Public Advocate’s New Critique of Long-Lagging City Housing Program

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Public Advocate James with Hollie Osborne, a prospective homebuyer still waiting for a home.

Office of the Public Advocate

Public Advocate James with Hollie Osborne, a prospective homebuyer still waiting for a home.

Public Advocate Letitia James on Monday released a scathing report about how a particular affordable housing program failed a group of potential home-buyers in Crown Heights. Out of the 26 homes transferred to a developer in 2002 to be rehabilitated and reoccupied under the city’s Neighborhood Homes program, 17 remain vacant or abandoned. Would-be homeowners have made down payments in some cases, the Advocate says, but are still waiting for the keys.

“This failure of oversight and accountability that denied New Yorkers affordable homes is unacceptable,” James said in a statement. Her report also raised alarms about the involvement of a convicted felon in the firm now overseeing the Crown Heights properties.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I reported on similar worries about the same Neighborhood Homes program. My focus was on properties in the Bronx that were sitting un-rehabbed five years after their transfer from the city to a nonprofit developer, as well as problems that some of the completed homes were causing for their buyers.

A lot has changed since then. Neighborhood Homes, which was launched during the Giuliani administration, was tabbed to play a small role in the Bloomberg administration’s affordable housing initiative, the New Housing Marketplace. It is among several housing programs for which the Department of Housing Preservation and Development is no longer taking applications. (HPD’s response to the James report can be found in DNAinfo.com’s account.)

Like my 2006 story, the public advocate’s investigation focuses on a relatively small number of properties. Neighborhood Homes did turn around many other properties on a faster timetable. But the suffering of the buyers involved—and the lost opportunity for the blocks around those houses—is real no matter how large or small the problem’s footprint is.

More important, the Neighborhood Homes saga could offer instructive insight for two current housing-policy conversations.

Some in the city are calling for the de Blasio housing plan to include more support for home-ownership. Others want to see HPD do more with vacant or abandoned properties that the city owns. Both are worthy ideas but they are complicated to execute. While many issues may have dragged down the Neighborhood Homes parcels that remain unoccupied, a likely leading culprit is that it was hard for nonprofit developers to address the repair issues found in vacant homes without pushing purchase prices out of the reach of the income groups the program targeted.

As I wrote in ’06 (and even then it was more a statement of the obvious than anything prescient on my part), “The city’s inventory of ownerless buildings, which once hobbled neighborhoods, is all but gone—a tribute to clever policies and a strong economy. But that overall success makes the few remaining distressed properties that much more important. They will help decide who gets left behind.”

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