Op-ed | To solve our city’s housing crisis, we must focus on our most vulnerable communities

Aerial photos of the Bronx New York
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Thousands of our fellow New Yorkers will sleep on park benches or in homeless shelters tonight with no place to call home. Rising inflation, high rent prices, and economic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to further increase the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness as the city continues to undergo an affordable housing crisis.  

The numbers don’t lie — we’re reaching a breaking point across the entire city. Our shelter system houses more than 70,000 New Yorkers each day, while many more individuals and families struggle to find and maintain affordable housing, at risk of losing their homes and being displaced from their communities. In the past decade alone, the rate of families with children living in shelters has jumped up 3,000 to an overwhelming 13,435 households. For single adults, that number alarmingly doubled to 21,144 over the same time frame.

Nowhere is this escalating crisis more evident than in my home borough of the Bronx. My district ranks number one in homeless shelters, with our shelters housing more individuals than the amount of people actually from our district. As the housing crisis rages on, we need multifaceted solutions to address the core issues that keep an unacceptable number of families trapped in cycles of homelessness and poverty, overwhelming our shelter system. The answer lies in improving existing DHS and HRA services while we work to create new affordable housing, so that families can be successfully placed into permanent homes and escape the revolving-door pattern that characterizes many unhoused persons experience with our city’s shelter system.

Existing DHS and HRA programs intended to put New Yorkers experiencing homelessness on a path to economic security and long-term housing fall far short of their potential for success. The average length of a family’s shelter stay is 520 days — which means a year-and-a-half of disrupted growth and learning for these kids as their parents struggle to find stable housing. As a father myself, it’s unfathomable that we are not doing more to get these children into permanent housing as quickly as possible. We need to push for changes to the inefficient processes, staffing shortages, and low funding that have led many New Yorkers involved in the shelter system to miss out on crucial resources and remain stuck in a cycle of homelessness and unstable transitional housing.

The City Council recently passed my bill, Intro 124, to fill this gap by designating trained housing specialists to offer personalized support and quickly match clients with the appropriate housing resources and programs. These specialists will consider the full scope of needs when matching people with eligible housing programs, such as health and disability status, family dynamics, and educational needs. This will ensure a higher success rate of permanent housing placement and decrease the likelihood of these individuals’ reintroduction into the shelter system. The legislation will also require the city to conduct an annual review on the number of temporary shelters and the performance of these housing specialists — because we know that the more data we have, the better we can fine-tune this system through additional policy changes.              

But improving our shelter system is just one piece of the puzzle. We must also ensure enough housing stock to accommodate the number of people being moved into permanent housing. I support the conversion of unused commercial space as one creative solution, which the Dept. of City Planning estimates could generate 20,000 new units for upwards of 40,000 New Yorkers. One thing I know is that all proposed solutions must prioritize affordability so that all New Yorkers can benefit from these new homes, especially communities of color and low-income individuals and families from our city’s poorest neighborhoods.

I see hope on the horizon to solve one of the most pressing issues impacting New York City right now. We’ve made progress in my community, District 17 in the South Bronx — securing 8,000 units of 100% affordable housing since 2016. While we continue to work with Albany on additional solutions, such as moving forward on office-to-residential conversions, we can’t rely on state legislators to fix this crisis alone. As City officials, we have a responsibility to support the New Yorkers most in need. By continuing to pass legislation that generates more affordable housing and gives folks in our shelter system access to more effective and comprehensive care, we can begin to substantially address the housing crisis that is gripping our city.

Rafael Salamanca Jr. is the Council Member for the 17th District of the New York City Council, representing the South Bronx.