Last week protesters stood outside Gracie Mansion demanding that Mayor de Blasio resign for breaking a vow they say he made last year to devote $500 million in city money to building senior housing on land owned by the New York City Housing Authority and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. One of the demonstrators told a reporter, “The mayor promised us senior housing a year ago and he broke his promise.”
That’s just what the Daily News editorial board has been saying for months. “In last year’s budget negotiations, de Blasio agreed to invest a half-billion dollars to start building thousands of units of senior housing on city-owned land,” the tabloid opined recently. “Then de Blasio reneged.” The New York Times editorial page followed suit recently with a leader titled, “Mayor de Blasio, Keep Your Promise on Senior Housing.”
Faulting the mayor for the deep flaws in his housing plan – units set aside for income groups that are already fairly well served by the market, rezonings that focus on low-income communities of color, a sluggish approach to NYCHA’s massive repair problems – is common.
Calling the mayor a liar is not. It’s a grave accusation. The facts to support or refute have been elusive.
The record—including a video of the key event that City Limits located via Twitter—does not indicate that de Blasio lied. Rather, it shows that the words and actions of a mayor keen on papering over his differences with advocates, a community group intent on solidifying a victory and a speaker anxious to please everyone combined to cloak half a billion dollars in confusion.
Not in doubt: The need for senior housing
The demand that the city build senior housing on underused NYCHA land comes from East Brooklyn Congregations-Industrial Areas Foundation, a community group that has a long history of brick-and-mortar work to stabilize low-income neighborhoods and build political power for low-income people of color. Their plan called for the construction of 15,000 units on NYCHA territory at a price-tag of $2 billion.
Unlike the city’s other plans to build new affordable or mixed-income housing on NYCHA territory, the purpose of EBC-IAF’s plan was not to generate revenue for the cash-strapped Housing Authority or create affordable housing for the general population. Instead it was to address the city’s gaping need for senior housing, and in so doing, encourage older people living in large NYCHA apartments to move to new units nearby and free up those units for people on the Authority’s long waiting list, including those in homeless shelters.
It’s not clear that tenant-selection rules would permit every unit of senior housing built on public land to be reserved for NYCHA residents, but at the very least, EBC-IAF’s plan represents a use of public housing land for a public-housing purpose, not for privately operated, market-rate housing.
EBC-IAF pressured de Blasio for years to move on their plan. They walked out of an October 2, 2017 mayoral town hall that year because the mayor refused to give them an answer about the plan—even though he’d just met with them about it and promised an answer by October 9. Then they staged a huge City Hall rally that day.
During the budget process in 2018, EBC-IAF continued to press the issue, gaining support from the Council. When the Council and mayor struck a deal on that budget, some amount of senior affordable housing development on NYCHA territory was part of the agreement. The dispute is over the details.
A dearth of documentation
Per last year’s agreement, the city is moving ahead with senior affordable housing on six sites, four owned by NYCHA and two others by HPD.
According to the de Blasio administration, the six publicly-owned sites will absorb $100 million of city dough, with other sources making up the rest of the half-billion-dollar price tag. His critics insist that the deal was for $500 million of city money. The Daily News has pointed to a June 2018 City Council press release about the deal between Speaker Corey Johnson and the mayor for the Fiscal 2019 budget. It mentions several key points of agreement, including “$500 Million for senior affordable housing targeted at 4 Housing Preservation and Development sites and 2 NYCHA sites.”
But there’s no mention of that $500 million in the same week’s mayoral press release about the budget. Nor is there any specific set aside in the budget itself, according to the Independent Budget Office. A Council budget document called Schedule C says “$500 million will also be added to support the new construction of 1,000 affordable senior housing units at six city-owned sites.” But budget analysts note that there’s no mention of what year or years that $500 million investment covers; the previous item mentioned in Schedule C had a 10-year timetable. What’s more, Schedule C is not part of the official budget.
Making matters more complicated, EBC-IAF has said its understanding was the six sites were just the start, and the $500 million would go farther than that. The Council’s wording seems more limiting than that.
The $500 million is not mentioned in the transcript of a Johnson-de Blasio press conference about the budget deal.
When City Limits asked Johnson’s office last week—in the midst of negotiations over this year’s budget—exactly what the mayor had promised and how he had communicated it, all his spokesman said was, “The City Council will continue to fight for senior housing, and we are constantly talking with the administration to ensure that there is a resolution to this in this year’s budget process.”
De Blasio’s position is that he will eventually spend more than $500 million in city money on senior affordable housing overall, but that he never promised $500 million in city money just for those six sites. The city’s normal approach is to mix federal, state, city and even private dollars (largely through tax credits, which are sold on the market) to build affordable housing—a way of stretching city money.
The event that disappeared
The true basis for the accusations against de Blasio is not the Council documents but a rally convened by EBC-IAF on the steps of City Hall last June 12. De Blasio and Johnson made appearances*.
According to Rev. David Brawley, the pastor of St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church in East New York and the co-chair of EBC-IAF, that was the only conversation the administration had with his organization about the 2018 senior housing deal.
Some of the editorials about this incident have referenced “contemporaneous news accounts” that established what de Blasio promised at the event. There was indeed at least one such account in the Wall Street Journal. At less than 500 words, the story was later corrected from initially saying the money would build “thousands” of units to merely “up to a thousand”—an indication of the confusion that has attended this deal from the beginning.
It ought to be easy to check what de Blasio said—his public appearances are almost always filmed and preserved on a mayoral YouTube channel, and his public remarks are always transcribed by his staff.
But no such record of last June’s rally exists. There was no video done because it was a spur-of-the-moment decision for the mayor to attend, and no audio was taken, apparently because of a lapse in coverage by the mayor’s press team. Last week the mayor’s critics pointed City Limits to a local TV news story that included a brief and inconclusive clip of de Blasio speaking at the rally.
It turns out, however, that video of the full event is out there – right there on Johnson’s Twitter feed.
All smiles and cheers
At about the six minute mark of the video, Brawley says: “Mr. Mayor, we came to you four years ago. We asked you for $2 billion – $500 million a year for four years. We believe we can building thousands of units – units so our seniors can live in dignity in their golden years. Mayor, do we have a commitment from you for the first $500 million in this budget year? And second, do we have your word that we can meet with your team so we can keep the deal and go to the ribbon cutting?”
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) June 12, 2018
De Blasio makes some quip that can’t be heard clearly, then takes to the podium. He never directly answers Brawley’s question, saying instead at around the 8:30 mark: “Rev. Brawley, all the faith leaders, Metro IAF and the City Council, we are here in common cause. It’s been a long road but we have found common ground. We have found common ground because you will see in this city budget a new commitment – resources now focused on affordable housing for seniors like never before.”
The mayor then says many words about other things. As he departs the podium at about the 11:45 mark, he and Brawley embrace, and the minister seems to be quietly pressing the mayor to clarify his remarks, mentioning $500 million. “We’re good,” de Blasio says breezily as he moves past the clergyman. “We’re good.” Brawley returns to the podium and presses the matter. “We have your commitment?” he asks.
“I have committed to what the speaker is going to speak about,” the mayor says, gesturing to Johnson, who is moving toward the podium.
“At this time, ladies and gentlemen, let’s thank God for our mayor today who is committing resources to senior affordable housing and has committed publicly to working with Metro IAF for senior affordable housing,” Brawley says. De Blasio agrees and the two shake hands.
Then Johnson begins talking. “I really want to recognize and thank Mayor de Blasio because when he and I were negotiating the city’s budget—there are not many things in the city’s budget, in the capital budget, at $500 million,” the speaker says at around the 13:45 mark. “And so I think that rightfully the mayor right was—not skeptical of senior affordable housing, but there are many, many priorities in our city and the mayor wanted to talk through the details, come to an understanding, achieve a real number of affordable units for seniors and do it in a way that worked for each Councilmember and each community in a meaningful way and that is what you see reference in the budget that we’re voting on this week: a $500 million placeholder for us to work with all of you …”
The rest of his sentence is drowned out by cheers. That’s the last mention of the $500 million in the 20-minute event.
Parsing a promise
“There was no ambiguity on the steps of City Hall,” Brawley told City Limits last week. “[The mayor] came to our press conference and addressed the audience. We shook hands.” Brawley adds: “We thought we we going to be involved in a negotiation” about additional building sites.
De Blasio’s very appearance at the rally might have been a little disingenuous, or at least unwise, because it presented an image of comity that did not exist. The mayor indicated that he and Brawley had reached “common ground” without specifying how narrow their area of agreement was. And the mayor shook hands on an agreement to work with EBC-IAF—which is apparently not happening, although “partnership” is in the eye of each partner.
Most important, the mayor never explicitly promised a $500 million city investment for senior housing on six sites. He talked about a more general commitment to senior affordable housing, which indeed had been added to his Housing New York plan in late 2017 and would have been reflected in the budget passed in 2018. Just before the handshake, de Blasio indicates that he’s committing to what Johnson is about to describe. What Johnson describes is a commitment of $500 million in city capital money, but in the form of a “placeholder”—a vaguer reference than the one-year commitment EBC-IAF sought.
The rally was not a shining moment of clarity and candor for the mayor, but De Blasio didn’t lie: He just failed to say anything much at all. Johnson’s “placeholder” offered less certainty than we laypeople might be faulted for believing. And EBC-IAF’s accusations against the mayor rest on a promise he somehow managed not to actually make. Adding to the murk, City Hall uncharacteristically did not ask media outlets to correct mistaken reports about the nature of last year’s promise.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote to the administration earlier this year asking for clarity on what was promised and what had been delivered, and received a detailed response indicating that the slow process of bidding contracts for new buildings is underway, albeit with only $100 million in city funds in the mix. The de Blasio administration says it will release requests for proposals for those sites by June of next year, in line with what it claims its commitment was.
“I have long supported the proposal to create fully affordable housing units for NYCHA seniors. The mayor and City Council made grand promises – they need to back up their lofty words with actual deeds,” Stringer told City Limits. “Our city is in a housing crisis and we need to prioritize helping seniors who have built up our communities.”
A year after de Blasio shared the steps with EBC-IAF, there has been another handshake—this one between de Blasio and Johnson over next year’s spending plan. The mayor’s press release about the budget deal for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1, says the new budget will include another $275 million over four years for senior affordable housing, enough city money to generate 800 homes.
“This will raise the total city commitment for newly constructed senior housing to $687 million from now to the end of the housing plan,” the release reads.
There’s no mention of how many of those homes units be built on NYCHA sites, where Brawley and his neighbors believe the city has a chance to help two groups whose needs are a lot clearer than politicians’ promises: aging NYCHA residents who need to shift to senior housing and low-income people desperate for an affordable home.
Correction: The original version of this article mischaracterized the mayor and speaker’s appearances as a “surprise.”