An opportunity like this is a precious one for a prospective mayoral candidate. The question now is whether City Comptroller Bill Thompson will seize it.
In late March, the Bloomberg administration announced it wanted to finance the planned expansion of the Javits center with revenue from the Battery Park City Authority. Governor Pataki was there at the press conference, declaring his support for the arrangement. But the deal can’t go through without Thompson’s approval. Despite repeated calls for his view of the mayor’s plan, the comptroller has thus far kept mum. “Right now, we can’t comment because we are still reviewing all the documents,” said Scott Taffet, the comptroller’s spokesperson.
There’s more than paperwork for the comptroller to consider. In the late 1980s, the city signed agreements that said in lieu of property taxes, the Battery Park City Authority would supply New York City with $1 billion—$400 million in bonding authority and $600 million in cash—to construct 24,000 units of affordable housing. A report released last week by the Independent Budget Office showed virtually all of the $600 million went to the city’s general fund to balance the budget and confirmed that only $143 million in bonds were made available for housing. According to the IBO, while the authority made its final payment in January 2004, final tally of new affordable units is 1,557 in Harlem and the Bronx.
Affordable housing advocates are hoping that the comptroller will bar the mayor from spending Battery Park City revenues on new projects until the billion-dollar commitment is fulfilled. “We are still waiting on the original money promised,” said Joe Weisbord, executive director of Housing First!, an alliance of more than 260 housing groups. “Whether it’s clinging to a dream or addressing reality remains to be seen, but claiming these funds is part of our larger advocacy for affordable housing.”
The Bloomberg administration argues that the city has fulfilled its legal obligations. The deal signed 18 years ago included a caveat: The city could use the money to balance the budget if necessary “to maintain fiscal stability…or existing city services.” IBO Director Ronnie Lowenstein has referred to this option—which every mayor since then has availed himself of during every budget cycle—as “a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.”
According to mayoral spokesperson Jordan Barowitz, the city is not trying to get out of funding affordable housing. “You have to look at this in perspective,” he explained. “We are using other mechanisms that are more efficient at building affordable housing, like bonding power. People who say the city is shortchanging affordable housing, would they rather have had the $600 million Battery Park money or the $3 billion we have allocated?”
“Both,” said Glenn Pasanen, who did the first in-depth analysis of the Battery Park City housing funds in 2000 for the watchdog group City Project. “Officials say that funds are fungible—that any dollar is as good as any other, but the agreement said the [Battery Park] monies had to be used to supplement existing funding.” The administration’s comparison of the $600 million Battery Park City cash commitment with its own $3 billion housing plan is also misleading, he says—the city plans to put up just $500 million in public dollars to leverage an additional $2.5 billion in private funds.
Affordable housing advocates are now lobbying the comptroller behind the scenes. Barowitz confirmed the mayor is speaking with the comptroller on the matter as well.