In July 2019, as the 2020 presidential election loomed large and an enduring pandemic was inconceivable, a series of billboards targeting a candidate in the race appeared across Iowa. Such a series isn’t out of the ordinary for the state during an election year, but the billboards in question alluded to a battle most Iowans weren’t aware of—one that was hyper-local to New York City and targeted the city’s mayor , Bill de Blasio.
“What are you doing in Iowa? Go back to New York and meet with us!” one billboard in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, adjured the mayor. Ominously signed “from the residents on Billionaires Row,” the display served as a stark reminder of not just de Blasio’s critics but also an ongoing clash between some of the city’s leadership and the West 58th Street Coalition, a small group of wealthy New York residents . The reason? In short, the establishment of a shelter for homeless men in the Park Savoy Hotel on West 58th Street, which happens to be nestled between some of the priciest real estate in the city on a street known to some natives as “Billionaires’ Row.” So it’s over 1 to as the city’s most expensive street largely because of billionaire Michael Dell’s 2014 purchase of a penthouse in the One57 tower—situated just next door to the shelter—for $100 million. At the time, it was the most costly piece of real estate ever sold in the city.
The shelter, which opened in November 2021 after a four-year legal battle between the city administration and the area’s residents and business owners, was part of a years-long initiative by de Blasio to address homelessness in the city. Alongside other interventions, the former mayor vowed to reduce the number of people in shelters by 2,500 over five years through a combination of homelessness prevention efforts and rehousing programs. While the number of families seeking shelter has seen a decrease of 11 percent since 2014, when de Blasio took office, in part due to the moratorium on evictions, the number of single adults seeking shelter increased from 10,000 in 2013 to over 15,000 in 2021.
The significance of the shelter’s location cannot be overstated. Historically, communities of color have hosted more than their share of shelters, while majority-white, more affluent neighborhoods have hosted very few if any. As the New York Daily News reported in 2017, de Blasio “promised to try and distribute the burden across all neighborhoods, whether rich or poor.” The administration also said it would try to keep unhoused residents in their communities of origin, but advocates have criticized that plan for overlooking that those same communities often lack the resources needed for stability, including employment opportunities and reliable transportation.