De Blasio's not-enough housing plan

Allen Arthur reports on a new plan for supportive housing in New York City that, like most of Mayor Bill de Blasio's policies, falls far short of the mark.

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

ON NOVEMBER 18, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to build 15,000 new units of supportive housing--homes that come with a range of social services to address issues like domestic violence and mental illness that, in addition to skyrocketing rents, contribute to homelessness.

Taking hits from both sides of the political spectrum over the crisis, the mayor also used the announcement of his $2.6 billion plan to reposition himself as a progressive--a base of voters with whom he has increasingly lost touch. Taking a swipe at Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his rival and fellow Democrat, de Blasio declared, "We are acting decisively. We are not waiting on Albany."

Unfortunately for the over 57,000 people currently living in New York City shelters and the thousands more on the street, de Blasio's promises will fundamentally fail them.

The 15,000 units will roll out over the course of 15 years. Even if they were all built today, those units wouldn't house all of the city's homeless, and they wouldn't begin to put a dent in the huge numbers of people just barely getting by in overpriced, substandard housing.

Already, there are already five applicants for each of the nearly 30,000 units New York City currently has. While 7,500 units will be newly built, 7,500 will be scattered site housing. And while the budget is $2.6 billion, the city will foot the bill for less than half of that. Private developers will cover much of the rest.

These flaws are neither small nor surprising. In fact, they represent standard procedure for the mayor who has promoted himself around the country as a leading progressive.

While the city's homelessness crisis cannot be blamed on de Blasio alone--and while supportive housing has shown to be quite successful--his modestly incremental reforms have not challenged the march of profit and development through the city.

Often, while trying to appear tough on crime and homelessness, his administration has made things worse.

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DE BLASIO'S announcement has come during a time of intense back-and-forth around the homeless.

Tenant associations and advocates for the homeless have assailed the mayor for failing to develop any real plan to stem the tide of marauding landlords and soaring rents. The right has used the issue to ramp up police presence, push for further militarization and demonstrate the failings of "liberal" governance.

For several months, de Blasio vacillated between denying the problem even existed and blaming his conservative predecessors.

Sadly for the people in direst need of a solution, this discussion has devolved into a circus, a media-focused production designed to garner New York Post headlines and sustain poll numbers.

The Sergeant's Benevolent Association demonstrated its idea of benevolence by launching a "protest" called Peek-a-Boo, We See You! in which off-duty officers posted pictures of the homeless as evidence of de Blasio's failure to provide police support.

Don Peebles, a former de Blasio ally and a developer worth $700 million, said he is considering running for mayor. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has used the issue to press for more "Broken Windows" policing, and he and de Blasio have engaged in a public back-and forth that has obscured their collusion.

Despite de Blasio's rhetoric, his actual approach to the homelessness and affordable housing crises has been centered on police and criminalization. Bratton and the NYPD have been permitted to bust up homeless encampments on numerous occasions.

Instead of using extra money to improve schools and homeless shelters as he had promised, de Blasio pushed for 1,300 more cops at a cost of around $170 million per year--a greater increase than anyone, including Bratton, had requested.

Most recently, the mayor has been pushing to ease eviction rules in public housing to avoid "harboring criminals". Aside from a return to jail, the plan offers no concrete details about where the people evicted from public housing might live.

Just six months ago, de Blasio signed "ban the box" legislation barring employers from asking job candidates about past arrests or criminal convictions (or having to check such a box on an application) in their initial interviews.

"This bill opens the door to jobs for New Yorkers who have already paid their debt to society, rather than condemning them to a grim economic future," the mayor declared at the time. Yet now de Blasio is advocating that those who have already been punished by the criminal justice system be pushed toward homelessness.

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IT MIGHT seem odd that a mayor who ran as a progressive Democrat pushing the same housing policies as his billionaire predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whom de Blasio famously accused of creating a "tale of two cities" for the rich and poor. But the simple explanation is that both mayors have been funded by the same people.

Capital New York ran a scorching expose of de Blasio's connection to the Campaign for One New York, a group of donors who gave nearly $4 million to his campaigns. Many of these are real estate developers who have directly benefited from these contributions.

The city's developers roundly supported the infamous 421-a tax break, for example, which is supposed to promote affordable housing but has gifted builders hundreds of millions of dollars for building some of the most expensive luxury apartments in the city. De Blasio assented to renewing the deal after receiving thousands of dollars in donations on, of all days, 4/21.

Because of his funding by corporate developer interests, de Blasio's solutions have remained profit-based. The scattered-site housing that makes up about half of his proposal often comes in the form of a controversial voucher program that pays landlords to rent apartments to low-income residents.

Residents of these units recently protested, saying that conditions in many of these apartments are worse than in the city's shelters. They also blasted the administration for spending the money on these vouchers with no oversight of the landlords.

The rest of the housing in de Blasio's plan will be subsidized by low-income tax credits. Far from a tax credit for low-income people, these are actually a trade: affordable housing in exchange for further tax breaks to developers and private investors.

With a $4 billion dollar housing deficit and crumbling NYCHA infrastructure, de Blasio is even resorting to selling off land belong to public housing sites.

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DE BLASIO has found himself caught in an unenviable (if deserved) position. On one side, he is accused of failing to support the police and letting poverty ruin the living conditions of the well-off in the city.

On the other side, a growing pushback against police brutality and the infamous Rikers Island jail complex is making connections between poverty, housing, community resources and crime. In short, de Blasio has to show that he's doing something. But the mayor's profit-centered solutions, although dressed up in liberal language, don't provide a way forward.

The Russian socialist Vladimir Lenin once wrote, "It is not important who directly advocates a particular policy, since under the present system of capitalism , any money-bag can always 'hire', buy, or enlist any number of lawyers, writers, and even parliamentary deputies, professors, parsons, and the like to defend any views."

"What is important," Lenin continued, "is who stands to gain from these views, proposals, measures."

Under Bill de Blasio, the NYPD has gained larger numbers and a larger budget, developers have gained access to more opportunity, influence, and public land, business interests have gained new neighborhoods in which to open chain stores and banks and landlords have gained higher property values and shed oversight.

The poor and homeless in New York City, on the other hand, have gained demeaning front-page coverage, police raids and very little in the way of an actual place to live. De Blasio's new housing plan will not do nearly enough to change that.