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Tenants’ and landlords’ wait for new statewide housing leadership is finally over. Gov. Eliot Spitzer last week named a commissioner to head the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), the agency that has the power to affect the security and stability of New York City’s approximately one million rent-regulated tenants. It’s also the focal point for each gubernatorial administration’s effort and strategy to foster community development and create affordable housing statewide.

Deborah VanAmerongen, until now the director of multifamily housing for the New York City regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), will assume the job on Feb. 5. VanAmerongen also spent several years working for the state assembly, where one of her positions was senior analyst for the Standing Committee on Housing.

VanAmerongen will face a variety of housing needs once she becomes commissioner. Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Housing Committee, is adding to the list, presenting Spitzer with a fact-finding survey and report on how to reform DHCR, an agency Krueger says has been diminished by years of inefficiency, ineffectiveness and neglect.

Several housing advocates spoke positively of VanAmerongen’s appointment. Joe Agostine, executive director of the Albany-based Neighborhood Preservation Council of New York, welcomed VanAmerongen’s appointment. “We’re very excited … because of her background in housing, housing issues and all of the state’s housing programs. She worked closely with us to get the message out about the need for affordable housing funding to be at adequate levels,” Agostine said.

That sentiment was shared by Ginny Shubert, executive director of the affordable housing coalition Housing First! “VanAmerongen’s an experienced professional who is really committed to housing issues … it’s what we were looking for,” Shubert said.

Both advocates said the appointment is a stark contrast to what they described as a leadership-less agency during the Pataki administration, under three different commissioners, where there was little to no interaction between housing officials and advocates, and large funding cuts.

In fact, the Pratt Center for Community Development in June released a scathing report entitled “Time for a Gut Rehab” about the failure during Pataki’s tenure to maintain or create affordable housing. Among the key criticisms were that Pataki “failed to devise a statewide strategy responding to various housing needs … invested more than half of scarce tax-free bond financing in luxury housing … and facilitated the loss of tens of thousands of units of affordable housing.”

Krueger’s report supports many of those claims, though it focuses mostly on the state Office of Rent Administration. Submitted to the governor today, the report will soon be available on the senator’s website. Among the most serious findings, Krueger noted:

– a lengthy time period for tenant-initiated complaints to be resolved, often lasting months or years, while landlord-initiated cases were usually resolved within weeks;

– an inability to combat harassment against tenants;

– a lack of oversight of the agency in general, and specifically, over false claims by landlords for major capital improvements (MCIs), vacancy decontrol and luxury decontrol;

– and a consistent lack of impartial enforcement of current rent regulations with a pro-landlord bias.

Krueger’s recommendations include revamping DHCR leadership, enforcing the rent regulation and anti-harassment laws that currently exist, and proactively conducting random audits of MCI applications.

According to her office, in the end, making many of these changes won’t cost the taxpayers anything. But they don’t actually know if the agency needs more funding or simply needs to reallocate funds, because over the years legislators haven’t gotten real answers on how the agency’s budget is spent.

“From top to bottom, few agencies need fundamental change as much as the DHCR does, which is why Governor Spitzer’s appointment of Deborah VanAmerongen as the new commissioner is a breath of fresh air,” Krueger said in an e-mail. “Under Pataki, the DHCR showed complete disregard for the agency’s mission by deregulating more than a hundred thousand apartments, repeatedly violating its own regulations and procedures, and failing to strategically plan for the housing needs of our state.”

VanAmerongen could not be reached for comment. Her appointment, however, is not being met with universal praise.

There have been questions about VanAmerongen’s work in the assembly and whether she has been too close to current Assembly Housing Committee Chairman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democrat and county leader. Among their criticisms, some tenant activists note that Lopez has often endorsed candidates for elected office who would weaken tenant protections, including Pataki.

And Frank Ricci, director of governmental affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association – a landlord group that lobbies the state legislature to change rent regulations – praised the changes that took place at DHCR under Pataki. “Before 1995 … there was an 80,000-case backlog of complaints” against both tenants and landlords, Ricci said. There was no pre-screening of cases to check that tenants have first contacted owners to inform them of a problem, he said, but now “there’s some sort of criteria … There’s been common sense over the last 10 years.”

“I am hopeful that that common sense-effort continues … but we’ll see within a year or so,” Ricci added.

VanAmerongen’s appointment follows the naming of Priscilla Almodovar as president and chief executive of the state Housing Finance Agency and the State of New York Mortgage Agency, vehicles traditionally utilized by governors to help establish housing direction and policy.

According to Spitzer spokesperson Christine Pritchard, as a candidate Spitzer consistently said last year he wanted to see some streamlining of the state’s various housing programs. Whether Almodovar and VanAmerongen will establish a closer working relationship than their offices had before ultimately depends upon the new governor’s priority of maintaining and creating affordable housing in New York.

Top posts at many state agencies were filled earlier this month. Other late-breaking appointments made last week include Manhattan Assemblymember Alexander “Pete” Grannis to head the Department of Environmental Conservation; Michael Burgess, executive director of the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans, to serve as Commissioner of the Office for the Aging; and Daniel Gundersen, executive deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, to serve as Upstate Chair of the Empire State Development Corporation.

– Jillian Jonas

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