With the exploding number of homeless still hovering at record levels, Mayor de Blasio will announce Tuesday a nearly-done deal to convert 468 shelter apartments into permanent, affordable apartments for the homeless.
Known as “cluster-site” apartments, the units are scattered throughout 17 privately-owned buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx and are expected to provide long-term housing for more than 1,000 homeless New Yorkers, administration officials said.
“Homeless families have for decades been haphazardly sheltered in temporary accommodations that are too often poorly maintained and disconnected from services,” de Blasio said Monday. “We’re converting these buildings into higher quality, permanent affordable housing for formerly homeless New Yorkers turning their lives around.”
The city is still in negotiations with the building landlords and two non-profits to finalize the deal, which covers a total of 729 apartment units, 468 of which are currently used to shelter the homeless.
An administration official said the purchase of the properties would be at market-rate values, but did not rule out using eminent domain for other stages of de Blasio’s ambitious goal to shutter all cluster sites by 2021.
Christine Quinn, president of the homeless service provider WIN, said the desire to convert the apartments into permanent, affordable housing is “100% well-placed,” but that “the devil is in the details.”
The use of eminent domain could pose a significant obstacle, she added.
“Eminent domain can often mean lawsuits,” said Quinn, the former City Council Speaker. “That could cause delay and delay is not a good thing.”
Under the plan, which is being overseen by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, homeless families “eligible for rental assistance and prepared for housing permanency” would live in those 468 converted units.
The remaining 261 units would be for tenants who aren’t homeless, but are entitled to rent-stabilized lease deals.
Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said no current homeless residents would be asked to leave under the plan.
Eliminating cluster sites by converting them into permanent housing addresses two administration priorities – reducing homelessness and creating long-term affordable housing for people living in poverty. According to administration estimates, the city has brought down the number of cluster units by more than half since January 2016 when use was at a high of 3,650 units.
The city’s use of clusters has come under criticism because of their cost and sometimes squalid living conditions.
A 2015 city Department of Investigation report estimated it costs $2,451 a month on average for a cluster unit. The policy also came under increased scrutiny two years ago after a radiator exploded, killing two infants in a Bronx cluster-site apartment.
Mayor Giuliani kicked off the city’s use of cluster sites in 2000. Unlike with centralized homeless shelters, the city is not required to notify host communities of their use as homeless units.
The 468 units to be converted as part of the first phase of de Blasio’s plan are located in several Bronx neighborhoods, including Longwood, Mt. Eden and Belmont, as well as Brownsville, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights in Brooklyn.
Under the plan, the city would finance the acquisition of the properties through two non-profits, Neighborhood Restore and the Joint Ownership Entity NYC, which would work with other, local non-profits to manage the buildings and coordinate social services like healthcare and job placement. The local non-profits include Banana Kelly, the Fifth Avenue Committee and the Settlement Housing Fund.
Despite his plan and the reduced use of cluster sites since 2016, battling homelessness has been fraught territory for de Blasio.
As of last Wednesday, the total shelter population in the city stood at 60,934 people – 22,493 of whom are children – according to city statistics. In Jan. 2014, 53,615 were living in shelters.
Aside from the statistics and prospect of using eminent domain, de Blasio has come under fire for what some describe as his administration’s lack of transparency.
His Budget Director Melanie Hartzog took heat earlier this year at a City Council hearing when she refused to detail how much of an additional $169 million budgeted for homeless shelters would go to cluster sites.
The administration declined to detail the cost of converting the 468 units Monday as well, citing the fact that the deal hasn’t yet been finalized.
De Blasio is quick to point out that the current situation was not solely of his making.
Homelessness increased 115% between 1994 and 2014, an administration spokeswoman noted. From 2011 to 2014, under Mayor Bloomberg, it spiked almost 40%, from 38,000 to more than 51,000.
Banks has pointed out that for the first time in a decade, the shelter population in the city remained flat last year at around 60,000 – even as 500 evacuees from Puerto Rico fled to the city after Hurricane Maria.
Banks was cautious about predicting how much the new initiative would lower the shelter census, but he said it means that “literally hundreds of people who are in shelters will be in affordable apartments.”
“Stay tuned,” he said. “This is only the first of several transactions to convert cluster units.”