UNLIKELY ROOMMATES PUSH FOR NEW HOUSING AGENDA

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Blinking into the sun on the steps of City Hall last Thursday, nearly a hundred affordable housing advocates did something unfamiliar: They talked optimistically about the future. This was a press conference to launch “Housing First,” an agenda to make housing as much an issue in the coming two election years as schools, cops and taxes. “Housing must be understood as essential infrastructure, on a par with transportation,” said Mark Willis, head of J.P. Morgan Chase’s community investment division and one of Housing First’s major funders.

The coalition is proposing a $10 billion city investment over 10 years to create 100,000 new housing units, and preserve and renovate another 86,000; homeownership and rentals, for low-, moderate- and middle-income New Yorkers, as well as expanding supportive housing. This would effectively double what the city now spends. Among new sources of money suggested are World Trade Center taxes, block grant dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and proceeds from the city’s escalating sales of tax liens and city-owned properties.

The members’ agendas are many. The nonprofit Association of Neighborhood and Housing Developers is emphasizing the need for rental apartments and construction targeted at the neediest. The Coalition for the Homeless, too, wants a large commitment to the very poor; the Supportive Housing Network, to people with special needs. ACORN and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition are among the grassroots members. The for-profit New York State Association for Affordable Housing and Real Estate Board of New York are interested in cashing in on a subsidized moderate and middle-income building boom. Besides Chase, the community development departments of Citigroup, Independence, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Fannie Mae are paying for the initiative and could benefit from expanded housing development. All in all, the proposal has so far been endorsed by 116 organizations and companies.

But a conspicuous absence is the New York City Housing Partnership, the biggest builder of affordable housing in the city. The Partnership, whose parent organization, the New York City Partnership, has been undergoing a restructuring under new chief Kathryn Wylde to focus on business development, has not endorsed the campaign.

Housing Partnership director George Armstrong is on the coordinating committee for Housing First, and the Partnership has already been lobbying the city and state to invest more in affordable housing. So why no endorsement? Armstrong was not able to return calls by press time. But Joe Weisbord, a planner for Housing First, says that “there are reasons of organizational policy” at the Partnership. “A lot of organizations don’t have a process to make endorsements like this, or it’s a long process.”

Just as surprising were two development celebrities who did show up: mall builder Bruce Ratner, who called affordable housing “a moral imperative and an economic imperative,” and the Rev. Floyd Flake, who clearly didn’t have housing for the homeless on his mind when he said, “The largest asset in our portfolio is our home.”