In the summer 2012 issue of City Journal, I examine "The Unending Battle of the Upper West Side," the Manhattan neighborhood's decade-long fight between the forces of gentrification and the social-services industry.
When I adapted this essay into "Homelessness, inc: The war on the Upper West Side" for The New York Post, I led off with the latest round in the battle: an "emergency" plan to move 400 homeless into a new supershelter on the residential block of West 95th Street by an organization called Aguila. In yet another example of the revolving door that exists between government service and the homelessness industry, Aguila is run by none other than New York's former commissioner of homeless services Robert Hess.
In recent years, the blocks around this Aguila facility have seen half a dozen proposals for homeless shelters and "supportive housing" for the mentally ill and chemically addicted (MICA). Currently on 94th Street, the Lantern Organization is nearing completion on the conversion of St. Louis Hall, which it announced in 2007 is being designed in part to house MICA patients.
On August 7, the office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called a press rally on 95th Street and West End Avenue to oppose the Aguila shelter. Speakers included New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Nick Prigo from Community Board 7 Housing Committee, and Marti Weithman from the SRO Law Project. The assembly on the street included Neighborhood in the Nineties president Aaron Biller along with Mel Wymore and Ken Biberaj, both candidates for the City Council's sixth district. Videos of the speakers are below.
For anyone who cares about the continuing betterment of the Upper West Side, the pushback against the Aguila shelter is admirable and warranted. New York City's homeless and mental health policies are broken. Yet what was absent from the discussion are the steps that need to be taken to fix them.
The rally against the Aguila shelter is an uncanny repetition of much of what we saw in early 2011 for a building known as the Alexander on 94th Street. Many of the same politicians showed up saying much of the same things. In the Alexander's case, community resistance led to what appears to be the abandonment of the plan to convert the building into a 200-person shelter. This was a victory for the residential stakeholders of the neighborhood, especially for the working middle class and poor who reside in this building.
One now hopes that the neighborhood's energy can be summoned again to oppose the latest incursion. But the case of deja vu also shows how such proposals will continue until several underlying issues are addressed.
The neighborhood's politicians have been reluctant to look at one most obvious factor, because their own legislation has contributed (inadvertently, they say) to the crisis. In 2006, Brewer, Rosenthal, and other local and state politicians formed a "Working Group" to legislate against what they saw as the "illegal hotels" that were being operated for budget tourists out of the neighborhood's SRO (for "single room occupancy") apartment buildings. Once their legislation passed, the owners of these buildings lost a business model that could compete with the exorbitant tax-funded rental rates (up to $3000 a month per resident) that social services can command by warehousing the homeless and mentally ill in the same buildings, which opened the door for the organizations to move in.
In either case, the hotels and the shelters operate side by side with the SRO's existing long-term residents. In one case the building services improve through the introduction of hotel amenities. In the other a homeless, often drug-addicted population shares the hallways and bathrooms. Since the "illegal hotels" legislation directly precipitated this latest encroachment of social services providers, one obvious solution is to roll back the law and allow the SRO buildings to function again as tourist hotels while still honoring the leases of the existing tenants.
A second issue is the "fair share" mandate in the city's charter--a mandate which says that each neighborhood should carry its fair share of social services and that no one neighborhood should bear a disproportionate burden. With nearly 2,000 supportive housing units now on the Upper West Side compared to less than 100 on the Upper East Side, "fair share" is woefully disregarded. By calling a shelter an emergency facility, social-services developers can also bypass even the most basic community approval process and impact analysis. They can bus in hundreds of homeless, often in the dead of night, with little more than a letter of warning to the Community Board. If "fair share" had teeth and could be enforced, developers would be compelled to ensure that their facilities are distributed equally across neighborhoods in a "fair" way. Additionally, the "emergency" provision, which allows for no community review, must be abandoned.
Beyond fair share, another issue concerns the housing of dual diagnosis or "mentally ill chemically addicted" (MICA) populations, many of them homeless, in residential neighborhoods. While all neighborhoods might be expected to carry a fair share of social services, no residential community should be expected to take in this explosive population.
"What's your solution to the mentally ill" has been a rhetorical weapon used against areas that oppose the social services industry, even though finding a solution to a problem the mental health community created should not be a residential neighborhood's responsibility.
Here it is possible to see a sad narrative going back to the exposure and closing of Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. First the Kennedys and then Geraldo Rivera on ABC in 1972 publicized the truly deplorable conditions at this institution for
mentally retarded children. The backlash following these reports led to the mass deinstitutionalization of the state's mentally ill population and the movement towards community based social services. Meanwhile institutionalization became socially
stigmatized and advocates pushed for the "liberation" of the mentally ill.
But now we see the disastrous outcome of this policy, as the pendulum has gone the other way. Community services for the mentally ill is a failure of its own. While the cost of community care is purportedly lower than institutionalization, not enough thought is ever given to the collateral damage to communities that must absorb it--increased crime, drain on other municipal resources, diminishing property values and tax base, plus the mental tax on community stakeholders. As Heather Mac Donald has written for City Journal, deinistitutionalization has led to "re-institutionalization," as care for the mentally ill have been transferred to the criminal justice system. At the same time, the industry designed to help at-risk populations has instead been helping itself to taxpayer money while failing to give their charges the care they need.
With the failure of deinstitutionalization, an argument can be made that what really needs to happen is the development a new generation of mental health institutions along with the political will to institutionalize a broken population. In fact, a movement in this direction is already taking place, and proponents has called it "FORMICA," because it is the one solution that would actually help the MICA population while also junking the failed community based mental health system.
But finally, the Upper West Side should look to its future. While the neighborhood spends its energy opposing the remaining forces of the social services industry, it also needs to consider how its wants to develop into the future. What are the kinds of people and businesses it hopes to attract? The cooperative revolution, and the neighborhood's beautification that has resulted, has already taken the Upper West Side far along in recovering its grandeur of a century ago. But with the outer boroughs now attracting a large share of the city's young talent and energy, the Upper West Side needs to find ways to compete with these other vibrant neighborhoods. One place to look may be the very SRO buildings that have been the cause of so much concern. With their tiny apartments, these SROs already have a dorm-like arrangement that would lend themselves to student living. With Lincoln Center on one side and Columbia University on the other, the city's young creative class is already drawn to the Upper West Side. Why not think creatively about these SROs and carve out new housing for a creative population?
A generation ago, the Upper West Side was a center for cultural innovation, much as neighborhoods in Brooklyn are today. Through new initiatives, the cultural legacy of the Upper West Side could be reinvigorated. But for that to happen, the leaders of the community need to advance a forceful forward direction that the rally on 95th Street regrettably lacked.