New York City has a mandate to distribute services and facilities, including shelters, fairly across the city, but it’s failing to do so — and is not being transparent about it, according to a new audit by Comptroller Brad Lander’s office.
The report and audit, provided to THE CITY, found that city agencies have not lived up to the 1990 “Fair Share” rule, encoded in the city charter, that requires equitable siting of facilities. The audit also found the public is not receiving required data about how many facilities are in their neighborhoods.
The findings show that while some facilities, such as early childhood centers, police precincts and fire stations are fairly distributed, others — including homeless shelters, waste transfer sites, parks and social services facilities, which includes substance abuse disorder treatment programs and mental health centers — are concentrated in just some communities.
“What the audit found over and over and over again is that the city is failing to comply with basic transparency requirements,” Lander said to THE CITY.
The findings echo community complaints that administrators place too many homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. For example, members of Bronx Community Boards 5 and 6 gathered in June to urge the city to stop turning to their neighborhoods again and again when it looks to locate shelters.
Among his recommendations, Lander urges local government to establish clear oversight over Fair Share compliance and provide public information on facilities locations, including details on their capacity and concentration.
“The city is failing to comply even with the basic requirements in the 1989 charter, much less provide a usable, user-friendly graphic interface that would enable neighborhoods to really see what’s going on,” Lander said.
“Sometimes, that shows you your neighborhood is being treated unfairly. Sometimes it’ll call bullshit on people’s fair share claims. Right now, quite often,everyone will say we’re doing more than our fair share,” he added. “And it’s not possible to analyze whether that’s true or false.”
‘We Are Disappointed’
For the audit, Lander’s office analyzed a sampling of agencies’ required Fair Share statements on projects between fiscal year 2018 through 2022, as well as the geographic locations of city facilities. The audit points to several shortcomings in oversight and data-gathering.
Lander’s audit claims that there is no meaningful oversight to ensure agencies honor Fair Share rules, which require evaluation of neighborhood impacts before siting or expanding city facilities. The audit found that there’s no authority tasked with reviewing Fair Share statements to ensure agencies perform the analysis as required.
Several of the Fair Share statements in Lander’s sample failed to contain an adequate analysis of project sites and their surrounding neighborhoods, which are supposed to note if similar facilities are already in the area. And in many instances, city agencies were not submitting required Fair Share statements to local community boards.
Lander found that city agencies were in many cases making decisions on shelters based on a beds-to-neighborhood population measure that had not been updated by the Department of City Planning since 2015.
The audit bolsters the claim many city residents have made that homeless shelters are concentrated in certain neighborhoods. The report found that of a small sample size of 28 locations, 18 were going to be placed in areas with an already high bed-to-population ratio, including two proposed shelters in Bronx Community District 6, which would increase that area’s total to 24.
Currently, four community districts have no shelter beds: Staten Island Community District 3; Brooklyn Community Districts 10 and 11, covering Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, and Bronx Community District 11, including Pelham Parkway and Morris Park. The report notes that the Brooklyn and Staten Island districts are majority or plurality white communities.
Rafael Moure-Punnett, district manager for Bronx Community Board 6, said that when his board and Bronx Community Board 5 sent a letter to the Department of Homeless Services opposing a proposed site on Webster Avenue, DHS responded “we are disappointed to hear of your request.”
He said that in the Fair Share statement, DHS noted that there were 10 shelters within a half-mile, but that the new shelter would not have a significant impact, without further explaining the department’s decision to move forward.
Moure-Punnett called it a farce.
“We raised a very valid concern about there being an overconcentration of shelters and DHS couldn’t give us a substantive response,” he said.
The audit also notes that the city has yet to produce a Fair Share analysis for any of the 20 mega-shelters referred to as Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers, nor the nearly 130 sanctuary sites, which the city has opened in an emergency basis because of the migrant crisis that began in the summer of last year.
“We are now approaching 18 months into this issue,” Lander said. “And if you don’t keep paying attention to the system over time and you allow emergency procurement, even over an 18-month period, a two-year period, a period of years, to continue to drive inequities, you’ll wind up with a lot of them. And the basic level of transparency required is pretty straightforward.”
Nearly three-fourths of city-approved capacity for waste management is concentrated in just five community districts, including two in the South Bronx, two in Brooklyn and one in Staten Island, despite a city law that aims to limit how much waste can be processed in the Brooklyn and Bronx districts.
The report also shows that the neighborhoods of Harlem, East Harlem and Midtown have disproportionate concentrations of social services, such as mental health services and substance abuse treatment centers.
For Shawn Hill and Evan Chan of the Greater Harlem Coalition, the audit’s finding comes as no surprise. The organization conducted its own analysis of drug treatment programs, supportive housing, harm reduction programs and homeless shelters, and found a disproportionate concentration.
“I want to make it very clear that NIMBY-ism is pushing back against equity in the absence of data,” Hill said. “And Harlem is saying the data shows that not just recently, but literally for generations, New York City and New York State had been packing Harlem and East Harlem with programs, facilities that they have not placed equitably in other wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.”
Said Chan: “This inequitable distribution of services — either services that people want or services that people don’t want — is, to me, structural racism, which is the most insidious form of racism.”