Can de Blasio make New York City affordable?

May 20, 2014

New York City activist and WBAI radio co-host Sandy Boyer looks at the fine print of the long-awaited affordable housing plan unveiled by Bill de Blasio.

NEW YORK City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the hope of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, has announced what he calls "the largest and most ambitious affordable housing program initiated by any the history of the United States." De Blasio says he wants to preserve or create 200,000 affordable homes for half a million New Yorkers over 10 years.

The plan, if it's carried out, will at least get some homeless people out of the city's shelters. They'll be able to move into vacant apartments in New York City's public housing. There will be a new rent subsidy program for very poor people.

Sixteen thousand families currently going without are expected to get permanent housing over 10 years. Since there are more than 50,000 people including 20,000 children sleeping in New York's homeless shelters every night, this isn't going to be nearly enough.

The sheer size of New York's housing problem dwarfs de Blasio's plan. More than 2 million people in New York City are paying at least half their monthly income on rent. Almost 5 million pay more than 30 percent--which is considered the level where rent is affordable. There are more than two desperately poor families in the city for every single apartment they can afford.

Bill de Blasio announces his affordable housing program at a press conference
Bill de Blasio announces his affordable housing program at a press conference

Even if de Blasio meets all his goals--and there's good reason to think he won't--millions of people still won't have the affordable housing they need so badly.

The problem isn't that de Blasio doesn't care about the poor and the homeless, but that he won't fight for everything they need. He feels he has to settle for the best he can get, within the limits of the private housing market and the prevailing political climate.

DE BLASIO'S plan for creating new affordable housing depends on what is known as "inclusionary zoning." This will require developers who want permission to build more and taller buildings to set aside a percentage of units for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. The rest can be used for market-rate housing--in reality, luxury apartments that very few working New Yorkers can afford.

The apartments classified as "affordable" would go to households with a wide range of incomes--from a very low-income level of $25,150 a year or less, to a "middle income level" (more accurately, upper middle class) family of four earning up to $138,435 a year. Apartments that qualify as "affordable" could rent for anything from $629 a month or less for the households on the low-end of the income scale, to some $3,461 a month for the so-called middle income families.

The problem with the policy of inclusionary zoning is that developers won't build anything at all unless they're guaranteed the spectacular profits that come with high rent and luxury apartments. De Blasio hopes to be able bribe the real estate giants to create "affordable" units by giving permission to put up higher and wider buildings for more high-income tenants.

How many affordable apartments the developer would have to create will be decided on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis--even building by building. The split could well be 25 percent affordable units and 75 percent market rate. Housing advocates are reportedly pressing to that developers be required to make half of the apartments affordable.

The developers and landlords will use their enormous economic leverage so they can get as many market rate units as they can, and build the absolute minimum number of apartments for poor and working people

They expect to succeed. The Real Estate Board of New York, which speaks for the largest landlords, called the plan a "realistic road map" to the city's housing crisis. The pro-business Association for a Better New York promised to help de Blasio implement it.

De Blasio's housing plan will succeed or fail depending on the amount of affordable housing it preserves. The aim is to preserve 120,000 affordable apartments--60 percent of the overall goal of 200,000 units.

Affordable housing in New York City is, almost by definition, rent regulated. Almost half of New York City's housing--47 percent, more than 1 million apartments--is in this category, with rent regulated by state law. The Rent Guidelines Board, appointed by the mayor, sets a percentage increase every year, which is as much as the landlord can raise rents. This year, de Blasio has appointed a Rent Guidelines Board that might even freeze rents for the next year or two.

But rent regulation itself could soon be as dead as the nickel fare on the New York City subway. It is being destroyed by "vacancy decontrol"--which allows landlords to start charging the market rate any time they can get the rent for a vacant apartment above $2,500 a month. These apartments soon become luxury housing for the wealthy.

Vacancy decontrol is costing New York City more than 13,500 rent-regulated apartments every year. That alone would mean a loss of 135,000 affordable apartments in the next decade--totally erasing the 120,000 units that the de Blasio plan aims to preserve.

But de Blasio isn't calling for the repeal of vacancy decontrol. His plan merely states, "We will work with the state to prevent abuses of the vacancy and luxury decontrol provisions." A report in The Gotahamist quotes Michael McKee, of the Tenants' Political Action Committee, which endorsed de Blasio for mayor, calling this statement "a carefully phrased 'cop-out,' reneging on de Blasio's campaign promise to support repeal."

Bill de Blasio, who is nothing if not an astute politician, knows perfectly well that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn't going to allow vacancy decontrol to be repealed. That would undermine Cuomo's strategy for running for president, by appearing liberal on "social" issues like marriage equality and choice and conservative on "economic" issues like schools, taxes and housing.

This year, like every year, Cuomo and the state legislature will perform an elaborate dance with legislation to repeal vacancy decontrol. It will pass the Democratic-dominated State Assembly and die in the Republican-run State Senate--while Cuomo stands by and pretends to wring his hands about the foreordained outcome.

IF DE Blasio wants to save his affordable housing plan, he will have to go all out to challenge his fellow Democrats. That would take going beyond issuing press releases and actually mobilizing people to take to the streets, not only in New York City, but the surrounding suburban counties that also have rent-regulated housing.

The only long-range answer to New York City's housing crisis is pressing the federal government to build new public housing for homeless and low-income people. De Blasio apparently doesn't think that's possible. When he announced his plan, he said that public housing construction is "essentially frozen" because no funding is available.

There is another way. De Blasio could start a national crusade for new affordable housing. Mayors of cities and towns across the country would likely follow suit--some willingly, others forced to by pressure from the example set by New York. The campaign could enlist civil rights organizations, unions, churches and many more. It might even breathe new life into the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

But Bill de Blasio isn't up for that challenge. He'll keep playing by the rules of the establishment game--even if that means poor people go homeless or live their lives on the edge of eviction. If he won't fight for what's needed to make housing truly affordable for those who need it in New York City, we need to take that stand at the grassroots.

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