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Citizens Union

Housing Advocacy Wins Election, With One Exception

Whichever candidate they supported for mayor, many housing advocates counted the latest election a victory, even before Election Day – thanks to a range of housing-friendly commitments.

“Overall, it’s been probably the most significant year for housing policy advancements in the last 20 years,” said David Greenberg of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development. “The promises made during the campaign were really exceptional.”

Some say there was one serious exception.

From 65,000 To 165,000 New Housing Units

In his re-election campaign against an opponent who made affordable housing one of his signature issues, Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised a commitment to expand the construction of affordable housing. What began as a $3 billion plan to build and preserve 65,000 units grew to a new $7.6 billion plan to build and preserve 165,000 units. Many advocates consider this the biggest victory.

But there were others. Bloomberg has also committed to preserving some existing affordable housing that is at significant risk of becoming unaffordable, like Mitchell-Lama apartments. Very recently, after advocates rallied to focus attention on the potential loss of thousands of Section 8 apartments, the city announced that it would develop a “comprehensive assisted-housing preservation strategy” within 90 days.

During the campaign, Bloomberg made a number of decisions that pleased housing advocates. The first sign of the mayor’s new interest in housing came in April when he agreed with City Comptroller William Thompson to use $130 million in Battery Park City funds to develop a trust fund for low-cost housing, a commitment advocates had been seeking for years.

Every Week A New Initiative

In October, it seemed a week did not pass without some new initiative on housing:
• A collaboration with national charities and financial institutions to build and preserve affordable housing
• A new initiative to combat predatory lending practices
• A plan to search exhaustively across the city for underutilized land on which to build, and A plan to build affordable housing for middle income New Yorkers.

To top it off, the day before Election Day, Bloomberg announced New York/New York 3, a state and city collaboration to build 9,000 more units of supportive housing. It was widely expected but obviously timed to swing any wavering voters who somehow missed or ignored Bloomberg’s ubiquitous advertisements.

One Serious Exception – Keeping Rent-Regulated Apartments

But Bloomberg’s commitments largely avoided a significant problem in housing that he has been virtually silent about; indeed, some advocates charge he is moving backwards. The problem is the preservation of rent regulated apartments.

Some in the mayor’s administration might not understand the extent of the problem, said Michael McKee of Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide coalition. McKee said he was stunned when he read in a recent newspaper article that the city housing commissioner said that the city had had a net increase in affordable housing in recent years.

“That’s totally absurd,” McKee said. “We’ve lost 200,000 rent regulated apartments in the last 10 years. We’ve lost 11,000 Section 8 apartments and we’ve already lost 40,000 Mitchell-Lama rentals.”

The city did not respond to a request for comment.

The mayor’s lack of action on preserving rent regulated apartments, which account for roughly a third of all rental apartments in the city, is “deadly,” McKee said: “It will be absolutely deadly and we will all pay for the failure of Mike Bloomberg to do something about this.”

Jenny Laurie, executive director of Met Council on Housing, agreed.

The loss of rent regulated apartments has been fueled by a change in the rent regulation laws in 1997 that allowed landlords to decontrol apartments when those apartments reach $2,000 monthly rents as they are vacated. They can also decontrol those apartments if the household income is $175,000 or greater for two years and the rent reaches $2,000.

Getting a rent stabilized apartment’s rent up to $2,000 seemed unlikely, perhaps, in 1997. But over his first term, Bloomberg’s appointees to the Rent Guidelines Board have allowed rents to increase significantly as landlords claimed operating costs had skyrocketed.

“You’re going to see the steady erosion through the vacancy decontrol provisions and if we continue to have high guidelines, you’re going to see steady erosion of tens of thousands of affordable housing units a year,” Laurie said.

Bloomberg’s main emphasis has been on building new affordable apartments, which is just one part of addressing the affordability problem. Saving what already exists is the other part.

“He’s putting drops of water in the top of the bucket while there’s a big hole in the bottom of the bucket,” Laurie said.

Advocates were hopeful once that Bloomberg was committed to addressing the loss of rent regulated apartment. In his first term, he supported repeal of the Urstadt Law, as I’ve written about before.

Simply put, the Urstadt Law prevents the city from passing any law stricter than the state housing laws. That effectively ties the city’s hands on enacting legislation to address rent regulated apartments. Bloomberg flipped on his commitment to repeal the Urstadt Law during his reelection campaign.

Hope Elsewhere

There may be some reason for optimism, however, on two other fronts – the New York City Council and the New York State Legislature. In contested elections for City Council, pro-tenant candidates won in races across the city. Advocates are working now to ensure that the next City Council speaker is pro-tenant, too. At the state level, anti-tenant Republicans lost seats.

“Whether we change Bloomberg’s mind on home rule, it may be that in 2006 or 2008 the state government will be controlled by Democrats and the state will return to localities the right to legislate over rent regulations,” Laurie said.

McKee said he was “very skeptical” about Bloomberg’s many promises during the campaign.

“I’ve been through this too many times,” he said. “I think it’s commendable that the Bloomberg administration has undertaken efforts to create new housing. I think it would be more commendable if they also expended some political capital and got involved in the fight to preserve the affordable housing we have.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

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