By Senator Gustavo Rivera, via Urban Matters
Thousands of asylum seekers from Central and South America have been unscrupulously bused to New York from border states, primarily Texas, often under false pretenses over the last few months. I’m proud that New York is welcoming them to a city built by immigrants and working to uphold our historic “right to shelter” laws. This is also a solemn opportunity to confront the failures of our shelter system, to help tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers, and many more on the brink of losing their homes, to find affordable, stable housing, and to operationalize housing as a human right.
In the midst of this compounding humanitarian crisis, Mayor Eric Adams and his administration are implementing extraordinary measures to provide shelter to this incoming population, with many leaders across the city rightfully criticizing flaws in these plans. As the City worked to set up Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRC) at the Orchard Beach parking lot in The Bronx, I joined many colleagues to denounce these tent shelters. When the area intended for the tents flooded, the tent shelter was relocated to Randall’s Island. Upon this announcement, I wrote a letter with State Senator Jessica Ramos, Assembly Member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, and Council Member Shahana Hanif, who chairs the Council’s Immigration Committee, to the mayor, making clear that tents were not habitable or acceptable temporary shelters.
We delivered a comprehensive policy platform to address the immediate housing needs of the migrants and the ongoing housing needs of New Yorkers. As the weather gets colder, it should be apparent to all of us that erecting tents for congregate shelter is not how we should be focusing our limited resources. As we bundle up and stay inside, we cannot forget the New Yorkers who don’t have a safe, indoor space to call home.
Homeless New Yorkers have long advocated for a decrease in the average length of shelter stays, which has ballooned in recent years due to unnecessary barriers to permanent housing placement and underinvestment in stable, deeply affordable housing. In our letter to the mayor, we outlined ways to address the bottleneck in our housing placement process. For instance, when a household receives a City Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) rent voucher, the prospect of having rent money guaranteed each month is a huge relief. Then come the denials. It is exceedingly difficult to find a landlord who will accept the voucher, despite it being illegal to discriminate against rental vouchers or other forms of rental assistance.
New York City’s Department of Social Services and Commission on Human Rights need adequate staff to stop such rampant source-of-income discrimination, and enforce the law. The signatories to the letter to the mayor urged the City to ease pressure on the shelter system by fighting for voucher holders, who are often demoralized by illegal discrimination and prolonged stays in shelters, to identify permanent housing. With more staff, these agencies can address the backlog of CityFHEPS as well as Section 8 discrimination cases and finally place these households in permanent homes.
At the State level, we fought for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to meet the needs of as many New Yorkers as possible with crippling rent arrears due to the financial hardships caused by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. That program also included eviction protections for both pending and approved applicants meant to ease the transition when the pandemic-related eviction moratorium ended. Tenants working in good faith to pay rent arrears are being needlessly taken to court. Unfortunately, we’ve seen aggressive scheduling of eviction cases despite there not being enough tenant lawyers to meet the caseload.
Housing Court judges should be proactively upholding tenants’ rights to stays of their cases when they are eligible for ERAP. Housing advocates have been sounding the alarm for months that the court system is effectively voiding New York City residents’ right to counsel and neglecting to advise tenants of these rights, particularly in the busiest Housing Courts, like ours in the Bronx. Our letter called on the mayor to join us in urging court leadership to slow down cases, to ensure lawyers can provide tenants with adequate representation and can assert their rights to stay in their homes.
This humanitarian crisis has taken our city by surprise, with no easy solutions. Many of the calls to action in the letter to the mayor were simply amplifications of what housing experts, service providers, and advocates have been demanding for months, sometimes years. I hope that the City gets the support it needs from the Federal and State governments to take bold, decisive action on housing policies that will help new and longstanding New Yorkers alike. All of us deserve a safe and permanent place to live and courageous solutions to address the housing affordability crisis.