Thriving or Surviving? Manhattan Institute examines quality of life in NYC

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What does the quality of life look like in New York City today? Are New Yorkers thriving or merely surviving? These are questions Manhattan Institute has been asking in its social media-geared publication, “The Beat”—a series of newsletters addressing current urban issues. On November 19, Manhattan Institute hosted a “Quality of Life” event with a panel composed of the NYPD Police Commissioner, William Bratton, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s senior advisor Phil Walzak, and two senior fellows at Manhattan Institute, Jason Riley and Fred Siegel.

One of the main problems discussed was homelessness and the volume of homeless people inhabiting the streets of New York. Fred Siegel pointed out, “The problem is not sad people.” Rather, he stated, it is a small but defined population that has not been addressed by the city. The panel discussed how New York City Council does not deal well with the mentally ill on the streets, and how a major symptom of this is the consistent rise in drug abuse rates. The quality of life issue, then, is largely a street problem.

Bratton explained, “[The street homelessness problem] has exploded, not crept up on us.” He reassured the audience that there are leaders committed to tackling the issue. Walzak insisted that all quality of life issues are among the top priorities of the city government, with Mayor de Blasio making major investments to provide support for poor and low-income New Yorkers, particularly with affordable housing options.

One roadblock to solving this street problem is that the rules of the game have changed. Bratton explained various “nuances of the law” that limit the ways police officers can deal with the homeless on the streets. For instance there are only certain conditions under which police can remove mentally stable panhandlers and homeless from the streets. The mentally ill, however, can be taken into the hospital by police officers. But usually, Bratton noted, they will be treated and then be back on the street the next day. In this way, the laws do not grant police the power to truly alleviate the mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. Furthermore, people can claim the right not to be put into homeless shelters, which accounts for many who have chosen to inhabit the streets of New York, perpetuating a dismal picture of quality of life in New York.

But, according to the panel, the city government is actively searching for “permanent pathways” to serve people on the streets. Mayor de Blasio, for example, has funded 334 public-housing properties and constructed an Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (APNS), targeting 15 of the 334 developments. The APNS was put in place to counter the rise in crime that these housing developments have seen since 2009, against the tide of dropping rates in New York City at large. The Manhattan Institute is examining crime trends in the New York City Housing Authority developments. The institute is also trying to assess how Mayor de Blasio’s policies in delivering a better quality of life for lower-income New Yorkers with the “Poverty in Progress” series. Alex Armlovich of the Manhattan Institute reported, “The preliminary results are modest, but promising.”

Quality of life problems face all New Yorkers, and the street situation tells us just how tragically they affect the homeless. It is right for policy analysts to continue challenging government policies, for the city government to find solutions to city problems, and for the police officers to protect public safety. Bratton reminds us, “Public safety is a shared responsibility… We all have a fundamental right to live free from fear, free from crime, and free from disorder – but while we share that right, we also share the duty to secure it.”

CityDarien Olesen