The soon-to-be governor recently pledged to re-strengthen the state’s eviction moratorium after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the law, which expires at the end of this month.
New York’s statewide homelessness crisis has deepened over the past decade, with a wave of evictions on the horizon. Public housing is crumbling and renters from the Rockaways to Rochester contend with crippling rent burdens. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but critics of Gov. Andrew Cuomo fault Albany’s miserly spending on municipal homeless services and limited funding for NYCHA, a failure to build enough truly affordable units across New York, and the governor’s opposition to far-reaching rental assistance vouchers.
Cuomo, for his part, touts a $20 billion, five-year plan to create or preserve 100,000 units of affordable housing and 6,000 units of supportive housing statewide with financing from New York’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal. His series of executive orders to establish and extend an eviction moratorium prevented an untold number of New Yorkers from losing their homes during the COVID crisis. And Cuomo signed legislation enacting major rent reforms in 2019, seven years after the state created its first Tenant Protection Unit.
“Governor Cuomo has dedicated his career to ensuring tenants have strong protections and leaves a legacy of concrete accomplishment in helping New Yorkers across the state find safe and affordable housing,” said spokesperson Rich Azzopardi. “New York is poised to exceed its target of creating and preserving more than 100,000 affordable homes across the state and 6,000 with support services, and the administration is proud of this achievement.”
How might housing policy change under incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul?
The soon-to-be governor recently pledged to re-strengthen the state’s eviction moratorium after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the law, which expires at the end of this month. Hochul’s record in government offers few other clues—she has never held state legislative office, and she spent her tenure as lieutenant governor cheerleading Cuomo’s agenda. But when it comes to housing policy, her campaign contributions and development ties provide plenty of “circumstantial evidence” about her outlook, said Robert Galbraith, a Buffalo researcher at the government accountability group LittleSis.
“Hochul, at the end of the day, comes from the Democratic establishment and generally, in New York State, the Democratic establishment is very closely aligned with the real estate industry,” said Galbraith, who focuses on elected officials and government in Western New York.
Hochul has raised over $520,000 in her state campaign account between January and July, bringing her total cash reserves to about $1.7 million, her most recent financial disclosure report shows. Many of her high-dollar contributions came from the real estate industry, including $18,000 from William Rudin, $10,000 from Western New York developer Samuel Savarino and $6,000 from Paul Millstein.
But her positions on housing policy, especially as she pursues the 2022 Democratic nomination, may be hard to pin down. Her ideology has at times shifted to fit her constituency. During a brief stint in Congress, Hochul signalled a willingness to cut Medicaid, though she won in a historically red district by opposing plans to dismantle Medicare. She forcefully opposed drivers licenses for undocmented immigrants—an initiative she now supports.
She likely tailored some of her stances to satisfy voters in a district that has almost never voted Democrat over the past century. She lost reelection anyway.
“We don’t have a ton to go on in terms of her governing record,” Galbraith said. “But I think that it will be incumbent on her to show she can distinguish herself from Cuomo’s housing policies.”
He and other advocates criticized Cuomo’s support for developer-driven housing plans that create too few truly affordable units and threaten to displace long-time residents.
In a statement to City Limits, Hochul spokesperson Haley Viccaro praised Cuomo’s five-year housing plan and said she will describe specific policies in the coming weeks.
“It’s no doubt that affordable housing and combating homelessness will be a priority for the Lieutenant Governor when she officially becomes Governor,” Viccaro said. “In terms of specific ways she will tackle these issues moving forward, she will share more about her vision and plans in the days and weeks ahead as she works through the immediate transition process and officially becomes governor.”
Hochul has so far sought to align herself with Cuomo’s achievements. During a press conference Wednesday, she cited priorities like affordable housing, clean energy, minimum wage increases and opioid overdose prevention as liberal victories.
“Many people have supported the policies of the Cuomo Administration. There is a strong legacy of accomplishment,” she said. “I’ve fought for the same policies.”
Indeed, for the past seven years, she has canvassed the state boosting Cuomo’s proposals, her public schedules stuffed with appearances.
Western New Yorkers know her best, however. A Buffalo native, Hochul served on the town council in Hamburg, New York and as Erie County clerk before her bid for Congress.
Like Galbraith, several tenant advocates and liberal policy experts in and around Buffalo described Hochul as a moderate, establishment-oriented Democrat with close connections to the real estate industry. Her husband William Hochul, a former U.S. Attorney, is a senior vice president at the gambling and hospitality corporation Delaware North, and was a member of the board of directors at the powerful Buffalo Niagara Partnership (BNP) economic development organization until his three-year term expired June 30.
In 2018, BNP honored Lieutenant Governor Hochul with an annual leadership award and on Tuesday celebrated her ascension in a blog post. “The BNP looks forward to working with Hochul and her administration to tackle our state’s numerous challenges and build a better Buffalo Niagara. We have full confidence in her ability to lead our state at this critical time,” wrote Executive Director Dottie Gallagher.
BNP has, however, faced significant criticism from local housing rights advocates for championing the kind of “urban renewal” projects that attract wealthier, typically whiter residents and that drive displacement and homelessness in low-income communities of color. A recently released plan to renovate the iconic but long-vacant Buffalo Central Terminal has raised those same concerns.
Members of the BNP development council opposed inclusionary zoning and a prevailing wage requirement on new construction last year. In February, BNP submitted testimony to the state senate opposing “Good Cause Eviction” legislation and lobbied in the spring against an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium. BNP did not respond to questions about those policy stances and Hochul did not answer questions about her relationship to the organization.
“Buffalo Niagara Partnership reinforces the power structure and continues to create the inequities between landlords and tenants,” said Harper Bishop, the deputy director of movement building at the housing justice organization PUSH Buffalo. “It’s corporate landlords, not mom and pops, but really these corporate landlords who are extracting and exploiting and creating this speculative market.”
Still, Bishop said many Western New York advocates are optimistic about a Hochul governorship and the chance to appeal to a local leader.
“We’re going to be treating her the same way and asking of her the same things we’d be asking of anyone else,” Bishop said. “We feel very excited and hopeful to influence public policy at the state level that we haven’t had an opportunity to do.”
Members of the state’s Housing Justice For All Coalition told City Limits they planned to meet with Hochul on Friday after the lieutenant governor rescheduled a forum initially planned for Wednesday—the day she addressed New Yorkers for the first time as incoming governor. Hochul again asked to reschedule that meeting, coalition members said Monday.
VOCAL-NY Buffalo organizer Kim Smith said she is hopeful that Hochul will move to the left as governor when it comes to housing, as she has on other issues, like drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. Smith said she wants Hochul to oppose tax abatements for developers, like the expiring 421a—a hefty property tax cut for developers with some requirements for relatively affordable units—and 485a, which allows cities to give 12-year property tax exemptions to developers that renovate old buildings for mixed residential and commercial use.
“It’s hard to speculate and we don’t want to loop her in with her husband,” Smith said. “We don’t even know if she’s a centrist, a conservative, a progressive.”
Smith pointed out that Hochul posed for photos with Buffalo’s Democratic nominee for mayor, India Walton, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, earlier this month. She could embrace more progressive policies as she seeks to court voters, and left-leaning lawmakers, ahead of next year’s budget negotiations and Democratic primary for governor, Smith said.
Real estate groups, however, hope Hochul will embrace tax abatements—especially 421a, which they say fuels construction and ultimately lowers rental prices.
“People don’t want to think about what comes after, because it’s very difficult to build in a financially feasible way without 421a,” real estate attorney Jim Power told the Commercial Observer earlier this month.
Back in the boroughs, advocates for the homeless say they hope Hochul steps up spending for services, accelerates supportive and affordable housing development, and focuses on moving New Yorkers out of shelters and into permanent housing.
Their optimism is due in part to the prospect of a more functional relationship between state and city leaders.
For months, Cuomo has used homelessness as a cudgel, undermining New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and routinely depicting the Big Apple as a scary hellscape.
New York City is “teetering” with homelessness “way up,” he said in March. New Yorkers who left the city during the pandemic are now too nervous to return, he added in July: “I’m not ready to come back,” he said, channeling the supposed mindset of reticent residents. “I’m afraid I might be assaulted by a mentally ill homeless person.’”
There is indeed an entrenched homelessness crisis across New York City, where 45,265 people slept in a Department of Homeless Services shelter Aug. 9 — down from a high of around 60,000 in 2016. But left unsaid is the state’s role in perpetuating the problem. Over the past decade, Albany has slashed spending on homeless services and left the city holding the bag, with the cuts detailed in near-annual reports by the city’s Independent Budget Office.
The state once covered 50 percent of shelter costs. Now Albany covers 9 percent. The city will raise the value of its rental assistance vouchers next month; Cuomo has yet to sign legislation increasing the state version. Controversial developer subsidies, like 421a, have failed to generate a sufficient number of truly affordable housing units.
“Governor Cuomo’s budgeting practices have resulted in a massive withdrawal of State resources to address poverty and homelessness, and nowhere has the pain of these reductions been more keenly felt than in New York City,” the Coalition for the Homelesness wrote in their 2018 State of the Homeless report.
The governor’s team highlights Cuomo’s efforts to expand access to housing by outlawing source-of-income discrimination, mandating that property owners of HCR-financed buildings individually assess applicants’ credit history, preventing state-funded developments from automatically denying applicants with criminal convictions in most cases.
Three years later, Coalition Policy Director Shelly Nortz said Hochul’s first steps should be ensuring tenants and landlords are covered under the state’s delayed Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and working with the legislature to extend the existing eviction moratorium.
She said she also hopes Hochul will agree to raise state spending on homeless services and permanent housing programs, particularly rental subsidies. The persistent decline in spending will take political will to undo, Nortz said.
“The problem with some of those changes is it’s kind of like a genie coming out of the bottle,” she added. “How to reverse those fundamental financial changes when reversing them means spending more state funds is an art form.”
On the plus side, Nortz said, Hochul will have time to partner and “fence-mend” with lawmakers, budget officials and advocates ahead of next year’s budget season.
Raysa Rodriguez, the associate executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children, also said Hochul should immediately focus on streamlining ERAP and getting money out the door to New Yorkers in need—a key consideration for tens of thousands of tenants and small landlords, and what would be an early political win.
Rodriguez also said CCC and other members of the Family Homelessness Coalition will push for the state to increase the value of state housing vouchers and to work more closely with the city.
“What we would push for her, is what we would push for with Cuomo: making short-term resources available and turning to permanent, long-term subsidies to fight family homelessness,” she said. “This is an opportunity for coordination between city and state.”
And in the wake of a years-long feud between the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations, city officials are optimistic about the chance to build a new relationship.
“We look forward to working together with the new governor,” said New York City Department of Social Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn.