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February 26, 2024

NYC Housing Chief Resigns Amid Homelessness Crisis

NYC Housing Chief Resigns Amid Homelessness Crisis

A day after Mayor Eric Adams said he would oppose an effort to reduce homelessness by increasing the number of housing vouchers, his top housing official said she would step down.

The mayor has said the city is struggling to deal with a homelessness crisis. Now, Jessica Katz, left, who worked as one of his top officials on housing, is resigning.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Since Eric Adams became mayor, his response to New York City’s housing crisis has been characterized by enormous challenges, along with some stumbles.

The city subsidized fewer affordable homes last year than during any year since 2015. The mayor failed to convince Albany legislators to support crucial measures that would have helped. An influx of migrants stretched the shelter system to a breaking point.

Now, the architect of the mayor’s housing plan has announced that she is leaving the administration, dealing City Hall another setback at a time when rents are rising and the homeless shelter population has reached record levels.

The official, Jessica Katz, the city’s chief housing officer, said Wednesday that she would step down sometime this summer, saying in an interview that she had accomplished much of what she had set out to do and that she needed “a little time off” to spend with her children. She also said in a statement that she was proud to have worked with Mr. Adams to “set the course for our city’s housing policy.”

Mr. Adams had praise for Ms. Katz as well, saying she had “worked every day to ensure that New Yorkers were at the center of our housing policies, whether an individual experiencing homelessness, a family living in NYCHA, or a lifelong New Yorker struggling to stay in the neighborhood they love.”

The expressions of camaraderie, however, did not reflect some of the struggles Ms. Katz had faced in her role, according to two people who were familiar with her thinking but were unauthorized to speak publicly about it.

There has been confusion among city employees about who was in charge of dealing with the city’s mounting housing problems, whether it was one of Mr. Adams’s deputy mayors, for example, or Ms. Katz. That was one of the reasons she decided to step down, one of the people said.

Another factor in Ms. Katz’s decision, the second person said, was her frustration with the mayor’s opposition to legislation that could increase the number of people who can access city-funded housing vouchers — specifically, a bill that would end a requirement that people stay in homeless shelters for 90 days before they’re eligible to receive them.

Members of the City Council are pushing the bill as part of a package of legislation designed to reduce the homeless population and help people facing eviction.

The bill’s sponsors believe it would help free up room in the shelter system and get people into stable, permanent housing more quickly. The mayor has argued it would cost the city billions of dollars at a moment when it is facing financial difficulties.

In the interview, Ms. Katz disputed the notion that the mayor’s position on the legislation played a role in her resignation and said that she had notified him two weeks ago about her decision.

She said she thought the package of bills, as they were currently written, were “misguided” and echoed the mayor’s worries about costs.

Questions about how much authority the mayor was actually giving Ms. Katz have swirled since her appointment in January 2022. Housing advocates noted that Ms. Katz did not receive a “deputy mayor” title, unlike her counterparts in previous administrations. Decisions about major housing issues, such as redeveloping neighborhoods, seemed to flow through other city officials.

In the interview, Ms. Katz said it was “always a balancing act” to decide how much responsibility any one person in an administration should have. She said she expected Mr. Adams to continue to adjust officials’ responsibilities with her departure.

The housing problem in New York City is severe. Almost 600,000 households spend more than half of their income on rent, according to a recent city survey.

More than 78,000 people were in the city’s main shelter system as of early May, and the administration has said it is overwhelmed. Mr. Adams began a push on Tuesday to eliminate the city’s right-to-shelter guarantee, which requires the city to offer shelter to anyone who asks for it.

Diana Ayala, the deputy speaker of the City Council, who represents East Harlem and parts of the Bronx, said Ms. Katz’s departure was evidence that the city “desperately” needed a deputy mayor for housing to coordinate the response to the joint crises of homelessness and the thousands of migrants in need of housing, saying, “I think you can’t do one without the other.”

Christine Quinn, chief executive of WIN, a network of shelters for women and children, said she was impressed when Ms. Katz brought people experiencing homelessness to the table to discuss how the city could better serve them.

“She has the unique ability to work with the advocates and the developers,” Ms. Quinn said. “I found her to be smart and compassionate and able to balance competing interests. It is a real loss.”

During her tenure, Ms. Katz focused on addressing the deteriorating conditions in public housing and helped put in place a system through which residents living in public housing developments could vote on whether they should be placed under private management.

She said she was proud of creating a system where New Yorkers who had experience with homelessness could help shape city housing policy.

She tried to undo the dysfunction and bureaucracy many people encounter when trying to avoid homelessness. In recent months, she had also focused on finding places for migrants to stay.

With her background, I would imagine that the policy decisions being made at City Hall are, probably, sometimes contrary to what she’s accustomed to in her belief system,” Ms. Ayala said.

Before joining the administration, Ms. Katz was the executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit research group. She also worked in the administrations of Mr. Adams’s most immediate predecessors, Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael R. Bloomberg.

Ms. Katz is among the recent high-level departures from the Adams administration. Also leaving are the mayor’s communications director, chief counsel and, the administration confirmed on Wednesday, Melanie La Rocca, the city’s chief efficiency officer.

“It has been an honor to serve as the city’s first chief efficiency officer and drive forward Mayor Adams’s vision for a more efficient city government,” Ms. La Rocca said in a statement.

Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, a nonprofit advocacy group, called Ms. Katz’s departure a “huge loss.”

She said Mr. Adams should “now elevate housing to a deputy mayor role at this critical time to steer agencies struggling with an overwhelmed emergency shelter system, administrative processing challenges and declining affordable housing production.”

Jeffery C. Mays is a reporter on the Metro desk who covers politics with a focus on New York City Hall. A native of Brooklyn, he is a graduate of Columbia University. @JeffCMays

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