Mayor Adams Improvises His Way Through an Impossible Crisis

Last weekend, several Brooklyn principals were told that their schools would immediately be sheltering hundreds of asylum seekers, by way of mayoral fiat. The schools commandeered into service were chosen because they had stand-alone gyms, apart from the main buildings, which would separate children from the adults who would temporarily be staying there, side by side in tight rows of green cots.

The schools themselves were not in affluent neighborhoods but rather served working-class families of color, who were now livid. Parents, many immigrants themselves, were concerned about safety and felt cheated that their children would be denied gym in schools that were hardly abundant with amenities. They began lining up as early as 3 in the morning on Tuesday in protest; some brought their children, others refused to send them to school at all. By the next day, after frantic meetings between administrators and parents, Mayor Eric Adams seemed to have reversed course, removing asylum seekers from a school gym in Coney Island and sending them to a vacant office in Midtown. The administration maintained that this turnaround had nothing to do with the rallies.

“Migrants flow in and out of these sites as other more suitable space becomes available, and they have and will continue to be used as a last resort,” a spokesperson from City Hall said. “As the mayor has continued to say, everything is on the table when it comes to placement of asylum seekers.”

The situation around migrants — at least 40,000 of whom are currently in New York’s care, making up roughly half of the city’s shelter population — has left the mayor in an almost untenable political position. Any stinting on compassion becomes both a gift to the DeSantis right and a source of agitation to the Ocasio-Cortez left, and any semblance of overreaching acquiescence enrages the centrists who helped the mayor get elected.

Writing earlier this week in City Journal, the urban-policy magazine of the conservative Manhattan Institute, Nicole Gelinas faulted the mayor for spending so much time converting hotels into shelters for the displaced, arguing that the reopening of the Roosevelt Hotel, after a long closure, should have been “a symbol of New York’s post-pandemic resurgence” but was now, instead, a sign of the mayor’s “failure to lead.”

The past few weeks have emphasized the extent to which Mr. Adams, a politician of high-metabolism guided by his frenetic energy, has leaned into a style of governance defined by improvisation over ideology. Earlier this month, his administration issued an executive order loosening some of the rules around the city’s right-to-shelter law, sacrosanct to progressives, which requires families to be placed in private rooms with kitchens and bathrooms rather than in congregate settings.

A week later, the administration signed another order, which seemed philosophically contradictory, suspending rules covering the city’s land-review process for siting and building homeless shelters — a process that often results in NIMBY opposition, long delays and in some cases the abandonment of a project altogether. The result of what can seem like whiplash decision making is a city left living inside the mayor’s thought process in real time — unsure of a broader vision.

“In fairness to the mayor, I will say that this is a situation that is very difficult to manage,” Diana Ayala, the deputy speaker of the City Council, representing East Harlem and parts of the Bronx, told me. “It would be a challenge for anyone. I really feel for the administration because I don’t think that they have received the resources they need from the federal government.”

Stressing the need for engagement with long-term objectives, she added, “But I would also welcome a little bit more collaboration.” In the fall, for example, when the administration moved to build tents on Orchard Beach as temporary migrant housing, the Council pushed back, suggesting that as a flood zone it was ill-suited for the purpose. The administration went ahead anyway — only to relocate the complex shortly after.

“My biggest concern is that we’re being reactive,” said Ms. Ayala, who was herself once homeless. “You have to have a holistic approach. We need to be as proactive as possible in trying to identify plans that would move families stuck in the shelter system out of it.” As others have done, the deputy speaker has been pushing for the elimination of the rule that requires homeless people to have spent 90 days in a shelter before becoming eligible for housing vouchers. So far the administration has been resistant.

Since the governors of Texas and Arizona began sending busloads of migrants northward last year in a show of let’s-see-how-you-deal-with-it gamesmanship, the mayor has repeatedly pointed out that the city is left in an impossible situation without more federal funding. Earlier this week, the administration even floated the idea that some asylum seekers might be housed in an unused building on Rikers Island, where an inmate in a psychiatric unit died on Tuesday after a fall.

Yet, as The Daily News reported last month, the city did not appear to proceed with a great sense of urgency in applying for $650 million in reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; it waited until four days before the deadline to submit the paperwork for eight months worth of expenses related to housing asylum seekers.

However divergent their approaches to the migrant crisis and the longstanding housing emergencies that it has compounded might be, progressives and those to their right seem unified in their desire for more efficiency, policy that seems carefully drawn rather than quickly sketched. “We all understand that a crisis like this requires a creative approach,” Lincoln Restler, a council member from Brooklyn told me this week. “We’d just like to see more managerial deliberation.”

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