Recently arrived migrants wait outside the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. (Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The migrant crisis in New York City is a multifaceted issue, rooted in a complex interplay of domestic and international politics and policies. A critical factor in this crisis is the availability of affordable housing, a topic that has been strongly influenced by both local and global policy decisions. The intricate and intersectional issue of migration has inadvertently turned migrants, who are full human beings, into involuntary actors, their fates swaying with the changing tides of political discourse and policy implementation. With an understanding of this premise, it becomes evident that there are numerous reasons behind this crisis, each requiring careful scrutiny and informed action.
In the heart of New York City, below its iconic skyline, a paradox of epic proportions unfolds. As buses full of migrants arrive in the city each day, the struggle to find affordable housing intensifies dramatically. Yet, ironically, amidst the sprawling urban growth, there are countless buildings that stand vacant, their potential as living spaces lost, untapped. For years, these empty edifices could have served as a refuge for the existing city's homeless population, which has always been in crisis, but their emptiness has been a reminder of the disconnect between the city's available resources and the willingness to provide for the needs of its inhabitants.
The homeless crisis in New York City is directly linked to economic instability, racial disparities, and an unaddressed mental health crisis. This escalating crisis is exacerbated by the commodification of land, where values are driven by market forces that make it more profitable for developers to cater to the elite sector of the economy, more often than not leading to the construction of luxury rather than affordable housing. The city's growing income gap leaves tens of thousands unable to keep pace with soaring rent hikes, pushing them into homelessness. The economic crisis, tied intrinsically to the systemic racial injustice prevalent in the city, marginalizes primarily Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities, through practices like gentrification and redlining, disproportionately subjecting them to poverty and homelessness. Additionally, the correlation between homelessness and mental health is starkly apparent. Without proper access to mental health services, many individuals are left in a vulnerable state, unable to procure or maintain housing.
The U.S. has a well-documented history of intervening in other nations' affairs, often leading to destabilization and economic hardship for those countries. These interventions have taken the form of military actions, economic sanctions, or political manipulations, often resulting in dire consequences for the ordinary citizens of those nations. Stripped of opportunities in their home countries, these individuals and their families are then forced to look elsewhere for survival and stability and many end up on the Southern border of the United States. If they are able to enter the U.S., republican governors on the U.S. side of the border find it politically expedient to send large numbers of migrants to cities like New York as part of the internal political struggle between republicans and democrats.
Caught in the middle, migrants find themselves in places like New York City, where they hope to find better economic opportunities for themselves, their accompanying family and for those they leave behind. However, upon arrival, they are confronted with the harsh realities of inflated living costs, housing shortages, and the systemic injustices that pervade the fabric of the city they idolized.
According to the latest data from the Census Bureau and the Department of City Planning, New York City saw an increase of approximately 4.7% in its population over the past two years. This increase can be attributed largely to the influx of migrants arriving in the city, both from within the United States and from foreign countries. It is estimated that the migrant population is currently well over 3 million people, constituting nearly 37% of the city's total population. In contrast, according to the Department of City Planning, the city witnessed the arrival of over 160,000 individuals just within the first half of the current year.. This figure clearly signifies that the housing crisis can only worsen.
A significant portion of current migrants are coming from nearby countries such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador, driven away from their homes by factors ranging from economic instability to violence. Other migrants, including whole families, undertake a perilous journey through the Darien Gap, which connects Colombia and Panama, a treacherous jungle through which no roads pass, not even the Pan-American Highway. Latin American, Caribbean and African countries such as Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the nations with the highest number of citizens undertaking this arduous passage. These women, men, and children are compelled by the situations in their home countries to make the journey to New York City in hope of improving their lives.. The socio-political instability, economic hardships, and, at times, outright war and conflict in their nations leave them with little choice but to embark on this path fraught with uncertainties and danger.
Despite the narrative of scarcity,there is ample housing in New York City to accommodate every single New Yorker, both new and old. The city's landscape is dotted with empty apartment buildings and unoccupied commercial spaces, well equipped to provide shelter to the homeless and incoming migrants. The issue is not a lack of space, but a lack of access and will by real estate interests and the elected officials who do their bidding.
Much of the city's prime real estate is privately owned, held by individuals and corporations who choose to keep these spaces vacant as they wait for values to increase, aiming to maximize their profit. This practice, a symptom of a capitalist system, is a clear example of putting financial gain over social responsibility, and human beings. The city's real estate market, driven by capitalist principles and values, makes it increasingly unaffordable for the average New Yorker, regardless of documentation status. This disparity is not a natural occurrence, but a product of a system that prioritizes profit over the basic human right to adequate housing. The vacant apartment buildings, offices, and commercial spaces scattered across the city stand as silent monuments to this system's true nature.
it is imperative to address the pressing housing crisis and economic disparity in New York City with urgency. Immediate action must be taken to enact the already existing policy proposals that prioritize human rights and well-being over profit, particularly by reframing the way we perceive and utilize vacant spaces. Rather than allowing these areas to remain unused, they should be immediately repurposed to provide free and/or affordable housing for the city's working people, growing migrant population and those living in homelessness. It's also crucial to address the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness, such as economic inequality, racial injustice, and lack of access to mental health services.
Community, civil society, and grassroots organizations such as Mothers on the Move, UndocuBlack, Families for Freedom, and AfroResistance have been taking on the work of providing housing and other resources for migrants and those experiencing homelessness in New York City, especially Black migrants. Through our tireless efforts, we have been creating safe spaces for incoming migrants and homeless individuals alike. But it is the job of elected officials and government to create and enact equitable policies and initiatives that prioritize housing justice over capitalistic greed.
One commitment that holds the potential to transform every nation in the Americas region and beyond is the pursuit of open borders. A concept that applies to current neoliberal policies which inherently know no boundaries, dictates and imposes social and cultural norms and contexts and shapes employment and economic opportunities for people in the region. In a world governed by global capitalism, it's the capitalistic and market forces that more than often define the living conditions of individuals and communities, instead of the democratic system that should ideally be in place. Putting human rights before capitalism demands, would then ensure that the economy, and policies serve the people, and not the other way around.
One of the major elements that would eliminate that would be if there is a regional wide commitment to make the region of the Americas a “Zone of Peace” where there would be free and unfettered national sovereignty with people-centered economic development. To achieve that, however, will require continued movement building. Peace and development are linked to migration. And for authentic peace and development the peoples’ and nations of the global South must have the capacity to resist the anti-peoples’ policies of the hegemon from the North.
Janvieve Williams Comrie, is a sociologist, a human rights strategist and a movement facilitator. She is the founder and current Executive Director of the international organization AfroResistance. A sought after consultant, speaker and certified personal coach, Janvieve has strategized, advised and worked with a myriad of people all over the world, including heads of states. www.janvieve.com