Thirteen questions for the candidates, to separate meaty plans from mere paperwork.
Many of the people running for mayor have a plan to deal with the city’s housing problem. Trouble is, no one knows exactly what kind of housing problem the city will be facing come Jan. 1, 2022.
Will accumulating rent debt lead to widespread evictions once the moratorium is lifted and drive thousands of families into homeless shelters? Will withheld rent lead to severe maintenance problems or foreclosures in multifamily housing? Will hotels and commercial landlords go belly up, creating potential new space for housing? Will the city’s population stagnate or fall, or resume its upward rise? How much help—short-term and over the longer haul—will the Biden administration actually provide?
What we do know is this: As was the case before the pandemic, the city will have a severe housing crisis that has tens of thousands of households paying unsustainably high shares of their income in rent and tens of thousands of others living in homeless shelters.
Boiled down to its essentials, that’s the same situation that confronted Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he unveiled a very modest 65,000-unit housing plan in 2002, when Bloomberg expanded that plan to 165,000 units during his 2005 re-election campaign, when Bill de Blasio pledged 200,000 units in 2014 or when de Blasio expanded it to 300,000 during his 2017 re-election campaign.
Even if the broad outlines of the problem in 2021 are similar to what existed a generation ago, the stakes are higher, reflected in the huge numbers of homeless on streets and in shelters. And there has been an evolution in consensus on how to address it. “I feel like there’s so many things that have completely shifted,” says Rachel Fee, the executive director of the New York Housing Conference. “The tenant movement is so much more powerful. The tie-in to racial equity is so much more clear. All of the politics leaning so much more progressive has completely shifted the conversation.”
That’s translated into almost universal acknowledgement that simply promising affordable housing isn’t enough: Pols need to talk about income levels, about community engagement. “Some of that is de Blasio backlash,” Fee says. “But some of that is the development community. They’ve looked at how the rezonings have gone. They’ve looked at resistance even to affordable housing, and they’ve said, ‘OK, we get that communities are only going to accept housing that is serving people who live there.’ There’ve been very big shifts in terms of baseline expectations.”
Those shifts are reflected in the platform of United for Housing, a coalition of advocacy and developer groups that the Housing Conference convened. The plan is centered around massive spending, a commitment to racial equity, priority attention to NYCHA, integrating homeless policy within the housing plan, talking about homeownership as well as rentals and supporting not just capital spending but also the provision of rental assistance.
UFH is meeting with each mayoral candidate to see if they endorse the plan; so far, Fee says, all five candidates who have sat down have agreed to it. That unanimity is good news for UFH, and maybe for the city if the next mayor keeps their campaign promises, but it doesn’t help voters who see housing as a key issue and want to differentiate among the mayoral hopefuls.
Based on conversations with several housing experts, here is a baker’s dozen of big questions New York City voters should be asking when candidates roll out their housing plans.
What did de Blasio get right? Virtually since the moment he became mayor it’s been a popular past-time to mock de Blasio for … well, everything. There was a lot wrong with his approach to housing (see below) but he did put a hell of a lot of money into his housing plan, tweak it midstream and—yes—do a good deal for NYCHA. He didn’t do enough, but de Blasio stepped in where previous mayors had shrunk back and put serious money into a system that the state and feds had shortchanged for decades. Candidates ought to acknowledge that—not to make de Blasio feel better, but to show voters they know where there is progress worth building upon.
Is it one big plan, or lots of little buckets? One mistake de Blasio made—as other mayors had before him—was to separate his plan for subsidizing the creation or preservation of privately owned affordable housing from his plan for NYCHA and from his plan(s) to address homelessness. While each issue has unique features, they are all inextricably linked; there’s even an argument to be made that the city should have ensured the preservation of NYCHA before building a single new unit of other housing. The 2021 candidates are likely to speak holistically about these issues, but do their plans really braid the policy strands together?
Do they talk money, or unit count? From the get-go, advocates were worried that de Blasio’s 200,000 unit target would do the same thing Bloomberg’s big number did: Elevate quantity of units over the type of affordability being achieved, and get us too many middle-income units, or one-bedroom apartments, or new buildings sited in neighborhoods with the cheapest land regardless of local market dynamics. UFH is asking candidates to invest $4 billion a year in housing, which is massive. How they plan to spend that money is the first question; then, unit counts are worth thinking about. And whether their plans depend on fickle state or federal support is another thing to look at.
Does it center homelessness, and is it holistic? Any housing plan that treats homelessness as an “and while we’re at it…” consideration risks repeating de Blasio’s political and policy mistakes, while also ignoring his era’s real successes. Homelessness is the human epicenter of the housing crisis and de Blasio’s failure to prioritize solving homelessness was a huge flaw in his housing plan, one that registered deep human costs. At the same time, policies like de Blasio’s rental vouchers, the Council’s right-to-counsel bill and Albany’s rent-regulation changes had reduced the number of families in the shelter system significantly by the time COVID hit. The eviction ban has depressed the numbers further, but that could change radically when the ban is lifted. And the fact is, families with kids still represent the majority of people in shelters. Meanwhile, the number of singles in the shelters keeps exploding. Addressing homelessness—and particularly family homelessness—requires a three-legged stool: more pathways to permanent housing, real steps to make shelter life more bearable and sustained attention to the social stresses (domestic violence, low wages and more) that drive women of color into the shelter system. That’s a lot to ask candidates. But 16,843—the number of children in the system as of Feb. 25—is a lot of kids.
How will they approach rezonings? De Blasio immolated a lot of his political capital pursuing a small number of neighborhood rezonings based on the presumed willingness of local pols to accept the plans, as opposed to systematically adjusting growth capacity across the city based on where space and infrastructure aligned. Even if the Council approves a comprehensive planning system, the next mayor will have a role in operating it. How will they approach the question of where and how to rezone, and how will community voices be meaningfully included in developing those plans?
What’s their approach to income mixing? De Blasio’s plan controversially devoted a lot of money to building or preserving units for moderate- and middle-income groups that faced less dire market conditions than lower-income people; this was sometimes reflected in the difficulties the city had attracting people to enter the lotteries for those pricier “affordable” units. Some candidates still embrace mixed-income subsidies because they fear that to focus only on “the low end” will reinforce segregation, although there might be other ways to achieve social integration than subsidizing apartments at 130 percent AMI. Other candidates will pledge to only subsidize low-income housing, but that typically means producing fewer units.
How will they save NYCHA? There are misgivings about PACT, RAD and the other novel financial mechanisms NYCHA is adopting or exploring as it tries to deal with a huge maintenance backlog and the hangover from years of all-government fiscal neglect. Candidates who share those misgivings have an obligation to explain what they want to do instead—and simply expecting Washington or Albany to resume their support for public housing over the long-term is not realistic. It’s possible, and it’s principled, but it simply can’t be counted on.
Do they commit to homeownership? De Blasio’s housing plan was notable for how little attention it paid to fostering low-income homeownership, an important component of the city’s affordable housing universe since the 1980s. In some ways, that’s understandable: New York is a renter’s city, and homeownership programs usually don’t help the lowest-income households, can be fairly capital intensive, and raise tricky questions about how to let owners build wealth without using today’s city funds to create tomorrow’s unaffordable housing. But given the growing concern about the racial wealth gap and the increasing investor activity in one- and two-family homes, valid housing plans probably have to do something substantial on homeownership—and specifically, on the supply of affordable ownership opportunities. All the down-payment assistance and homeowner training classes in the world are just a cruel joke if there’s nothing out there to buy.
What do they say about segregation? To de Blasio’s credit, even when the Trump administration pulled back from the Obama-era’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing push, the mayor put together they city’s own process for looking at the drivers and impacts of residential segregation and ways to reduce it. The timing of the report (late in the mayor’s tenure and in the midst of a pandemic) was not fortuitous. The next mayor should probably take a look at that plan, and talk about what she or he will do if the city loses the still-pending community preference lawsuit and needs to come up with a new mechanism for ensuring local support for housing without exacerbating segregation.
Do they have a plan for property taxes? On its face, the city’s deeply unequal property tax system might not seem like an affordable housing policy topic. But moderate-income homeowners and low-income renters are among those most affected by the current tax structure, which hits multifamily buildings harder than houses, and gives breaks to houses in hot neighborhoods over homes in areas where values rise gradually. Leveling the playing field will create winners and losers, unless the city plans to reduce the overall revenue from the tax. What’s more, the impact of COVID-19 on real-estate values could wreak havoc with the shares of revenue that, by state law, must come from different types of property. So, Ms. or Mr. Would-Be-Mayor, watchagondobout that?
What role do they see CLTs playing? Community land trusts are an exciting idea—a way to ensure that taxpayer subsidies support permanent affordability by developing housing that is controlled by community stakeholders, not private developers. Many candidates have signaled support for the model. But at what scale do they see it operating? What kind of housing will the trusts support? How will the city ensure that the trusts have the skilled management and long-term financial strength that good properties need? Simply saying “I like CLTs” is not a plan.
Do their plans depend on a perpetually growing city? Ever since the 1970s, when a shrinking population was associated with years of urban crisis, a popular theory of progress in New York City has been based on the notion that things are good when the population is growing, and bad when it isn’t. Rising Census numbers are treated as both symptom and cause of success. For most of the Bloomberg and de Blasio eras, policies were built around the idea of a steadily rising population: We needed to build more housing to hold all those new people, and the wealthy among them would help us pay for all the other things we want to do. But what if, even after COVID-19 goes away, the city’s population doesn’t grow? Or what if it does grow, but the people coming to the city are low-income immigrants, not biotech engineers? Is there a vision for how the city might get better without more people moving here? Or as one housing expert said it to City Limits, “What would it mean right now to just say, ‘We’re going to take this time to focus on creating and bettering our housing stock and our systems for the people who live here now?”
Can they make friends and influence people? In housing, like virtually all municipal policy areas, two things are true: One, the mayor wields massive power. Two, his is not the only power to reckon with. The City Council, state legislature, governor, state authorities, Congress, federal agencies, building trades unions, nonprofit developers, for-profit developers and lenders all have influence on the kind and amount of housing the city is able to preserve or build. What appears to have been one of de Blasio’s signal failures as mayor is to consistently build coalitions so he could punch above his weight, thanks largely (though not exclusively) to his diseased relationship with the governor. Whether its getting buy-in for rezonings, changes to the property tax or support for the next urban homeownership initiative, the next mayor is going to need to be able to make more deals. She or he won’t be friends with everybody. But they’ve got to be friends with somebody.