This week, responding to a state judge’s implication that New York State must do more to help New York City with its migrant crisis, Governor Kathy Hochul tasked her lawyer with writing an extraordinary letter, through which the governor made an implication of her own: the city, under Mayor Eric Adams—due to its incompetence in allowing dozens of migrants to sleep on Manhattan streets, despite having vacant beds, and in failing to supervise an inept-at-best contractor—doesn’t deserve further help. The governor is trying to save her own political skin, and she missed a key opportunity really to help the mayor by getting New York out of its spurious “right to shelter” obligation. But she’s mostly right, and Adams must understand that he’s not going to get help from fellow Democrats outside of the city. The mayor must unequivocally state that New York City cannot—and will not—accept any new migrants into its homeless-shelter system, which was never designed to accommodate a global economic-migration crisis and a conflict-refugee crisis.
For more than a year, Adams has sounded the same alarm: Gotham is buckling under an unsustainable migrant influx. Earlier this week, he updated New Yorkers on the numbers: 110,200 people are currently housed in city homeless shelters, more than double the number in early 2022. Of that total figure, 58,500 are migrants—and 2,700 recent border-crossers arrive in the city every week.
The mayor expects the crisis to cost the city $12 billion over three years. Even in a well-resourced, high-tax city, this surprise burden is not incidental: split into $4 billion a year, it comprises nearly 6 percent of annual city tax revenues and eclipses annual spending on the fire department ($2.3 billion), sanitation ($1.9 billion), transportation ($1.4 billion), or correction ($1.2 billion). It even rivals police spending ($5.8 billion). “We are past our breaking point,” the mayor said earlier this month.
It's not just the direct economic cost that New York must consider. It’s becoming obvious—if it wasn’t already—that it was a spectacularly bad idea to convert large-scale Midtown hotels, from the Roosevelt to The Row to The Watson, into migrant shelters for the foreseeable future. The problems mount. The loss of hotels harms the city’s struggling post-Covid tourism industry, and it pushes up apartment-rental prices, as visitors priced out of hotels turn to apartments permanently converted into illegal Airbnb rentals. Migrant men working for food-delivery apps such as UberEats and Grubhub also have begun to store dozens of mopeds, motorcycles, and e-bikes haphazardly around the streets and sidewalks of Midtown hotels, creating an eyesore. Migrant women and children illegally vend fruit, sodas, and other wares in Times Square and Central Park, competing with legally licensed vendors, most of them immigrants themselves. And when the city isn’t renting entire hotels or blocks of rooms, it is taking over community recreation facilities, including soccer fields used by public-school children.
Yet with no end in sight to the migrant wave, the mayor lacks any plan to deal with the crisis—other than to keep asking Washington and Albany for billions of dollars to secure yet more hotel rooms and erect more tent cities. For more than a year, the Biden administration has refused substantial help—and now the governor, after pledging $1.5 billion, is turning her back, as well.
Governor Hochul is also turning the screws. As the new letter from the governor’s lawyer states, one reason Albany won’t provide more aid is that the city can’t even execute a bad strategy competently. “The city has been slow to submit its cost reimbursement documentation” for limited state funds, the state’s attorney, Faith Gay, wrote last week. “The state is providing these funds despite public reporting that raises substantial questions about the operations and conduct of the city’s primary contractor.”
In fact, the city’s half-billion-dollar no-bid contractor, a Covid-19 holdover called DocGo, has reportedly bullied migrants into refusing interviews with reporters and has even provided migrants with false work-authorization documents—potentially a form of human trafficking. Further, “the city . . . allow[e]d hundreds of migrants to sleep on the streets outside the Roosevelt Hotel” in late July and early August, “despite there being hundreds of vacant beds” citywide.
Why is Hochul being so gratuitously nasty to a fellow Democrat? Simple: she doesn’t want the city’s problem to become the state’s problem. Adams’s position on migrant housing is that he has no choice: under a 42-year-old consent decree with city homeless advocates, and expansions to that decree over the years, New York City agrees that the state constitution’s mandate to help the “needy” obliges the city to offer everyone shelter. But now that the city is flailing, homeless advocates, the Adams administration, and a state judge want the state to do more, including compelling cities and towns outside of New York City to take migrants.
The governor is correct to resist any state obligation here: creating a statewide right to shelter is both practically and politically unworkable. State sites are far from jobs and from public transportation. Small cities, towns, and suburbs cannot enroll an unlimited number of newcomers to public schools; downstate already suffers from a housing shortage.
Absent the governor’s resistance, the mounting crisis and the sheer number of people could make the obligation into a state decree. It’s the state constitution, not the city charter, that allegedly obligates a right to shelter, to be carried out by the “state and . . . its subdivisions”—a right not specifically mentioned in the constitution, and never confirmed by the state’s highest court. Hochul rightly wants to ensure that state taxpayers are in no danger of assuming this purported open-ended right. As the letter by Hochul’s lawyer reminds the city, nothing in the city’s decades-old consent decree “obligate[s] the Legislature of the State of New York to appropriate funds.” But she errs, however, in failing to question the city’s burden under this supposed right. Indeed, her lawyer’s new letter repeatedly mentions “the city’s obligation to provide shelter.”
It’s clear that Adams has reached the end of this game. The White House is not going to help him, and Albany is not going to help him. Yet no municipality can do what New York City is trying to do. Unlike national governments, municipalities must balance their budgets every year, and unlike state governments, they have limited tax-raising capabilities. (New York City levies most of its taxes, such as the sales and income tax, only through state legislation.)
To protect New York City’s taxpayers, real-estate tax base, commuters, residents, and poorer citizens in need of homeless aid, the mayor must himself finally state that New York will no longer assume the extraordinary burden—unique in the country and likely the world—to provide shelter to all newcomers under a dysfunctional global migration and refugee system. The inn is now closed. The city must then do a census of its current migrant and asylum-seeker shelter population and publicize the percentage of newcomers who have applied for asylum, their countries of origin, and the date the federal government has set for their asylum hearings. The city should say that newcomers who haven’t applied for asylum will no longer be eligible for city shelter, that asylum seekers who have secured legal work permits (generally six months after applying for asylum) must leave city shelter within a set time frame, and that new asylum seekers must seek shelter from the federal government, not the city government. The city likely would have to convince a state judge, and possibly the state’s highest court, that the migrant crisis presents an entirely different set of facts than the facts at issue at the times the decades-old consent decree was agreed and expanded—a tough legal hurdle, but one the mayor certainly can’t surmount if he never tries.
Adams did not create this original mess. America—and indeed, national and multi-national governments across the Western world—have refused to acknowledge that the world’s current economic-migration and conflict-refugee crises are swamping traditional immigration pathways. The mixed message that the West sends to migrants is cruel. This year, at least 2,420 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East to Europe; 63 people likely died in the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast in one boat sinking this week. Last week, six people died trying to cross the English Channel from France to Britain; they took the risk because, on just a single day, 755 people made it across. The world, sadly, is full of hundreds of millions of desperate people, some fleeing individual persecution, but most fleeing dysfunctional governments and economies. In the West, they often fall prey to human traffickers and exploitative black-market employers.
The governments of the U.S., Canada, Europe, and other developed countries must devise a functional system. They need to determine how many newcomers from around the world—refugees and economic migrants—they can realistically accept and absorb into their communities and economies each year. Then they must quickly process applications both for asylum and for work permits in applicants’ home countries or in third-party safe countries. Finally, they must enforce their own laws, old and new, or those laws will become meaningless.
New York City and New York State, of course, should gladly accept for resettlement an annual quota of asylum seekers from war-torn and civil-conflict-torn nations, and the federal aid that would come with such resettlement initiatives. But New York City cannot provide indefinite, city-paid housing to the entire fractured world. No municipality can.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images