Last autumn, during an address to the National Press Club in Washington DC in the early days of the migrant crisis, Mayor Adams fielded a question that all New York City mayors get.
“Some say that being mayor of New York is the second toughest job in America,” said the club’s president, Jen Judson. “Nine months into the job, what do you think — and what surprised you about it?”
The reply was vintage Adams: “When I hear that saying, I say over and over again, ‘When does the hard part start?’ This is not a hard job if you’re committed.”
Adams repeated the cocky quip publicly and privately in various venues throughout his first year in office. “I say every day that I wake up: ‘When does the hard part start?’ Because it’s not hard for me,” he told a group of health workers last July. “I love every moment being the mayor. And I want the challenges that it offers.”
Adams still loves being mayor — and thinks we should all be happy about that, too. “You know what I say to New Yorkers? Thank God I’m the mayor right now as we manage these difficult crises because it’s something I had to do throughout my professional career as an adult,” he recently told anchor Rosanna Scotto on FOX 5.
Even if the Mayor doesn’t realize it, the hard part began a long time ago. And he should recognize that New Yorkers don’t care whether Adams feels like he has an easy job: What matters is whether he’s doing it well — specifically, whether he can handle a surge of migrants from Central and South America arriving in the city. The arrivals have overwhelmed his administration with legal, logistical, fiscal, administrative, and political questions to which City Hall has yet to offer coherent answers.
Almost every day, Adams points out that the city is paying a tab — estimated at upwards of $4 billion — to house migrants, money that New York needs from the state and federal government. It also needs the assistance from of nearby towns to house them; migrants are pouring into New York at a pace of about 700 per day, an extension of the broader crisis at the country’s southern border. But Adams’s critics are observing, ever more pointedly, that he needs to improve on the city’s execution of basic tasks — including communicating with the public — and also to do more long-term planning for a problem that is likely to continue indefinitely.
Despite the desperate need for financial aid, for instance, the Daily News reported that City Hall’s application for $650 million in federal relief went in weeks after the application window opened, just four days before the deadline. As City Councilman Lincoln Restler told the New York Times, “We all understand that a crisis like this requires a creative approach. We’d just like to see more managerial deliberation.”
The threshold question of where to house migrants has been a source of confusion from the start. Last fall, the administration announced plans to open a humanitarian relief center in the parking lot of Orchard Beach in the Bronx and began building a massive tent that would be filled with cots, triggering warnings from local officials that the site was likely to flood, which turned out to be accurate. The administration abruptly shut down the flooded site and built a replacement on Randall’s Island at an estimated cost of $325,000. The 84,000-square-foot replacement site was, in turn, shut down a few weeks later. The administration claimed that opening and shutting the second site cost the city $650,000 – a figure that was disputed as far too low. “I think it will have been several million dollars to put up two tents,” City Comptroller Brad Lander said. “A lot of people thought it was a mistake and we didn’t need it.”
The pop-up-shelter process has continued. The administration opened two relief centers for men in the Red Hook cruise terminal, then closed them a couple of months later. More recently, City Hall drew protests by announcing plans to convert as many as 20 public school gymnasiums into congregate shelters for migrants — some of which were already open at schools in Coney Island, Williamsburg, and Staten Island — only to backtrack on the idea in the face of protests by parents and students. “They are moving away from the school sites for now, but [we] reserve the right to use them again if they can’t handle the influx,” an anonymous source told the Daily News.
The city’s main strategy, renting thousands of hotel rooms, is counterproductive and wasteful, says Christine Quinn, the former Speaker of the City Council who is president and CEO of WIN, the city’s largest nonprofit provider of shelter to women and children. According to an analysis by Quinn’s group, expediting the use of city-paid housing vouchers to help people move out of shelters gives them permanent housing for, on average, $72 a night — far less than the $383 a night that the city is paying on average for each hotel room.
“And for the $383, you’re lucky if in that hotel there’s half a social worker or one social worker,” Quinn told me. “There isn’t the child care, the wraparound holistic services, the job training, the summer camp that you get at places like WIN and other places. So we pay the most to get the least.” Quinn’s proposed solution is for the city to drop a requirement, instituted during the Giuliani administration, that people be housed in city shelters for at least 90 days before becoming eligible for a permanent housing voucher.
“For decades, the 90-Day Rule has arbitrarily kept New Yorkers in shelter far longer than they should be — but right now, the City has a chance to end this illogical barrier. Repealing this rule could save the City up to $27,990 per family with children, while helping them leave shelter sooner,” Quinn said in a statement.
Saving $28,000 per family and getting more people into permanent housing sounds like a smart bargain the administration should make a top priority. Adams must also decide whether he wants to waste legal energy trying to change New York’s right-to-shelter law, a series of directives created by order of state courts.
With more than 37,000 asylum-seekers swelling the numbers in city shelters, Adams has issued executive orders announcing exemptions to longstanding laws governing how homeless New Yorkers get treated, such as the rule requiring families who arrive before 10 p.m. on any given night to have a bed by 4 a.m. the next morning.
“This is not a natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy. It’s a man-made crisis. It’s a failure of governments in Central and South America. A failure to have a border policy,” Brendan McGuire, chief counsel to Adams, told me. “We are now in a place where we have no more room, we have no more people to staff these facilities, and we need help.”
But the request for relief from legal rules regarding homeless services has triggered an outcry from advocates, who are prepared to take he city to court — the last thing we need in the middle of the current crisis.
“Look, I’m sympathetic to the situation the mayor is in with the asylum seekers, but he is absolutely wrong in rolling back the provisions of the right to shelter,” says Quinn. “He rolled back a provision that said people shouldn’t be allowed to sleep on the floor of city office buildings. He rolled back a provision that prevented children with their parents from sleeping in congregate settings while they wait for a placement. We have had a standard since the late ’80s, ’90s. And that standard is based on court rulings, but what it’s really based on is humanity and the belief that every New Yorker needs to be treated decently. Sleeping on the floor is not being treated decently.”
“We have these rules in place after decades of experience with these kinds of situations,” says Josh Goldfein, a longtime staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society who says his group will consider suing the administration if it violates the right to shelter law. “Children need to be in their own room at night, not in a congregate setting. We have these rules because in the past, children have been harmed,” he told me. “Adults have been harmed from being in these kinds of environments. And if we see that people are placed in harm’s way, then yeah, we’ll have no choice but to intervene.”
Adams, who has repeatedly and publicly castigated the Biden administration for not providing more aid to New York, appears to have strained, if not broken, his most important lifeline. The lead story in a recent Sunday New York Times cited top aides and allies of Biden who “are clearly irritated with the mayor. In their view, Mr. Adams is a grandstanding opportunist, aiming to win headlines for himself without regard to the broader political implications for the president and his re-election.”
So the migrants continue to arrive every day in what is coming to seem like the new normal. We will need to house, feed, clothe, and educate them for months, if not years, with too little help from Washington and Albany. And that impossible situation has to be managed by the man on the west side of City Hall. Who, truth be told, has been elected to do a really tough job.