Homeless man in Harlem (156037)
Homeless man in Harlem Credit: Bill Moore

According to advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 63,000 people are sleeping in shelters in New York City, leaving many people with no place to call home this Christmas.

Breaking the numbers down even further, close to 24,000 of those living in shelters are children. Research shows that children who fall victim to homelessness are more likely to have problems in school, trouble with the criminal justice system and face health problems.

Two major breakthroughs in city government aim to ease the burden of the city’s longstanding homeless problem to get people off the street.

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the city’s plan to help not-for-profit developers acquire and rehab residential “cluster site” buildings, currently used to house homeless families, and convert them into permanent affordable housing. Eminent domain will be used to acquire the buildings if negotiations fail to buy them.

Over the past 17 years, New York City has used the cluster site program to provide shelter for homeless families, a practice that the de Blasio Administration committed to ending last February.

“Our city’s homelessness crisis wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight. It requires us to come up with creative and bold new strategies to help those on the street and those in need of shelter and affordable permanent housing,” said de Blasio. “This initiative will transform dozens of dilapidated temporary apartments into quality, permanently affordable homes. The effort is a clear sign that we will go to any length necessary to help our neighbors get back on their feet.”

The city has so far identified 25 to 30 cluster site buildings that qualify. Only buildings where 50 percent or more of apartments are cluster apartments will be considered. The targeted buildings are home to approximately 800 homeless families and 300 other tenants and would be transformed into more than 1,100 permanent and affordable homes.

“The potential use of eminent domain adds a powerful tool to the city’s housing arsenal,” said Coalition for the Homeless policy director Giselle Routhier. “But to see a significant reduction in record homelessness and finally end the use of cluster sites and hotels completely, the city will have to think even bigger and commit to creating at least 10,000 units of new housing for homeless households over the next five years.”

Community advocates saw another victory this week with the passage of critical legislation.

Tuesday, the City Council passed Intros 1036 and 1039 that make up the Housing Not Warehousing Act, a package aimed at inventorying vacant property citywide in order to reduce homelessness and increase the city’s affordable housing stock.

Any New Yorker walking the streets can see numerous vacant buildings and lots that occupy the city. Homeless advocates have said for years that the properties could be used to house the growing homeless population. According to Picture the Homeless, there are more than 3,500 vacant buildings that could house more than 71,000 people and approximately 2,500 vacant lots that could house 130,000 people.

“For the first time in its history, New York City will be empowered to conduct a census of vacant property,” said Jumaane Williams, chair of the City Council’s Housing & Buildings Committee, and the lead sponsor of Intro 1039. “The affordable housing and homelessness crisis we face presents an incredibly complex problem, and this legislation provides us with an essential tool toward creating solutions.”

Picture the Homeless member Jose Rodriguez said passing the Housing Not Warehousing Act is the first step in securing low income housing in the city for a population that needs it most.

“For the first time, city residents will know what vacant properties are available to support community-based projects, including badly needed housing for extremely-low-income New Yorkers,” he said.