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Helpless On the Homeless: Bill de Blasio’s Dilemma

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I think this is going to be one of the most pivotal issues in the election. People all over the district and really all over the city are incredibly worried about housing,” City Council candidate Ede Fox had told me in April as Crown Heights residents marched in protest against the Bedford Armory Development. Fox was speaking about the Council elections. But as I stepped off the subway recently and came face to face with a New York City government poster for the “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” campaign, I thought the same would be true of the November mayoral election.

Incumbent Bill de Blasio is running for a second four-year term as mayor. And as New Yorkers know, elections involving a sitting mayor are often just a referendum on how well hizzoner has lived up to his earlier promises. Introduced last February, “Turning the Tide” aims to improve conditions in the city’s homeless shelters and cut their number by 4 percent within five years. As the old saying has it, roads only get fixed during an election year. And Mayor de Blasio’s homeless-busting initiative drew some criticism for its obvious vote-baiting timing.

De Blasio’s message was different in tone when he laid out “Housing New York” in 2014, his first major plan for affordable housing. “Housing New York” promised to create 80,000 new affordable housing units while preserving the more than 120,000 units set aside for low and middle-income New Yorkers. “This plan thinks big because it has to,” de Blasio said at the time. So what happened between May 2014 and February 2017?

De Blasio now looks back at that period as one of trial and error, prompting him to refine his strategy and pursue more realistic goals. On a couple of occasions, hizzoner even voiced frustration with the lack of progress on his housing agenda, lamenting the New York State’s opposition or delay in approving or funding many of his plans. Whether or not the Albany bureaucracy is to blame, Mayor de Blasio must now prove that he has the grit to wage the “blood and guts war strategy” on homelessness he has promised New Yorkers.

A recent city government report on “Turning the Tide” describes New York’s homelessness crisis as a by-product of wages not keeping up with rising costs of rent over the years. If that’s the case, the mayor’s very vocal support for the Bedford Armory Development blunders into contradiction with his claim to be working to keep housing costs affordable as Crown Heights residents worry the project will only add momentum to ongoing gentrification of this working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

A homeless man panhandles along Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue in New York City.

City Council and the mayor’s office have each have their own powers, and it’s not unusual for them to clash on certain issues, a stalemate that often worked to hizzoner’s advantage in his role as the final decision maker on housing development. De Blasio, we should recall, rode into office in 2013 on the strength of his years as regional director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Given this pedigree, it is a bit of a let-down that the mayor has not developed a better strategy on homelessness and affordable housing, and his critics may be right to call it that one of his biggest policy failures while in office.

Bill de Blasio is facing Nicole Malliotakis, Bo Dietl, and Sal Albanese as opponents on November 7. Malliotakis is a vocal critic of de Blasio’s failure to curb homelessness. “Just because you throw money at a problem doesn’t mean you’re going to fix it,” Malliotakis said recently of de Blasio’s attempts to address a problem that has equally haunted previous administrations. But her criticisms of the mayor– in particular her objections to de Blasio’s plan to house homeless and rent-paying individuals in the same buildings, have seemed tone-deaf at times for implying that crime by the homeless would rise under such proposals.

It’s difficult to say whether New Yorkers are so fed up with the affordable housing and homelessness crises that they will take a chance on voting in someone new come November 7. But there are signs that Bill de Blasio sees this as a real possibility, even if the polls say otherwise. Introducing his current housing plan as a goal over the next five years—an easily measurable time frame but also the total time de Blasio will spend in office if re-elected, is clearly an attempt to plead for patience. Given that “Turning the Tide” is his second major attempt at a solution to the housing crisis, the mayor may have upped the ante a bit too high for his own sake.

Once again, Bill de Blasio is talking the talk. But can he finally deliver on his grand housing policy designs? If the recent City Council election —which elevated outsider candidates over entrenched politicos— is anything to go by, New Yorkers may have had enough of lofty promises. And de Blasio had better come up with a clear path of implementation for his affordable housing and anti-homelessness programs. Or watch a repeat of the 2013 protest vote that brought him to One Center Street, but this time as the one the protest is aimed at.

Christina Reed

Christiana Reed is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She was born in Seattle and raised in Raleigh, NC. Christiana holds a degree in communication arts and journalism from Marymount Manhattan College, where she edited and wrote for the college publication The Monitor. She has also contributed to The Borgen Project, a national campaign to fight global poverty.
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