Daily News op-ed, January 29 2021
As all eyes finally turn to the New York City mayoral election, an ever-growing list of candidates has lined up to try to convince New Yorkers they are worthy to be our battered city’s next mayor. Each candidate will tell us what the virus has laid bare, where the current occupant of Gracie Mansion has fallen down on the job, and what they plan to do about it. Each candidate will tell us how they plan to make the city a place for everyone to live and thrive.
But in order to improve the livelihood of New Yorkers living in poverty or experiencing homelessness, in a crisis severely accelerated by the pandemic, our next mayor must ensure our city government stops actively making their lives worse.
New York City has a patchwork of social safety net programs cobbled together from federal, state and city funding sources, creating a complicated mix of procedural and eligibility requirements that rely on an army of case managers and navigators, who are also tasked with navigating the systems’ inefficiencies. Obtaining and maintaining any public benefits is a complex, costly and time-consuming job for precisely those who these programs exist to help.
Our bureaucratic systems aren’t designed for efficiency. Often they are not even designed for results. Part of the problem is a social safety net that was designed with the “deserving poor” in mind, creating an assumption that if someone needs help badly enough, he or she will persist through the gauntlet of requirements, and that if we make it too easy, people who don’t really “need” the help will gain access.
This is, in part, a result of an outdated view of public benefits that does not prioritize the need to protect and serve our citizens, but instead seeks to minimize dependence and demands that poor New Yorkers show us their bootstraps as they seek government’s help. Through this lens, it is easy to see how rules, regulations, forms and questionnaires have piled up amidst a lack of leadership to reevaluate and scale back unnecessary filters and requirements.
Consider how hard it is to get housed in a city where shelter is supposed to be legal right.
When a homeowner claims the mortgage interest deduction, the largest housing subsidy available in the U.S., they are able to simply assume they will be able to receive this benefit, with no waitlists or complex eligibility documents required.
Contrast this streamlined, customer-oriented process with what happens when a New Yorker experiencing homelessness attempts to obtain the benefits for which they are eligible. This type of government subsidy requires visits to multiple government offices, often with original identification documents and sometimes with children in tow.
The contrast between these is striking, and fixable if we have the kind of leadership that chooses to make the lives of poor and homeless New Yorkers easier to manage.
It takes six months — at least — to process a New Yorker experiencing homelessness through the byzantine steps to access an apartment set aside specifically for him or her. All of the systems to move beyond homelessness are seemingly designed to root out this mysterious, secret millionaire who chooses to avail themselves of the assistance of the Department of Homeless Services.
How much paperwork, how many office visits, how much proof of income, can one program require before a New Yorker in need gives up? The outcome of this election will determine if we can finally have a government that understands what is truly important as we weigh the value of eligibility screens against the risk that services will be delayed or won’t be delivered at all. So while all New Yorkers are looking for a mayoral candidate with a clear plan to resurrect our city, we desperately need someone who can end the archaic culture that hurts those the most in need.
Katz is executive director at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council.