On the campaign trail, Mayor Bill de Blasio often points to the fact that his affordable housing plan, once described as over-ambitious, is ahead of schedule: Of the 200,000 income-targeted units the mayor promised to build or preserve in 10 years, nearly 78,000 apartments, or 40 percent of the target, have been built or preserved within three and a half years. He’s also launched the city’s first mandatory inclusionary housing program (requiring developers to set aside a portion of housing at income-targeted levels in exchange for density), signed into the law a universal right to counsel in housing court and provided the city’s first funding for community land trusts, among other initiatives.
At the same time, critics say de Blasio is in the pocket of real-estate developers and blame him for the city’s skyrocketing homeless rate. Several of his challengers in the September 12 primary have taken issue with his private-market approach to addressing the housing crisis: his decision to encourage housing growth in neighborhoods vulnerable to gentrification, his frequent collaborations with for-profit developers, and his choice to target affordable housing to a range of incomes, not just the lowest ones.
The big question, of course, is whether any of his challengers, if elected, would be prepared to step into the mayor’s shoes and immediately take on the crisis. City Limits checked campaign websites, debates and policy briefs and held conversations with de Blasio’s challengers to find out what they’d do when it comes to constructing and preserving affordable housing, the neighborhood rezonings, and homelessness—and, crucially, how they’d pay for it. We also asked what exactly “affordable” means to each of them.
Building new affordable housing
Former city councilmember Sal Albanese, as well as Robert Gangi, co-founder of Police Reform Organizing Project, have both put forward the same strategy: They say that instead of collaborating with private developers, they’ll create a land bank that will work with non-profit housing groups to develop housing that is really affordable to low-income families.
At the first mayoral debate, Albanese stated that the city holds about 1,000 public vacant lots, which he believes could yield about 60,000 units of affordable housing. A report by Comptroller Scott Stringer in 2016 states as much, but the De Blasio administration has long argued that Stringer overestimated the number of vacant lots that are actually buildable and that the administration is already doing all it can to develop those lots that are viable.
Gangi places an emphasis on working with community land trusts, and also stresses that the construction workers will be local residents. “We will initiate public works crews of mainly unemployed and underemployed young people from our inner city communities and place those crews at the disposal of neighborhood housing groups who can supervise and train the participants in construction trade skills and work discipline,” he writes in his affordable housing plan.
Richard Bashner, a Brooklyn community board member and attorney, has said he’d launch a “massive” affordable housing building program on NYCHA land, with a special focus on senior and supportive housing and preference for existing NYCHA residents. He believes the city can build a lot more of the senior housing it needs by constructing communal buildings for seniors with smaller room sizes and shared common spaces.
De Blasio also has begun building on NYCHA land, but has encountered resistance from some residents. His plan involves both 100 percent affordable developments as well as some that will have a 50 percent market-rate, 50 percent affordable mix. NYCHA residents are given preference for 25 percent of the affordable units in the mayor’s scheme.
Entrepreneur Michael Tolkin does not shy away from the for-profit business sector. Pushing a radical reorganization of city government that emphasizes efficiency and more public-private partnerships, he has proposed the creation of privately-managed, profit-generating firms called NYC Enterprises that are owned by, and reinvest their profits into, the city of New York. One of his projects will be NYC Homes, “the most ambitious affordable housing program in our city’s history,” which includes constructing new public housing campuses that are managed and funded by NYC Enterprises.
He says the new public housing campuses would be designed in a way that “seamlessly” integrates them into the neighborhood, with the feedback of their host community, and include public spaces, community facilities, and “pre-fabricated, state-of-the-art micro-homes (optimized for space utilization).” His program would also encourage the conversion of commercial spaces to residential buildings.
In 2014, the De Blasio administration announced that as part of the city’s affordable housing plan, it would seek to upzone fifteen neighborhoods, encouraging housing growth with a portion of the new homes income-targeted under a new mandatory inclusionary housing policy and providing other substantial investments in neighborhood services. Since then, two neighborhood upzonings have been approved (East New York and Downtown Far Rockaway), one proposal has been ditched (Flushing), and another eight or nine are in various levels of study and approval. Many of the proposals are deeply controversial, with residents fearful that an upzoning will exacerbate gentrification and displacement.
Albanese says he’d “scrap” all the rezoning plans “because they result in the hyper-gentrification driving people out of this city.” Asked if he’d scrap the less-controversial Far Rockaway rezoning just approved, he said that might be an exception.
Bashner has also lambasted the mayor’s rezoning plans and argued he’d instead involve communities in ground-up planning processes. His website states that he’d “base decisions about land-use, preservation and zoning upon what is best for the neighborhood, not upon political contributions and lobbying” and “appoint qualified preservationists, zoning experts, and planners, free of corrupting lobbyist influences, to the Landmarks commission, the Board of Standards and Appeals, and the Department of City Planning.” He stresses his opposition to overdevelopment and the privatization of public assets, and says the requirements for environmental review need to be expanded.
“We oppose all of Bill ‘gentrification is a double-edged sword’ de Blasio’s rezoning plans,” wrote Gangi in an e-mail to City Limits, referring to a phrase used by de Blasio in the first mayoral debate. “They will help drive gentrification and displacement.”
Tolkin, in an e-mail to City Limits, said he’d work with residents to reevaluate all the plans.
Affordability levels and Area Median Income
Earlier this year, de Blasio upped the number of units in his plan dedicated to families making less than 50 percent Area Median Income ($43,000 for a family of three) from 20 percent of the total units to 25 percent. In actuality, about 32 percent of the apartments financed as of July were intended for that income bracket.
Albanese and Gangi have lambasted the housing created by de Blasio as not truly affordable. They’ve argued that the city should base affordability levels on local median incomes rather than Area Median Income, a metric used by the federal government and calculated to include income-earners in Westchester County and other nearby suburbs. When City Limits asked if they were aware of the technical and fair housing issues with switching the metric itself, both said they’d have to look into the issue of metrics more deeply.
“Bottom line is, I want people to live in El Barrio to be able to afford that housing and that means that people who are earning $20,000, $25,000 year should be able to live there,” said Albanese, while Gangi also stressed his plan was focused on building truly affordable housing in low communities.
Bashner, like Gangi and Albanese, says housing should be affordable to neighborhood residents and that the city should use a local median income metric. He’s also critical of government subsidizing a limited number of affordable units in luxury buildings when it could instead put that subsidy into an affordable housing fund and benefit a larger number of renters.*
Asked about affordability levels in his housing plan, Tolkin says it will include multiple pricing tiers, and that who gets access to new housing units will depend on a variety of factors, including the length of time someone has lived in their neighborhood. “It’s important that we view affordable housing in the broader context of our economic development plans. Everyone will eventually have a meaningful and sustainable income,” he wrote in an e-mail, explaining that he’d also invest in job creation, new job training and education programs, and new income distribution programs like Universal Basic Income.
The city’s homeless population ballooned from about 31,000 people to almost 54,000 people during the 12 years of the Bloomberg administration, and grew to almost 61,000 over the first three and a half years of the de Blasio era. De Blasio argues that those numbers would be even worse if he hadn’t helped to keep people out of shelter with a host of new homeless-prevention initiatives—including a rent-freeze on rent-stabilized apartments and new investments in legal services—or helped move over 60,000 people out of shelter (according to the mayor at the first debate) and into housing with a new rental subsidy and other efforts.
The administration has now embarked on a controversial plan to build 90 new shelters in order to reduce the overall number of shelter sites, end reliance on private landlords and hotels, and provide better-quality housing that helps homeless families stay close to their original neighborhoods. The administration says it will reduce the shelter population by 2,500 people over five years and has launched a plan to build 15,000 units of supportive housing in 10 years.
Albanese has condemned the plan for 90 new shelters and stressed that his plan will create the affordable housing that keeps people from falling into homelessness. Otherwise, his solutions sound similar to de Blasio’s: rent subsidies, building supportive housing, reducing shelters and reinvesting the savings in homeless prevention and supportive housing.
Bashner would “reverse the mayor’s unbounded support of real-estate development,” declare a homelessness state of emergency and “create safe homeless housing units offered on a ‘housing first’ basis, with supportive services, to get individuals off the streets and get them help.” He too would invest in homeless prevention services and expand access to health care, among other efforts aimed at strengthening the city’s safety nets.
Gangi would also declare a state of emergency, take buildings through eminent domain, compensating the owners, and convert them immediately into housing for the homeless.
Tolkin recently penned an editorial on the homelessness crisis and his efforts to experience it first-hand. “Earlier this year, I went homeless. I spent months sleeping on the couches of relenting friends and acquaintances, and then I slept on the streets,” he explains, and concludes with sympathy for the people who really are homeless, who he recognizes end up on the streets for a variety of reasons.
For homeless people who need some sort of rehabilitation, his solution is NYC Life Centers: facilities that would be located outside of the city and would include interim housing and wraparound support services like vocational training, healthcare, etcetera. He’d work with the state to figure out areas that would benefit from having the jobs created by those centers.
“For those that require rehabilitation services, this construct would be comparable to going to college outside of NYC. We’re not displacing people and asking them to fend for themselves (as was done under Giuliani and Bloomberg); we’re providing them with the opportunity to get healthy and learn the skills they need to go wherever they choose to find full-time employment,” he said in an e-mail.
The work of preserving existing affordable housing is less glamorous, but makes up the bulk of de Blasio’s housing plan. De Blasio has also invested city funds to address NYCHA’s maintenance backlog and launched an interagency Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force to investigate landlords that harass tenants, among other initiatives to protect tenants. Still, concerns prevail about the conditions in NYCHA housing and the rapidly depleting rent-stabilized housing stocks.
When it comes to public housing, Albanese promises to fast-track repairs and introduce introducing participatory budgeting in NYCHA, among other initiatives.
Bashner says he’ll increase the number of building inspectors to allow more prompt responses to code violations, make code violation fines appear on real-estate tax bills, make it possible for tenants to send photos of violations through the internet to their building managers, and improve the online accessibility of city resources for tenants and landlords.
Gangi says he’ll designate a unit in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to “proactively investigate landlord abuses or illegal deregulations of existing rent stabilized units.” (Currently, HPD has an Office of Enforcement and Neighborhood Services, which is charged with investigating housing maintenance problems. The state Department of Homes and Community Renewal, or DHCR, is charged with enforcing rent regulations.)
Tolkin’s NYC Homes plan includes investments to upgrade existing public housing. He also intends to provide new housing subsidies for students, parents, seniors, people with disabilities, those training for new jobs and people at risk of displacement.
How they’d fund it
It’s easy to dream big when you’re not sitting in Gracie Mansion, but the housing and homeless crisis is an expensive ordeal.
Albanese says he’ll generate more funding for affordable housing construction by pushing the state legislature to pass a pied-a-terre tax on expensive apartments owned by absentee overseas buyers. He argues that it will have a chance of passing through the state legislature because it would affect mostly foreigners. (De Blasio considered advocating for such a tax when a bill requiring the tax was introduced to the state legislature in 2014, but ultimately the bill didn’t get passed.)
Bashner would finance new construction of housing by ending the city’s costly practice of sheltering people in cluster sites, as De Blasio’s homeless plan also aims to do, expanding triple-tax exempt bonds (which would need the approval of the state), and investing city pension funds to build housing for municipal employees. (The city already does invest some pension funds in affordable housing; expanding that amount would take the cooperation of the Comptroller and the pension fund trusties.)
Gangi would fund affordable housing through budget cuts in other sectors. Particularly, he’d cut the budget of the NYPD, scrap the Brooklyn Queens Connector and bring an immediate end to Rikers.
“Re: funding, it will be a combination of debt, private sector collaboration, grants and NYC Enterprises,” wrote Tolkin in an e-mail to City Limits, adding that the city-owned, for-profit enterprises, “will be independently funded in the short-term and will yield ongoing financial returns to be able to sustain themselves and fund many of our programs longer-term. The net result of our efforts will be massive, diversified, fairly distributed economic growth.”
*This paragraph was amended for clarity after publication.