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Policy & Research INSIGHTS

Ed Koch and Family Homelessness

by Ethan G. Sribnick -  2/1/2013

Today brought numerous remembrances of Mayor Ed Koch.  Many noted how the choices made by him and his administration continue to shape the lives of New Yorkers today. This is certainly true in the case of family homelessness. Koch had the misfortune of being in office when family homelessness exploded in New York. Before the 1980s homeless families were virtually unheard of; by 1989, the end of Koch’s time as mayor, the city had made the first, halting steps toward the development of its current system of services and shelters for homeless families.

The Rise of Family Homelessness

Before the Koch administration, the city had only occasionally been confronted by homeless families appealing to the public for shelter. In many cases these families had suffered emergencies—fires, floods—that left them without housing.  In some cases poor families found themselves simply unable to find affordable housing and were forced to turn to the public. In the 1980s, however, the number of homeless families staying in city shelters or living in what became known as “welfare hotels” began to grow exponentially. In 1982 there were 950 families sheltered by the city—a 24% increase over the previous year—and by 1984 there were 3,056 families in shelter, creating an unprecedented crisis for the city.

In retrospect this crisis was rooted in the economic decline of the 1980s and the concurrent decline in the real value of social welfare benefits. In 1983 the city’s unemployment rate was 10% and the poverty rate was over 25%. At the same time the housing allowance used to calculate welfare benefits was 31% lower than it had been in 1969. The increase in family homelessness was one symptom of a new, entrenched poverty in New York and other American cities in the 1980s.

Koch first approached this increase in family homelessness with characteristic caution and pragmatism. Believing this spike in the number of homeless families was temporary, Koch continued to place parents and children in existing city shelters and private hotel rooms. The administration hesitated to spend money on long-term investments in shelters and other facilities. It also feared that creating more robust services and facilities might draw more families into shelter.

In spite of this caution, the city was forced to make policy to deal with the rising numbers of homeless families. The administration opened a single Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in Manhattan to process all families seeking shelter, filled New York hotels with homeless families, and, in one case, even placed families in hotels in New Jersey. In 1983 the city opened its first congregate barracks-style shelters in order to alleviate the pressure to find hotel placements.

Koch Responds

By 1986, with the more than 4,500 families sheltered by the city, Koch realized the need to take more constructive action in ameliorating and preventing family homelessness. His response was twofold. The city developed transitional shelters that provided private rooms for families as well as support services to help residents develop job skills, apply for benefits, and find permanent housing. At the same time Koch sought to create more affordable housing for the poor and formerly homeless. He committed the city to building 100,000 units (later expanded to 252,000) of low- and moderate-income housing, with 10% of them reserved for the formerly homeless. Much of this would come from renovating city-owned buildings that had been tax-foreclosed. He also pushed NYCHA to agree to set aside public housing units for the formerly homeless. These policies paid dividends. In 1986, 2,900 formerly homeless families were placed in the recently renovated housing. In 1990, the year after Koch left office, the number of homeless families in shelter decreased to its lowest levels since the mid-1980s.

Legacy

As is true in so many policy areas, Koch’s record on family homelessness is mixed. He hesitated to create focused policies to serve homeless families and had to be pushed by activists, journalists, and the federal government to abandon the notorious welfare hotels. Once he committed to taking action on the issue, however, Koch moved in a pragmatic and humane direction. His dual-pronged approach to increasing affordable housing while at the same time providing therapeutic transitional shelters never pleased activists and critics on the right or the left, but it improved the lives of countless poor and homeless families.

On a more personal note, ICPH president Ralph da Costa Nunez began his career in the Koch administration, managing those very meetings that developed the city’s first policies for homeless families.  Our partner organization, Homes for the Homeless, was founded by philanthropist Leonard N. Stern along with faith-based partners and with significant input from Koch and his administration—resulting in a public-private partnership to create the type of service-rich transitional shelters central to Koch’s family homelessness policy.

As an always insightful and often controversial commentator on the city and its public policies, Mayor Koch will be missed.

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