carlina rivera

Emil Cohen for the NYC Council

Councilmember Carlina Rivera warns that, ‘in times such as this, when the real estate market is in flux, … speculators can easily swoop in and increase gentrification in our neighborhoods. We saw this in 2001 and 2008.’

Housing advocates and elected officials released a new plan Thursday which calls on the de Blasio administration and City Council to support more development of community land trusts, maintain tenant protections, restore the city’s affordable housing budget and create new a path to homeownership.

Advocates say with online housing courts now open for eviction proceedings and amid a brewing economic crisis due to the pandemic, bold action is needed to create stable housing economy in the city’s future.

“We know that in times such as this, when the real estate market is in flux, that speculators can easily swoop in and increase gentrification in our neighborhoods. We saw this in 2001 and 2008, and with New York City housing courts now disappointingly re-opened, we must do everything we can to not repeat a similar situation where displacement becomes rampant,” said Councilmember Carlina Rivera. She said the policies she and allies mapped out this week “can make a real difference in the short and long term to ensure we keep all New Yorkers in an affordable home and community.”

Housing, health and hardship

Advocates say there are dual housing crises emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic: an unstable housing market vulnerable to exploitation from predatory real estate interests and the onslaught of expected evictions as certain eviction proceedings restart. 

A United Hospital Fund report out this week found 45 percent of New York tenants pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, making them “rent burdened,” and nearly 30 percent are severely rent burdened meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income toward rent. The report said some low-wage and extremely low-wage workers pay nearly 75 percent of their income toward rent. 

The report also said more than 11 percent of all city housing has three or more maintenance defects. What’s more, since 2009 the city’ population grew by 500,000, but only 100,000 new housing units came to market.

It’s more than a housing issue, UHF argued.

“Housing is inextricably linked to health, but affordable housing in New York is less available and more costly than ever before. We are living in uniquely challenging times and face an ongoing housing crisis,” the report read. “The arrival and persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the toll it has taken on vulnerable populations—especially people of color, individuals who are living in crowded housing, and those who are unhoused—has added to the urgency of the housing crisis that already existed.”

A four-point plan

The first goal is to increase funding to the Council’s Community Land Trust Initiative in the upcoming budget to $1.5 million. Last year, the budget funded the program at $850,000*. In the short term, the initiative would run education and organizing sessions for 2,500 tenants and homeowners, offer technical assistance engagements to emerging CLTs and aim to formalize CLT entities in all five boroughs. Over the longer term, backers say, the initiative would preserve thousands of permanently affordable housing units, provide affordable commercial space for hundreds of small and cooperatively-owned businesses and drive sustainable, community-led development.

A community land trust is a community-governed, nonprofit entity that sells the housing or other buildings on its property but retains ownership of the land. Advocates say the unique ownership structure helps ensure the buildings remain permanently affordable and that decisions about the building are made democratically.

The second goal is to continue the funding for the Stabilizing NYC Initiative at $3 million. That effort involves a coalition of housing and tenant advocacy groups that work to preserve affordable housing and provide legal services against landlord harassment. The funding comes from the City Council’s discretionary funding budget 

The backdrop to housing-policy discussions these days is the de Blasio administration’s proposed $2.3 billion reduction in the city’s capital budget,which includes a proposed 40 percent budget cut to the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) affordable housing program. The proposed reductions could result in a reduction of over 5,000 new and 15,000 preserved affordable and supportive housing units over the next few years, based on analysis and testimony by the New York Housing Conference (NYHC). 

The coalition’s third goal is for the city to cancel the cut proposed for fiscal year 2021 and increase the budget to ensure affordable housing development.

The last goal involves two pieces of legislation: the first is a City Council bill, the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), introduced by Rivera, that will give qualified entities such as non-profit affordable housing developers, Community Land Trusts and other organizations a right of first refusal whenever landlords decide to sell apartment buildings or property, ensuring they have time to secure and develop the funds necessary to make competitive offers on available property, according to Rivera. The bill would require landlords to notify HPD and a list of qualified entities when their buildings will be listed for sale. The entities would have the opportunity to submit the first offer and match any competing offers for the property.

The second bill is a state law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), being drafted by Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, that would give tenant associations the first opportunity to purchase a property for sale. 

In its report, UHF called for more grassroots action around the intersection of housing and health, as well as deeper partnerships between public-health and housing agencies and nonprofits. There is also the need, the report said, to rethinking how rental supports are provided, and who is eligible for them.

Finding the money

Julia Duranti-Martínez, the campaign coordinator at New Economy Project, said the CLT budget was not on the chopping block but the group wants to ensure the current budget is maintained and is hoping for the increase, “Of course, we recognize that it’s challenging right now to get initiatives even renewed, let alone enhanced,” she said. 

At Thursday’s event, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal said the city has an opportunity to support low-income communities by diverting funding from the NYPD’s $6 billion budget. 

Wanda Swinney, a resident of a Bronx property owned by the nonprofit Banana Kelly and a leader in that organization, said she’d turned her life around from living through the drug epidemic to having a job and a home. She wants others to have that chance. “The city needs to invest in our people,” she says, “not in a system of policing and mass incarceration, but through community ownership and control.”

*An earlier version of the articles showed $805,000 due to an editing error.