David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

This past year has presented New York City with some of the greatest challenges we have ever faced. The pandemic and recession have exposed and exacerbated longstanding racial, economic and gender-based inequalities, and their effects are most strongly felt in working class communities of color. As with any crisis, however, this moment also presents our city with opportunities for creative thinking and bold action.

One of the more visible signs of distress in this city is the rise of single adult homelessness. There are close to 80,000 homeless people in New York City today, and more than 92,000 statewide. The fastest growing homeless population by far are adults not living with families, a population who, for the first time, now number over 20,000 in New York City. Mass homelessness is an economic and moral crisis. It’s also a public health failure at a time when “stay at home” was the most important advice coming from our leaders, and tens of thousands of people couldn’t follow it.

Meanwhile, there’s far from enough housing priced for working class and poor families. Nearly half of the city’s low-income tenants pay a majority of their income in rent, and demand for deeply affordable housing outstrips the supply by over half a million units. For far too many low-income Black and brown New Yorkers, the rent remains too damn high.

Another visible sign of distress in New York City is commercial vacancy. Though some tourists and commuters are returning to the city these days, many hotels and commercial offices remain largely empty, and could stay that way for a while. International travel and big conferences have not returned in a big way and likely will not for some time, and many employers are permanently downsizing their workspaces to cut costs and offer their employees the flexibility to work from home part of the time. Even some hotels and offices that are now seeing their clientele return went into deep debt during the past year without revenue, and may never be able to recover.

If we’re looking for bold ideas to address these pressing problems, here’s a suggestion: let’s act now to convert cash-strapped hotels and office buildings into permanently affordable and supportive housing. Luckily, there is state legislation known as the “Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act” which would allow us to do just that.

Here’s how it would work: the state would create a fund, which it could use to acquire and renovate buildings. The housing would be fully and permanently affordable and would be operated by a trustworthy nonprofit provider. At least half of the renovated apartments would be for people who are currently homeless or housing insecure, and the other half would be for low-income households. The apartments would be rent stabilized, and nonprofits can provide social support services right on site. If done properly, the result would be a large quantity of new affordable housing scattered throughout the city and across the state.

This would be a new venue for the kinds of social housing conversions the Community Service Society advocated for in our Fall 2020 report on the state of the housing market, entitled “Corporate Windfalls or Social Housing Conversions? The Looming Mortgage Crisis and the Choices Facing New York.”

Of course, the real estate industry would rather see these empty commercial buildings sold to the highest bidder and converted into luxury housing, with just a small set-aside for affordable housing. Surely, some of their political allies would agree. But we must not squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity and lose out on the possibility of creating large amounts affordable housing all over the city, without having to start from scratch.

In their last budget, the State of New York set aside $100 million for this kind of “adaptive reuse” housing development, but they did not create a program to spend it. On top of that, the federal government put $5 billion toward programs for the homeless that can include hotel acquisitions, but they left it to local governments to figure out how to spend it. That means that if the state does not act now to enact the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act, this money could go to waste: either it will not get spent and will have to be returned, or it will be spent on projects that do not meet the city and state’s needs.

Leadership is forged in crisis. Right now, our state representatives have the chance to do something big which will reverberate for decades to come. If we want to push back against the rise in single adult homelessness and the lack of truly affordable housing, and at the same time prevent either long-lasting vacancies or luxury land grabs, we must pass the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act today and work tirelessly to turn its promise into reality.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.