Advocates Want Housing Battle Fought on Many Fronts

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Mayor de Blasio has promised a more aggressive approach to affordable housing than his predecessor.

Photo by: NYC mayor

Mayor de Blasio has promised a more aggressive approach to affordable housing than his predecessor.

Three-quarters of New York City tenant households saw their income gains during the Bloomberg years wiped out by rising rents as the city lost to the private market more than twice as many “affordable” apartments as it gained through the former mayor’s New Housing Marketplace Plan, according to a new report by the Community Service Society.

The report calls for a multidisciplinary approach by the de Blasio administration to address the housing crisis, one that links public housing, homeless shelters, zoning, the Rent Guidelines Board, comprehensive city planning and traditional affordable housing programs. (City Limits is an operationally independent subsidiary of the Community Service Society, or CSS.)

Also this week, the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association wrote de Blasio to offer a menu of suggestions for planning, housing and transportation policy, including that the city push to get control over its rent laws, which currently are set by the state legislature.

Mayor de Blasio promised during his campaign to create or preserve 190,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. He’s also vowed to shore up the New York City Housing Authority, which is home to more than 400,000 people, and to move more of the city’s homeless out of shelters—which on Wednesday held 51,300 people, include 22,000 children.

The Bloomberg administration made promises, too. It did not succeed in dramatically reducing the number of homeless in the city, a goal it set in 2004. But in the waning days of his mayoralty the mayor did celebrate the creation or preservation of 160,000 units of affordable housing.

A call for more creativity

“Much of this new housing is affordable to households with incomes around 200 percent of the federal poverty level – not the city’s poorest but still people who are not well served by the unsubsidized market,” the CSS report says of the affordable housing that was newly constructed under Bloomberg. “Just as important, the city helped preserve more than 100,000 existing apartments that might have been lost from the affordable stock without the city’s intervention, and much of this housing is affordable to households below the poverty line.”

“Though these efforts fell far short of meeting the needs of the city’s low- and middle-income people, or even keeping pace, they are the result of skillful work by the city’s housing agencies and a real commitment of city resources,” the report continued.

CSS recommends that the administration continue to use the tools that Bloomberg did, but make more effort—even if it’s just on a pilot scale—to target housing subsidies to lower-income groups. That’s difficult for the city to do because federal subsidies are built around regional income measures that are often out of step with what people in low-income city neighborhoods make.

The CSS report also encourages de Blasio to pursue his promised use of mandatory inclusionary zoning, which basically requires any developer taking advantage of a zoning change that permits higher density to devote a share of the new apartments to affordable housing.

De Blasio has called for 50,000 units of affordable housing to be created through mandatory inclusionary zoning, which critics claim will discourage development, but which the APA endorsed in its letter. APA also stressed the importance of encouraging home ownership, particularly in areas with low rates of ownership, like the Bronx, where a 19 percent ownership rate is the lowest of any county in the state.

The de Blasio campaign housing plan also called for broader use of the city’s massive pension funds to invest in public housing. So far, the new mayor has named his deputy mayor for housing and economic development and his homeless services chief, but not a NYCHA chairperson or commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development.

Beyond subsidies

The inability of Bloomberg’s affordable housing plan—which supporters called the largest municipal housing initiative in U.S. history—highlights the need to look for other ways to preserve housing and use subsidies that already exists. Protecting NYCHA, which is the nation’s oldest and largest public housing system, is key: CSS calls for the end of the city’s annual $100 million charge to NYCHA for police, sanitation and payments in lieu of taxes, and for halting the move to develop open space on NYCHA parcels. CSS surveys indicate New Yorkers—poor and otherwise—are skeptical of the wisdom of building market-rate or affordable housing on those parcels.

The APA, however, endorses “community-planned, mix-use development” on NYCHA land “that will provide social and commercial services, facilitate the movement of over-housed persons to more appropriately sized units, and generate revenues to support the maintenance of Housing Authority properties.”

Restoring the priority for homeless shelter residents to get into public housing or receive Section 8 vouchers for subsidized private housing, appointing tenant-friendly members to the Rent Guidelines Board that approves changes to stabilized rents in the city and using vacant, city-owned land and existing subsidies like 421a more effectively are other ways to address the housing gap, CSS writes. Beyond that, the city has to weave affordable housing into a comprehensive, overall plan for how it is going to sustain a diverse city in years to come.

“When the Bloomberg administration undertook its PlaNYC 2030 project,” CSS writes, “it left affordable housing out of the picture entirely, projecting a large increase in population but ignoring the near certainty that a large share of those additional New Yorkers would be unable to afford market-rate housing.”

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