New York Times
Steven Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, his office at 4 World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Late this summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio assembled a group of advocates for homeless people at City Hall; it was time for damage control — again.
The homeless issue was continuing to spiral out of control: the number in New York City shelters was stuck stubbornly near a record 59,000; the city comptroller was still rejecting proposed shelters because of unsanitary conditions; and street homelessness was becoming more visible. The tabloids were running pictures of urinating and defecating street people daily. Polls were plunging.
Mr. de Blasio had batted away the subject as a right-wing effort to discredit him. After all, his administration was throwing a record amount of money at the problem, eventually promising $1 billion in new spending over the next four years. Yet here he was having to explain himself again.
One advocate, an important one, was losing patience.
Mary Brosnahan, the longtime president of the Coalition for the Homeless, had spent the night at the city shelter on Wards Island, where conditions reminded her a bit too much of those under previous administrations. She was frustrated, too, that Mr. de Blasio kept insisting street homelessness was down 5 percent, when a quick look around city sidewalks seemed to indicate otherwise.
What happened next, Ms. Brosnahan said, gave her insight into how the response to the homelessness crisis was really being run by City Hall. As she rose from the meeting, she was ushered to the mayor’s office. The door closed, and there were three: Ms. Brosnahan, Mr. de Blasio and Steven Banks, the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration.
Mr. Banks does not run the Department of Homeless Services, but he had something that the mayor needed: street cred.
For three decades, Mr. Banks was the most relentless and determined advocate for homeless people that the city had ever faced. Most famously, as a Legal Aid Society lawyer, he brought the suit that forced the city to house all families seeking shelter. No other municipality in the country has recognized a similarly broad right, and it is an expensive one, costing the city hundreds of millions a year in shelter allowances alone.
Mr. Banks and Ms. Brosnahan worked intimately when he was at Legal Aid. She had texted him late the night before complaining about the lack of beds for single people in the mayor’s plan.
As the three sat ensconced in comfortable chairs, Ms. Brosnahan voiced her concern that the administration’s strategies for those seeking shelter had been too focused on the long term and now needed some immediate solutions, including a large increase in beds. Mr. Banks seconded her position and answered the mayor’s questions as he pressed the issue.
After listening intently, Mr. de Blasio promised 1,000 more shelter beds, then turned to the commissioner and asked what else could be done. Mr. Banks suggested budgeting more money for lawyers fighting evictions, increasing the number of shelter beds specifically for single people who are
domestic violence victims and offering rental assistance for single people. The mayor agreed to all of it, and the measures came to pass in weeks.
WHEN CITY HALL announced Mr. Banks’s appointment, Human Resources Administration officials were watching on television. “There was an audible gasp,” said Lisa Fitzpatrick, a 30-year veteran of the agency who now serves as Mr. Banks’s chief program officer.
“We all knew Steve Banks,” she said. “He was seen as an adversary that was constantly monitoring what the agency was doing.”
Workers at the agency were not the only ones wary about Mr. Banks’s nomination. Heather Mac Donald of the conservative Manhattan Institute complained he would be a “welfare reactionary.” The New York Post labeled his appointment “war on Welfare Reform.” Robert Doar, his immediate predecessor at the agency, also did not mince words.
“He is absolutely determined to have the government pay the rent of poor New Yorkers,” Mr. Doar said in an interview. “He doesn’t want anyone to leave the city because they cannot afford housing. And he is making commitments to subsidize housing that will hurt working-class tenants who don’t seek public assistance.”
Yet for every enemy, Mr. Banks seemed to win a convert. One of them was Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who was deputy mayor for Health and Human Services until she resigned at the end of the summer. Like so many others, Ms. Barrios-Paoli had been sued by Mr. Banks when she was at the agency years earlier, but she respected the intimate knowledge of both the agency and the Department of Homeless Services that he had accrued.
And it turned out that while Mr. Banks appeared to be the ultimate outsider, he wanted to be in government. He and Ms. Brosnahan, who was on the mayor’s transition team, lobbied hard for him to get the job as commissioner. “To have the chance to run the agency charged with fighting income inequality is, for a Legal Aid attorney, a dream job,” Mr. Banks said.
Ms. Brosnahan said the first time she brought up Mr. Banks’s name, she was nearly shouted down by others on the transition committee convinced he was too much of an oppositionist to handle government.
But Ms. Barrios-Paoli decided that if the mayor wanted big changes quickly, Mr. Banks had to be brought aboard: “He was one of only two people in the City of New York who I could think of who knew the issues globally but also in real depth,” she said in an interview before her resignation.
Mr. de Blasio, who had run against Mr. Banks for City Council in 2001, did not need much convincing — it seemed better to have the pugilist in house.
Mr. Banks, for his part, bristled at the thought that he had an ideological ax to grind. “The litigation was not about whether welfare reform was good or bad, it was about whether policies were lawful or unlawful, and if it was unlawful, was it damaging?” he said.
ONCE APPOINTED, Mr. Banks moved with almost dizzying speed and force to reshape the Human Resources Administration and move away from Bloomberg policies. “There has been both a breadth and velocity here to our work,” he said.
Workfare, the signature program of his Republican predecessors that required labor in return for benefits, was immediately ordered to be phased out. Sanctions for cash-assistance recipients who missed their appointments for training or work requirements are down. Instead, there are automated calls reminding clients not to miss appointments for recertification of benefits, and pilot programs experimenting with forgiving as many as five absences before sanctions kick in. But the most notable change at the agency is the focused effort to prevent homelessness. Homeless Services was a part of the agency until 1993, when it was sectioned off into its own department. The split had the undesirable effect of separating the organization that ran the shelters from the organization that could most easily help keep people from needing shelters in the first place.
The consequences were not lost on Mr. Banks and the advocates who argued that the linkage was obvious. One of the new commissioner’s oft-cited statistics is that 23 percent of families who applied for shelter in the first half of 2013 had their welfare cases closed or received penalties within the previous 12 months. “The homelessness we are seeing now is the direct result of failed policies,” he said.
Mr. Banks has aimed straight for the gaps. Every year about 300,000 tenants are brought to court by landlords seeking their ouster; almost all of the landlords have lawyers, but few of the tenants do. He has expanded funding for housing court lawyers to prevent evictions by tenfold, to $62 million.
The simplest and quickest way to win in court is to pay rent arrears owed by tenants, and Mr. Banks has been doing that at much higher levels. In the 2013 fiscal year, the agency paid rent that was overdue for 42,000 households at a cost of $124 million; in the 2015 fiscal year, which ended June 30, it provided rent aid to nearly 53,000 households at a cost of $180 million.
It has not all been about money. In fact, Mr. Banks’s detailed knowledge of the system has enabled him to see solutions that appear obvious in retrospect. He has insisted, for example, that the Human Resources Administration establish offices in the housing courts and that case workers there be empowered to reopen cash assistance cases. Previously, tenants in need had to go back to offices elsewhere.
Speed can make or break a threatened eviction, and Mr. Banks has updated the department’s antiquated systems of paying overdue rent, in which checks were doled out by local offices and on paper. The new centralized system is rolling out electronic transfers that will substantially cut delivery time to landlords.
Other changes, far more ambitious, are still being tested. Mr. Banks believes that it is possible to use data mining for early warning signs of homelessness to identify factors that are likely to cause families to end up in shelters and help them before they hit a crisis.
“We saw too many people who were sanctioned or had their cases closed were ending up in shelter, and we wanted to see if we could use the most modern techniques to find them first and offer services to prevent going to shelter,” Mr. Banks said.
Using data analytics, a team recently dug up the case of Robin McBride. The team red-flagged her because she had previously spent three years in a shelter, did not have subsidized housing, had a disability and an open public assistance case. In fact, when they cold-called the woman, who has three children, she had been living with her mother for months.
Her mother had taken the family in while Ms. McBride was being treated for cervical cancer, but now wanted them out. Within days of the call, Ms. McBride said, caseworkers made a home visit, told her she was eligible for a rent voucher and helped her find an apartment. “They called every day with apartments for me to look at,” she said, “and they offered me transportation.” Within weeks she was settled in a two-bedroom apartment near the Bronx Zoo. She pays $226 and the city contributes $1288, the rest of her rent. “It was heaven sent.”
The speed was in response to Mr. Banks’s relentless drive, on display at weekly meetings with senior staff members. “How many people have we helped so far?” he asks of the data-analytics program. Not that many, the answer comes back; it is a still a pilot. “When can we roll it out?” he prods
again, not satisfied.
Government’s stately pace is not Mr. Banks’s way of doing things, his staff members explain later.
The other reason for the increased velocity is a fear of missed opportunity. He has a laundry list of what needs to be done and a political window that may not be open much longer. Ms. Fitzpatrick, his program officer, said, “We are all very aware that there are people waiting for the administration to fall on its face.”
MR. BANKS GREW UP in Brookline, Mass., a Boston suburb drawing intellectuals. His father was a doctor and his mother a homemaker. “I was brought up to believe the most important thing was to give back to the community,” he said in earnestness.
He now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jean T. Schneider — a former Legal Aid lawyer turned housing court judge — and two cats and a former shelter dog. Ms. Schneider said he has not taken in homeless families yet, but they are a constant presence nonetheless. In his home office he displays prominently two pictures of homeless families — one from the height of the Depression and one taken at the height of the 1980s crisis.
It is not surprising that Mr. Banks considered becoming an activist rabbi before choosing to be a lawyer — he pursues his goals with the confidence of a moral crusader.
Instead, he attended New York University Law School and went to work for Legal Aid after graduating in 1981. It was his only workplace for the next 31 years, eventually becoming its attorney in chief. He was first assigned to Staten Island, where the lawyers did everything from intake to lawsuits. He sued the Human Resources Administration a lot in those days; the agency was the target of both his first case and his first class-action suit.
Although he is not exactly nostalgic for those times, he does remember them as more humane to the poor. He pointed out that the state-established housing allowance for those on welfare used to cover about 95 percent of the market rent. (Currently, the state’s set allowance is 18
percent of fair market rent for a studio and 36 percent for a one-bedroom.) “Problems were serious but the remedies were much more accessible,” he said.
CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times
He was already rising at Legal Aid in 1982, when Yvonne McCain and her three children, fleeing a home plagued by domestic violence, came to live in a dilapidated hotel in Herald Square paid for by the city, the state and the federal government. It was the beginning of the family homelessness crisis.
For Mr. Banks, homelessness epitomized all of the unjustness of income inequality; he took Ms. McCain’s case, demanding that under the state Constitution she had a “right to shelter.” In 1986 the appellate court agreed and a new entitlement was born.
At the time Mayor Edward I. Koch bitterly complained, “If you build it they will come” — implying that the right to shelter would encourage a generation of dependents. Later, he would look back at his term as mayor and say the affordable housing he was forced to build as a result of the McCain decision was his greatest legacy. When Mr. Banks ran for the City Council in 2001, Mr. Koch even endorsed him. “He always acted responsibly, even when he sued me,” Mr. Koch told The Daily News then. Still, the burdens on the city have been very real.
As a result of the original court order, the city built up a shelter system that costs just shy of a $1 billion a year. Mr. Banks remained intimately involved with the regulation of that system, down to the amount of anti-diarrheal medicine that had to be stocked in city shelters, until the city officially settled litigation on shelter standards in 2008. During those decades, he never failed to file personal contempt charges seeking fines against city officials who resisted court orders. At his behest, several commissioners were forced to spend the night in the dreaded, filthy emergency intake office.
To critics who say that he made the system more litigious and contentious than it needed to be, Mr. Banks said, “The right to shelter wasn’t created by the Legal Aid Society or Steve Banks, it was a right enforced by trial and appellate judges repeatedly over 25 years because that is what our Constitution requires.”
MR. BANKS SAID he loves his time in government and has felt electrified by what can be accomplished.
As for the numbers of homeless people on the street on his watch, Mr. Banks is quick to note that he does not run the shelter system, and to say that the situation would be worse without the work he is doing.
But the emergency measures he is carrying out, including a 50 percent increase in the number of shelter beds for victims of domestic violence, have not come cheap.
The Independent Budget Office estimates that of the roughly $323 million in additional annual funds the city will be spending on efforts to reduce homelessness by 2018, the agency will manage the great majority.
But none of this has had much impact on the shelter numbers yet, which would seem to be fuel for Mr. Banks’s opponents, who argue more services just draw more applicants. Recently, The New York Post ran a story on city workers earning about $30,000 who had gone into shelters to get housing. Mr. Banks dismissed such cases as outliers.
If there is one frustration he admits to having, it has been the state’s reluctance to increase its contribution to housing for welfare recipients. To relieve some of the congestion in shelters, the city has had to fund new rental-assistance programs largely on its own. The state has not increased its shelter allowance since 2003, he said.
Toward this end, he said, he has been lobbying Albany since he got the job. But the state has not budged on the allowance or on a large new allocation for supportive housing that advocates believe is the solution to the crisis.
Still, Mr. Banks is confident he will eventually prevail. “I am an optimist,” he said with a big grin. “It took me 25 years to settle McCain, but now there is a permanent right to shelter. So give me time.”