In the summer of 1989, City Limits asked the candidates running for mayor of New York—including Ed Koch and David Dinkins—to explain their plans and policies on homelessness, housing and development. Read what they had to say at the time (except for Rudy Giuliani, who didn’t respond).
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When the two leading candidates running for mayor took part in their first general election debate Wednesday, they were asked about their plans to address New York City’s housing crisis. The following night, 46,039 people slept in the city’s homeless shelter system, according to the Department of Homeless Services’ daily census.
More than three decades ago, in the summer of 1989, New York City was likewise in the midst of an election for its next leader at City Hall, though the homeless shelter population back then was less than half of what it is today, at 21,320 people that July, according to data compiled by Coalition for the Homeless. Still, the candidates running for mayor at the time faced many of the same quandaries today’s next mayor will be expected to solve, like where and how to build new housing, and how to address the public backlash in some neighborhoods to the siting of homeless shelters.
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City Limits was exploring those very issues in 1989. In that year’s June/July issue, each City Hall hopeful—including incumbent Democrat Ed Koch and his main primary election rival, David Dinkins, Conservative cosmetics company heir Ronald Lauder and Republican Rudy Giuliani—was offered 1,200 words to lay out their policies for creating new housing, their approach to development and the community’s role in land use decisions.
City Limits received responses from all but one candidate at the time, the cover article noted (former U.S. attorney Giuliani was still putting together his campaign staff when the questions were submitted, and did not respond.)
Koch, who was running for his fourth term at the time, used the space to highlight his administration’s $5.1 billion plan to build or preserve 252,000 housing units.
“Entire communities in the Bronx, Harlem and central Brooklyn are undergoing a renaissance, as apartments are produced, advertised in local newspapers and rented through a lottery system to deserving New Yorkers,” Koch wrote in City Limits’ pages. “We are doing twice as much in New York as the next 10 largest cities in America combined, more than the federal government at the peak of its own housing program in the early 1970s.”
Koch stated his opposition to Donald Trump’s “Television City”—a never-realized proposal by the real estate mogul and future president to build thousands of apartments and broadcast studios on Manhattan’s west side. But Koch wasn’t anti-development, he explained, just in favor of “balanced growth”—encouraging new building while maintaining “the character of communities and the qualities that make New York special.”
“Development generates the revenue that helps provide services,” Koch wrote in defending tax abatements for developers.
Manhattan Borough President Dinkins, who would go on to defeat Koch in the Democratic primary and win the mayoralty after beating Giuliani in the general election, told City Limits’ readers he would speed up housing production “by at least 1,000 units per year for the next five years.”
“I would oppose projects which develop luxury housing on city-owned property, without the provision of any lower income units on-site,” wrote Dinkins. “All city-sponsored housing development should include units reserved for homeless families.”
Dinkins also express his support for comprehensive planning—an approach that current City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is pushing for today.
Perhaps the most striking feature in that 1989 issue of City Limits, besides the candidates’ responses and their similarities to the public discussion around housing we’re still having today, is another article published a few pages before entitled “Notes for the Candidates from a Homeless Woman.” In it, author Vita Talarico describes how she slept each night in Battery Park, spreading a comforter and blanket across a bench and building a fire in a hubcap for warmth.
“Despite being born here, I am beginning to feel like an alien in my own country. New York City is becoming a city only for the rich,” she wrote, later decrying how “the mayor has recently ordered the homeless out of the park,” sending park rangers in with horns each morning at 6 a.m.
“They are trying to force the homeless into city shelters. But I am not going to spend another three years waiting for housing,” Talarico writes. “I am not going to count on the politicians’ decisions.”
You can read the full June/July 1989 issue of City Limits below.