Solving NYC’s Refugee Housing Crisis

By Robert Lager

How can we fix our city’s shortage of refugee housing quickly? Let’s examine what the European countries have swiftly and successfully achieved to accommodate Ukrainian refugees.

Shipboard housing has already been embraced by a number of governments. Scotland has been utilizing a 1,000-passenger ship for some time and just committed to charter a 708’ 713-cabin cruise ship to house an additional 2,400 refugees. In Estonia a 561’ RoPax night ferry with 663 cabins is lodging over 1,500 Ukrainian refugees. Holland is utilizing three cruise and passenger ships for Ukrainian refugees.

NYC’s current system for homeless and temporary refugee centers is already severely stretched. The city has had to rent hotel rooms, where going rates are $200-400+ per night, that are becoming scarcer and more expensive, and are depleting the available hotel rooms for the city’s customary tourist and hotel clientele. This also creates a hodge-podge situation; with refugees placed in rooms all over the city, there is little accountability, control, or security.

An alternative solution would be for the city to acquire a large cruise ship or passenger vessel that could be berthed at one of the unused piers. Depending on availability and budget, a ship like this could house between 1,200-2,500 people in cabins with bathroom facilities, and safe public areas for dining and recreation. There would be space for providing onboard services such as education, counseling, immigration status review, and health services. Also, the ship would have its own power generation in the event of an electrical blackout.

Using a ship would provide more efficient financial and administrative control, reduced cost, and better and more systemized security, placing refugees in one location, receiving much improved services over what can be offered in scattered hotels and shelters. Municipal employees would not have to be sent all over the city to interview, assist, and provide services to refugee individuals and families, hoping they would be found. Additionally, instead of burdening the existing hotel and housing availability, the use of a passenger ship immediately adds to the available housing capacity. It’s a win-win for all.

There are several types of ships that could be used for onboard housing, including cruise ships, RoPax night ferries, and accommodation vessels. Most of the ships that are large enough to serve this purpose and may be available are located overseas, primarily in Europe. A ship could be purchased for a long-term solution to the challenge of housing refugees and the homeless, or for disaster relief; or a charter may be negotiated for a shorter-term solution.

How soon could a ship be ready to provide housing relief in NYC? That depends on a number of factors. If a suitable ship is available, it would take several weeks to negotiate and close on a contract for charter or purchase. The ship would then have to be repositioned from its present location to New York Harbor, which could take 10-14 days depending on the ship’s current location. Once the ship arrives it would take a week or two for inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies, and to hire a crew and prepare the ship. With this in mind, it could take six-seven weeks from deciding on which ship to acquire to having it ready for housing.

Making this project possible in a short period of time would first require strong political advocacy by the city, with support from the state and possibly the federal administration, leading to the fast approval of necessary funding allocation. There are a number of issues and additional factors that would have to be considered and resolved if the city were to move forward with this scenario, some of which include:

  • pier with suitable access, parking, utilities
  • approvals from zoning board, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Health Dept.
  • coordination of city services, i.e., police, sanitation, health, etc.
  • coordination with federal agencies, i.e. ICE, Homeland Security, etc.
  • Jones Act review
  • security, dockside and onboard
  • securing insurance coverage

The increasing influx of refugees being bussed to us from the south suggests that we cannot wait any longer to determine a quick and appropriate solution to this crisis. While this may seem daunting, refugee housing on ships has been proven to work, and quickly, as witnessed in European cities.

Robert Lager, of Lager Maritime Corp., has been in the marine industry for over 40 years and is an active international ship and yacht broker located on Long Island.

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