HOUSING MINUS POLITICS

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Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum will sign a contract in the next several weeks worth $400,000, hiring Baruch College to study ways to increase affordable housing production in New York City beyond what the Bloomberg administration has proposed. But contrary to a recent news report, Gotbaum is not the only political force behind this project—nor the most powerful.

“This is something the City Council considered, and we invited the Public Advocate in on it,” said council spokesperson Leticia Theodore. Speaker Gifford Miller, in fact, decided to go forward with the study last year and included $400,000 in the Public Advocate’s budget for fiscal year 2004. Because of delays in finding a contractor, the money will be rolled over into the Public Advocate’s 2005 budget instead. The research team will begin work this summer and issue a final report by mid-October.

The Public Advocate’s involvement caught media attention because it comes on the heels of her strident opposition to the mayor’s development plans for Manhattan’s West Side. Yet the link is tenuous, points out Gotbaum’s policy research associate Beth Lieberman, since the study is actually Miller’s baby, and Gotbaum was slated to do it well before the stadium and convention center were even on her radar screen.

Both Miller and Gotbaum have expressed serious concerns about the mayor’s housing plan. “That was the impetus for the study,” Theodore admitted. And Lieberman agreed: “The administration is very vocal in saying that developers will use existing incentive programs to do affordable housing, but we don’t know if they will,” she said. “The mayor’s plan may create housing for people making up to 250 percent of the area median income, but not the families we really need to target with affordable housing.”

Well aware that the project could face charges of political gamesmanship, Gotbaum selected a nonpartisan contractor, Baruch College, to do the research rather than a progressive housing firm. Another bidder, California-based David Paul Rosen & Associates, is a favorite among housing advocates for its 2002 report that showed requirements for developers to build affordable housing do not necessarily dampen production.

The team of researchers Gotbaum chose, assembled by Baruch from roughly 20 regional institutions, is largely made up of academics, architects and planners on good terms with this administration, and an advisory panel of big-time developers. Members include: Fox + Fowle Architects, Zone Architecture, which served on the mayor’s 2003 Staten Island planning task force, and Bill Traylor, now at The Richman Group real estate firm, who was recently a top official at HPD and HDC.

The study’s methodology likewise aims to avoid some of the more parochial fights that polarize housing policy. Instead of analyzing how to produce more affordable rental buildings in Bushwick, for example, the researchers will calculate the costs of constructing prototypical housing in prototypical neighborhoods. “We don’t want to get into specific district discussions because of the political connotations,” explained Roberta Edge, the project’s manager at Baruch. Researchers will also suggest incentives, rezonings and building code reforms that could stimulate more affordable housing development under various conditions.

Lieberman hopes that taking a nonconfrontational approach will make way for actual progress. “The political reality is that if developers are against it then it won’t happen,” she said. “We have to give them something they support.”