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New York City Mayoral Candidates Blast de Blasio’s Housing Record

In a forum with people experiencing homelessness, Democratic candidates criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plans, embraced a ‘right to housing,’ and rejected police intervention on homelessness calls.

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

Several candidates running for mayor of New York signaled a sharp break from the city’s current approach to housing and homelessness during a candidate forum held Thursday evening.

In what organizers labeled a “first-of-its-kind” event, 10 of the 22 formally announced mayoral candidates, broken up into three groups, fielded questions from homeless New Yorkers. 

Most of the participating candidates took the opportunity to rebuke current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s large-scale affordable housing development programs, which have mostly failed to reduce homelessness and rent for low-income residents during his two terms. The number of rent-burdened low-income New Yorkers and the number of people sleeping in shelters remained effectively unchanged from 2014, when de Blasio took office, to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Many instead advocated for more direct city intervention to get people experiencing homelessness into secure housing as quickly as possible.

“Housing first,” said candidate Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio and former chairperson of the city’s police oversight agency. “Everybody is housing ready.”

Organizers saw Thursday’s forum as a small way to get homeless people a seat at the policymaking table. Shams DaBaron, also known as “Da Homeless Hero,” is an activist housed by the city at the Lucerne Hotel in Manhattan. He co-moderated the event with Corinne Low of the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, a neighborhood group founded to offer support to hotel occupants amid anti-homeless backlash. Several other New York-based advocacy groups were co-sponsors. 

“Homelessness in particular is the kind of issue where a lot of the solutions are thought about in rooms that don’t include any people who are actually impacted by the problem,” Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator for VOCAL-NY, told The Appeal. “[The forum has] really been led by, not just homeless New Yorkers, but specifically homeless New Yorkers that have … come under a lot of NIMBY-ist attacks.” 

In August, residents of Manhattan’s wealthy and predominantly white Upper West Side launched a hostile campaign against the temporary placement of around 300 homeless men in the Lucerne—part of the city’s efforts to provide safe shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the residents threatened a lawsuit, de Blasio relinquished, agreeing to move the men to a new location and prompting outrage from housing and racial justice advocates. A series of legal battles have so far kept the men at the hotel.

The candidates, all Democrats, railed hard against de Blasio’s affordable housing initiatives. The mayor’s programs largely hinge on compelling real estate developers to produce “affordable” units along with their luxury and market-rate projects, but they have failed to increase housing stock that is accessible to low-income and homeless people. Despite building and preserving tens of thousands of units of varying affordability, the administration didn’t create enough new extremely low- and very low-income housing.

“The de Blasio administration … built affordable housing that was unaffordable to the people who needed it most,” said candidate Scott Stringer, who is currently the city comptroller. “He worked with luxury developers, gave them all the land, then, in return, hoped for affordable housing.”

Alternatively, several candidates voiced their desire to scrap de Blasio’s affordability metrics, eventually eliminate the shelter system, and implement a housing-first approach to homelessness—or, as Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, put it, “reimagine our ‘right to shelter’ as a ‘right to housing.’”

“Everyone that is currently in the shelter system or on the streets should be immediately housed,” said Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive who has spent much of her career developing programs for homeless youth. “If we had the political and moral will to make it happen, every single person could have access to a permanent home.”

In achieving universal housing, several candidates expressed a willingness to abandon the real estate industry as an equal partner. Morales, Stringer, and Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member representing Sunset Park in southwest Brooklyn, proposed increasing housing stock for homeless and low-income people by handing city-owned vacant lots over to nonprofit developers or land trusts. Wiley, the former police oversight agency chairperson, suggested taking over recently shuttered hotels and turning them into permanently affordable housing.

“I am skeptical of working with the private community,” said Menchaca. “There are a lot of strings that get attached, and a lot of bottom lines that are different.”

Joycelyn Taylor, owner of a contracting firm and founder of a nonprofit for minority- and women-owned businesses, agreed with that skepticism. “We have partnerships with corporate developers, and we see how that 75-25-percent deal is working out,” she said, referring to housing policies, like those under de Blasio, that have mandated that new private development projects include a certain percentage of affordable units. Such policies have yielded tens of thousands more middle-, moderate-, and low-income units than needed, and hundreds of thousands fewer very low- and extremely low-income units.

Not every candidate supported such aggressive government interventions, however. Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, denounced “divisive language” about corporations, and encouraged partnerships with business “to grow our way out of this.” McGuire’s solutions focused on increasing rental subsidies and vouchers, while Brooklyn borough president and former police officer Eric Adams focused on increasing subsidies and partnering with local faith-based institutions to develop new affordable properties—ideas seen as necessary but insufficient by most of the other candidates.

Similarly, many of the candidates expressed a need to end NYPD homeless outreach tactics, like those used during de Blasio’s now-defunct “diversion” program, through which police would refer homeless people sleeping on subways to shelters under threat of arrest. In addition to ending the criminal enforcement of homelessness, Wiley advocated for a “CAHOOTS model,” referring to the Eugene, Oregon, program that sends medical and social worker teams, rather than police, to assist people in mental health crises.

Kathryn Garcia, a former city sanitation commissioner, and Loree Sutton, former head of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, disagreed, and argued that police should have a role in homelessness and crisis outreach—at which point DaBaron, the homeless rights activist moderator, decided to jump in.

“I’m a victim of the diversion unit,” he said. “They were telling me they were going to help me, and I submitted to the help, and I ended up in handcuffs. … The trauma from that experience, I mean, I don’t want to speak to it.”

“I completely am hearing your experience,” Garcia said.

New York will hold its primary elections on June 22.