‘We are seeing a rampant level of opposition to every suggestion of new housing going back to before the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are going to address the housing shortage and fuel the recovery, we must strengthen our practices to ensure there is always a net positive for communities.’
In past times of crisis, affordable housing production has been the spark that led to New York City’s recovery. It can be that catalyst again.
Instead we are seeing a rampant level of opposition to every suggestion of new housing going back to before the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are going to address the housing shortage and fuel the recovery, we must strengthen our practices to ensure there is always a net positive for communities, from new job opportunities and access to safe, affordable housing to resources and economic development.
I’m proposing a Grand Bargain—three things we must do to help break the loop of distrust so we can get our city back on its feet.
Local hiring and a minimum construction wage
People and local businesses need guaranteed access to the jobs and other economic benefits of projects being developed in their communities—particularly in Black and brown communities where a majority of affordable housing is being built. If neighborhood residents and businesses do not see economic benefit from development, but are asked to accept the impact, then tensions will always exist.
To help solve this problem, the city should mandate that a percentage of jobs on affordable housing projects be given to New York City residents. This creates jobs for people in our communities and builds experience and capacity for local developers to grow and take on more projects.
But a job isn’t enough. The city should establish and require a living construction wage for those jobs. This is not about mandating the prevailing wage structure, but ensuring a reasonable wage that people can count on, so they can raise families and build businesses here in the city.
Increase resources to create more housing opportunities
Despite significant affordable housing production over the last 20 years, roughly half of all renters in the city are paying more than 30 percent of their income towards rent, and the odds of landing an apartment in the city’s affordable housing lottery are still astronomical. Depending on how many apartments are available in a building, it could receive as many as 40,000 applications. It’s called the lottery for a reason.
If you can’t afford rent and it feels like you have no chance of getting an affordable apartment, even if it’s being built in your neighborhood, you’re much less likely to see that development and the changes it creates as a net-positive.
While we should continue to build as much as we can, we need to create more housing support for more people. To do this, we need to expand funding for, and access to, rental vouchers for all renters earning between 40-50 percent of the area median income. Providing low-income families with a resource to help pay for rents that have been just out of their reach gives them more opportunities to find housing, and maximizes our existing vacant rental housing.
An increased ability to pay a higher rent will unlock new housing choices within the existing rental stock that isn’t available to low-income families today, without having to build a single new unit. This expansion of vouchers creates new housing opportunities that are critical to solving our housing crisis and will give more people the housing help they need.
End the ability of an individual or group to scuttle projects
Currently, a project can get killed by a single vote, or opposition to any part of a project can tie it up in red tape for months or years.
We must depoliticize affordable housing projects that bring the most benefit to communities.
Projects that are 100 percent affordable should be automatic, and be removed from the ULURP public approval process. This takes the pressure off of Councilmembers who shouldn’t have to make affordable housing decisions based on politics or competing community interests, and fast-tracks the housing that’s the most critical to our communities.
Local hiring, living wages, improved access to housing, and depoliticizing the process should not be controversial. With all of these pieces working in concert, we can build real change and tackle the housing crisis. In turn, that change builds trust in the process. Importantly, through getting the system unstuck at every level from creating enough housing to making it affordable and accessible, we can strengthen our economy, jumpstarting it after the pandemic, and continue to build a more affordable and equitable New York City.
Rafael Cestero is the president and CEO of The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC), which finances affordable housing, and a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).