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Hotels, Homelesness, and the Politics of the Status Quo

When COVID-19 engulfed New York City in the spring of 2020, one of the hardest hit groups was the city’s homeless population, comprising nearly 80,000 people. Initially, many took nightly shelter on the subway. With non-essential businesses shut down and tourism ground to a halt, trains were virtually empty, creating a refuge far more suitable for social distancing than New York City’s crowded homeless shelters. Yet, shelters in New York are dangerous even in normal times: residents are at risk of theft, and perpetrators of violent offenses are able to remain in shelters without notice. The coronavirus only made matters worse. Social distancing is essentially impossible in homeless shelters and, when the MTA began suspending subway service for nightly cleaning for the first time in 115 years, the shelters became overwhelmed and overcrowded. Many people turned down referrals from the subways to shelters out of fear of their conditions but, with the subways closed, were left with nowhere to go. The city quite literally left its homeless population out in the cold.

Responding to pressure from advocacy groups and the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to address this untenable situation by booking rooms in 63 hotels throughout the city, allowing homeless individuals to live in socially distant environments and providing hotels with crucial funding in the face of an oncoming summer season bereft of tourism. The program began in May. One of these hotels, the Lucerne, quickly became a flashpoint.

A luxurious 4-star hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Lucerne was a late addition to the housing program, with 283 men moving into its rooms in July. In theory, the Upper West Side, affluent and predominantly white with a reputation as “one of the most liberal enclaves in New York,” seemed to be an ideal location for such a program. One might hope that its residents’ liberal values would have compelled them to welcome unhoused people into their community, especially during a pandemic when these men had nowhere else to turn.

The Upper West Side’s backlash, however, was swift and vicious. Within a day of the move-in, local residents created a Facebook group titled Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, with the express purpose of evicting the Lucerne’s new inhabitants. Neighborhood locals quickly filled the group with a steady stream of vitriol, hate, and explicit calls for violence, describing Lucerne residents as “subhuman” and urging their neighbors to attack them with hornet spray and “kick them in front of a bus,” with one individual even calling for militias to murder the Lucerne’s residents. By the end of August, a noose was found hanging outside of the hotel.

Members of this Facebook group claim that the conversion of hotels to temporary shelters brought a wave of crime to the neighborhood, despite the lack of meaningful statistical evidence. Crime rates in the neighborhood remain lower than last year; while crime at the end of the summer did spike, so did crime across the city as a whole. In spite of the lack of evidence to support the notion that the Lucerne and other hotels’ new residents have led to an increase in crime, the claim has received breathless tabloid coverage from the New York Post, which gleefully wrote of mothers fleeing “squalid conditions” and “crime and chaos,” citing nothing but anecdotal remarks.

As the neighborhood became engulfed in a media frenzy, Upper West Siders for Safer Streets formed a non-profit, the West Side Community Organization, which managed to raise over $150,000 and hire a powerful lawyer and former deputy-mayor to lobby the city to kick the Lucerne’s residents out of the hotel. In September, cowed by some of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants, the mayor defied the advice of the city’s social services commissioner and announced that he would move the homeless residents out of the Lucerne hotel. A month later, however, the hotel’s residents remained. After waffling on specifics, Mayor de Blasio announced that the men would be moved to a different hotel in the Financial District, another wealthy, liberal neighborhood, prompting that neighborhood’s residents to form another non-profit, raise almost $1 million, and hire their own law firm to fight the move. 

Much can be made of this ongoing episode. Just three months after the unhoused men first moved into the Lucerne, New York’s wealthiest residents have spent over one million dollars, money that could have been spent supporting services or housing for the city’s homeless population, for no reason other than to keep homeless people out of their neighborhoods. The rank hypocrisy of liberal New Yorkers who refuse to house homeless people in their communities is a textbook example of how Nimbyism (“Not In My BackYard”-ism) has permeated the political spectrum. The virulent dehumanization of the city’s homeless population, while atrocious, has long been a hallmark of homelessness policies across the nation. Most notable about this saga, however, is how it demonstrates that mainstream liberalism has adopted the preservation of the status quo as its utmost priority.

While it is worth noting that many on the Upper West Side rallied in support of the Lucerne’s residents, even garnering the support of local politicians and mayoral hopefuls, they did not win. Those with the political will and financial resources to pressure the mayor into compliance were those whose single-minded goal was to make sure their neighborhoods remained exactly the same as they did pre-pandemic. Their liberal politics are aesthetics at best, masking their practical opposition to meaningful change. Nearly every story about this series of events includes some quote that follows an increasingly familiar structure, in which the speaker prefaces their statement with an empty platitude before confessing their true beliefs, which are inevitably a profound resistance to any material change that could even potentially have the slightest impact on their own lives. According to Chris Brown, the Facebook group’s co-founder: “All of us have compassion for homelessness and individuals, […], but we already have a large population within our district that needs help.” Another Upper West Sider remarked, “I have no problem taking care of these people, OK?[…] But to put them at my back door, I am petrified.”

This status quo-centric Nimbyism is far from exclusive to New York City. In California, similar efforts by the state to house homeless individuals in hotels during the pandemic have been opposed, sometimes successfully, by neighbors and even city officials. Not only is this pervasive mentality putting homeless individuals at risk across the country, but it has been consistently making the housing market less affordable, even before the coronavirus pandemic. NIMBY-ism is most commonly manifested in neighborhood opposition to new housing development, especially affordable housing, and a strong trend toward downzoning, which has led to sky-high rents and segregated neighborhoods in liberal urban centers from San Francisco to Chicago to New York.

Not only is Nimbyism nationally pervasive, but the attachment to the status quo in which it is also grounded can be found throughout the leadership of the more liberal of the nation’s two dominant political parties. It is this focus that drove nearly every remaining moderate contender in the Democratic presidential primary to drop out just before Super Tuesday and consolidate the moderate vote around Former Vice-President and Presidential Candidate Joe Biden, who told his wealthy donors that, under his administration, “nothing will fundamentally change.” It this focus that has prevented Democratic leaders from even having a public discussion about expanding the judiciary, even after Republicans have spent the last four years flooding the courts with conservative judges, many of whom are inexperienced, and have just forced through an appointment to the Supreme Court during an election year with utter disregard to their own precedent. The entire Democratic strategy to defeat the incumbent president has been fuelled by desire to return to the status quo ante of the Obama administration, rather than a meaningful message of change; this is why donors have been so infatuated with the Lincoln Project, an ad campaign run by former Republican strategists who made a living empowering the same political party that is currently hell-bent on eroding trust in democratic institutions.

There is one last crucial similarity between the denizens of the Upper West Side and the Financial District: they may be liberal, but they are also affluent. As such, while their behavior may be demonstrative of the beliefs of the most politically powerful members of the Democratic party, they do not represent the beliefs of the party as a whole. To retain New York as an example, voters in other neighborhoods have shown themselves to be more than ready for a change, boldly ditching the politics of the status quo. In the same summer that wealthy Manhattanites turned the plight of a few hundred homeless men into a political football, progressive candidates won primary races across New York state, driven by ascendent leftist groups such as the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party. A recent study even found that 62 percent of New Yorkers actually support housing homeless people in hotels and shelters in their neighborhoods. NIMBYs are wealthy and loud but they are not the majority.

For now, the status quo-centric liberalism of the wealthy elite still dominates the official platform of the Democratic party. However, the rise of popular, high-profile progressive leaders may signal a sea change for the party and, perhaps, the country as a whole. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, status quo liberalism is doomed in the face of a Republican party that pays no heed to democratic norms. The Democratic party cannot survive by ignoring populist sentiment; Democrats can present the possibility of change without the trappings of authoritarianism, xenophobia, and cruelty that underscore so many of President Trump’s policies, but only if they heed the rising tide of progressivism and become a party that truly stands for change and progress, not just preserving the status quo. The future of the party, and perhaps the country, depends on it.

Photo: Image via Unsplash [Ilse Orsel]