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Question: What brought the city's top five most-likely-to-be-elected-mayor Democrats to Harlem on primary day? Answer: affordable housing policy.

No, really.

A forum on solving the city's housing crisis, held last Tuesday at Harlem's St. Phillips Church and sponsored by Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity, was the first event to bring together all the 2001 mayoral hopefuls. And it was devoted to promises of a new and brighter day for low-cost housing in New York City–making the housing crisis the first real issue of the next election.

For housing advocates, who have long complained that the current mayor gives short shrift to the problem, it was welcome news. “I was impressed–A, that they all came, and B, that they thought housing was important,” said Carol Lamberg, executive director of the Settlement Housing Fund, a major nonprofit housing developer. “And they all seemed sincere in their commitments. It was very refreshing.”

With one notable exception, the candidates' pledges were pretty similar–both in their bonhomie and in their lack of specifics. Aside from a general rallying cry to put more money into new construction, get rid of red tape, appoint a deputy mayor for housing and adopt a target of building around 225,000 new units in the next decade, the five differed more in their metaphors than in their minutiae.

Current City Council Speaker Peter Vallone said he'd spend $625 million to $1 billion in the first year of his administration to build new low-cost homes, and set up a “housing task force” to recommend ways to lower construction costs. He also called the new federal law that requires public housing tenants to do community service work “unconstitutional” and said it should be thrown out. Public Advocate Mark Green, for his part, called for an “Apollo-like focus” on housing and a summit on the subject. Although he wouldn't give specific numbers, Green said he'd start an affordable housing trust fund with cash from Battery Park City development fees and the state welfare fund surplus, and wanted to look into developing industrial brownfields sites into new housing.

Crediting new housing development with bringing hope to his borough, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer said the next mayor must “allocate several billion out of the capital budget” to develop housing. And former City Councilmember Sal Albanese promised to spend $70,000,000 each year to build 10,000 units.

But City Comptroller Alan Hevesi made it clear that housing is his fourth priority–behind schools, jobs and fighting crime. He scoffed at the other candidates' dollar figures, citing big budget problems on the horizon. And in language that one observer called “new Dem speak,” Hevesi described housing as a low-priority social program rather than an essential capital investment.

Housing boosters cautioned that the feel-good forum was just a start. “We still have a long way to go to prove that housing is front-burner issue in mayoral campaign,” said Doug Turetsky of United Neighborhood Houses of New York.