Commissioner Steve Banks meets with members of the Borough Board.
Elected and community officials put Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks on the hot seat at Wednesday evening’s Borough Board meeting over the recent proliferation of shelters and lack of community notification.
At the often-tense meeting at Borough Hall, Banks was questioned repeatedly about the use of commercial hotels to house homeless families.
With the homeless population at a record 60,000 people, including 8,500 homeless people living in 5,000 units in Queens, Banks explained that the department is six months into implementing a series of 46 reforms to address the issue citywide.
“We’ve been spending time reforming the agency,” Banks said. “We have yet to bend the curve in the last six months.”
Homelessness shot up from 24,000 in 1994 to 51,000 in 2014. The most significant growth was between 2011 and 2014, Banks explained, because the city under the Bloomberg administration cut off the rental assistance program that often keeps struggling families from entering the shelter system.
As a result, 5,000 people became homeless each year.
Ironically, as the top lawyer for the Legal Aid Society at the time, Banks sued the city to stop the elimination of the rental assistance program. He lost the case in a Court of Appeals in a 4-3 decision.
“If I had been a better lawyer that day, the trajectory we’re looking at may not be the trajectory we inherited,” Banks said, referring to the uptick in the homeless population. “I apologize for losing that case. I guess my reward is to run the program I sued.”
The housing crisis in New York isn’t helping either; 500,000 New Yorkers face eviction in any given year, and three in 10 New Yorkers pay half their income in rent.
But the city’s been trying to take action to prevent more people from becoming homeless. They increased funding for legal services from $6.4 million to $62 million and rebuilt the rental assistance programs to prevent 45,000 people from entering the shelter system.
Those reforms brought evictions down 24 percent citywide, Banks said.
When the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) went through a 90-day review of its policies in April, it decided to take a “borough-based” approach to keep homeless families in the communities where they live. As part of the reform, the city opened nine shelters citywide.
One of the decisions made was to eliminate cluster units, or 3,000 rental apartments that are being used as shelter units.
Currently, 12,000 people live in 3,000 cluster units, mostly in the Bronx. The agency began working with landlords to turn the units into permanent housing.
“If we’re not going to keep renting apartments and taking them off the rental market as had been done in the past, if a family with children comes in on any given night we’re going to need to find some place to put them,” Banks said. “That’s when we get to the increased use of commercial hotels.”
Back in February, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city should be moving away from the use of hotels to house the homeless. But because DHS decided to prioritize converting cluster units over ending the use of hotels, the practice not only continued, it expanded.
“As part of our reforms, we said we’re going to phase out commercial hotels, but you cannot get both out of clusters and phase out commercial hotels at the same time,” Banks said. “We prioritized phasing out the use of clusters because that’s real housing that was taken off the market that we want to put back in place.”
Banks admitted that “it’s clear” that hotel rooms being rented without community notification “has to be changed.”
“When there is no notification or no other services in place, I think you rob Queens communities from the ability to help and show how deeply compassionate and decent we are,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who has been dealing with shelter issues in Long Island City and Woodside.
The meeting took a turn when Community Board 5 chair Vincent Arcuri, Jr. asked why more public housing wasn’t being created, such as the construction of the Fort Greene Houses under former mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
He said there were 22,000 vacant or empty units in public housing that are not being used right now.
“Fiorello La Guardia had something that Bill de Blasio doesn’t have,” Banks said.
“Brains,” Arcuri interjected, drawing chuckles and a few comments from protesters at the meeting. He later apologized after Borough President Melinda Katz told the room to keep decorum.
“He had a federal partner,” Banks continued. “The Housing Authority has been stripped of federal and state resources for the last 30 years. That’s one of the reasons we don’t have any more public housing being built.”
As for the 22,000 units of NYCHA units that Arcuri referred to, Banks refuted that there were that many empty. A recent report by the comptroller estimated that number was closer to 3,000 units.
“If you could show me where those are, you’ll find no stronger advocate in this room than me to try to get ahold of it,” Banks added.
The commissioner then pointed to an initiative the city implemented to end chronic veteran homelessness. They partnered with the federal government, which provided them with Section 8 vouchers and rental assistance to homeless veterans
“If they would do the same for family homelessness, we would not be in this situation across the country,” Banks said.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley blasted Banks over the phasing out of cluster units. They’re not isolated, she said, and the City Council has been funding their repairs.
“I just don’t understand how practical it is for your administration to be doing this when you have no inventory,” she said. “If you have an inventory of apartments, how could you let that go?”
Crowley also criticized increasing the homeless population in commercial hotels from 2,600 in February to 6,000 today. She accused Banks of moving people from clusters into hotels.
“No, that’s not true, I’ve said this to you a number of times,” Banks shot back. “We’re not moving people from clusters into hotels.”
Crowley said the community in Maspeth has been very hostile toward DHS because “they felt they’ve been lied to.”
“Excuse me, you’ve used that word ‘lie’ a lot,” Banks said, interrupting the councilwoman. “One reason they keep using the word lie is because you keep making the point we’re taking people out of clusters and putting them into hotels. For everybody here, that is not the policy of the Department of Homeless Services.”
Crowley said when the commissioner came to Maspeth for meetings about the conversion of the Holiday Inn Express, he came with “information that was just not true.” Banks replied that when they met privately in June to explain the plan, he “never said any of the things you said.”
Banks contended that he told Crowley about a homeless shelter plan in June, but the community only found out about it in August.
The homeless shelter issue has been prevalent in southeast Queens as well. At the meeting, Councilman Donovan Richards said his district, which includes John F. Kennedy Airport and its surrounding hotels, has been dealing with shelters before de Blasio came into office.
“To say this is a de Blasio issue is very disingenuous,” Richards said.
Noting that close to 40 percent of all shelters in Queens are in southeast Queens, in neighborhoods like Rosedale and the Rockaways, he called on the rest of the county to do their fair share.
“It’s very unfair for just one community to be saturated with the majority of the problem, that’s the issue we’re running into,” Richards said. “Historically, they have been placed in communities of color, and there’s been no conversation around that.
“But now that it’s being placed in a district where historically these facilities have not been placed, we’re seeing a huge uproar,” he continued. “That’s the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room.”
He added that when a homeless shelter opened in the Rockaways, the community created a task force that involved the local police precinct.
“People said crime was coming into the community because of the shelter,” he said. “When we worked with the NYPD, there was very little crime coming from the shelter. I think we just have to relook at the way we’re looking at homeless people.”
By the end of the long discussion, Katz said elected officials should open a discussion again about building more housing.
“I understand the feds aren’t contributing to it and if that’s the issue, maybe that’s a discussion we have to have,” Katz said. “But clearly, we need housing. We need to build it, we need to keep folks in their homes.”