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The US needs immigrants to fill jobs, but can't house them. Nowhere makes this more clear than New York City.

Eliza Relman   

The US needs immigrants to fill jobs, but can't house them. Nowhere makes this more clear than New York City.
  • An influx of over 175,000 migrants in New York City has further exposed the city's housing crisis.
  • Mayor Eric Adams warned the migrant influx could 'destroy' the city.

No country in the world attracts more immigrants than the US — and no place symbolizes this better than New York City.

The convergence of the Big Apple's historic housing affordability crisis and an influx of asylum seekers has created a perfect storm that threatens to further marginalize the city's most vulnerable newcomers.

Over the last two years, New York City has struggled to handle more than 175,000 new migrants — part of an influx of asylum seekers on the Southern border. Many new arrivals don't have family members or other connections in New York, and tens of thousands of them don't have a place to live when they arrive.

But the city has a policy that's exceedingly rare in the US: it must provide a shelter bed for every unhoused person — a policy known as right-to-shelter, enforced by a 1981 state Supreme Court ruling. About 65,000 migrants are now living in about 200 emergency shelters, thousands more are in tent complexes, and others are staying in former hotels and jails.

The fact that New York — and other communities across the country — are so unprepared to handle new arrivals is further evidence of their failure to address a long-running housing affordability crisis. In New York City, underbuilding homes for years — particularly affordable units — has meant skyrocketing housing costs and the lowest home vacancy rate in decades. It's also helped the city's homeless population grow larger than it's been since the Great Depression. An influx of new residents, regardless of their immigration status, could be a wake-up call for the country that solving the housing crisis is a prerequisite for growth.

However, some New Yorkers aren't interested in welcoming asylum seekers. Mayor Eric Adams last year warned the influx of migrants "will destroy New York City," pointing to an estimated $12 billion the city is expected to spend on housing and other services between 2023 and 2025. He's repeatedly demanded more funding from the state and federal governments.

Some public figures who've opposed efforts to support migrants explicitly stoke fear that New Yorkers' homes are at risk. Elon Musk recently warned in a post on X that migrants will "come for your homes" after hotels and other emergency shelters fill up.

But an uptick in immigration isn't the problem. Immigrants have long played a key role in improving communities across the country. And the US depends on immigrants to keep the economy running. Experts say the country desperately needs an influx of immigrants to fill jobs in key sectors, like the construction industry, in order to build the homes that are in such short supply.

Immigrants boost home values

While politicians with anti-immigrant views and others have long sought to stoke xenophobia by demonizing immigrants, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods across the US have thrived.

Foreign-born residents make neighborhoods safer and wealthier, in part by boosting home values. Immigrants have long helped keep the US housing market strong and played a major role in stabilizing it following the Great Recession.

Not only do newly immigrant-heavy neighborhoods tend to see their home prices and rents increase, but surrounding areas see their housing costs and values rise even more, Susan Pozo, a professor of economics at Western Michigan University, and her colleagues found in one study. One reason behind this uptick is likely that many native-born residents leave for surrounding areas, pushing up demand there, Pozo said.

What's more, immigration might have a disinflationary impact on the housing market because new arrivals disproportionately work in the construction industry, helping solve the housing shortage.

"Immigration tends to raise local rents but slow inflation modestly in other core categories, resulting in little net impact," researchers at Goldman Sachs wrote in a research note published on May 5. "Since housing construction has been constrained for the last decade by labor shortages, it is possible that new immigrants will eventually do more to boost housing supply than housing demand."

Pushing migrants out of shelters

New York City has managed to absorb much larger influxes of immigrants in the past. In 1907, 3,400 people were processed at Ellis Island every day, on average. Right now, an average of about 600 migrants are arriving in the city each day.

But last month, the city government amended its right-to-shelter law, announcing it will begin forcing single adult migrants out of shelters after 30 days, while some families with children will be limited to 60 days in a shelter.

The New York City comptroller's office says the Adams administration is intentionally making life more difficult for asylum-seekers as a way to force them out of the city. Without legal documents, migrants aren't eligible for other government housing assistance, like vouchers or public housing.

"The policies are intentionally designed basically to just make it frustrating for people," said Celeste Hornbach, director of housing policy in the New York City comptroller's office. "It is just a system that is meant to really discourage people from getting help from the city and from exercising their rights that they have as residents of New York City."

The city has also failed to provide proper case management for thousands of migrants, and rarely follows up with families and individuals after they've left the shelter system, experts in the comptroller's office said.

"The case management the city has stood up is more focused on just getting people out of the shelter, rather than stabilizing them and helping them succeed once they're gone," said Sam Stanton, a senior policy researcher in the comptroller's office.

It's unclear where many go once they leave the shelters, Hornbach said, but some likely end up in substandard "gray market housing," including in basements or other potentially unsafe, overcrowded places.

Without local, state, and federal efforts to build more housing — including affordable homes — communities across the country won't be able to sustain dynamic economies and vibrant neighborhoods.

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