‘We did have a major emphasis on affordable housing, and a great deal of spending on it,’ during the de Blasio administration, says Samuel Stein, the report’s author and housing policy analyst for CSS. ‘And yet the problems have persisted.’

Mayor at Tres Puentes

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio makes remarks on new affordable housing numbers at Tres Puentes in the Bronx on Wednesday, January 16, 2017.

Sounding the alarm for the next leader of New York City, a new report examining the de Blasio administration’s housing legacy found that while certain aspects of the mayor’s approach were successful in creating more affordable housing overall, it largely overlooked the interconnected issues of homelessness, public housing and affordability, furthering disparities faced by vulnerable New Yorkers. 

The report, released by the Community Service Society (CSS) this week, looked at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing plan, first introduced in 2014, which aimed to create or preserve 200,000 housing units over a 10-year period. In 2017, the administration upped that goal to 300,000 housing units—120,000 new and 180,000 preserved— by 2026.

As of July 1, 2020, the administration had financed the construction of 50,656 new affordable homes and the preservation of 114,934 more, for a total of 165,590 units, the report found. The analysis by CSS (a funder of City Limits) excluded most of 2020, due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

But the creation of more housing during de Blasio’s term came with gains and losses. While the city pumped out new affordable units, the Area Median Income (AMI) eligibility for those apartments did not meet the reality of needs in most neighborhoods, the report argues. The city’s homeless shelter population remained stubbornly high, and rental assistance programs did not do enough to help shelter residents secure permanent housing. The New York City Housing Authority, meanwhile, fell through the cracks again — facing a lead paint crisis, a repairs bill estimated at $40 billion and a federal monitor appointed to oversee the struggling public housing agency in 2019, according to the report.

“We must take the lessons of the de Blasio era into consideration as we look toward a new city government and plot a just recovery out of the pandemic and recession,” said David R. Jones, CSS President and CEO, in a press release. “The next mayor must plan comprehensively and prioritize those least served by the current housing system.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development defended the administration’s record.

“Through the mayor’s housing plan, we’ve created and preserved more than 167,000 affordable homes, serving approximately 418,000 New Yorkers. Nearly half of these homes serve New Yorkers like home health care aides, who earn less than $40,000,” Spokesman Anthony Proia said. “There’s more work to be done, and we look forward to releasing more data shortly, but make no mistake: those numbers prove we are deeply committed to making this city more affordable for every New Yorker.”

More affordable housing, but not enough affordability

The report found that the de Blasio administration did produce more affordable housing than the Bloomberg administration, significantly more in some scenarios. Compared to its predecessor, the current administration produced 300 percent more housing for New Yorkers earning up to 30 percent of the Area Median Income (up to $30,720 for a household of three), and 33 percent more aimed at households earning between 31 to 50 percent AMI. De Blasio’s time in office produced 50 percent less housing for those in higher income brackets compared to Bloomberg (those earning between 50 and 80 percent of AMI, or $51,200 and $81,920 for a family of three).  

However, wage stagnation, AMI level increases and the timing of affordable housing construction closings — which could take up to two years in some cases — meant many households that would have been previously eligible for affordable units could no longer apply by the time those units were completed. The analysis showed the city focused on developing housing primarily in lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and some parts of Manhattan rather than more suburban, higher-income neighborhoods such as in Staten Island or Queens, doing little to overcome systemic segregation. 

“We did have a major emphasis on affordable housing, and a great deal of spending on it,” during the de Blasio administration, says Samuel Stein, the report’s author and housing policy analyst for CSS. “And yet the problems have persisted.”

The report found as the city’s population grew, so did the number of vacant housing units — an increase of 3,732 between 2014 and 2017 — but the uptick was largely made up of more expensive units (those enting for more than $2,000 per month) while the availability of more affordable units, with rents less than $800 per month, decreased from 1.8 percent to 1.15 percent. Those two impacts caused a lack of affordable apartments overall, especially for larger households which require more than two-bedroom apartments, and homelessness continued to increase, according to the report.

Although the percentage of city households that are rent burdened (spending more than 30 percent of income on rent) decreased from 46 percent in 2014 to 41 percent in 2019 (similar to 2008 levels), it remained high among lower-income residents — 72 percent of households earning 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, or $43,440 for a household of three. 

However, those markers of increasing unaffordability were mitigated in part through critical housing legislation successfully pushed by tenant advocacy and grassroots groups, starting in 2016, the CSS report notes. These include the city’s Right to Counsel (which provided free legal services in housing court), tenant protection programs like the Certificate of No Harassment (which holds bad-acting landlords accountable), as well as rental assistance programs. Other positive changes include increased funding for community land trusts, the city’s commitment to building 15,000 supportive housing units, and raising the percentage of mandated affordable units set aside for homeless New Yorkers from 10 to 15 percent.

“Even before COVID, our communities faced rampant displacement, enormous rent burdens, and a dire lack of affordable housing. Now the crisis has deepened,” said Jose Lopez, Deputy Director of Make the Road New York, in a statement accompanying the report. “As we look forward to the next chapter in this city’s housing policy, we need an approach that starts with the needs of low-income residents and listens to their voices.”

Favoring for-profits, higher incomes

Advocates say the de Blasio administration displayed a preference for for-profit developers over nonprofit ones — by supporting the state legislature’s restoration of 421-A, an affordable housing tax exemption, by backing for-profit buildings who showed interest in city-initiated rezonings, and by favoring for-profit firms for publicly-subsidized housing and preservation projects. For-profit developers accounted for 71 percent of new construction deals and 79 percent of the city-subsidized housing units created between 2014 and 2018, and for 59 percent of preservation deals and 67 percent of preserved units, according to the report. 

That preference cost the city more community-driven projects targeted for New Yorkers who need it most, according to the report. In an analysis of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) data, 35 percent of units produced by nonprofits developers between 2014 and 2018 were tailored for extremely low-income households, compared to 18 percent of units developed by for-profit firms.

The report also examined the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which requires  residential developments that benefit from a rezoning—both city-initiated neighborhood rezonings and site specific, developer-initiated projects—to include affordable housing for specific income levels, or AMIs. But the program has largely favored higher income levels, according to the report, leaving many vulnerable groups in lower earning brackets ineligible. 

Rezonings pursued by the de Blasio administration were largely initiated in “areas of the city that were generally working class, largely Black, Latinx, or Asian, and often surrounded by existing affordable housing,” according to the report. This caused a ripple effect, bringing wealthier residents into those lower-income neighborhoods and creating an inevitable risk of displacement, CSS argues. When it came to smaller, site-specific rezoning projects built under MIH, the report found that affordability levels were often not in line with the average median income of the neighborhoods they were built in.

“Not a single one of the 9,902 apartments built in 21 MIH projects in neighborhoods with average incomes under 40 [percent] of AMI would be affordable to the typical local resident,” the report reads.

Overlooking homelessness and public housing

As de Blasio pushed his affordable housing plan, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the city’s vulnerable homeless population became an afterthought in the city’s goals, according to the report. During de Blasio’s term, NYCHA’s capital backlog increased by a startling 471 percent––from $7 billion to $40 billion––due to both rapid deterioration of existing housing units and growing project costs. NYCHA residents faced hazardous conditions such as lead and mold, no heat, hot water or electricity. In 2019, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee compliance with federal housing standards. 

On homelessness —named by CSS as the “ultimate housing issue”— the de Blasio administration treated the crisis as disconnected from its central housing plan, according to the findings, as evidenced by the city’s growing homeless population numbers. At the start of de Blasio’s first mayoral term, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) had 53,173 people in the city’s shelter system, and another 11,000 individuals in other shelter systems or on the street. In 2019, those numbers rose to 63,839 people in city shelters —including 22,013 children— and thousands more in other shelters or in the streets. The homeless population grew as high as 79,000 in 2019, according to the report. 

“It was never the Mayor’s goal to end homelessness or even reduce it in any meaningful way. Despite years of organizing and advocacy by homeless New Yorkers and devastating stories of people living in shelters or on the streets, he simply ignored them and refused to make a plan,” said Paulette Soltani, Political Director of VOCAL-NY. “It’s time for a new path forward – and new leaders – who will make it their priority to end homelessness and coordinate our City’s agencies to do it.”

Advocates in the report made recommendations for the future mayor of New York City, calling for the next administration to develop policies that tackle speculative investment, segregation, safe housing, deeper affordability, homelessness and NYCHA improvements by bringing city agencies together strategically to address those issues. 

“The key is not backtracking. So we are falling on harder times and we’re going to have to double down on the city’s commitment to housing rather than retrench from it,” Stein told City Limits. “So going deeper [on affordability] rather than broader, I think is one key takeaway. Really making sure that the city’s resources are put toward meeting the greatest need in this city and thinking holistically, so that we don’t have different housing types or different populations essentially competing with each other for both public resources and public attention.”