Steven Banks, the city’s social services commissioner, who joined government after a long career suing the city on behalf of homeless people but who has had a mixed record on curbing homelessness, is resigning.
Mr. Banks said he will leave at the end of the year, when Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office, to oversee the public interest practice at Paul, Weiss, one of the city’s biggest and most prestigious firms.
“I have missed the practice of law,” Mr. Banks, 64, said in a text message, “so that is what I’m doing when the administration ends.”
Mr. Banks was brought on to head the city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees public assistance, in 2014, and soon expanded his portfolio to include the 60,000 homeless people in the city’s main shelter system, a number that had been increasing sharply for years.
He attempted to right the failures he saw when he was outside government, despite lacking some of the tools — like state funding and control over housing development — to do so.
He has notched some successes. The number of families in shelters has fallen by 35 percent since its peak in 2017, thanks to a host of city policies that Mr. Banks helped push for, including a rental-assistance voucher program, the creation of new housing for homeless families, prioritizing homeless families in public housing and the guarantee of legal representation for low-income tenants in housing court. A pandemic-era state halt on evictions that is scheduled to expire in January has also kept thousands of families out of shelters.
Mr. Banks is one of the few de Blasio administration officials that the city’s incoming mayor, Eric Adams, had expressed an interest in retaining. In a July interview during the campaign, Mr. Adams praised “the amazing things that Banks has done” and added that he had “brought fresh ideas.”
For three decades before Mr. Banks went to work for the city, he was a relentless and effective thorn in the city’s side as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. He brought the suit that made New York the first big city to guarantee shelter to all families, which cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars but kept people off the street.
Josh Goldfein, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society and a former colleague of Mr. Banks’s there, said that as commissioner, Mr. Banks had “accomplished tremendous things, including reducing the rate of eviction in New York City by an unprecedented and miraculous amount.” But he said that because housing and homelessness policy are siloed in City Hall, Mr. Banks has “never got the housing resources he needed.”
In recent months, as the city has taken a more punitive approach to people living on the street in response to neighborhood complaints, the Homeless Services department has come under fire from advocates. Mr. de Blasio said last month that he counted homelessness as the chief issue that he wished his administration had made more progress on.
Mr. Banks went to work for Legal Aid after graduating from law school in 1981. One of the first cases he worked on, filed on behalf of a woman and her three children fleeing domestic violence, established the legal right to shelter for families. He was in court against the city continually and even caused city officials who resisted court orders to be forced to spend the night in the shelter system’s dreaded emergency intake office.
Once he was inside government, Mr. Banks was tasked with reversing an increase in homelessness that had persisted under four different mayors, nearly doubled under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and continued to rise under the early days of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure. He found himself defending some of the very practices he used to fight and hamstrung by some of the obligations he had helped place upon the city, as well as by the chronic shortage of affordable housing.
“We’ve proceeded to address a lot of longstanding problems at the same time, which leaves us open for criticism if everything isn’t fixed at once,” he said in a 2016 interview.
The city’s practice of housing people in budget hotels, an expensive and sometimes dangerous stopgap that Mr. Banks had inveighed against, for instance, continues to this day.
Mr. Banks is the architect of the effort the de Blasio administration launched in 2017 to build 90 new homeless shelters that are intended to let the city move thousands of people out of hotels and so-called cluster housing into more stable shelters and ultimately permanent housing. Many of the shelters the city has opened were fought by the residents in the neighborhoods where they were sited.
The shelters are owned and run by a variety of contractors, and finding scrupulous operators has been difficult. Recent months have brought a drumbeat of charges and accusations against shelter executives who lined their pockets while providing shoddy services, but the city is so desperate to find operators that it typically lets them continue under “corrective action plans.”
The coronavirus pandemic created a new round of challenges for the Homeless Services agency. To stem the spread of Covid-19 in the city’s barrackslike congregate shelters, the city moved thousands of people into rooms in private hotels in the early days of lockdown, including in high-visibility Manhattan neighborhoods where the hotel clientele clashed with neighbors. Some of the hotel residents were charged in several assaults and other attacks.
Over the summer, as the virus was waning, the city moved the hotel guests back to congregate shelters, but the moves were chaotic and disorganized, and judges cited the city for not taking people’s health problems into consideration.
At the same time, the city dramatically ramped so-called sweeps of encampments on the street, done by crews that included police, sanitation and homeless services personnel. Critics said the sweeps simply moved people from place to place without fixing the underlying shortage of housing.
Shams DaBaron, an activist who is formerly homeless, said that while Mr. Banks had “inherited a system that was fraught with problems,” he had overseen policies that failed homeless New Yorkers, including “reliance on developing and building more shelters as opposed to working on ways to prevent and end homelessness.”
It remains to be seen whether he will go back to suing the city. New York’s conflict of interest law prohibits former public servants from working on matters with which they’ve been personally or substantially involved as city employees, but many former officials have found ways around the ban.