In Wednesday’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Edsall wove some legitimate questions about housing policy with a harsh attack on the “poverty housing industry,” the developers and community groups that support building affordable housing in low-income communities. Edsall’s argument is that building affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods fattens developers’ wallets and pleases local pols but only exposes more people to the ills of failing schools, crime and economic isolation that characterize such areas. The only accomplishment of such a strategy, Edsall suggests, is to further segregation.
The argument Edsall has joined is not new: Critiques of the ill-effects of “concentrated poverty” and the location of subsidized housing are decades old. But they’ve been rejuvenated by recent research, court decisions and regulations.
For New Yorkers, the debate presents an odd counterpoint to local conversations about affordable housing, which are chiefly about whether it caters to people substantially more affluent than the communities in which it is situated. The discussion over Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan revolves not around the fear that it will trap low-income people in dead-end neighborhoods, but that it will gentrify them out of their communities. And there’s little debate that past affordable housing programs helped stabilize struggling neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s.
Still, the growing critique of current affordable housing policy could affect the rules and funding mechanisms that shape the mayor’s plan and other local programs. Rachel Fee, the executive director of the New York Housing Conference, responded to Edsall via an open email on Thursday:
Like many of you in the affordable housing community, I am deeply troubled by yesterday’s NY Times commentary which denigrates the work of building and preserving affordable housing in low-income communities. For more than 40 years, NYHC has been calling for investment in affordable housing to improve the lives of New Yorkers. That means uplifting communities by investing in struggling neighborhoods and supporting the efforts of neighborhood residents to revive and stabilize their communities, while and also creating housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers in high-income areas.
In New York City, neighborhoods have gone through dramatic changes in recent decades and in many cases affordable housing can be credited as the catalyst for positive change which has spurred private investment in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Ironically, some neighborhoods have been transformed so thoroughly that long-term residents are now in danger of displacement in the face of rising rents. Siting affordable housing in high-income neighborhoods has also been achieved but it is harder than ever to accomplish these days as affordable developers are not able to compete with market-rate developers in many neighborhoods due to astronomical land prices. And nor would the taxpayer want them to.
In spite of rising real estate costs, we should continue to work with policy makers to better incentivize more low- and and moderate-income housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods and embrace efforts which can achieve economic integration through market forces or reduce subsidy costs.
In a new proposal announced last Friday, Mayor de Blasio addresses economic integration by leveraging the booming market-rate real estate industry by requiring affordable housing in upzonings (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing). In legislation achieved in June, the Mayor will also require affordable housing in exchange for real estate tax abatements (421-a). These are thoughtful and in some cases cost-effective solutions to providing low-income housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
On the federal level, NYHC in partnership with NHC is championing Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Income Averaging to allow more income diverse housing opportunities in the housing tax credit.
While all the affordable housing community- nonprofits, for-profits, advocates, government, banks and investors –should defend our long and impressive track record of revitalizing communities and developing good quality affordable housing in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, we also need to work together to support new solutions to better achieve the dual and mutually supportive goals of economic integration and community renewal. Towards that end, NYHC will proudly continue to work with our partners in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to identify new and effective ways of achieving these affordable housing goals to improve the lives of New Yorkers.