Shelter for All: An Interview with Jessica Katz

The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
The following interview with Jessica Katz, Executive Director at Citizens Housing and Planning Council, accompanies Supportive Housing in New York City. Read the full set of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.


Rebecca Sauer: How did you get involved in working on homelessness?

Jessica Katz: I wanted to be a social worker or work in special education. But when I worked in special education, I cried all the time. I switched over to urban planning as a step back from individual human beings’ problems, and then I discovered supportive housing as this amazing confluence of the two things that I cared about in a way that my brain was better suited to.

RS: In your current role as executive director of CHPC, what’s the most interesting part of your work?

JK: I think it’s a great counterpoint to 12 years in government. I enjoyed every minute of that, but I now have more freedom to think about what I want to think about. I’m not building a plane while I’m flying it, which is really freeing and fun.

RS: What are some of the things that you worked on in city government that you’re now looking at from a different perspective in this role?

JK: I think the housing plan is the biggest one. When I worked at Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), I spent so much time talking about the mayor’s housing plan and how important the unit count was. I think it’s an incredibly useful HPD management tool, but it’s not a good community organizing tool, and it’s probably not even a good housing policy tool. 200,000 units isn’t a housing policy for the City of New York. That’s something where I saw my brain change so fast, to see that clearly.

Anand Amin: What made the light bulb go off? Was there a certain moment after you left government that you realized this?

JK: I think inside HPD, the housing plan is incredibly valuable. It was my favorite part about my job. I always knew if I was doing a good job or not, on any given day. Everyone knew what the number was and if you met the number, you knew you were doing a great job. And if you didn’t meet the number, you were not doing a great job. Everything fed that one number. Any decision we made, we thought about if it was serving the goal or not.

I still stand by that. But I think we need to bottle that amazing practice and apply it towards more than just counting units. If that singular focus was were applied towards the homelessness system, we would have a very different set of circumstances.

RS: So that’s a good pivot point, because our project is focusing on how we crack the nut of the homelessness crisis, which seems to be stagnating, if not worsening. How have your experiences working in finance, government, and social services come together to move the needle on this issue?

JK: HPD successfully meets any unit target you give it, because there’s a system where despite the fact that a lot of the cost, timing, and human capital factors—whether it be the price of steel in China or the price of real estate in New York— are not within HPD’s control, we still meet the unit goals. An ecosystem has been created where what is good for HPD is good for the affordable housing industry. That confluence is currently under a lot of criticism, but it created a system where all the partners that are needed are moving in the same direction.

And then there’s a predictability. After several decades of a housing plan, we have built a factory. We know what product we’re building: affordable housing units. We know what the product is and we know why we’re doing it.

I think the homelessness sector has never managed to do that. Government is doing too much in some places, too little in other places. Government is a little bit more on an island, and it hasn’t harnessed that ecosystem to all be towards the same goal in quite the same way. There is also greater diversity of options. But even in terms of building shelters, or placing people out of shelters, which is analogous to what we do in the housing sector, there’s never been the same systemizing of it and making it mutually beneficial in quite the same way.

RS: What do you think has changed in the supportive housing landscape since you started working on this issue? Do you have any predictions for how it will change over the next 5 years?

JK: One of the biggest changes over the past two decades has been the extent to which supportive housing stopped being a little niche world unto itself, with its own funding sources, buildings, and developers. It really got subsumed into the larger affordable housing field. Now we’re using private debt, taxes, and bonds, and partnering with private developers. It got mainstreamed, which let us get to scale in a big way.

We always said supportive housing was supposed to be about community integration. That’s still true if it’s a mental health agency buying a building and having it be 100% or 60% people with mental illness, but it’s even more true if you’re doing 10% of a 300-unit building that also has market-rate housing in it. As a social service matter, it’s created a lot more integration.

As a financial matter, it created an interdependence between the supportive housing sources and the mainstream affordable housing world. This created more levers for government to say, “You can have our bonds if you do this percent of supportive housing.” By mainstreaming those financial incentives, now suddenly you have somebody who 10 years ago would have said, “What, am I going to do an HHAP project? I’m going to manage an OMH deal?” Now, suddenly they’re saying, “Well, if it gets me to the front of the line for bonds, I’ll be the biggest supportive housing advocate you’ve got.”

It’s created a pretty wide constituency for supportive housing in a way that’s been positive. And it’s created a lot of new resources for supportive housing. So, I think both of those things have been largely positive changes.

Supportive housing in the Bronx. Image credit: Michael Moran.

RS: Do you see any negative externalities to using private debt and bonds? Or do you think it’s what we needed to get to scale?

JK: On balance, it’s been a hugely positive thing. There was a core group of us who have been doing supportive housing for a long time, and sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable to have everybody decide that it’s also their business now too. That’s been difficult for the supportive housing community to get used to.

AA: While the net of supportive housing developers has expanded, a lot of the new projects are still generally supportive housing mixed with affordable housing. It doesn’t seem that the concept of mixing supportive housing with market-rate housing has taken off too much. Are we seeing this in new multi-family development?

JK: We do a ton of scattered site, which is supportive housing mixed with market-rate housing. The affordable market-rate mix in New York City is inclusionary.

Supportive housing has also been much more successful than other types of affordable housing in being located throughout all New York City neighborhoods. There are some structural reasons why this is the case. First, there were certain building types that existed in high-value neighborhoods that were only useful for supportive housing, like SROs and hotels. Second, there was never any expectation that a supportive housing project could make it through ULURP, so we were looking for private sites, as opposed to working in the neighborhoods with large concentrations of public sites. For both of those reasons, that’s also where there were large concentrations of homeless people; on the Bowery, in Hell’s Kitchen, on the Upper West Side, there were community boards that felt like, “We must do something about this.” That’s where we had the political power, a concentration of nonprofits, and building types that made sense for us.

If you look at the 30-year horizon of what HPD has done, I think we do great in terms of where our units are located vis-à-vis other affordable housing.

RS: You talked about the expanding resources and how we’ve been able to bring supportive housing to scale, but there are still a lot of challenges. What are those challenges, as you see them now, or as you experienced them in the past?

JK: Land scarcity and cost are generic problems for all housing development, but supportive housing has these problems too. Then it has two additional challenges to manage.

One is that supportive housing developers are not looking for a backup option—they’re just developing supportive housing. For other developers, they can plan to build X, but if that doesn’t work, they can just build Y, and if that doesn’t work, they could sell it to someone else who would build Z. A business person would think of all three options as equally viable. They would maybe have more expertise in one or a preference for the other or less risk tolerance for the third, but in general, they could do any of those things.

For a supportive housing developer, because this is all that they do, there is less risk tolerance. If something falls through—politically, the contract, or the funding—there is not a backup plan. They also have a greater NIMBY problem than other types of housing, although that’s debatable these days.

The other challenge is that you have nonprofits that are not set up for risk. The idea that a nonprofit buys a bunch of sites, accepting that a few won’t work out, is not feasible; it’s not their business model. Consequently, they don’t have the same kind of capacity as other players in the real estate market who are competing for those same sites and don’t have the same kind of concerns. I feel like it’s harder for supportive housing developers to jump in, which means that we lose development opportunities.

RS: This issue of acquisition and risk is one of the bigger barriers. We chose to look at zoning, so once you find the site, how do we then maximize the building on the site? But the other side of the problem is a big one too.

Are there any innovations that you’re seeing in other parts of the country or the world that we could apply here to expand our pool of resources, expertise, or production?

JK: From the West Coast, we could learn about how the citizenry at large came to care about homelessness and feel like it was their job to do something about it. I don’t think we feel that same level of responsibility here and I don’t know why. Maybe because we’re bigger; maybe because we have a right to shelter, so homelessness isn’t as visible. But there’s a good example from California of both the public and the corporate community thinking that homelessness is something that they should care about. We don’t have philanthropy, we don’t have the public, and we don’t have the corporate citizens who feel like this is a main part of their mission. We have a very robust network of nonprofits, and we have a government that is more involved than anyplace else, because we are legally obligated to be, but those other pieces are missing and it is a big gap for us.

RS: The other interesting thing, which is a bit ironic, is that California didn’t have any dedicated funding for supportive housing, so they needed to raise a bond, for which California law requires a public vote. Consequently, this required people to learn about supportive housing and homelessness and then feel personally invested in what they voted for.

JK: Right! That would feel terrifying in New York City to have a public vote on the Supportive Housing Loan Program budget. When I oversaw it, I would have never allowed such a thing to happen. But there is something to it, there really is.

RS: Are there any expansive policy changes that we could make to the affordable housing landscape? What should we consider to chip away at that homeless census number and build the units needed to house people?

JK: We should make sure that we’re really making the best use of the resources that we already have so that we’re placing people as quickly as we can. I think smaller cities benefit from not having this whole apparatus around homelessness, whereas we have too much.

RS: Can you explain what the VI-SPDAT is?

JK: VI stands for vulnerability index. The VI-SPDAT is a 20-question questionnaire that ranks somebody from 0 to 20 based on how vulnerable they are to dying on the street if they are not given housing. It’s used to decide who gets housed first, to create a rationality for a waitlist or how we should target our limited housing interventions. It was widely used on Skid Row in Los Angeles and in places where there’s an ocean of human beings living on the street, making it challenging to know that much about them.

In New York, I think we suffer from the opposite problem, which is that we have people who are stuck in 20 different systems, all of them assessing and gathering information to the point where we get paralyzed. We need to clear away some of that data collection and ask ourselves why we really need to know this information right now.

We should take a hard look at the vacancy rates and placement times in supportive housing to see whether we can do better. We spend 10 weeks assessing whether person A or person B is the best fit for this unit, but that unit is sitting vacant while we’re doing that.

“In New York (…), we have people who are stuck in 20 different systems, all of them assessing and gathering information to the point where we get paralyzed.”

That’s not a silver bullet for a massive change. But I do think that it’s hard to talk about expanding the number of supportive housing units if we’re not being as efficient as we can be with the units that we have.

RS: Envision a future 30 years from now with no homelessness. How do we get there?

JK: Continuing to ask that question, and taking that question seriously. I think the backlash against people asking that question was misplaced. We should start feeling comfortable asking that question again. There were plans to end homelessness and then there was a huge backlash in the city and the country. There was a Bloomberg plan to end homelessness, which was not successful, and then people were like, “Well, that was stupid and hubristic to even say that we’re ending homelessness. Homelessness is with us forever, and shall be managed to the end of time.” I think that’s a mistake.

Getting that question back into vocabulary is important because we’re at a low point of people thinking it is a reasonable question. I don’t think that that should be the case. It’s important to keep that question in our discussions and not let it be a pipe dream.

Jessica Katz is Executive Director at Citizens Housing and Planning Council. She joins CHPC from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, where she most recently served as the Associate Commissioner for New Construction. In that role she oversaw the creation of affordable and special needs housing—serving everyone from the formerly homeless to middle-income New Yorkers. Leading a team of more than 60 professionals, she has been responsible for an annual capital budget of more than $500 million and for creating thousands of much-needed units of housing. Jessica began her career with HPD in 2003, and started as the Production Manager for Special Needs Housing, gaining in-depth experience in the creation of housing for our most vulnerable populations. She left HPD in 2009 to become the Executive Director of Lantern Community Services.

Header image credit: BRC