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Comptroller Debate Focuses on Stringer's Record


faulkner stringer comptroller

Michel Faulkner, left, and Scott Stringer at Tuesday's debate


Echoing more the calm and substantive public advocate debate from Monday than the rowdy, unproductive October 10 mayoral debate, on Tuesday evening the Democratic and Republican candidates for comptroller, incumbent Scott Stringer and Michel Faulkner, respectively, met for their sole debate ahead of Election Day, November 7.

The race to be the city’s chief fiscal officer has, like the public advocate contest, been a sleepy one, with the incumbent Democrat holding major financial and other advantages, and heavily favored, as the higher profile mayoral race has sucked up the attention of most of whatever small number of voters is paying attention to the municipal elections. It is expected to be another terribly low turnout election.

Unlike the Republican challenger for public advocate, J.C. Polanco, Faulkner raised enough money to qualify for a debate with Stringer. Polanco was granted a debate by Public Advocate Letitia James, and the two jousted for an hour Monday evening about James’ record, the role of public advocate, and a variety of other issues.

On Tuesday, Stringer and Faulkner competed in a debate largely focused on Stringer’s record over the past four years, with Faulkner accusing him of not being a tough enough watchdog and Stringer showcasing his record of accomplishments. Both advocated for their positions on a wide range of issues, from managing the many-billion-dollar public pension funds to monitoring the city’s ballooning budget, the potential impact of the Trump administration on the city’s finances, and what to do about the city’s public housing, NYCHA, and with the Rikers Island jail complex.

The debate, hosted at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan, was broadcast on NY1 television and WNYC radio, and moderated by NY1 political anchor Errol Louis, with questions also coming from WNYC’s Brigid Bergin and NY1’s Bobby Cuza. It was a spirited but respectful affair between the two contenders, though at times Stringer appeared to shrug off Faulkner’s criticisms, perhaps evidence of the air of inevitability surrounding the race. With a lot more money in the bank and higher name recognition, Stringer is expected to ride to easy victory with support from many labor unions and given the city’s massive Democratic enrollment advantage.

Faulkner, a pastor and a former New York Jet football player, throughout the night referred to his vision of the comptroller’s office as one of an activist auditor who gets things done, rather than someone who simply releases reports and talks about problems.

“Now more than ever, New York City needs an active fiscal watchdog. Someone who will manage our finances, who will push back on the mayor, and push back on City Council, and stop this runaway spending,” Faulkner said. “Scott Stringer has not been tough enough. I will be tougher, I will be better.”

Faulkner attacked a record that Stringer spent the night defending, going so far as to say that Stringer misrepresented who he was while campaigning for comptroller four years ago.

Stringer, meanwhile, defended his record as someone who delivered consistent returns for taxpayers and pensioners, and as someone who was not afraid to call out deficiencies either in mayoral policies or in agency mismanagement. He pointed, for example, to his audit of homeless shelters that exposed major problems with conditions and led to the city taking repairs much more seriously. More broadly, however, Stringer pitched himself as someone fighting for New Yorkers, especially for those struggling to afford the cost of living in the city and immigrants.

Much of the debate centered on two key parts of the comptroller’s job: managing the massive pension system and monitoring the city’s budget and financial health.

On the topic of pensions, wherein former public employees who are vested are guaranteed certain payouts, Stringer somewhat tepidly defended his record after Louis noted that this year’s returns have been around 2%, well below the comptroller office’s 7% actuarial target. Stringer noted that, over his tenure, pensions have hit this target, with a 7.4% return rate. When the pension funds themselves don’t adequately meet payout obligations, the city must make up the difference to the tune of billions in its annual budget.

“That is something that’s taken a lot of work,” Stringer said. He said that one reason for the pension fund hitting its target was changing the “internal workings of the Bureau of Asset Management.” The incumbent showed more enthusiasm in describing reforms he’s led to how the pension system is run, including changing the fee structure for investors hired to grow the funds.

Louis also asked Stringer about a movement among municipal pension systems to move towards investing in passive index funds, which, rather than being actively managed by investors, simply follow a market index such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average or S&P 500, and tend to outperform actively managed funds.

Stringer stated, however, that if the city had invested in an unspecified index fund over the past few years, the returns would be 6.9%, just below the 7% benchmark.

“So, we can’t just rely on the index,” Stringer said. “And that is why we have a varied asset allocation. We make sure that we protect the fund. We’re long-term investors, we’re not trying to game the system. On average, we’ve hit 7.4% the last four years. This year, we returned 13%. But at the end of the day, our strategy is to secure retirement security. We’re not trying to come in and out of funds, we’re not trying to create risk, and that is a conservative approach that I think has served the people who rely on us well.”

Stringer also stated that money managers would no longer be paid no matter whether they made or lost money for the city; rather, they would now only be paid if they did well. He argued that the city is leading “best practices” for pensions nationwide.

Faulkner said that he agreed with several things Stringer’s office did to “shore up the existing fund.” In fact, he largely strayed away from criticizing Stringer’s record in arguably the most important aspect of the job, instead pivoting to the city’s increased operating budget, though he did say the growing public personnel -- which has increased dramatically under Mayor Bill de Blasio -- has had a negative impact on the city’s pension system by increasing obligations.

Faulkner’s most prominent line of attack was, in fact, concerning the city’s rising budget, which has increased by about 18% since de Blasio assumed office, up to about $85 billion this fiscal year. Faulkner said de Blasio and the City Council had an excessive “tax and spend” approach, and that de Blasio tries to throw money at any problem to make it go away, such as with homelessness. But, Faulkner did not offer areas of the city budget he would cut, instead saying that he is sure there could be some savings to be found, and seemingly indicated he wants the city to actually spend more money on programs -- if only the city could keep more of its own tax money, he said.

Faulkner said that the city should aim to stop relying on the federal government for everything. He praised President Donald Trump’s federal tax reform plan as a positive that would put money in the pockets of average New Yorkers and allow the city to comfortably raise local taxes to fund certain priorities like affordable housing.

When NY1’s Cuza questioned the plausibility of Faulkner’s hope that the city would rely on the federal government to return tens of billions of dollars to the city, Faulkner said that rather than asking for the money back, New Yorkers should simply stop giving tax money to the federal government.

“We don’t have to wait for it back,” Faulkner said. “We just stop giving it to them. If it’s my money, I’m just saying, ‘well you know what.’ We need all of the political will in New York to be able to do that.” It was indicative of a pattern in which Faulkner did not seem to have fully fleshed out plans to present to voters.

Regarding the notion of asking the federal government for tax dollars that go elsewhere to be returned to New York, as advocated by Faulkner, Stringer said “I don’t deal in fantasy.”

“Right now, the Trump proposal would cost middle income New Yorkers billions of dollars,” said Stringer, who has been a frequent critic of Trump, while Faulkner has been supportive of the president. “We would lose $7 billion in New York State to this tax cut; 100,000 people who make less than $100,000 a year would be eviscerated by this tax cut. It is dangerous. It is the greatest risk we have right now, along with issues related to the Affordable Care Act and Health + Hospitals. And in no way is this tax cut a benefit to working people.”

On the growth of the city budget, Stringer defended his oversight work, saying he had pushed the de Blasio administration to find more savings, and said that due to his advocacy the city currently held its largest total amount of savings in its history. He said he is proud of the investments the city has been making, and offered a mix of praise and criticism for de Blasio -- the two have endorsed each other for reelection depsite frrequent sparring, mostly earlier in the term, when Stringer was toying with a 2017 mayoral run.

Also discussed were broader political issues of the day, such as affordable housing. Both Stringer and Faulkner criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plan, with Stringer saying that it is not going far enough in reaching the people who most need it. He reiterated his calls for deeper affordability in the plan, for using land banks, and for more aggressively building on city-owned vacant lots.

Stringer also referenced an ongoing threat of federal funding cuts to NYCHA, while Faulkner sharply responded by noting that Stringer had been criticizing federal disinvestment from NYCHA during the administration of Democrat Barack Obama. Instead, Faulkner said that the city could fund NYCHA through a federal tax cut.

Faulkner called out Stringer for simply releasing reports on NYCHA’s numerous shortcomings without proposing or implementing reforms, and, in cross examination, asked Stringer how he would actually fix the things he calls out. Stringer’s answer was to, first and foremost, elect a new president who will invest in public housing. Stringer also defended the results of his audits, noting that he has spurred action across city agencies, that hundreds of audits have led to 1,000 of his office’s recommendations being adopted.

Faulkner proposed that, in order to lift them out of cyclical poverty, NYCHA residents should have the ability to own equity in their homes. In something of a surprise moment, Stringer said that it was an impossibility today, but that he was open to exploring a path to that outcome.

On Rikers, Faulkner gave roundabout answers: he said that the facility should eventually be closed and that the way it’s operated needs to be immediately reformed, but that a closure plan being developed by de Blasio was not trustworthy. However, on the question of housing pretrial detainees within the boroughs rather than on Rikers Island, Faulkner was supportive, saying they should be held near courthouses.

Stringer, who proclaimed that he was the “first elected official to step up and say shut [Rikers] down,” took it a step further on Tuesday. “Let’s do it in three years,” Stringer said, significantly undercutting de Blasio’s ten-year timeline. “It is inhumane. I’ve walked those corridors, I’ve talked to inmates. I’ve done the data analysis. And it is inhumane.”

While Stringer and Faulkner were the only two candidates to qualify for the debate, two others will be on the ballot in November: Alex Merced is the Libertarian nominee for comptroller, and Julia Willebrand is the Green Party nominee.

Near the end of the debate, Louis moderated a “lightning round,” asking Faulkner and Stringer for quick answers to a series of rapid fire questions on a variety of topics, some personal or frivolous, others more substantive. The candidates were asked about ten questions, including whether they had ever ordered from Fresh Direct (Faulkner has not, Stringer has); whether the mayor should use taxpayer dollars to fund his legal defense from investigations that closed without charges (Faulkner gave a resounding no, while Stringer refused to comment because his office is involved in the process). Asked whether the proposed BQX streetcar was a wise use of taxpayer dollars, Faulkner said no while Stringer said “there’s a long way to go” and the project needs “vigorous review.”

Asked for the most recent book both had read, Faulkner answered with If They Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxas, a book about American exceptionalism. Stringer said Shark Detective, a children’s book he had read to his young sons.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Public Advocate Debate Shows Stark Differences Between James and Polanco


Tish James JC Polanco public advocate debate via nyc votes

James & Polanco at their debate (photo: @NYCVotes)


Public Advocate Letitia James, a Democrat running for reelection, squared off against her Republican opponent, J.C. Polanco, in a friendly yet competitive debate on Monday that highlighted substantive differences, and some shared opinions, between the two candidates on a range of policy issues. Given the race features an incumbent, the debate centered in large part on James’ record as public advocate over the last four years, especially her performance in holding the mayoral administration accountable.

Hosted at the CUNY Graduate Center in front of a small, closed audience, the debate was the first and only to be held in the public advocate race leading up to Election Day, November 7. It was held at James’ discretion -- she agreed to debate Polanco despite his failure to meet the financial thresholds to qualify for an official Campaign Finance Board-sponsored debate.

The two candidates butted heads, albeit respectfully, through the hurried hour-long debate, articulating sharp contrasting opinions on rent regulations, charter schools, criminal justice issues, and the overarching role of the public advocate’s office as an ombudsman for the city. While James touted her record, Polanco referenced his qualifications stemming from his work for the state Assembly minority conference and his past role as president of the city Board of Elections. He called himself a “common sense” Republican.

Early on, Polanco sought to paint James as a too-close ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio who has failed to stand up to the mayor and the progressive-dominated City Council, a pitch that has been at the center of his campaign along with proposals to strengthen the independence of the public advocate’s office. Polanco believes the office should have investigative and subpoena powers over city agencies, which would require a city charter revision approved by voters, as well as funding equivalent to the much larger comptroller’s office.

James, an experienced litigator, has used her legal skills to inform the core functions of her office. Over the last four years, she said she has worked “to transform the office into a vehicle for social and economic justice for all,” claiming to have resolved more than 30,000 constituent complaints and touting the passage of more legislation than all her four predecessors together. She highlighted her signature legislative achievement: a new law that bans employers from asking job candidates their salary histories, which is aimed at closing the gender pay gap.

James has sued the city 11 times, but has been bounced from several cases for lack of standing. James had to defend her approach early on in the debate when asked by moderator and NY1 anchor Errol Louis whether she sought to win those lawsuits or just make headlines by filing suits.

“I make no apologies for standing up for those without a voice,” James responded, insisting that she would continue to do so and noting that she is working with members of the City Council on a potential legislative solution to codify her ability to sue the city and its agencies. She also cited several instances where she had been victorious, including a lawsuit to make Department of Education School Leadership Team meetings open to the public and another in favor of seniors who were being denied rent increase exemptions by the city.

Polanco agreed that the public advocate should have broader standing in the right to sue the city administration, but pointed out that James would continue to fail until given the statutory authority. Himself an attorney, Polanco sharply stated that it was obvious that James did not have standing in cases. “You’ve had over two million minutes in office, I know in my first minute, as soon as I get there, that we have to work very closely on a public education campaign to get this question on the ballot so that cases stop getting thrown out of court,” he said.

It was one of the few issues the two candidates agreed on. James has called for subpoena power for the office in the past, which she repeated Monday, and said the mayor “should not hold the purse strings to the office of the public advocate.”

Both candidates disagreed with debate moderator Brian Lehrer from WNYC, when he suggested that perhaps the public advocate might be more effective if they represented a different political party than the mayor. James has been a close ally of de Blasio and endorsed him for reelection. “I stand with the mayor when I agree with him, and I oppose him when he’s wrong,” she said, pointing out instances when she has critiqued his administration, such as when the mayor opposed creating a stand-alone agency for veterans affairs or when she challenged him over the lack of air-conditioned buses for disabled school children.

“I don’t think that Tish has been as independent of the mayor as she claims,” said Polanco, stressing that he had heard little consternation from James when the mayor and his administration were embroiled in a pay-to-play scandal. “There’s a whole myriad of times where I think this public advocate has been very quiet and silent to make sure that the mayor’s on her good side and that the voters who are constantly with the mayor are with her in four years.” He said he would have no problem “going toe-to-toe with Republicans” if he were in the office.

Neither James nor Polanco supports de Blasio’s homelessness-fighting plan that includes opening 90 new shelters while halting the use of hotels and cluster site apartments. Polanco was direct, blaming the mayor’s mismanagement for the problem and insisting that new shelters would burden neighborhoods that are already inundated with shelters. “This is gonna just help two people,” Polanco said, “One, the mayor because he’s gonna get this problem off his back. And two, wealthy developers that are gonna benefit from building these new shelters.”

James, on the other hand, delivered a meandering response that delved into the need for “bold leadership” and housing bond legislation to encourage the creation of affordable housing in the city. When NY1’s Louis sought more clarity, she said, “I think at this point in time what we really need to do is look for other initiatives in the city of New York to address homelessness...what we really need to do is think bolder and we need to make sure that the two individuals, the governor and the mayor of the city of New York, two individuals with oversized egos, resolve this issue so that we don’t have countless numbers of individuals that are homeless this evening.”

“So I’m gonna take that as a ‘no’ on the 90 shelters,” Louis noted.

A clear distinction emerged between the two candidates on how they view the public advocate’s office as a voice in police accountability. James has been a vocal proponent of criminal justice reform and she recounted her efforts to unseal the grand jury transcripts from the Eric Garner case, touted her support for reforming the grand jury system, for releasing the disciplinary records of officers charged with misconduct, and for advocating for the NYPD’s body camera program and shot-spotter technology. She noted that she led the movement for the city’s pension funds to divest from gun retailers as well.

“It’s really critically important that we be a voice in the criminal justice system,” she said. She also said that she is still reviewing the City Council’s long-proposed Right to Know Act -- that would require officers to identify themselves during certain street stops and inform people of their right to refuse a search in some instances -- but said she supports its objectives.

Polanco sought yet again to tie James to de Blasio, critiquing the mayor for creating a hostile attitude toward the NYPD and criticizing James for standing with him. “Frankly, this city has gone through an enormous political campaign against police,” he said, “including adding all of these layers and layers of actually monitoring their job performance, which really strangles the police from active policing.” He did concede that in cases where an officer violates a person’s constitutional rights, the release of disciplinary records is warranted.

The candidates had an opportunity to cross-examine each other, which Polanco seized on to question James’ support for de Blasio despite his proximity to lobbyists and consultants with clients who had business with the city. “How could you in good conscience endorse the mayor for reelection?” he asked. James deflected, speaking of the larger issue of campaign finance reform and the need to repeal the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. (Polanco jokingly praised her masterful deflection. “That was good, how you did that,” he chuckled.)

James asked Polanco about his position on workers’ rights, and whether he would picket with the employees of Spectrum, currently in the seventh month of a strike against their parent employer Charter Communications, which owns NY1. Polanco agreed that labor unions have the right to strike, but said elected officials should stay out of this case, which involves a private union.

Asked about the rent freezes that de Blasio has repeatedly touted as one of his biggest achievements for low-income New Yorkers, Polanco called them a mistake and made a forceful argument against rent regulations and other policies, referencing what he called the city’s “army of social engineers” that he said have exacerbated problems. He said the city’s policies were disincentivizing landlords who are “hard-working people just like ourselves” and that not all of them are “evil landlords” that should be put on a list, taking a sly dig at the public advocate, whose office famously puts out the “100 Worst Landlords” list every year. “We really have to take a look at the way we’re getting involved in engineering the market to create a social outcome,” Polanco said, offering a somewhat typical conservative assessment of meddling in the free market.

While James agreed with Polanco that the city needs to reform the system of tax breaks given to luxury developers in exchange for creating affordable housing, she staunchly backed the rent freezes enacted under de Blasio’s administration. “I think it’s really critically important that we stand up and strike back against market forces and gentrification,” she said.

The issue that divided James and Polanco the most was charter schools. Earlier, the debate briefly veered into the issue when Polanco suggested James’ opposition to them was because of her partisan affiliation with the mayor. James insisted, “All I want charter schools to do is play by the same rules and to be held accountable and obviously to be accessible to all children in the city of New York.” She later criticized charter networks that have zero-tolerance discipline policies and high staff turnover, and that tend to exclude homeless and disabled students. She emphasized instead that the state should live up to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling and provide sufficient funding to all public schools.

Polanco, a long-time educator, disagreed. “This is not an issue about money, this is an issue about the culture of education in our inner cities,” he said. He decried the “ultra-left” city leadership, particularly the City Council, that he said conflates discipline with racism. Polanco promised that as public advocate he would push for a major expansion of charter schools. James said she has been supportive of some charter schools in the past and is a proponent of school choice, but that she maintains her critiques of some charter schools and networks.

There were some moments of levity at the debate, particularly during a lightning round of mostly “yes” or “no” questions near its conclusion. Polanco said that in November he will vote for a constitutional convention while James said it was “too risky.” Both were critical of district attorneys being allowed to accept campaign donations from people with business before them. James supports the legalization of small amounts of marijuana while Polanco opposes it. And while James had never voted for a member of the opposite party, Polanco said he had.

“Wanna tell us who?” Louis ventured.

“Tish!” Polanco said, with a wry smile, eliciting laughs from the entire room.

The exchange was perhaps telling of the fact that Democrats have a massive enrollment advantage in the city. Combined with her immense lead in fundraising, James is a heavy favorite to win a second term come November, though Polanco has proven a substantive and thoughtful candidate. Other public advocate candidates who will be on the ballot include Green Party nominee James Lane, Libertarian Devin Balkind, and Conservative Party nominee Michael O’Reilly.

The James-Polanco debate concluded much as it had begun, with James stressing the importance of the checks and balances provided by her office. “You can get work done and be quite effective, but you need to reimagine the office,” she said. For Polanco, winning the office itself will be a battle, in a city where there are six registered Democrats to every registered Republican. He readily acknowledged that Monday night. Everyone knows trying to win citywide office as a Republican is an uphill battle, he said, but it’s much more challenging than that. “This is climbing Mount Everest in December,” he said, “This is tough.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Key to Affordable Housing Development, Vacant Lots Remain Source of Controversy


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On 43rd Street in Far Rockaway, Queens, sit five adjacent, vacant lots. Cordoned off by a chained-link, gray metal fence, the lots—owned by the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD)—are covered in weeds and garbage. They are “eyesores for the community,” said Alexis Smallwood, a local community organizer, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “Vacant lots should be used for community spaces or real affordable housing.”

These five lots are examples of the hundreds the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) could utilize for affordable housing. Since issuing an audit and fuller report in early 2016, Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office has claimed that HPD has let more than 1,000 of these lots stand idle. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has contended, however, that Stringer’s conclusions were “false and misleading.

The latest iteration of the decades-old debate over the quantity, quality, and status of New York’s city-owned vacant lots has been raging, with ebbs and flows, for the past year-and-a-half, even making its way into this year’s mayoral election.

Sal Albanese, who challenged de Blasio in the Democratic mayoral primary and is now running in the general election on the Reform Party line, cited the Comptroller, writing in The Daily News that he “will remove the stranglehold that big developers have on City Hall by taking the vacant properties city government owns - there are more than 1,000 of them - and building truly affordable housing.” Albanese referenced the use of vacant lots during debates as well.

Other politicians have taken up the cause, calling for better use of the city’s vacant lots in battling the affordable housing crisis. Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Members Jumanee Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez—arguing for legislation that includes a yearly, HPD-led census of publicly-owned, vacant lots—cited Stringer in an August op-ed in City and State.

Meanwhile, HPD and City Hall insist that the de Blasio administration is progressing in its development of lots for new affordable housing and call critics uninformed. “The sites that are available we’ve had a near maniacal focus on making sure that we know where they are and that we are putting them to good use,” said HPD Commissioner Torres-Spring in an interview on What’s the [Data] Point?, a podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission.

The comptroller’s office remains dubious. In response to the commissioner’s comments, Tyrone Stevens, press secretary for Comptroller Stringer, said, “Unfortunately, since our audit, we have not seen any specific plans from HPD about how they are developing vacant city-owned land or how many units they’ve created and where they’re located.”

As of now, the facts remain fuzzy. In early 2017, HPD denied several FOIL requests by Paula Segal, attorney with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, for lists of vacant lots under its jurisdiction. No lists were provided to the comptroller’s office in rebutting its report, and the department did not provide that information to Gotham Gazette when approached recently, after Torres-Springer’s latest comments on the discrepancy.

As the debate continues, momentum has been building for pending City Council legislation that would require HPD to perform an annual, citywide census of all publicly-owned, vacant land. However, the de Blasio administration has not yet signaled support for the legislation, which is under negotiation, according to Torres-Springer.

Why Vacant Lots?
When he announced his intention to run for mayor, de Blasio made affordable housing a centerpiece of his campaign, promising to create and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next ten years. “We need a stronger hand to make sure development will create and preserve places for a diverse range of families to live and raise their kids,” said de Blasio in a late 2013 campaign speech.

Shortly after he assumed office, he released Housing New York, a plan to flesh out a path to these 200,000 affordable units. At a total cost of $41 billion, not all of which would be city money, it promotes an array of strategies, like expanding housing for seniors and mandating rezonings to require a set portion of affordable units. The plan also includes a call to spur citywide development of small, vacant sites.

For privately-owned, vacant sites, Housing New York includes the intention to not only institute taxes to incentivize housing development, but to reach out to real estate owners to foster potential partnerships. For those that are publicly-owned, the plan calls for the clustering of small, city-owned sites through newly-created programs like the Neighborhood Construction Program (NCP) and New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program (NIHOP).

Most notably, Housing New York includes a plan to conduct a citywide survey of all publicly and privately-owned vacant land. The administration has given no public indication that this survey has been performed, though it insists it has a detailed grasp of all its vacant lots.

Nonprofits have estimated the total number of vacant sites to be in the thousands. In a 2011 report, Picture the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group, reported the existence of 3,551 vacant buildings and 2,489 publicly and privately-owned vacant lots citywide. The group projected that these properties could house close to 200,000 people, more than three times the estimated number of homeless people in New York City, which now hovers around 62,000.

How Many Public Lots?
While the city can incentivize the development of private lots (through vacancy taxes, rezoning density bonuses, and more), it can more quickly turn city-owned lots into affordable housing, as it directly administers these properties, often by working with nonprofit developers.

However, the exact number of vacant lots the city owns remains unclear. "It seems like there's no number to start with, even if it's wrong," said City Council Member Jumaane Williams, during a hearing on vacant properties in 2014.

Nonprofits like Picture the Homeless and city agencies have tried to fill the gap, with varying results. In a report released in 2016, The Municipal Arts Society of New York used data from the Department of City Planning and found 2,726 city-owned, vacant sites. Nonetheless, MAS noticed inaccuracies.

“There seems to be deficiencies in existing city datasets,” said Marcel Negret, project manager at The Municipal Arts Society, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

596 Acres, a nonprofit that pushes for community access to vacant lots, tried to correct for these errors. It combed through city datasets, removing sites that are gutterspaces, parks, and those that have already been sold to developers. Publishing this data as an interactive map, 596 Acres then crowdsourced information from residents and organizers. Its estimate for publicly-owned, vacant land amounts to 1,801 lots as of October 13th.

Finally, the comptroller’s office waded into the fray with its 2016 audit of the Department of Housing and Preservation. Auditors used agency records as well as tax lien sales to identify 1,459 city-owned, vacant properties, of which 1,131 are under the jurisdiction of HPD, it said. In a subsequent report, Stringer claimed that these existing properties could produce approximately 53,000 units of affordable housing. Stringer did not assess the usability of the lots.

Debate Kicks Up a Notch
After the audit’s public release, Comptroller Stringer, a Democrat then considering a possible entrance into the 2017 mayoral race, blasted the administration, HPD, and their predecessors, for an inability to effectively deploy vacant sites under their control.

“This is generations of inaction,” he said.

Housing officials responded in kind. “Your assertion that HPD allows vacant City-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong,” said Vicki Been, then HPD Commissioner, in a statement included in the original audit, in the section typically reserved for such a response.  

HPD claimed that the majority of lots cited in Stringer’s audit were accounted for: it said 310 have “major development challenges” (e.g. were in floodplains or near hurricane danger zones); 150 of the properties were better suited for “non-residential projects” (e.g. community gardens); and 670 were suited for residential use, of which 400 were already set aside for development within the next two years.

De Blasio himself pushed back when asked about the audit during an interview. “I think it’s breathtaking how little the comptroller understands about this issue,” he said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show in September 2016.

The comptroller had his own response. “But what the city has said to me is ‘no, no, no, all of these properties are already accounted for.’ Can you believe that? So if they’ve already made deals on the properties, who did they ever consult? They didn’t consult the community boards, they didn’t consult anybody,” Stringer said in an interview with the Observer.

The ‘Housing Not Warehousing Act’
This back-and-forth took place amid City Council discussions on legislation designed to take stock of and push the development of private and city-owned vacant land. Comprised of three bills, the “Housing Not Warehousing Act” aims to create a registry of all landlords holding vacant property; hold an annual, citywide census of all vacant land; and compile a list of publicly-owned vacant sites.

Introduced to the Council in December of 2015 by Public Advocate Letitia James and Council Members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez, the act was the focus of a public hearing in September 2016. Despite widespread support from Council members, HPD opposed Intro. 1039, the bill that would require the department to “conduct annual surveys of all city-owned properties to identify vacant buildings or lots that may be suitable for affordable housing.”

HPD Deputy Commissioner Daniel Hernandez testified that publicly releasing this list would have unintended consequences. It would reveal vacant lots that host key environmental infrastructure, information potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, he said. It would prompt real estate speculation, as companies buy up surrounding lots in hopes of grants by the city, he argued, and it would be costly and unnecessary, as HPD already has much of this information at its fingertips.

“Monitoring and collection required by the census would require extensive staff time and a commitment of financial resources without providing the data we really believe is desired,” explained Hernandez, according to City Limits.

In order to prove HPD was already making use of vacant lots under its control, Hernandez cited the same statistics released in response to Stringer’s audit, saying the city has identified 670 vacant lots suitable for the construction of affordable housing. HPD did not provide a detailed itemization.

The committee balked at the lack of specificity. “How could you come to this hearing and not know the status of each and every one of these sites?” asked Council Member Barry Grodenchik, a Democrat from Queens, according to Crain’s New York.

Trying for Clarity
More than a year since the committee hearing on the Housing Not Warehousing Act, HPD has yet to publicly provide a detailed accounting of its vacant sites. Yet, the department reiterates that it is doing everything in its power to manage and deploy lots under its control.

“There’s a lot of misconception about this, so I’m happy to clear the air,” Torres-Springer said, when asked about the vacant lots controversy on What’s The [Data] Point?. “To the extent that they are vacant sites, hundreds of those have either already been designated or in the pipeline or will be soon. There’s a good portion of those that are very small lots that have significant issues where you can’t really build. And—to be honest—even for those, we’re looking at ways to cluster so there's an affordable housing project that can be built.”

Asked to respond to Torres-Springer’s recent comments, Stringer’s office again demanded details. “Which sites are currently being developed and how many remain undeveloped? In what neighborhoods?,” said Stevens, the press secretary. “Who are the developers and how much total subsidy have they received from the city so far for their work?”

Others, too, have lamented that HPD has failed to substantiate its claim that all vacant lots under its control are accounted for. Segal, of the Urban Justice Center, explained in an interview that she filed three Freedom of Information Law requests to HPD on behalf of Picture the Homeless. Asking for lists of the 310 lots that have development challenges, the 150 better suited for non-housing purposes, and the 670 best suited for housing, Segal said that HPD denied one request based on “interference of contracts,” while not replying to the other two.

“HPD failed to respond as they are required by state law,” she explained. “There’s no accountability.”

Gotham Gazette asked HPD for the same lists Segal requested. Housing officials neither provided the data nor responded to Segal’s allegations. They did, however, push back against Stringer’s criticisms. “The comptroller’s assertion that HPD can create 50,000 units on all vacant city-owned land is simply untrue,” said housing officials. “It is not practical to develop all available sites at one time considering resource demands, and oddly shaped lots, infrastructure and resiliency needs on HPD’s remaining land makes development all the more challenging.”

Asked for examples of city-owned vacant lots where housing is currently under construction, HPD provided two. One is "Flushing Municipal Lot 3," which was bid on in 2014 and awarded in 2015. "HPD announced the selection of a joint venture between Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), HANAC Inc., and Monadnock Development to develop a transit-oriented, mixed-use, and mixed-income development in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. The team's plan, called One Flushing, will result in the creation of 208 units of very low-income senior housing and multifamily housing that will be affordable to low- and moderate-income families."

The second example is "Livonia Avenue Initiative Phase II," which was bid on and awarded in 2014. "HPD announced the selection of BRP Companies, HELP USA, and the Local Development Corporation of East New York (LDC ENY) for Phase II of the Livonia Avenue Initiative in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. The development team's plan includes four new mixed-use buildings with a total of 288 affordable apartments, a commercial kitchen that will provide culinary training, and a Career Exploration center (CEC) that will provide vocational training to students of the New Visions Charter High School."

There are various other lots in different stages of development, including some that were put out for bid last year that will be moving forward with selected partners in the near future.

Going Forward
Perhaps the best hope for a reliable account of city-owned vacant lots remains one bill, Intro. 1039, of the Housing Not Warehousing Act. While the legislation has remained dormant since the 2016 hearing, City Limits recently reported that momentum for the package of bills is increasing. Two have over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council, and Intro. 1039 has more than the “veto-proof” majority, with 34 sponsors, as of October 10.

In comments given to City Limits, Council Member Williams, the prime sponsor of 1039, said, “I do believe it’s time to get moving.” He explained he might even attempt to push the legislation through without HPD sign-off. The Council virtually never moves legislation that has not reached an amicable compromise point with the de Blasio administration.

Williams is hopeful that parlays with the administration will be successful and, according to a spokesperson in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “believes that the administration recognizes the degree of the affordable housing crisis here in the city, and hopes to work with them to address the problem and find meaningful solutions.”

Torres-Springer echoed this desire to cooperate, saying on the podcast, “We continue to work with the Council on those bills, because we share the goal of using every square foot of real estate that we possibly can to build affordable housing, but we have to do it, of course, in the most strategic way.”

***
by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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