I had the opportunity recently to attend the Beyond Housing Conference organized by the Institute for Child Poverty and Homelessness. One of the most insightful aspects was hearing presentations from the host city of New York about both their past and present challenges. As a city of 8 million people in a metropolitan region of 19 million, they have been dealing with housing precarity at an intensity and for a length of time far greater than anything we see in Canada. Therefore, it almost felt like taking a time machine forward in time to see how a variety of initiatives might play out into the future.

Here is what I learned:

  1. Public housing must be sustained: New York City Housing Authority houses over 400,000 New Yorkers within their public housing developments. These seem to defy the extremes of the housing bubble with public housing high-rises in the heart of Manhattan, one of the world’s most expensive residential regions. However, NCYHA is now looking at $31.8B worth of capital repairs due to chronic under-funding of housing, with a drastic drop-off in government capital spending starting immediately after completion of the builds. Now, like many communities across the U.S., they are considering demolition of some sites or sell-offs to the private sector for redevelopment.
  2. Affordable housing prevents homelessness but doesn’t end homelessness: A city with astronomical rents illustrates clearly how housing at 50%-80% of average market rents supports a particular segment of the population. This might be those with precarious work, low wages, on a fixed income, or who are recent arrivals. However, with Manhattan rents at $3,600, even at half this rate almost no one who is currently living in an emergency shelter can financially exit into ‘affordable’ housing. While Canadian rents are not (quite) this extreme as of yet, we can feel this pressure growing. So, these affordable units can be key for those with financial challenges, keeping them from being de-housed, but don’t necessarily decrease the number of those currently experiencing homelessness.
  3. Rent supplements have their limitations: With the Government of Canada currently entering into negotiations with provinces to roll out portable housing benefits from the NHS funds, we are anxious to see these funds begin to flow. As communities struggle with high rates of homelessness and long waitlists for social housing, the opportunity to tap into private market units is highly appealing. However, NYC offers some caveats in terms of rent supplements, with 235,000 people currently on supplement. Firstly, with a lack of rent controls, rent supplements will inevitably create an upward pressure on rental rates. That’s not to say that landlords will price themselves out of the supplement, but as a whole will raise rents towards the top value of the supplement, putting pressure on those without the supplement. Secondly, they experienced significant evictions as landlords removed those not on a supplement, meaning that while tens of thousands of those chronically in shelter moved out, a whole wave of those experienced a first episode of homelessness moved in. Ultimately, they have seen no change in their shelter occupancy rates post-supplement. Thirdly, this is because of a system wide affordability capacity issue. Without a combination of sufficient truly affordable stock (ie. public housing) and supplements to access the private market, programs simply shift who is in housing versus ultimately ending homelessness.

So, what did NYC housing policy-makers and researchers suggest?

Communities need to: 1) Return to building public housing; 2) Create better funding for public housing so that repairs can be continuous; 3) Hang onto your public housing stock; 4) Build affordable housing knowing what segment of the population it will actually serve; 5) Pair rent supplements with rent controls; 6) Improve legislation to prevent eviction (ie. right to housing).

I hope we can learn from communities who have gone before us so that our public policy approaches truly end homelessness versus just shifting it around.

This post is part of a bi-weekly blog series by Abe Oudshoorn exploring recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Read the first blog in the series here.