In recent years, housing advocates in New York have focused on city government. But in just the past few months, that has changed dramatically. Advocates now plan aggressively to push an agenda for preserving the dwindling supply of affordable housing â€“ and they have aimed it directly at state politicians.
A key element is the election of a new governor. During the Pataki years, few housing activists embraced any hope that the governor or the Republican-led State Senate would take any action to preserve and expand affordable housing in the state. The election of Governor Eliot Spitzer has changed that. “Clearly (the political conditions) are the best they’ve been since I’ve been involved in this kind of work,” said Tom Waters of the Community Service Society.
But other developments have also fueled calls for changes in housing policy. First, the Coalition for the Homeless released its annual report on the state of homelessness. Its most salient finding was that family homelessness in New York City has reached a record high.
Second, the city’s commissioner for homeless services, Robert Hess, announced that apartments being considered for subsidies under the city’s Housing Stability Plus rent subsidy program will be subject to more rigorous inspections and must be in adequate condition before the city will lease them. Under the current program, the value of the housing subsidy decreases by 20 percent a year and only people getting public assistance are eligible for the subsidies. Advocates would like to see both those policies changed, and Hess has told advocates that could become reality shortly .
These two developments, along with the changes in Albany, serve as reminders first of the continuing problem in finding affordable housing and second of the ability of concerned citizens to persuade policymakers to make changes.
THE HOUSING CAMPAIGN
To address this, a broad coalition of housing advocates and others have launched a campaign around preserving affordable housing. They have dubbed their push “New York Is Our Home! Affordable rent campaign,” are planning a massive rally for May 23 to call attention to the affordable housing problems and set up a Website.
The platform calls for action on four fronts:
--Preserving Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 apartments. Landlords have been opting out of these programs as the terms of their contracts expire. This has increased rents in some of the buildings to market rate, out of the reach of many tenants.
--Repealing vacancy decontrol. This policy, which allows rents to rise in apartments after they become vacant, has led to the loss of as many as 100,000 rent-regulated apartments in New York City since 1997.
--Reinstating operating subsidies for public housing projects the state developed. Pataki did away with these subsidies in 1998 and earlier this year, the housing authority proposed using Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers to pay rent on the apartments. This enraged many advocates, who believe these vouchers should be used to pay for private housing â€“ not for public housing, which, after all, is supposed to be affordable without such vouchers. Using the vouchers for public housing reduces by thousands the number available to help poor families find affordable housing in the private market.
--Limiting rent payments for New Yorkers living with AIDS to 30 percent of their income. The state has proposed having these tenants pay all of their income except $330 monthly on rent.
The platform springs partly from an understanding that, despite its many facets, the affordable housing is a single problem. “We’ve recognized that it’s not good enough to work on Mitchell-Lama over here, to work on rent regulated apartments over there,” Hilda Chavis of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, told the audience at the recent meeting on the platform.” It all hangs together. If one goes, the other goes. So, we have to work together.”
THE NEED FOR PRESERVATION
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s housing program has been largely aimed at building more affordable homes, the advocates’ platform focuses on preserving those apartments that already exist â€“ an area, they say, where the mayor has been far less successful.
“Many of us praised the mayor for producing affordable housing,” said Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “But we also recognized that [keeping] the 1.3 million affordable units we have is more critical than ever.”
Julie Miles of Housing Here and Now and the campaign director for the new campaign echoed Lander’s comment. “Locally, the mayor has invested a lot of money, billions of dollars, toward creating new affordable housing,” she said. “But we’re on track to lose hundreds of thousands of units and unless we stop the loss of units, we’ll make no headway in alleviating the pressure on affordable housing.”
RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM
The platform has attracted a broad base of support, including housing groups from across the city, politicians, unions and the Working Families Party.
“At the top of everybody’s list is affordable housing,” Miles said. Individual families are paying more of their incomes to rent, elected officials are seeing more of their constituents coming to their offices with housing problems, and union members are saying they need higher wages to deal with increases in rents.
When the New York Times ran an editorial in support of rent stabilization last month, Michael McKee of Tenant PAC said he knew a critical shift had taken place. “That’s the first time the Times has come out in support of rent stabilization in more than 30 years,” he said. “All of sudden editors and reporters have realized that there’s a very serious problem.”
Campaign organizers say that the Bloomberg administration, along with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other council members also support their cause.
The new political climate does not guarantee that change will come quickly or easily. “It’s going to be a tough fight,” said Michael McKee of Tenant PAC. “But there’s a chance we could get something this year.”
That possibility has energized activists. “Clearly all of us, across the progressive spectrum, are very excitedâ€¦ at the changing political dynamic,” Bill Lipton of the Working Families Party said at a recent meeting of more than 200 advocates. “It feels like a new moment.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â