The Future of NYC's Homeless Hotels

Feb 24, 2017

One of New York City's hotels used to house its homeless population
Credit Topher Forhecz for WBGO

New York City and its mayor Bill de Blasio are sending mixed signals over plans to end the controversial practice of renting out hotel rooms to house its homeless population. This comes as the number of people sleeping in city shelters reached record numbers last year. De Blasio says he wants to end the practice, which critics call disruptive and expensive.  Documents show the city may continue the practice for up to nine years.

I’m standing on a corner in Maspeth, Queens looking at a Holiday Inn Express. Right now it’s quiet. It’s a mild winter afternoon in February. There’s a gas station across the street from the hotel, a McDonalds next door and a park beyond that. The hotel is located just next to the highway and you can hear the cars going by… It’s a quiet time now but this was the site of a long and drawn out battle between the city and the local residents of Maspeth over the practice of renting out rooms for homeless individuals and families.” Court documents show the city planned last year to use 110 of the hotel’s rooms to shelter homeless families and individuals.

The community pushed back… Tony Nunziato heads the Maspeth-Middle Village Task Force. He says he worried that the city was just dumping the would-be occupants there with nowhere to go and nothing to do:

"It's called warehousing people. You can't put people into a hotel say you stay there. You’re not gonna go nowhere.  And then you say, assimilate with the neighborhood. There's no transportation and there is no food shopping so what they're going to do?”

Nunziato says he was also concerned about neighborhood safety. The pushback worked… the plan for the whole hotel was scrapped. But it was not over… a lawsuit against the hotel by its landowner alleges the city moved 30 homeless individuals into the hotel by October of last year. Renting out hotel rooms is just one way the city is trying to accommodate homeless New Yorkers looking for shelter. Under the law, the city must provide shelter to anyone seeking it for the night – and that number crossed 60,000 for the first time ever late last year.

But, Nunziato says renting out hotel rooms isn’t a solution – it’s just expensive:

“Let's go by tax dollars, hundred and sixty dollars a night. You figure it out if you rent out one hundred rooms for that hotel. You're paying that hotel five million dollars a year. Are you kidding me. This is your idea?”

The practice does cost the city money. A yearlong study by the city comptroller’s office shows the city surged in renting out rooms from 2015 to 2016 – increasing almost 540 percent. The 425,000 rooms booked in that time cost the city more than $70 million dollars. A spokesperson for the mayor wrote in a statement for this story, quote “Our goal is to phase out the use of hotels and ultimately stop using them altogether.”  And a spokesperson with the Department of Homeless Services wrote in an email that the city is quote “committed to eliminating the use of commercial hotels by increasing shelter capacity citywide.”

But, the city’s business dealings suggest it’s not confident it can ultimately end the practice. In December 2016, the city sent out a call for vendors who wanted to offer their hotels to house the homeless for up to nine years. Additionally, court documents for the Holiday Inn Express lawsuit show the city drew up plans to use THAT hotel as a shelter for as many as nine years.

Giselle Routhier with the Coalition for the Homeless says hotel rooms can lack onsite services or move families away from schools… but:

“Certainly I think a family who’s in a hotel, given the option of that over nothing… over being forced onto the streets that that has to be the better option.”

Routheir says the path to reducing the city’s reliance on shelters is to get the homeless into permanent housing. And she says the mayor has made that easier:

“They reinstated access to families for NYCHA public housing and Section eight vouchers and they instituted a series of longer term more flexible city funded rental subsidies so now we have a much greater array of options.”

But, Routhier says there’s still more work to do… like increasing the number of public housing apartments that are allocated to homeless families each year. Back in Maspeth… local Tony Nunziato says he’d like to see the city relocate homeless into something like two or three family homes instead of renting out hotels:

“Give the people quality of life. Give them a real kitchen. Give them a real bathroom. Give them a real bedroom. That would be the right way. We’d be more than if they wanted to do two or three in the homes. But don’t take over 100 rooms.”

He says the plan right now is just kicking the can down the road.

Click above to hear Topher Forhecz's feature on the WBGO Journal.