Opinion

Delaying supportive housing funding a luxury New York’s homeless don’t have

By Peter Cook |  

February 21, 2017 |  

Sometimes Mother Nature has an interesting way of getting her point across. Last week, members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration were scheduled to testify before state legislators about the impact of the governor’s budget proposal on the homelessness crisis gripping our state. The night before the hearing, with a major winter storm approaching, lawmakers agreed to postpone the hearing.

While lawmakers and government officials were spared from having to trek out during a storm that ended up dropping a foot of snow along the Albany to New York City corridor, homeless New Yorkers weren’t so lucky. Each night, roughly 88,000 people confront homelessness. We seem to hit a new record anytime someone takes another head count. Cuomo has been promising to remedy the crisis, but self-imposed bureaucratic hurdles repeatedly block any progress. Last month, in his State of the State speeches and budget rollout, the governor pledged to build thousands of units of supportive housing.

This commitment echoed his promise from the 2016 State of the State speech, when Cuomo pledged to fund 20,000 new units of supportive housing, 6,000 of them in the first five years. The state budget passed last year with $2 billion for housing, including funding for those 6,000 units. 

But tucked in the budget was language that required the completion of a memorandum of understanding between the governor and leaders of the state Senate and Assembly before the funds could be spent. At the end of the legislative session in June, just $150 million of the $2 billion was released. This January, the executive budget re-appropriated the same $2 billion – again.

This needs to stop. As New York’s homelessness crisis has reached historic levels, the governor keeps making the same promises, and keeps failing to deliver. Despite all the pledges and presentations, we have a record number of homeless people, but no memorandum of understanding, no long-term funding commitment and the prospect of another year of finger-pointing and self-imposed obstacles.

Cuomo has a proven track record of quickly closing deals to get what he wants. He knows that supportive housing cannot be built solely through annual appropriations. He should move now to get this memorandum signed immediately to release the promised $2 billion for supportive and affordable housing.

Studies throughout the country have repeatedly demonstrated that supportive housing pays for itself by reducing medical and psychiatric hospitalizations, detox and rehab programs, shelters and incarceration. In New York, placing homeless individuals in supportive housing has been found to save our government $10,100 per year, per tenant. Supportive housing developers, investors and service providers need long-term financing commitments for the future development of safe, permanent housing for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. Without long-term, state-committed capital and operating subsidies, it is impossible to attract private investment for the acquisition of land and predevelopment financing, which can together cost millions. This will have negative consequences for years to come.

In the past, New York/New York Agreements between New York City and New York state attracted investors because they diminished risk to developers by providing long-term commitments to fund a set number of units. The five-year memorandum that the governor promised is critical to creating the robust pipeline of supportive housing needed to address New York state’s homelessness crisis.

Since last year, 159 state legislators – close to 75 percent of the Legislature – have signed letters from their respective chambers demanding the state fund 20,000 units of supportive housing.

For the sake of New Yorkers struggling with homelessness; for the sake of overtaxed agencies, nonprofits, and faith groups struggling to provide services against the odds; and for the sake of our future as a moral leader: Sign this memorandum, Gov. Cuomo, and let’s get this vital supportive housing built.

Peter Cook is the executive director of the New York State Council of Churches.

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