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I come from the great state of Ohio, where it is said, “So goes Ohio, so goes the nation.” No one really says that about New York or even New York City, but some of the problems and solutions that are present in New York and New York City are worthy of attention as those problems and solutions can serve as models in other cities as well.
We like cities. They are places where the arts flourish, money is invested and tourists visit. As the United States moved from an agrarian culture to industrial, cities took hold and Americans found work and connections with others who had moved from the farms.
How people get food and water and shelter in cities became problematic as the growth sometimes outpaced the infrastructure. Now, a city like New York City can’t provide the basics to a segment of its population. In 2013, there were an estimated 50,000 people who were homeless in New York City and about 21,000 of those were children. That is enough for a small city.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his homeless policies when he was mayor, but the above figures prove that what he thought he was doing did not work. Under the “rising tide lifts all boats” the well-known phrase adopted by the Republican Party in Washington, D.C., Mayor Bloomberg gave away valuable contracts to refurbish older housing. Those units wound up not with the poor but with middle- and upper-class New Yorkers.
New York City has a new mayor now, and many have worked out solutions to cut back on the growing problem of homelessness there. The solutions are not just New York City centric but could be applied to Los Angles, Chicago or any other city that should attend to the problem of homeless Americans.
The Community Service Society in New York City, operating since 1939, has some real solutions to the problem of homelessness. It has tracked the problem of housing and found that there was a 39 percent drop in housing available to people living within 200 percent of the poverty line in the years 2002-2011. After paying rent, income went down for people in lower incomes as well. In short, rent became such a high portion of someone’s income that it either it priced people out of the market and into homelessness or people could not afford much else. There was an overall change of -39 percent of affordable housing in the city.
According to the study by the Community Service Society, the problem of housing and, therefore, homelessness can be addressed. There are solutions.
There is cost to shelters, not only the basic operational costs but also the long-term costs that happen when people do not have a stable place to live. These include mental health services and, in some cases, an expanded prison population when children grow up in less than ideal circumstances.
Expanding Section 8 housing, and giving people vouchers for safe and good housing, is the first and obvious solution. Changing zoning requirements so that new zoning for upscale building includes affordable housing is another policy that would increase available apartments.
In New York City (and other cities), there is city-controlled land. The Community Service Society asks: Why not use these spaces to build affordable housing? And why not make tax exemption more tied to providing affordable housing, too?
Like many cities, New York City has a rent-control board, but the board often takes the expenses of the landlords in to account without the final expense to the consumer. For affordable housing, this too must change.
Most importantly, the city and the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, need to incorporate the overall vision and plan to cut down on people who need shelters and increase affordable housing, says the Community Service Society’s reports.
It makes sense to provide decent housing. When I was working in mental health, the moniker was that in group therapy a group was as strong as its least strong member. It should be that way for cities, too. How can you have a gleaming, proud city when more than 20,000 children do not have a home? It is not just in the interests of those who struggle to find a decent place to live, but it’s also in the interests of the entire city.
A strong city, and indeed a strong country, must take care of its citizens.
Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.