Manhattan Institute senior fellow and City Journal contributing editor Nicole Gelinas joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss New York City's migrant crisis.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson. I'm the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Nicole Gelinas, who's been on many times. Nicole's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she's a longtime contributing editor of City Journal, and she's a columnist for the New York Post. She writes often on urban economics and finance. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, and other publications. She's the author of After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street and Washington. Today, we're going to discuss New York City's current crisis, which is a migrant crisis, which she has written about in City Journal and for the Post. So Nicole, thanks very much for joining us.
Nicole Gelinas: Good afternoon, Brian. Thanks for having me on again.
Brian Anderson: So just to set the context, under President Biden, border crossings along the U.S.–Mexico border have reached record highs, I think. In the past two years, almost 2 million people have been released into the United States to await court dates for asylum claims, and some of these hearings are scheduled out as far as 2035 you note in your recent piece in City journal. So last year, border-state governors began busing migrants to so-called sanctuary cities throughout the country, among those cities, New York. So how many migrants have entered New York City so far? And is that rate accelerating?
Nicole Gelinas: Sure. As the city puts it, we've had about 60,000 migrant entries, and right now, as we speak, about 40,000 are what they say under the care of the city, meaning 40,000 people staying in a hotel room that the city has procured at the city's expense or staying in a traditional homeless shelter or congregate shelter. So that close-to-40,000 would make up half of the city's homeless shelter residents right now. The homeless shelter population is breaking new records every day because of the migrant crisis. Now of course, New York has had undocumented immigration for decades, so there's not ever going to be an exact count.
It's always been a magnet for immigrants, both legal and not legal because of the economic opportunity. But the big issue right now is the city's provision of shelter to anybody who shows up for shelter, no questions asked. Previously, that was not the behavior of immigrants. They mostly stayed in private shelter through networks that they knew—construction workers having a room in an apartment building in Queens, or nannies staying in their own sort of informal network housing, some of that illegal cut-up housing. But this is the first crisis where migrants are directly going and being directed to the city's homeless shelter system.
Brian Anderson: So controversially, Mayor Eric Adams is transforming hotels across Manhattan in particular into migrant shelters. Converted properties have so far included places that were formally tourist venues like the world's tallest Holiday Inn. And last week, the city opened the historic Roosevelt Hotel, right across the street from Grand Central Station, as a so-called asylum seeker arrival center, where migrants will receive shelter and access to legal, medical, and other services. So of the approximately, I think 120,000 existing hotel rooms in New York City, an estimated, I don't know, 3,500 are currently filled with migrants. That number's probably going to go up. This doesn't sound like a huge number, but it's pretty significant. Right?
Nicole Gelinas: Right. And this is a new thing. One of those ideas that the city started during the pandemic that has persisted early in the pandemic, then Mayor de Blasio, of course, the context was very different, whether it was a good decision or a bad decision in the long term, the city's hotels were empty and closed during the early pandemic because global and national travel was forbidden. And so the mayor, Bill de Blasio at the time, said we have single men who don't want to stay in congregate shelter, understandably, because they're afraid of Covid and they're staying on the subways right now. When the state shut down the subways overnight, the city rented some of these empty hotel rooms and let the homeless men stay in those hotel rooms. So maybe not thought out as great public policy, but in the immediate emergency, it worked. Very different situation now, where tourism is coming back.
We're going to need our hotel rooms, and here is the city saying we're going to go out on the open market and rent blocks and blocks and entire hotel's worth of these hotel rooms, and doing a deal with the hotel association for 5,000 rooms last year, and now doing this new deal with the Roosevelt Hotel for 1,025 rooms. So yes, right now contracted for 66,000 rooms. The city says not all of those are occupied yet, but this is an open-ended obligation. And as the mayor said yesterday, Roosevelt is already full. So what do you do? And that was just because of the number of people who came in less than one day. So what do you do next week when you have another thousand families show up?
This is an open-ended obligation that the city is voluntarily incurring to shelter everybody who shows up looking for shelter. Seems to have no exit strategy. What will be the impetus or the event that means that these families and single adults can leave these hotel rooms? The city is itself attracting people who might not otherwise think of coming to New York City, because if you have arrived in the U.S. or you're thinking of going to the U.S., New York is the only place that offers this guaranteed shelter on demand.
Brian Anderson: Well, it's going to have a presumably significant effect on the surrounding area. So to take the example of the Roosevelt Hotel, that is an important area for the city right across from Grand Central Station, a lot of commuters coming in, but the area has struggled a bit since the pandemic and hasn't bounced back fully. What's going to be the picture there of street traffic, the surrounding businesses? Couldn't it have an impact on that?
Nicole Gelinas: Right. And part of the context is the Roosevelt Hotel has an absentee owner. It's owned by the Pakistani government through the Pakistani state-owned airlines. And the owner has not been a very good neighbor for the past few years. I mean, the building during the pandemic was immediately boarded up, understandable at a time when looters were breaking windows and so forth during the summer of 2020. But it was covered with graffiti at, I'm looking at it right now. It's still covered with graffiti. And the owner has, or their manager has made no attempt to clean off that graffiti, try to keep the building in good condition.
There's actually still some open retailers in the building. I mean, there's a coffee shop, there's a shoe store, there's a clothing store. So much of the retail is empty, but they have not lost all of their retail and restaurant tenants, which is a good thing. But to have this now be a place where you have migrants with significant needs that are not being met by the federal, the state, or the local government and not having the right to work, which is another complex topic on its own, whether migrants should have the right to work or whether that just creates another incentive for more people to cross the border. Basically going to have nothing to do all day and be in need of money, food, and other goods.
And so, you know, put that together with the city having completely stopped any semblance of maintaining order. And it is going to be a temptation for shoplifting and panhandling. Any person, any rational person, will behave the same way they see others behaving. So knowing that there is no punishment, effectively, for low-level theft and having people with no access to legal sources of money and food is not a very good combination. Now, that is, of course, not to say the migrant population, like all populations, is made up of both good people and bad people. But the behavior that the city says, this is how people are expected to behave in New York City, and this is how you should not behave, it’s very clear that we put up with a much greater level of disorder than we did five years ago.
Brian Anderson: Last month, mayor Adams released his executive budget for the coming fiscal year, and it was the largest in the city's history at $107 billion dollars. The migrant crisis, projected to cost New York about 4.3 billion over the next year, figured significantly in the budget considerations. Many city departments feared that the mayor would cut their budgets to cover migrant housing costs. How is the city, how is it going to fund its response to the migrant crisis? And how will this gigantic expense affect the long term fiscal health of the city?
Nicole Gelinas: And you may think, okay, $4 billion over two years, a little more than $2 billion a year, in the context of a $110 billion dollar budget, it's not impossible. But if you think about the city budget, massive chunks mean double-digit, multiple tens of billions of dollars are reserved for things that we can't really do very much about in the short term and that the public doesn't see directly. So things like pensions for retired city workers, healthcare for retired city workers, those things are $30 billion dollars right off the top. So when you think about library budgets, garbage litter collection, street cleaning budgets, these are things that are actually quite small.
I mean, these are more in the hundreds of millions of dollars or very low billions of dollars. And so when you look at, okay, what can we practically cut to make room for migrant spending, it is going to be the things that people see. Libraries closed on Saturdays or closing earlier in the afternoon, fewer instances of emptying out garbage bins on the street. So more litter, the things that we saw early in the pandemic, even though the federal government pretty much bailed us out of the pandemic, we'll be seeing those on a much greater scale.
Brian Anderson: The mayor's repeatedly said that he wants to discourage migrants from coming to New York, which can't sustain an unlimited number of asylum seekers, obviously. So already he's begun busing migrants to towns in upstate New York to ease the burden on New York City's resources. Yet by continuing to open these hotels to migrants, providing them with lodging services free of charge, you know, you mentioned this earlier, isn't the city creating a huge incentive for more migrants to flock to New York? Now, does the city have a long-term solution here?
Nicole Gelinas: Sure, and of course, no, it doesn't have a long-term solution, but of course we want to encourage immigration. We want legal methods of people to come to the country and work legally across skill levels. And we have always put up with a certain level of illegal immigration. I mean, even before this current migrant crisis, New York probably had half a million people or so who were not authorized to work in this country. And yet were here and were working, and in many cases, making well above the minimum wage in construction, in childcare, in other areas of the economy. And that wasn't exactly great public policy, but it wasn't a huge crisis either. The crisis is because it is now well known through the migrant network and through social media that you can show up to New York City and you will get a free hotel room with no time limit on it, with no questions asked on your first day here.
And so people are coming to New York to start as a base with this free and very expensive shelter provided by the city of New York. And it's not really solvable because we just don't have tens of thousands of empty apartments, hotel rooms, dormitory rooms, even congregate shelter. There are just not these blocks of space available. If there were, we would be using them, and we wouldn't have this problem. And so if the mayor is looking to spend New York City's larger amount of fiscal resources compared to smaller towns and cities on bidding up the price of hotel rooms and these little towns in upstate New York, they may only have a couple of hotels and locating migrants in these areas, of course. And we've seen weddings canceled as the hotels close and cancel future reservations because they'd rather reserve the blocks of rooms for one customer, the city of New York. You are distorting these smaller economies, and you're not actually solving the problem either.
I mean, the sooner that the city admits and the state as well, because Hochul seems to be supporting Adams' initiatives and the federal government is entirely silent. No, we just do not have tens of thousands of apartments in hotel rooms that we can use indefinitely to house a population of migrants that is still coming in by the thousands across the border every week. It's just not going to get fixed. We're going to end up with tens of thousands of people, maybe even more, staying in dorm rooms because that's the newest solution to announce today, in hotel rooms, and distorting the rest of the economy by displacing the activity that those rooms are supposed to be used for.
Brian Anderson: Now, I guess, what are the chances that the city could reconsider its sanctuary city status short of some better policy response from the federal government along the border?
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I mean, the city's right to shelter, and where the sanctuary would fit into that is the city doesn't ask, what's your immigration status, if you show up in need of shelter? And many services for the needy, whether on a national, or state, or local basis: healthcare, food stamps, and so forth. You're not eligible unless you have legal authorization to be in the country. The right to shelter is something that a state court found to exist in the early 1980s because homeless advocates sued the city, said you have to provide homeless men, in this case, with guaranteed shelter. Cities settled the case in the early 1980s, but it never went to the state's high court. So the state's high court has never interpreted, does the state constitution as the advocates charge, the state constitution says you have to care for the needy.
Should that be interpreted as you have to provide shelter? And does that provision apply to literally anybody in the world who shows up looking for shelter? So the city would be well within its rights to reopen this court case, go back to court and argue for some eligibility requirement that you have to have had a fixed address in New York City at some time during the past three years, five years, you know, have to be some sort of New York City resident or the child of a New York City resident turning 18 and needing your own shelter. But an unlimited right to shelter across the world with open borders is just not something that New York City can sustain.
Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Nicole. It's a big problem. The piece he wrote on it recently, “No Room at the Inn—Except in New York City!” is a really good explanation of everything that's going on. Don't forget to check out Nicole Gelinas's work on the City Journal website that's at www.city-journal.org. We'll link to her author page in the description, including that article. And you can also find her on Twitter @nicolegelinas. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @CityJournal_MI. And if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Nicole, as always, thanks very much.
Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian. Likewise.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images