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Council Votes to Sue Bloomberg Over Homeless Policy

By Jill Colvin | November 29, 2011 5:07pm
A homeless man walks down the street on June 20, 2011 in New York City.
A homeless man walks down the street on June 20, 2011 in New York City.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

MANHATTAN — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is taking Mayor Michael Bloomberg to court.

In a near-unanimous vote Tuesday afternoon, the City Council gave its authorization to sue the Bloomberg administration to halt a controversial new homeless policy that would force men and women seeking shelter to prove they have nowhere else to go. The vote was 47-1 with Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. the only "nay". 

The move is the council's first independent lawsuit against the mayor under Quinn's reign, marking a bold move for the speaker — who is often thought to be a close ally of the mayor — as she prepares for her own presumptive run to succeed Bloomberg in 2013.

"This is a cruel, mean-spirited, punitive policy that we are going to do everything in our power to stop," Quinn told fellow members ahead of the vote, equating it to asking men and women to "prove to us now there is no floor, no cot, no piece of earth anywhere you can go to."

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn greets the crowd outside the Manhattan City Clerk's Office on July 24, 2011, the first day of legal same sex marriage.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn greets the crowd outside the Manhattan City Clerk's Office on July 24, 2011, the first day of legal same sex marriage.
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Paul Lomax

"This is a policy that is based on the concept of 'no room at the inn' that seeks to send people away in the coldest months," she said.

The new policy, announced by the Department of Homeless Services earlier this month, would force individuals who want to sleep in city shelters to undergo rigorous interviews, during which staffers would review applicants' housing histories to determine whether the shelter system is really their last resort.

Critics warned that the policy would drive the city’s most vulnerable men and women out into the streets just as winter hits.

The lawsuit, however, will focus on the fact that administration failed to notify the City Council, Speaker's Office and the public about the policy change, which is “a clear violation of the city’s administrative and procedural” rules, she said.

Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond had defended both the policy and the way the agency went about its implementation, arguing that his staff broke no rules.

"I think this is a very strong policy that will preserve shelters for people who need it most," Diamond told DNAinfo, adding that the department informed the Legal Aid Society as well as the council before the change was set to began.

"We gave time for a full review," he said.

Only Vallone voted against the resolution, arguing that the new policy would provide an important check to make sure shelter space was available for those who needed it most.

Quinn, who announced her intention to sue Monday, said other traditional channels of negotiation between the administration and council broke down.

"The Bloomberg administration has flouted the rules and regulations as it related to public notification,” she told reporters Monday, adding that, “If we can’t trust and rely on the mayor’s office’s fair and transparent implementation of the rule-making process, we have an enormous problem as it relates to drafting legislation."

Observers also noted the dispute has presented a ripe opportunity for the speaker to assert her independence from the mayor, whose popularity has slumped in his third term.

"It’s absolutely expected that she would take a step to distance herself from the mayor," said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, adding that subject presented an especially good opportunity for Quinn, who began her career as a housing advocate and has been accused by some of having moved too far from the left and becoming too cozy with the mayor.

Quinn, meanwhile, insisted the move had nothing to do with politics.

"It says nothing about our relationship with the mayor,” she said.

Quinn said she expects her office to formally file in early to mid-December. The suit would be the second legal challenge to the new homeless intake policy, which has which was expected to go into effect on Nov. 14. It was halted says before when the Legal Aid Society filed another suit in Manhattan Supreme Court seeking to halt its implementation.

The council's lawsuit will be separate from the Legal Aid Society's, but Quinn said the council also intends to file an amicus brief in support of the other case.

The council also passed legislation Tuesday extending the hotel tax for the next two years, and passed new rules requiring the Department of Transportation to consult with other city agencies, like the Fire Department and police before undertaking new projects, such as pedestrian plazas.