blasio's Turning the Tide plan will also help his Housing New York plan released in 2014, and a 2.0 version launched in November. Both plans, aimed at accelerating affordable housing in the city, "are an important component of the administration's efforts to prevent and thereby reduce homelessness," according to de Blasio. 

The city plans to create 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026, according to Housing New York 2.0.

Arguments against cluster sites

The city’s Department of Investigation released a report on March 12, 2015, analyzing the state of operations for 25 city-run homeless shelters, which housed approximately 2,000 families at the time. Included in that report were five cluster sites, which DOI found were “the worst maintained, the most poorly monitored, and provide[d] the least adequate social services to families.” 

According to the report, the apartments had accumulated several building and fire violations, which included defective window guards, obstructed passageways and the presence of rodents. Despite the violations, DOI found that the city was paying rent to the private landlords at as much as three to four times the market rate for the neighborhood.

Investigators found that the average monthly rent of a cluster apartment was $2,451, whereas the rate of other, non-DHS operated buildings in the same neighborhood ranged between $528 and $1,200 per month. 

On Dec. 6, 2016, two toddlers — 1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose — were found dead in their Bronx apartment with burns on their body that stemmed from a radiator explosion. The children lived in one of five cluster apartments in the 48-unit building, which had more than 60 open violations issued by the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development, according to city Comptroller Scott Stringer. Public Advocate Letitia James had pointed out that the landlord of the building, Moshe Piller, had ranked fourth on her Worst Landlords Watchlist in 2014. 

In a cutting response to DHS after the girls' deaths, James said, “The cluster site program provides substandard housing to some of the neediest families in New York City, and despite promising to phase out the program, the administration has instead renewed contracts. It is unforgivable that the city continues to enter into contracts with providers who do not ensure that these apartments are habitable, and today, we witnessed the lethal consequences of this neglect.”

In an op-ed article published in the New York Daily News, James outlined two main approaches she implored the city to take toward housing the homeless: the city must keep living conditions safe and focus on creating long-term housing. 

Latest developments 

On Dec. 12, de Blasio announced that approximately two dozen cluster sites, which house 800 homeless families and 300 regular tenants, will be transformed into more than 1,100 affordable homes. 

The city has selected not-for-profit developers who will buy these cluster apartments from the private landlords and then rehabilitate them with the help of HPD, de Blasio said. The developers will also be required by the city to enter into an agreement with HPD to guarantee that the sites remain affordable in the long run, according to de Blasio. 

The mayor said he was prepared to use eminent domain in court if the landlords refused to sell to the nonprofit developers. He believes the plan to use eminent domain could be successful since the reason for obtaining the apartments is "a definition of public good."

The city will have permissible grounds to acquire cluster sites, but a just compensation will be duly provided to the private landlords from whom the sites will be taken, social services commissioner Steve Banks added.

The tenants of the buildings, both homeless and otherwise, will be given the opportunity to continue to live in their apartments and sign rent-stabilized leases. 

The apartments will also qualify for HPD protections outlined in the Turning the Tide report, including cleanliness, security overseen by the NYPD and a plan to install career and mental health counselors on-site.

The eminent domain plan, which de Blasio said will help progress toward goals highlighted in Turning the Tide, has also encountered some opposition. 

"Government officials are always tempted to use their power to take private property from one owner and give it to another one based on promises about what will be done with it in the future,” Robert McNamara, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, said. “But experience teaches us that those promises are all too likely to be empty."

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