The city's problems run much deeper
New York mayor Eric Adams has always been known for his quirky personality and tendency to say odd things. But even longtime Adams-watchers have taken a second look at some of his recent headscratchers. At a housing forum a few months ago, he told an octogenarian tenants’s advocate — who fled the Nazis with her family when she was a child — that she was talking to him as though he was “someone that’s on a plantation that you own”.
More recently, at a flag-raising for Indian independence (Adams has attended dozens of ceremonial national flag-raisings at Bowling Green Park in Lower Manhattan) the mayor praised Mohandas K. Gandhi, comparing himself to the great-souled liberator of the Subcontinent. “I’m Gandhi-like,” the nightclub-hopping mayor explained. “I think like Gandhi. I act like Gandhi. I want to be like Gandhi.”
Whether the mayor is in full meltdown-mode remains to be seen, but he has plenty of reasons — not all of them self-inflicted — to be stressed. Owing to a decades-old idealistic homelessness policy, and a sentimental view that New Yorkers hold of themselves as living in the ultimate “city of immigrants”, Eric Adams has inherited a set of circumstances that would drive the most equanimous of municipal leaders around the bend.
Mass migration from the global South to the rich countries of Europe and North America has been going on for years, through a combination of “push” (geopolitical instability, poverty, etc.) and “pull” (worker shortages, open invitations a la Angela Merkel’s 2015 promise) factors. The election of Joe Biden in 2020, and his promise to end deportations and eliminate his predecessor’s tight border policies, were a pull factor of neodymium proportions. It is estimated around 5.5 million migrants have entered America in the last two and a half years.
New York City has found itself hosting approximately 60,000 migrants, which out of a population of close to 9 million shouldn’t be a big deal. 40% of New Yorkers were born abroad anyway, so adding even a few hundred thousand newcomers wouldn’t destabilise a polyglot, multicultural metropolis.
The problem is that New York City offers an absolute “right to shelter” to anyone who asks for it, without question — the only such locality in America, and quite possibly the world. This guarantee is extended equally to someone who was born in New York and to anyone who has just stepped off a bus from the Mexican border.
Until recently, the sheltered population of New York City was comprised mainly of single mothers and their children, who were mostly housed in apartment-style accommodations, and a smaller number of single adults in congregate shelters or motels in the outer boroughs. The recent influx of tens of thousands of migrants, who arrive in New York City apparently knowing their shelter rights, has strained the system to the utmost. The city has rented out thousands of hotel rooms in midtown Manhattan, and is desperately trying to figure out where to house masses of people, including at least hundreds if not thousands of single men from West Africa.
The cost of this largesse is conservatively estimated to run into the billions annually, just for New York City, and it threatens to crater a state and local budget that is already showing signs of intense fiscal stress. The federal government, so far, has shown little enthusiasm to pick up the tab, perhaps knowing that buckets with holes in the bottom never get full. Meanwhile, local progressive politicians anxious not to be identified as Trumpian xenophobes wring their hands and plead for New Yorkers to “come together” over a blatant policy disaster.
Critics of the “right to shelter” have long surmised that a last-chance safety net could easily become an attraction given the right set of global circumstances. Eric Adams is in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to disentangle himself and his city from a safety net that has turned into a trap.