You’ve no longer any excuse if you’re not aware of the complexities and tensions confronting Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the 2014-2023 period. In recent weeks, Next City, New York magazine, Truthout and—today—my former editor Alyssa Katz in the Daily News have all weighed in with long, thoughtful articles exploring some of the dilemmas and paradoxes that characterize the housing crunch and de Blasio’s approach to easing it.
Boiled down, the issue is this: Will the development of 80,000 units of affordable housing end up fueling the very trends it is designed to resist?
It’s not a new concern. Midway through the Bloomberg administration’s plan to build or preserve 165,000 units of housing over 11 years, critics worried that anything those units did to meet the demand for low-cost housing would be overwhelmed by other real-estate forces encouraged by the mayor’s frenetic rezonings. There was also concern that city-subsidized housing was itself displacing low-income people from their neighborhoods, because while it was called “affordable” it was actually priced for more affluent people than lived there.
The takeaway was this: On its own, the number of units of affordable housing didn’t matter any more than the number of yards a quarterback racked up in a game. You can toss The Duke for 500 yards and still lose. You can build 50,000 or 100,000 or 500,000 units of housing and still be behind the eight-ball.
But we all love numbers—or at least something like 98.9 percent of us do—so we focus on them. Even a savvy news organization like City Limits can fall into the trap. In 2007 we questioned whether Mayor Bloomberg’s housing plan was really bigger than the Koch Ten-Year Plan, as the Bloomberg administration claimed. Our conclusions were sound, but trivial. Bloomberg himself celebrated numerical milestones in the buildout of his plan. Over the past year, de Blasio has faced questions about whether he is giving his administration credit for units actually built under the Bloomberg plan. Last week, Housing and Preservation Development Commissioner Vicki Been boasted that the administration ended calendar year 2014 some 1,400 units ahead of its target for affordable housing starts. And in his State of the City address, the mayor made an unusual vow to foster the creation of 160,000 units of market-rate housing,
At best, however, the unit tallies are an incomplete indicator of whether the city is getting the job done. At worst, they are distracting and even misleading metrics. As ANHD executive director Benjamin Dulchin told an affordable housing conference last week, “Two-hundred thousand units is a big goal. I don’t know that it’s the right goal. The goal is more affordable neighborhoods.”
And that’s where the worries about inclusionary zoning come in. If one wants to accept more market-rate development in exchange for a larger number of affordable units, you have to remember, as Dulchin noted, “Building market-rate units in most neighborhoods is not a neutral act. It creates displacement.”
It’s telling that no one is quite sure how many units of affordable housing were created or saved by Mayor Koch’s plan, probably the most important city policy of the last 60 years. He promised 250,000; the smart money seems to be that he hit around 190,000 or so. But the precise number doesn’t matter because the impact was so clear. Whole neighborhoods were stabilized or even rebuilt. The city’s role as landlord shrank. Housing conditions improved.
It’s true that in 1985, Koch did set that numerical goal, presumably did it for the same reason Bloomberg and de Blasio did: Mayors want to be judged on what they can deliver, and mayors can deliver a certain number of housing units built with city money a lot more easily than they can deliver a change in the actual real-estate conditions the city faces. This is a problem that dogs much of de Blasio’s progressive platform: Will we know in three or seven years whether we live in a less unequal city? Or will we just know how many kids have gone to pre-K, how many workers have taken paid sick leave, how many undocumented immigrants have picked up their IDNYC cards?
Those difficulties in measurement aside, in the end, it’s the actual conditions that matter. If Mayor Giuliani had implemented COMPSTAT and the crime rate had not fallen, his legacy would be quite different.
Before it’s too late, the city or its watchdogs must set a better goal than a mere unit count for deciding whether the de Blasio plan—or the work of any subsequent mayor—is a success.
City Limits’ coverage of housing policy is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.
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