De Blasio’s naked priorities

September 3, 2015

Shouldn't New York City's liberal mayor be focused on honoring his promises around affordable housing, asks veteran activist and WBAI radio co-host Sandy Boyer?

NEW YORK City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the darling of the liberal Democratic establishment, has declared war. The enemy isn't slumlords, sweatshop owners or brutal cops. It's topless women in Times Square, and they're driving de Blasio crazy.

The women call themselves "desnudas." They paint their breasts a patriotic red, white and blue and try to get tips from tourists who photograph them.

It's pretty hard to believe that the mayor, a former Sandinistas supporter and City Council member from the ultra-sophisticated Park Slope neighborhood of Brownstown Brooklyn, is personally offended by bare boobs.

But he sounded profoundly shocked after the New York Daily News put the desnudas on the front page day after day, complete with photos, and demanded that de Blasio take action to protect public morals.

It may have been an absurd, manufactured crisis, but de Blasio wasn't taking any chances. He called a press conference to denounce the desnudas. "I think it's wrong," he said. "This is a situation that I don't accept, and we will deal with it very aggressively."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Kevin Case)

The great civil libertarian reluctantly admitted that there was a slight problem with something called the First Amendment. "Our current laws do make it harder to enforce in the way we might like to," de Blasio said at a press conference. "There is a First Amendment protection for painting yourself and displaying yourself in a certain fashion. It makes no sense, but I understand that is a First Amendment protection."

So de Blasio did what politicians often do when they aren't sure what to do--he formed a task force. He said they'd report soon, or at least as soon as the desnudas disappear from the front pages.

WHILE NEW Yorkers were all waiting breathlessly for the task force report on the "painted ladies," the New York Times revealed a very real crisis facing some of the city's poorest people.

The paper profiled just one building in the scattered site program--at 60 Clarkson Ave. in Brooklyn--under which the city pays private landlords to house homeless families. The building's front door lock is broken and has never been fixed. If the elevator runs at all, it stinks of urine.

The Times describes the apartment where Merlinda Fernandez, her husband and their six children have lived for the past five years. "Cockroaches saunter along the walls and invade the refrigerator, and mice nestle in the baby's blanket," the Times reported. "Toys lie untouched in their packaging, the only way the family knows to keep them safe from the roaches."

There are more than 3,000 families living in these apartments. For each family, the landlords collect up to $2,500 every month from the city.

De Blasio has promised to end the scattered site program. That's nothing new. Politicians have been promising to end it ever since it started in 2000. Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the deputy mayor for health and human services, was more honest. When asked when scattered site housing would end, she replied, "Not in the foreseeable future." Barrios-Paoli might have been too honest for her own good--four days later, de Blasio announced that she had “resigned.”

It may be entirely coincidental that two days after the New York Times ran the story about 60 Clarkson Ave., de Blasio announced a new program to help homeless people. The program, dubbed the Special Exit and Prevention Supplement, will pay as many as 1,000 single adults up to $1,213 a month to rent an apartment.

De Blasio's new program is definitely better than nothing. Still, it won't come anywhere near meeting the problem. It will only help 1,000 people, and as of August 31, there were 56,731 people living in homeless shelters.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for homeless people to find an apartment renting for $1,213 a month. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City is $3,039 a month--almost three times what the city will pay under de Blasio's plan.

THE REASON de Blasio can't get homeless people out of the shelters is that there is so little affordable housing left in New York. The Community Service Society has documented that between 2002 and 2011, the city lost 385,000 apartments low-income New Yorkers could afford.

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 the level where rent is considered affordable. There are more than two desperately poor families in the city for every single apartment they can afford.

At the start of his administration, de Blasio said he would make affordable housing his top priority. He announced an ambitious plan to preserve or create 200,000 affordable homes for half a million New Yorkers over 10 years.

It's already clear that his plan is going to fail disastrously. In July, de Blasio trumpeted the creation and preservation of 20,325 affordable apartments. But this good news was dwarfed by a Gothamist report that 93,000 people had recently applied for 925 affordable apartments in Queens. So just in Queens, de Blasio had already failed more than 70,000 people.

De Blasio's affordable housing plan is hugely dependent on "inclusionary zoning." This means that any time a developer gets permission to make more money by putting up a larger building, at least 25 percent of the apartments will have to be affordable housing. Of course, the real estate millionaires only have to build affordable apartments if and when the city lets them make enough extra money on the deal.

De Blasio initially said inclusionary zoning alone would create 50,000 apartments for families earning between $50,340 and $67,120 a year. By this August, he had abandoned that prediction. He now says inclusionary zoning is a "crucial building block" and "an important contributing figure" to his overall plan, but he won't give an actual number.

The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which supports de Blasio's inclusionary zoning plan, used to say the program would provide of 25,000 to 50,000 affordable apartments. Now it concedes there will be just 13,800.

THE REAL estate barons are totally candid when they say they're not going to build affordable housing without very big, very dependable bribes--legal ones, of course. Michael Stern, the managing partner of JDS Development Group, told Politico that he is holding onto industrial property in Brooklyn, collecting decent rents rather than pursuing rezoning to build housing. "Industrial rents are good enough right now," he said. "We can afford to wait."

When Politico let another developer speak without being quoted by name, he was brutally honest: "Every unit of affordable housing is subsidized in one way, shape or form. Whether it's a tax incentive, a direct subsidy, additional air rights--there's some mechanism to incent the private sector or even nonprofits to build the units. And what you're doing here is you're mandating a floor [of affordable housing], where there's a big question mark about the subsidy side of the ledger."

The real estate moguls are trying to tell us that de Blasio's affordable housing program is going nowhere unless they get even bigger, even more dependable bribes. It's known as the private housing market.

Bill de Blasio probably knows better than most of us that the only way to solve the affordable housing crisis is to get the federal government to build new public housing and lots of it. After all, he spent two years as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's regional director for New York and New Jersey, in charge of all subsidized housing, including public housing.

But de Blasio, ever the "realistic" establishment politician, isn't going to lead any fights to build more public housing. That would mean taking on the Democratic congressional leadership and a man named Barack Obama. Despite all of de Blasio's progressive rhetoric, that's something he just won't do. When he has to choose between homeless families and the Democratic Party, the Democrats win every time.

You might think that, at the very least, it's time Bill de Blasio stopped his war on painted ladies and began fighting for working New Yorkers instead. Just don't hold your breath waiting.

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