CITY HALL — Homeless families will no longer be placed in crumbling, low-income rental apartments in privately owned buildings amid a revamp of how the city handles homeless issues, officials said Monday.
Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks announced the plan at a City Hall press conference and said the change will eventually return the more than 3,000 units to the marketplace to be used as low-income housing.
Many of the units are in poor condition and were on the worst landlords list put together by the Public Advocate's office even as the city paid above-market rent for the units.
The so-called "cluster" shelter units housed 11,000 people in 260 buildings across the city and cost taxpayers $125 million per year in rent and social services costs. The city has used this approach for more than 15 years.
"This is certainly a program that we think didn't work well because it took much needed low-rent housing out of the housing stock and our initiative today is aimed at improving conditions, returning units to the low-rent housing stock and helping additional families move out of the shelter system," Banks said.
Homeless advocates have long recommended that the city phase out the cluster program because the services offered are minimal and the city was overpaying for substandard apartments.
The recommendation was to provide those tenants with vouchers that would let them stay in the apartment paying a lower rent while aggressively going after the landlords to fix violations.
“We have long said that the city should phase out the program and revert those buildings to permanent housing — obviously with aggressive code enforcement,” Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless told DNAInfo in March after a report from the Department of Investigation found horrible conditions in the units such as dead rats, broken stairwells and bodily fluids.
The DOI has said that criminal investigations around the cluster units would occur.
"The cluster homeless shelter system is broken and represents the worst combination of expensive housing, bad conditions and poor access to services that homeless families need," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
The city will investigate landlords of cluster sites with violations and even withhold rent while working with willing landlords to convert the units back to regular housing.
Many of the cluster units were temporarily taken out of rent regulation to be used as shelters. Once removed from the cluster program they will return to being rent-regulated.
HRA staff will also be deployed as a "rapid response team" to help clients use housing vouchers.
Banks and de Blasio spokeswoman Karen Hinton said the decision to phase out cluster housing was not in reaction to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order requiring homeless people to be removed from the streets when the temperature dips below freezing.
The plan is a part of the 90-day review de Blasio ordered on how the city delivers homeless services following the resignation of two of the top city officials working on the issue.
Comptroller Scott Stringer also issued a scathing audit last month saying that the city was failing homeless children and their families by placing them into shelters with horrible conditions partly because the Department of Homeless Services does not have enough staff to carry out its mission.
Homelessness has become the latest front in an ongoing feud between de Blasio and Cuomo.
The governor is expected to reveal initiatives for dealing with the problem in his Jan. 13 State of the State address.