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Citizens Union


Politics Thwart Brooklyn Housing

Photo by drocpsu

Homelessness is at a record-breaking high in New York City, and affordable housing remains scarce. In the case of one housing development project in Brooklyn, political and religious rivalries only add to the problem.

On Jan. 4, 2011, Justice Emily Goodman issued a preliminary injunction barring New York City from moving forward with the affordable housing project.

The Broadway Triangle project, which was approved by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, promised the development of 1,800 new housing units located in Brooklyn—44 percent of them for the poor.

But the ongoing lawsuit over the project raises questions over whom, exactly, the plan will benefit. The battle pits multiple organizations from the black and Hispanic communities against the mayor, and rival branches of the Hasidic Jewish community against each other, all of which are fighting for the same ultimate goal: more housing.

According to reports released by the Coalition for the Homeless in November, there are currently over 10,000 homeless families in New York City. And, “at the end of October there were 41,204 homeless adults and children sleeping in New York City municipal shelters, an all-time record.”

And a census bureau report stated that between 2005 and 2009, 18.6 percent of New York City residents were living in poverty, compared with 15.1 percent nationwide.

The report also stated that between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic whites, for Blacks, and for Hispanics.

In spite of a general need for affordable housing, the lawsuit complicates the issue.

The Complaint

The Broadway Triangle Community Coalition (BTCC), a group of 40 Brooklyn-based organizations filed the suit two years ago, alleging that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Raphael Cestero, commissioner of New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, discriminated against the Latino and African-American communities, and in favor of the Hasidim.

Political schisms and a federal investigation of one of the organizations involved in the project, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, have brought development to a halt, while thousands of low-income families still require affordable housing.

The BTCC sees this project as targeting a population unrepresentative of those in need. In a no-bid process, the city delegated the project to the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, Inc. (UJO) a Hasidic community group directed by Rabbi David Niederman, and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, an organization founded by New York State Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

According to New York State Supreme Court records, the plaintiffs alleged, “Hasidim are significantly over-represented in the three Williamsburg developments in that white families, who constitute 10 percent of the Housing Authority’s applicant pool, constitute approximately half of the families.”

“UJO pushed for the rezoning of the Broadway Triangle ‘exclusively for its own uses,’” the plaintiffs stated.

Specifically, they cited UJO’s plan to create six-or-seven story buildings with very large apartments as catering to the Hasidic community. Lower buildings are more convenient for the Hasidim, who do not use elevators on the Sabbath, and larger apartments would suit their typically larger families.

In the petition and complaint, the BTCC stated that “the City’s rezoning only for 6 or 7-story low density buildings is an intentional and unjustified limitation on the number of others, namely non-white families, who would otherwise be able to live there and who currently make up more than 90 percent of the borough-wide waiting list for affordable housing, particularly for 1 to 2 bedroom apartments.”

Gabriel Taussig of the NYC Law Department issued a public statement on Wednesday calling the plaintiffs’ claims “outlandish,” stating that they had “no merit.”

The Conflict

Of the 40 community groups in the BTCC, 38 represent Latino and African-American communities in Brooklyn, which have felt friction with the Hasidim over housing for decades.

However, the remaining two organizations, United Jewish Community Advocacy Relations and Enrichment (UJCARE) and Central Jewish Council are in fact, members of the Hasidim.

Why are these two Hasidic groups aligning themselves with a coalition fighting against the Hasidim? Gary Schlesinger, the CEO of UJCARE, blames the UJO. Schlesinger believes that not enough of the Hasidic population is being supported by current housing developments, many of which were also overseen by the UJO. “Schaeffer Landing had 150 units. Only 29 Jewish families moved in,” he said.

In response to UJCARE’s participation in the lawsuit, Rabbi David Niederman of UJO said, “On the one hand they’re saying that there are too many Jews, and on the other they’re saying that there are too few Jews. Explain to me that logic.”

Whatever the logic, there is a reason.

The rivalry between the UJO and UJCARE is rooted in a feud over rabbinical legacy five years ago that ruptured the Williamsburg Hasidim.

When Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar Hasidim for 27 years, died in April 2006, it was still unclear who would succeed him. Though traditionally a rebbe selects his successor in his lifetime, the case of the Teitelbaum brothers was more complicated.

Sam Beck, a Cornell University professor of human ecology in an unpublished draft of his recent essay, “Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg” writes, “It did not take long for [Moses’s] sons, Aaron, the eldest, and Zalman, the younger, to start fighting over who was going to take over the reigns of the community and the Satmar rabbinical title.”

The repercussions of that feud are still felt today. In the BTCC’s petition and complaint, UJCARE describes itself as a “not for profit corporation dedicated to representing the interests of the Hasidic Jewish community, the majority of whom, among others, the UJO has abandoned because they support and/or are associated with the followers of the Satmar Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum.”

But Niederman claims that the UJO serves all of the 70,000 members of the Williamsburg community, which represents over half of the Satmar Hasidim nationwide. “The UJO represents each and every one in the community,” Niederman said. “On a personal level, I belong to the Zalman synagogue. I continue to pray there but I work very closely with the institutions that belong to Rabbi Aaron.”

However, in December 2009, the UJO vigorously opposed the Rose Plaza, a housing development project proposed by a UJCARE affiliated developer.

In 2008, WNYC radio reported that UJCARE had received $200,000 in funding from the city council for the new fiscal year, a move that angered the UJO, which had received $210,000, a drop of 30 percent from the previous year.

The antagonism between these two community organizations has not only affected the housing development projects in Brooklyn, but also holds broader political implications.

Historically, the Hasidic population has represented a valuable cache of political influence, according to Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University. She explained that because the Hasidic community was so firmly united, in the past they could ensure 100 percent of the vote.

Schlesinger is aware of this political clout but talks about how it has changed. He says that since the split, “The UJO can’t guarantee the entire vote anymore. Politicians know—you can’t fool them twice.”

That is the case of Broadway Triangle Community Coalition v. Bloomberg. Part of the Hasidim, which formerly showed strong support for Bloomberg, is now engaged in a legal battle against him.

On the other side are UJO and Vito Lopez, a powerful ally of the UJO, who is at the center of federal investigations revolving around accusations of fraud at the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and related nonprofits.

Lopez’s Chief of Staff, Leah Hebert declined to comment on these allegations.

Pending these investigations, Justice Emily Goodman had suspended proceedings on the case over the Broadway Triangle development project.

Left Out

Perhaps the most affected are those families who are in need of affordable housing but instead find themselves the incidental victims of politics.

Dana Donaldson, a 27-year old single mother of two with another baby on the way was the victim of domestic violence. She says she’s been living in shelters for the past 14 months.

She talked about the lengthy process of finding housing. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which assigns housing by a lottery-based system, can take years.

“Housing takes three years,” said Donaldson. “I wanted to be out of here at least before I had the baby. No one wants to have a newborn inside of a shelter.”

“If you don’t want to sit back and wait for housing, you need a job for your own place,” she said. Nelson does occasional work as a hair-stylist but says it’s nearly impossible to find work since she’s expecting her baby within the month.

“I go to people’s houses and do their hair even though I’m not supposed to be,” she said. “Anything I’ve got to do, I’ll do it for my kids but it’s hard.”

Gloria Nelson, 39, has been homeless since November 2009 and now resides in the Salvation Army Bushwick Corps shelter. She takes care of her husband, who suffers from diabetes, and her two small children.

She said it’s difficult for her to imagine a future for her children. “It gets to the point where you do whatever you have to do,” she said.

She also described the difficulty of the lottery process. “We submit applications, applications, applications. You got to keep doing it until something comes up.”

Juliet Morris of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development estimates that over 90,000 applications for apartment housing lotteries are received per year. “It is clear that there is a critical need for affordable housing in New York, and it is a need that our mayor has prioritized during his administration,” she said.

Morris declined to comment on the Broadway Triangle project.

“Everything is politics but the only ones feeling it is the ones at the end of the totem pole,” Nelson said. “My biggest hope is getting a place for me and my family. I just need to get my kids out of that whole system.”

Sharp Criticism Greets Bid to Limit Access to Homeless Shelters

Photo by Gail Robinson
City Councilmembers Stephen Levin, Annabel Palma and Jumaane Williams sharply criticized the city's plan to tighten eligibility requirement for homeless adults to gain access to the city's shelters.

(UPDATE: On Nov. 10, the City Council released a letter from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance saying it had not approved the change in the screening procedures for the shelter system. It also criticized the city for trying to implement the change so quickly and for not consulting with the New York State Supreme Court. For more on the letter, go here. And on the afternoon of Nov. 10 the city agreed to delay the rules pending a court hearing. For more on that, go here.)

Thirty years ago, under a court order, New York City, the state and homeless advocates agreed to a decree that has governed the treatment of homeless adults in the city ever since. Last week, the Bloomberg administration revealed that it would change those rules and create new requirements for single people seeking admission to New York City shelters.

At a press conference and a hearing yesterday, City Council members and advocates sharply attacked the city's plan. Under two hours of overwhelmingly hostile and sometimes combative questions Commissioner for Homeless Services Seth Diamonddefended the changes and tried to rebut council members who took issue with the general thrust of the city's policy on homelessness and the increase in the number of homeless people under this administration.

As the day drew to a close, the new policy remained set to go into effect on Monday. The Legal Aid Societyplanned to go to court today to stop the change, and some council members held out hope the state might intervene to block the Bloomberg administration's move.

All this occurred as the Coalition for the Homeless released another report saying homelessness in the city had climbed to a new record high. And it took place against a backdrop of anger among many council members and social service advocates about the administration's widely perceived failure in combating homelessness.

"Rather than addressing the real issue, which is housing, the mayor has chosen to shut the front door of the shelter system" to the mentally ill and other vulnerable New Yorkers, Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said at a press conference. "For the first time in New York City's modern history, we have no housing program for homeless individuals."

Friends and Family

Under the new rules, the city would set stricter eligibility standards for entering the shelter system, changing the policy of the past three decades. An intake interview that now takes 45 minutes could run as long as two hours, according to the department.

In particular the policy will require people to detail where they have stayed over the past year in the hopes of determining, as Diamond told City Council Wednesday, whether they have another viable place to live. If they do, the city could deny them a bed in a shelter.

The system could result in one out of every 10 single adults seeking access to city shelters being denied it, Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless testified.

The new procedures, Diamond made clear, will aim to keep people out of the shelter system and in the community. It is, he said, "consistent with preserving precious resources for people who have no alternative."

Diamond estimated the change would save some $4 million -- even taking into account additional staff hired, at a cost of about $2 million, to conduct the more vigorous screening. He denied though, that that was the primary motivation.

"We didn't do it for the savings," he said. "We did it because we believe that people who have other options should explore those options."

Council members and advocates, though, fear that "exploration" -– and forcing people to provide an accounting of their whereabouts -- could deter many homeless people, particularly those with mental illness or substance addiction, from seeking shelter. That, they said, would add to the ranks of homeless people sleeping on the streets as winter approaches.

They also expressed concern about how the city would determine that the person had another place to go. Council members repeatedly pressed Diamond on the specifics of what would make a place appropriate housing. Did it have to have a bed for the homeless person. A bedroom? What if the people do not get along?

He refused to respond to hypothetical cases, said "If at the end of the day, there's not space, there's violence involved, it’s not a viable option."

What though, Councilmember Stephen Levin wondered, if a family simply does not want the person living with them.

"Brothers should take care of each other," Diamond said.

Probably no one would disagree with that in the abstract. but many questioned how the city could force someone to take in another person, however in need of a place to sleep he or she might be. The effort to compel people to offer their home to another person "is a basic infringement of the role of government into the decision making authority of a primary tenant," Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of nonprofits serving the homeless, said in her testimony.

"Who is the city," Councilmember Jumaane Williams asked, "to tell someone you have no jurisdiction over who they should let people into their home?"

A Vulnerable Population

Diamond said the city decided to make the change because it found that of the single adults applying to the shelter system only 15 percent came from the streets. Many more were living with someone. In addition, he said, the city has had a similar policy for homeless families for 15 years, and he believes has proved largely successful.

Although Diamond did not say this explicitly, the Bloomberg administration in other instances has ascribed some of the increase in the shelter population to improvements it has made in the shelters. As Annabel Palma, chair of the city General Welfare Committee, put it, city officials like to say people "flock" to shelters.She and other dismiss the idea that anyone would go to a shelter who did not have to. Going to a shelter is "a cry for help," said Parque. "It's a matter of poverty and a lack of affordable housing."

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and others argue the family intake program has not been as successful as the administration claims. But even if the approach has worked for families, many say that does not mean it will work for single adults. Those involved with homelessness -- whatever their view on policy -- agree that homeless adults represent a more vulnerable population than members of homeless families.

The Department of Homeless Services estimated at the hearing that some 60 percent of homeless adults suffered from mental illness, had serious substance abuse problems or both.

It was that population who the Callahan decree aimed to protect. Coming out of case filed in 1979 on behalf of homeless men -- and bearing the name of a man who later died on the streets -- it provided a right to shelter for men who qualified for welfare or who were homeless "by reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction."

Legal Aid believes that the new city policy violates this decree. But Diamond challenged that contention saying any people denied shelter under the new rules were not technically homeless because they had a place –- albeit often not a place of their own –- to sleep.

Rather than neglecting the city's most vulnerable, he said, the policy will help them. It will seek to identify mental illness, he said. And it will provide assistance so people can stay in or move to alternative shelter – helping find mediation for family disputes, pointing a family in direction of aid that might make it easier for them to take in their homeless relative and so on.

"No one wants to have an increase in people on the street," he said. "It's not or intention to make barrier for the chronic street homeless. They have no other options."

But Steve Banks of the Legal Aid Society said the process itself can create a barrier. "Bureaucracy can kill people," he said.

Councilmember Gale Brewer, said the policy points up what she sees as a blind spot in the Bloomberg administration. "This administration does not support, fund or understand mental health, she said.

On the Fast Track

Along with the substance of the decision, council members raised concerns about the way the administration made it. Many seemed irritated that they heard of the new rules, not from the administration, but from a report on WNBC Thursday night.

Quinn called that "curious." "When the Bloomberg administration has a policy they think is good, they usually call," she said. With this policy, which she branded "wrong-headed and mean-spirited," they did not.

Diamond said the city had provided two weeks notice, although under questioning, said a letter had gone out to Legal Services – not the court involved or the council – alerting them of the change last Thursday.

With two legal holidays this week (Election Day and Veterans Day), the council scrambled to hold an emergency hearing before the measure went into effect. Beyond that, though, it remains unclear what council can do to stop the move.

Some council members held out hope the state could intervene. Quinn said the council would review its options following the hearing..

The Rise in Homelessness

The outcry represents the latest chapter in a long string of disputes involving the Bloomberg administration and the homeless. After vowing to cut homelessness by two thirds, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has seen it increase on his watch. Diamond tried to spin the numbers, saying that family homelessness had declined from its peak and the rate of increase had slowed. He could not, though, refute figures showing homelessness among single adults has risen, and that homelessness overall has increased.

Under a relentless barrage of questioning from Williams, Diamond portrayed the administration as having made major gains in its treatment of homeless people, improving the family intake process, treating people with more compassion and building a new intake facility in the Bronx. His comments were greeted with smatterings of derisive laughter.

The Coalition for the Homeless report –- probably not coincidentally – -only served to reinforce the arguments of his critics. It found that, as of Oct. 31, the shelter count reached 41,204. As for the record of this administration, it said that the total homeless shelter population is 33 percent higher than it was when Bloomberg took office with the number of homeless families 45 percent higher.

"At what point," Levin said at the press conference, "do you call it like it is and say these policies have been a failure?"

Gaps in Housing Program Leave Tough Choices for People with HIV

"I'm paying over 71 percent of my check toward rent. A lot of times I struggle to make it to a medical appointment because I don't have transportation money," said 48-year-old Wanda Hernandez, who is HIV positive. Hernandez is one of thousands of low income HIV positive people who receive some form of rental assistance from the city's HIV/AIDS Services Administration.

Some advocates believe that people receiving with HIV/AIDS who receive housing assistance should not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

The amount of rental assistance that a HASA client may receive varies depending on income. Hernandez, who makes a modest living working for a large corporation in the city, receives a small housing stipend and must pay most of her rent herself. This leaves her with little money to pay for basic things like electricity, a cell phone and transportation.

Some people receiving housing aid are guaranteed that their rent will total no more than 30 percent of their income from disability payments, with the government making up the rest, Hernandez and many other disabled people with HIV do not qualify for that.

Left with only about $340 a month after rent, Hernandez said, "I don’t get to travel, I don’t get to do social things that my friends will do, I cannot even buy toiletries because you can't buy them with food stamps."

Now, new policies adopted by HASA may make it even more difficult for people like Hernandez to obtain affordable housing, let alone pay for it.

The Limits of Assistance

In March, the administration announced that it was halving the amount of money it will pay to brokers working with HASA clients and will no longer provide cash security deposits to landlords who rent to their clients. Instead it will issue vouchers the building owners can use to request compensation for any damage. According to a study by Shubert Botein Policy Associates, 95 percent of HASA clients indicated these new policies as obstacles to securing affordable housing.

"My clients, because brokers are refusing to show them apartments or help them with housing, they're going back to sex work," Howard Haughton, program supervisor for case management at Village Care, said in a http://www.housingworks.org/activism/detail/new-nyc-policies-damaging-ability-to-find-aids-housing press release for Housing Works, which provides housing and healthcare support for people with HIV.

HASA currently serves 45,415 people in the city, an increase from 44,644 in May . Of these people, more than 26,000 receive some level of rental assistance. About 5,500 receive non-emergency housing and 1,700 receive emergency housing.

Affordable housing is a critical issue for low-income people diagnosed with HIV. With high living and medical costs, many must decide between paying their medical bills or rent every month.

Many of those who manage to obtain an apartment or rental assistance through HASA, still struggle to pay their rent because HASA assistance does not go far enough. To remedy that, Housing Works and other advocacy groups have pressed for the 30 percent rent cap for all of HASA clients. They argue that, without sufficient rental assistance from the city, many HIV positive people move into homeless shelters, where their chances of transmitting the disease and of their health deteriorating increases sharply.

"We should all be protected by the 30 percent rent cap, whether we live in supportive housing or not," Hernandez said.

In addition, HASA only provides rental assistance to people who have been diagnosed with AIDS. According to organizations like VOCAL, an advocacy group for low-income people with HIV, this spurs some low-income people who are HIV positive but do not have full-blown AIDS to stop taking the medication that will keep their disease from getting worse.

"The perverse thing is that if someone is newly diagnosed and they're HIV positive but they're in the shelter they face a choice between going on meds and hopefully staying healthy and not progressing to AIDS, but that means they stay in the shelter. Their other option is not taking their meds and not going to the doctor, so they get sick enough to qualify for a rental subsidy," VOCAL spokesperson Sean Barry said.

Limiting HIV's Spread

The city has adopted many policies over the years to improve the lives of residents living with HIV/AIDS and prevent the transmission of the disease. It was one of the first cities to adopt a free needle-sharing program to reduce HIV transmission, and its HASA program is one of the largest of its kind in the country. In addition to housing, HASA also provides its clients with medical care, employment and vocational services, counseling, and Medicaid and food stamps benefits.

Despite these achievements, New York City has over 107,000 people infected with the HIV/AIDs, a rate almost three times the national average. The New York metropolitan area has the fourth highest rate of AIDS – number of cases per 100,000 people -- in the country after Miami, Baton Rouge and Jacksonville. Even after decades of breakthroughs in medical treatment of HIV that have drastically increased the life spans of people with the disease, HIV remains the third leading cause of death for New York City residents.

To reverse this, many academics and advocates believe that the city should expand its HASA program to all low-income people with an HIV diagnosis and guarantee none of these people pays more than 30 percent of his or her income toward rent.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have shown that having a stable home is crucial to maintaining the health of people with HIV and reducing the transmission of the disease.

"When you control for every other type of intervention, housing makes the number one difference in someone's health and how likely they are to transmit the disease to someone else," Kristin Goodwin, director of New York City policy for Housing Works, said.

Angela Aidala, a professor of public health at Columbia University, has done extensive research on the effects that housing has on the lives of people living with HIV. In her work she has found that the little things that go along with having a permanent home can prove crucial in reducing the transmission of HIV and maintaining the health of those infected.

"People who are unstably housed are much less likely to have the supportive networks that can provide them with social support. If you need a ride to an appointment or a reminder to take your medication, all of those things that the rest of us who live in stable housing take for granted, are absent for those who do not have stable living arrangements," she said.

Aidala added that people who are homeless or unstably housed have little structure in their lives and struggle to maintain permanent relationships.

"That means there are more partners, more transactional sex, more casual sex," she said.

According to Aidala, the earlier people with HIV receive healthcare and adequate housing from programs like HASA the better.

"If people had healthcare as soon as possible after finding out they were positive and they had other resources like stable housing and adequate food, would it reduce transmission? Certainly that's what the data that we have now would indicate," she said.

Paying the Bill

Although research has shown that housing plays a critical role in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the city and state have rejected legislation to extend HASA to all low-income people with HIV and guarantee a 30 per cent rent cap because of the projected cost. In 2008, City Councilwoman Anabel Palma introduced a bill called HASA for All, which would have expanded HASA rental assistance to all qualified HASA applicants diagnosed with HIV. The bill, opposed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who said it was too expensive, never made it to the floor for a vote.

On the state level, a year ago, a bill that would have guaranteed a 30 percent rent cap for all HASA clients passed both chambers of the state legislature, but was vetoed by former Gov. David Paterson also because of its price tag.

Despite the initial high costs, advocates of these two bills believed they would have saved the city and state money in the long run.

"If somebody becomes homeless as a result of being evicted because they can longer afford to pay 60 percent of their limited income for housing, the city and state are required to provide them with emergency housing which is frequently substandard and more expensive,” Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the author of the rent cap bill, said. "While there may have been some start-up costs, we believe in the end [the rent cap bill] would be saving money."

Goodwin of Housing Works said a program like HASA for all would reduce Medicaid costs and spending on emergency housing and homeless shelters.

"Housing is very expensive so it seems like it's not worth it financially, but in the long run if you look at everything else, it's the most cost effective thing you could do," she said.

Beyond housing, many low-income HIV positive people also need counseling, job training, and medical services. Supportive housing offers this in addition to a place to live, but the city's supply falls short of the need, according to Goodwin. Housing Works currently has long lines for 170 supportive housing units that it owns.

In an e-mail interview, city Human Resources Administration spokesperson Carmen Boon said she did not expect any proposals to guarantee a 30 percent rent cap would be introduced in the state legislature anytime soon.

Echoing Boon's words, Glick said she does not plan to reintroduce her bill in the near future. "We are in a regroup process. We lost a number of people who were yes votes and we lost a number of Democratic seats in the [2010] election," she said.

VOCAL spokesperson Sean Barry said he has little hope that the city would pass something like HASA for All with its tight budget and different priorities.

"We've seen a wholesale abandonment of Bloomberg's first term promise to both reduce the amount of HIV infections in the city and significantly reduce the population of homeless New Yorkers," he said.

Barry has more faith in Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"We've got a governor, a former HUD secretary who worked on homelessness in the '80s, so we think we have a sympathetic audience in Albany," he said.

According to Barry, VOCAL wants to get the rent cap bill enacted through Cuomo's Medicaid redesign process. Barry said members of Cuomo's administration have acknowledged that soaring Medicaid costs in the state can be partially attributed to homeless people cycling in and out of hospitals.

"If you give someone affordable housing with a rent cap, you're going to spend less money on shelter costs. … That's before you even consider Medicaid savings, which will be even more savings, but indirect savings," he said.

As for the city, Barry said he is looking forward to the 2013 mayoral election.

"People with HIV are starting treatment much earlier on so they don't progress to AIDS and that means we must acknowledge that our medical eligibility for HASA assistance, which was developed in the 1980s, is outdated. We want to make [eligibility for HASA] an issue in the next mayoral race," he said.

Will Albany Allow the Rent Laws to Expire? Does it Matter?

To read and join the discussion on rent regulation go here.

Tenants rallied for stricter rent laws last month.

On Monday Sen. Bill Perkins and Assemblymember Jose Rivera were arrested with about a dozen fellow protestors as they marched on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.

"Stronger rent laws now, renewal's not enough," chanted a group of around 200 who were in Albany to press lawmakers to pass stronger rent laws.

On June 15 the laws that keep apartments affordable for millions of New Yorkers will expire. With Democrats pushing for stronger regulations and Republicans supporting a simple extension of the existing law, things seem to have come to a standstill. To further complicate matters, the issue has been tied to the passage of a cap on property taxes in most of the rest of the state.

With their affordable housing in jeopardy, tenants are hearing mixed messages from legislators and advocates.

On one hand, Republicans and some Democrats say tenants would feel little, if any, immediate effect if the law expired. Those Republicans and Democrats have different reasons for saying that. Democrats want time to work for a better bill; Republicans think the longer it takes to get a bill the more likely they will be able to simply renew the existing regulations rather than strengthen the law. With little time left in session, it is becoming apparent that Republicans do in fact have the upper hand in negotiations.

Other legislators -- many of them with particularly strong ties to tenant groups -- counter that missing the June 15 deadline could set off panic and prompt landlords to quickly raise rents on many homes.

Underlying the question of deadline lies a debate over what type of rent regulation New York should have.

"Is an on-time bill better than a stronger bill?" asked Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger, a major supporter of strengthening rent laws. "No. I would prefer to have the better bill."

A Question of Urgency

Over the weekend Republicans quietly introduced an extender that would keep rent laws in place until Friday -- Republicans want session to end on Friday despite Monday being scheduled as a legislative day. So far, neither the Assembly nor Cuomo has expressed support for te extender. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he hopes that a deal can be reached on the rents laws without any extender.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose conference opposes any tightening of rent laws, has insisted that it is not important whether the laws are renewed before the deadline.

On June 6 Senate Skelos told reporters there has so far only been "very, very preliminary discussions," about rent laws. "Nothing of real substance," he said before noting the deadline is June 15 -- "next Wednesday, that's an eternity away."

Sen. Adriano Espaillat called Skelos' comment that the laws need not be renewed before June 15, "tragic. I think it is like yelling 'Fire!' in a theater. It is almost like inciting a riot." Asked what would happen if the laws were not extended, Espaillat said, "We will be in uncharted waters. … I would say shark infested waters."

"I could not disagree more strongly with Sen. Skelos," said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who says he has about 72,000 units of rent controlled housing in his district. "This is about millions of New Yorkers losing their homes, this is not something to be played with. This could have an impact of a crisis level on the state."

Rivera said he thinks any lapse in the laws would be felt immediately. "When you have a law that expires, it can no longer be implemented, so therefore you have landlords who can move forward without the protections rent regulation allows. They can start kicking people out, raising rent. When you have a family that is barely able to make it and all of a sudden they are asked to pay twice, three times their rent, which is no longer regulated because the roof has come off, what happens?"

Calls for Calm

Krueger disagrees. She said she doubts many leases expire on June 15, and even if they did, when an agreement on rent laws is reached any regulation could be made retroactive.

Tenant advocates like Michael McKee, treasurer for Tenants PAC, are advising people not to panic, "We have been here before; people forget that the laws expired in 1997. They lapsed for five days and the sky did not fall; they passed it retroactively," said McKee.

McKee thinks Skelos wants to get tenants worked up and frightened so that they will demand that Democratic legislators simply accept a straightforward renewal, without any stronger protections for tenants. The real estate industry, which is close to the Senate Republicans, wants a straightforward extension -- nothing more.

Upstate Sen. Catharine Young, who chairs the housing committee, told NY1 that the changes Democrats want would amount to "giving special privileges, benefits and enrichments to very wealthy people." Young has sponsored legislation that would weaken the current rent laws.

McKee and tenant advocates as well as Democratic legislators from the city don't want to settle for simple renewal. Most importantly they want to make it more difficult for landlords to remove apartments from the rent control system.

"We need the laws strengthened, we need to end vacancy decontrol, step up enforcement so that landlords can just stop registering and say they spent the money and raise the rent so the apartment is no longer on the rolls," McKee said. "Who knows how many apartments we have lost to fraud."

Currently, landlords remove their apartments from regulation by claiming they have invested in major improvements. McKee says the law does not require any confirmation that the upgrades have been made.

"If all they do is renew it and raise the cap a little, we will scream bloody murder," says McKee. "We will not be nice if that is all they do-- especially because not one has talked to us."

The Governor's Stand

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has insisted he is for stronger rent laws, but he has refused to publicly state specifically what he supports. Espaillat said Cuomo had assured him that the governor fully supports extending and strengthening the laws.

Last week black and Hispanic lawmakers criticized Cuomo for skipping a tenants rally in the city. Cuomo responded by recording a robocall encouraging tenants to call their lawmakers and tell them to support renewing and strengthening rent laws. It isn't clear which legislators were targeted with the calls.

This, though. did not exactly satisfy the disgruntled lawmakers. They say Cuomo could have dealt with rent regulation earlier in the year and are annoyed that he did not make it a priority during his state tour.

Tenant advocates say that with less than a week left in the session, Cuomo has very few remaining chances to establish credibility as a Democrat who supports progressive causes. They say his reputation as a Democrat relies on the passage of marriage equality and rent laws. However, this week passage of same-sex marriage seems much more likely, and some advocates and legislators worry that Cuomo may feel that a win on that will be enough to satisfy Democrats.

City legislators privately say will risk losing their support if Cuomo does not deliver on the rent issue. Given the the amount of popular approval, Cuomo enjoys a loss of backing from a handful of Democrats might have little effect. Nevertheless there are indicators that Cuomo takes rent control very seriously.

Earlier this month Cuomo, Skelos and Silver reportedly met with representatives of the real estate industry, including members of the Real Estate Board of New York and the Rent Stabilization Association. Representatives from REBNY and the RSA did not return calls for comment.

Tenant advocates have heard that Cuomo told industry people, "You have had your way for 18 years, and things are going to change."

Tenant advocates don't know what to make of that. "The reports were that the governor was very forceful," said McKee, "but we don’t know what that really means -- we haven't heard anything from the second floor [the governor's office], we have not been involved in negotiations."


Democratic legislators would have liked Cuomo to have acted on rent regulation earlier in the year when he could have used the budget as leverage.

Instead the issue has become tied up with the tax cap. The Republican-controlled senate has already passed Cuomo's version of the cap -- with no link to rent regulation -- but the Assembly refused to move on it. Last month Silver and Cuomo announced they had reached a deal that would enact a property tax cap that would remain in effect only as long as rent regulation stayed in place. Skelos was not pleased. Skelos has said that a putting a sunset date on the tax cap is a deal killer.

While his constituents clearly favor a cap, Skelos may privately wonder whether it is really the best way to deal with rising property taxes. "Who knows what Skelos wants?" said McKee, "They say he doesn't really want a cap-- he wants ... the Assembly to take the blame when it fails."

Krueger takes Skelos at face value. "There was some confusion earlier in the year, but Dean has been very firm that he wants this legislation. His house has passed it, and he wants the Assembly to do the same," she said.

Krueger says it does not matter that "at this point in time that I don’t think a tax cap is good public policy." People in the state seem to want one and she represents a district that has no stake in the issue."

Krueger seems to think a trade is in order. "I think there are a lot of parallels between the bills," she said. "They say the communities outside of the big cities need a tax cap, the Senate has passed it, the governor supports it and the people want them to deliver. We say we need rent laws for the five boroughs, the Assembly has passed it, the governor supports it and the people want it."

But advocates whisper that Skelos is holding out for a bigger reward to strengthen rent laws. They note that the Republican majority has benefited greatly from the financial support of the real estate industry. McKee says the only thing that has done more to keep Senate Republicans in the majority over the last few decades is their ability to draw district lines.

"What Skelos wants the most is to keep his lines the same. He wants to keep being able to gerrymander; he wants to make sure there is no independent redistricting. It is the only way they will keep the majority," McKee said.

The effort to pass an independent redistricting bill has stalled in the Senate, as Skelos has insisted that a bill would be unconstitutional and that a constitutional amendment is necessary. Cuomo, meanwhile, has pledged to veto any lines that are drawn unfairly. It is impossible to say how -- or even if -- all of these issues are connected. But at this point in session, it seems unlikely that negotiations over any important legislation are entirely self contained.

With only a few days left Democratic legislators and progressive groups say Cuomo has to use his power to buck Skelos and pass a rent law that extends controls and dramatically strengthens the law to make it harder for landlords to deregulate apartments.

"Andrew has the chance to be the leader of the Democratic Party," said McKee. "Andrew has a chance to do something Democratic, unlike what he has done up to now, which has been very Republican. He has a chance to do something for the Democrats with rent. I hope the governor keeps his promise."

End of Homeless Program May Send Families Back to Shelters

Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a firestorm when he told reporters, "There aren't many panhandlers left" on the subways.

Bloomberg expanded on this the following day when he suggested panhandling in general had also declined.

To advocates for the poor and the homeless, these comments only reinforced their view of the mayor as being out-of-touch. Joel Berg, executive director for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger was quoted as saying he would "love to live in whatever city the mayor lives in -- it's an entirely different one from the one that I and 8 million other New Yorkers live in."

Bloomberg's remarks came as his administration moves to eliminate Advantage, the city's controversial rent subsidy program designed to provide permanent housing for homeless families. The city has said it cannot afford the $140 million Advantage costs. It also has indicated that Advantage may have encouraged some people to claim to be homeless in order to get city aid.

While advocates for the homeless have long criticized Advantage, they worry about what, if anything, will replace it. "Right now, the Bloomberg administration has no policy for helping homeless families move from shelters to permanent housing. And Mayor Bloomberg is the only NYC mayor since modern homelessness began not to have such a policy," Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless said in an email.

The city, though, says its policy focuses on families before they go into shelter. "We will continue to emphasize linkage to employment and services to employment” as the most effective way to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place," Commissioner for Homeless Services Seth Diamond said.

Advantage Out

The mayor's executive budget calls for a 6 percent cut in homeless services, including the elimination of the Advantage program. This will total $22 million in savings, Diamond said in recent testimony before the City Council’s Finance and General Welfare Committees. City Council may be able to restore some of those services as it has done in the past.

In the meantime, though, the courts have stepped in. Last week, a state appellate court ruled the city must continue the Advantage program until September, when it issues a final decision in the case. While recipients expressed relief, the administration criticized the court's action. "At a time when the city is already forced to make major cuts due to the state budget," Diamond said in a statement, "we will now have to shoulder a new bill of $15 million each month that we simply cannot afford, which will mean more cuts to other city services."

The effort to eliminate Advantage along with cutbacks and changes in other programs, basically leaves the city with very few tools left to combat homelessness beyond placing people in shelter.

Meanwhile homelessness in the city remains monumentally high. By the end of February, the nightly census of homeless adults and children in the municipal shelter system -- 39,542 people -- reached the highest point ever recorded. While some figures show the number of homeless families has declined slightly, the number of homeless single adults in municipal shelters has soared to the highest levels since the late 1980s, and the number of homeless single women in the shelter system has reached the highest point since the city has kept records, according to the coalition's State of the Homeless 2011.

The city's effort to cut Advantage leaves the approximately 15,000 households who were enrolled in Advantage -- and thousands more who had been accepted into Advantage but had not started the program -- basically out of luck. In March, Diamond sent a letter to local real estate brokers to inform them no new Advantage enrollees would be accepted.

With these vouchers, recipients had to pay 30 percent of their monthly income in rent for the first year and 40 percent for the second year, with the city making up the rest. Families could receive vouchers for no more than two years. Advantage working families have average rents of around $1,000 a month and average incomes of around $1,100 amonth.

Annabel Palma, who chairs the City Council's general welfare committee, said enrollees were reporting back to her they had been told by their case workers to "rip [their Advantage voucher] up and throw it out."

State Assemblymember James Brennansaid the city should have made plans for the funding shortage. In the state budget "New York City took tough hits," that Brennan said he believes were "a little unfair, ... but the city's been unrealistic, the writing was on the wall a year ago."

Shut Out of Public Housing

The city's decisions leave the homeless with few places to go. For years, homeless families could turn to federal programs for assistance. But in 2004, that changed as the Bloomberg administration unveiled an ambitious five-year plan called Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter, which was supposed to cut homelessness by two thirds within 10 years. Linda Gibbs, the current deputy mayor who was once commissioner for Homeless Services, is widely believed to have been behind the decision -- part of the 2004 program -- to cut off the homeless from federal housing assistance like Section 8 vouchers.

The city also stopped making units in projects run by the New York City Housing Authority available to the homeless. This continues to be the prevailing policy.

Administration officials have frequently expressed concern that opening Section 8 vouchers or NYCHA apartments to the homeless would crowd out other low-income New Yorkers. “Most New Yorkers work every day," and must pay their rent without any subsidy, Diamond said.

"NYCHA units are for people in the communities, not people in shelters," he has said.

Furthermore, Diamond said, "The reality is that there is no Section 8 available," and years-long waiting lists for NYCHA.

Markee countered the city could indeed place homeless families into housing authority buildings or get federal housing vouchers for them. "All that DHS has to do to move homeless families to NYCHA public housing is refer their names to the top of the waiting list, as was done for nearly 20 years under four mayors," he emailed. "We advocate that the city allocate one third of those resources -- roughly 2,000 public housing apartments -- to help homeless families leave shelters."

The city housing authority has some 180,000 apartments. It expects to admit about 5,800 new families over the course of the year. Currently, 144,00 and 120,000 people are awaiting public housing and Section 8 vouchers, respectively.

As to the Section 8 vouchers, Markee confirmed none are currently available for the homeless or anyone else. He expressed hope "there may be vouchers available in 2012 and beyond depending on the economy and budget decisions made by Congress." However, given Congress' efforts to slash spending, that seems unlikely.

Markee said the state would like the city to once again let the homeless participate in federal programs. Gov. Andrew Cuomo "is behaving differently" from previous governors, Markee said. "He gets what needs to happen and the best way is [through] federal housing programs" to combat homelessness.

Even if it had vouchers to distribute or vacant apartments in public housing, city officials say giving this help to a homeless family could entice some families who might otherwise be able to find a home on their own to become homeless.

Palma dismisses this notion. "I was homeless," she said. "I didn't wake up one morning and say to my son, 'Let's go be homeless and let's get a NYCHA apartment.' It’s not reality."

Other Changes

Last year, the city also reportedly cut some 200 eligible families from homeless prevention services called Homebase. According to its website, this "is a city-wide program designed to help families and individuals overcome immediate housing problems that could result in becoming homeless, and to develop a plan for long-term housing stability."

Advocates condemnedthe cutback as a cruel experiment by the city.

The administration, though, says the move was essential to evaluate the program's effectiveness. The city is "committed to enhancing Homebase," Diamond said in an inteview, but "there are questions about the program after the stimulus money goes away."

In addition, there are plans for some reductions to the homeless youth program operated by the Department of Youth and Community Development, according to recent testimony by Commissioner Jeanne Mullgray. After 10 rounds of budget cuts where this program remained intact, which "speaks to how valuable the program is," said the youth department's chief information officer, Andrew Doba, outreach and drop-in centers were slashed in December because the department's "focus has been to provide beds." The council was able to restore that funding.

Now, though, because of the state budget, the city plans to cut 14 beds out of approximately 200 in the FY2012 budget.

Meanwhile Diamond has supported the idea of having young mothers with children under 10 share apartments. Because this is currently illegal, city law must be changed to allow for this. The city Independent Budget Office reports this plan "would affect 2,560 homeless families … saving $4.5 million in city funds in 2012 and $9.1 million in future years."

Back to Shelters

Other than apartment sharing, if the city has an alternative to Advantage, it is a familiar one: shelters.

In his letter and in testimony, Diamond said the cuts in state support and resulting reductions in Advantage and other programs would compel the city to ultimately build 70 new homeless shelters.

While shelter costs are shared between the city, state and federal governments, the city bears sole responsibility for housing programs, such as Advantage, according to Diamond. "We need more of a shared responsibility," he said in an interview.

Markee, though said that already exists. "The state’s position was (and has been) that the City of New York, like other localities in New York State, should use some of its own housing resources (like public housing) to address the problem of homelessness. Then the state will help," he explained in an email. And, Markee added, the city always has the option to pay for Advantage in its entirety.

The city spends about $3,000 a month to keep a family in a shelter.

A recent Independent Budget Office analysis of the Mayor’s Preliminary Budget confirmed shelter use would probably increase with the elimination of Advantage. "It is likely that some … would be unable to pay their rent and would return to the shelter system if the program ends," the report said.

The office examined two different scenarios for 2012. If 30 percent of households now receiving Advantage had to return to emergency shelter, the analysis projected, spending on shelters would increase by $279 million or 40 percent above the amount now budgeted for fiscal year 2012. Of this, the city would be responsible for $115 million. The Independent Budget Office's other scenario had 70 percent of households return to shelter, ratcheting shelter spending up $455 million -- a 66 percent increase -- with the city bearing $188 million.

Palma, though, said she has not seen where the money for the shelters will come from. "Wouldn't it be cheaper to invest in permanent housing?" she asked.

Failed Strategies

To advocates, the latest shift in efforts to deal with homelessness represents a failed philosophy and marks the latest in a series of unsuccessful tactics.

The elimination of Advantage may be about more than money. Certainly the program did not dramatically decrease homelessness in the city. Last year, the Coalition for the Homeless issued a report documenting what it saw as the failure of programs such as Advantage, calling them "a revolving door back to shelter."

In general, Berg said, the administration suffers from a "fairly distorted notion." They think, he continued, that "at the root of the problem is behavior. … They see people in a vacuum…that homelessness is a personal failing," and do not consider the state of the economy.

Advantage and its predecessors failed because of poor planning, Palma said. When the city was creating "programs for the most vulnerable … it wasn’t including [the relevant] stakeholders at the table."

Palma emphasized, "The city has been intent on keeping people out … and creat[ing] obstacles."

As bad as Advantage was, Palma said, offering nothing is worse. "There is absolutely not a replacement in the pipeline," she said. Though the state is giving the city $15 million dollars to fight homelessness, Palma added, "it won't be to create a [new] rental subsidy program."

What it will be for, though, remains unclear.

Are Tenants Advocates Out of Leverage?

Photo (cc) Matt Ryan

At midnight on June 15 the state's rent laws, which keep thousands of apartments across the city affordable, will expire.

Tenant advocates didn't want to be here. They put their energy into lobbying the legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ensure rent regulation would be renewed and strengthened as part of a budget deal. It seemed for a moment that it might work: a property tax cap to get the support of the Republican Senate and a renewal of rent laws for Assembly Democrats. Democratic senators, including Sen. Liz Krueger, said they might not be able to vote for the budget without a renewal of rent laws. Cuomo said a property tax cap and rent laws might both be part of the deal.

But as quickly as hope came, it was gone. The budget was passed, and rent laws had not been renewed.

The fear is not that rent laws will completely expire -- although it is a possibility -- but that the laws will not be strengthened. Instead, advocates fear the laws will be weakened so that more apartments are taken off rent regulated housing rolls.

Now tenant advocates feel they have been left with no bargaining chip and have to hope that Cuomo is committed enough to bolstering the rent regulation. Cuomo has expressed his support for strengthening rent laws, but, like with many of his other policy positions, he has not made it exactly clear what he wants and how he means to get it.

"I think it is up to the governor and what he is going to do," said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenant's PAC. "He said he supports rent laws, but he hasn't given us any specifics. And he has given away the best leverage we had. I think he is absolutely key -- unless he has a specific plan we are going to wake up on June 16 and we will be screwed."

Lost Hope

McKee has very little reason to be optimistic. The best hope for strengthening rent laws was when Democrats had control of both houses of the legislature.

Thanks to former Sen. Pedro Espada and his position as the chair of the housing committee, advocates saw their efforts to strengthen laws for tenants and to preserve affordable housing die. It wasn't a surprise for them when video was leaked this year showing Joe Strasberg, president of the pro-landlord Rent Stabilization Association, praising Espada.

"The guy who saved this industry was Pedro Espada," said Strasburg in a clip on YouTube, "and everybody makes fun of him because he's in litigation, but if it wasn't for him, this industry would have been hit on all those issues I just rattled off."

McKee wasn't shocked at all by Strasburg's comments. "Espada buried the chance over the last two years of getting stronger rent laws. He had some help, thanks to Carl Kruger and Jeff Klein," he said, adding that he felt Espada was basically "installed" as committee head by the real estate lobby.

And Strasberg's honesty about his relationship with Senate Republicans makes it even harder for McKee to believe that the Democratic majority in the Assembly can get rent laws strengthened without the support of the governor. "It's not that the Democrats are so great," said McKee. "It is that the Republicans are hopeless."


"We’re not ashamed of it. We gave and donated and supported all the Republicans,"said Strasberg on the YouTube video. "We basically emptied our piggy bank in order to make sure they capture the Senate. Dean Skelos understands how important we are as an industry -- and it's selfish -- but he understands clearly that if he doesn’t hurt us or he tries to avoid hurting us, we will be there for him next time around, two years from now."

According to McKee, it would be a win for the real estate lobby to have the rent laws re-approved as they are. But he expects Senate Republicans to try to draw the process out until the last minute and try to force the Assembly to accept a bill that actually weakens them.

"We cannot win by pressuring Republican senators. We can't count to 32 in the Senate. I think they will use the classic Republican strategy that Joe Bruno used: let the clock tick, people will get nervous and just before the deadline the Senate will pass a weakened bill, send it to the Assembly and leave town." The only alternative McKee sees to this is for Cuomo to exert his political might and push for a repeal of vacancy decontrol so that rent-controlled apartments aren't taken off the rolls.

Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a supporter of stronger rent laws, says he sees other options. "We have two out of three houses supporting stronger rent laws. We have the first governor to come out strongly for rent regulation and enhancements. Has he been specific? No. But we are in negotiations now on a property tax cap, ethics, and those may be coupled together to work out a compromise."

Some legislators say a push by tenant advocacy groups to include rent regulation in the budget was misguided. Now that the budget is out of the way, they need to redouble their efforts to make sure their concerns are heard while other key issues are being debated.

McKee said that he wants it to be clear to legislators that this is not an issue simply for current tenants; it is also an issue for future generations. "Preserving affordable housing is an issue for the future so that the next generation can afford to live in the city. When we lose an apartment to deregulation it is gone. It's not coming back."

With Housing in Turmoil, Cuomo Offers Few Clues

jimmy mcmillan
Photo by John Dalton
In his various runs for public office, Jimmy McMillan has famously declared the rent "is too damned high." But, with rent regulation set to expire this year, it could go even higher.

In the days leading up to and immediately following Gov. Andrew Cuomo's inauguration, almost all attention has focused on what Cuomo might do to fix the state's budget woes and clean up Albany. The governor's stands on other issues have received far less scrutiny, and that includes his position on the status of the state's largest affordable housing program -- rent regulation.

2011 will be a big year for New York's tenants, especially for those living in rent- stabilized apartments. On June 15, the state laws governing rent regulations -- which primarily affect New York City -- will expire unless the legislature and governor successfully broker a deal to renew them. Along with limits on some rents, these regulations give tenants the right to renew their leases and protect them against eviction without legal cause, and ensure services.

Cuomo takes office at a particularly turbulent and risky time for housing in the state as New York suffers the fallout from years of predatory lending and the collapse of the housing market. Although Cuomo once served as U.S. housing secretary and has run a housing nonprofit, he has given little indication of what he might do about this crucial issue. The stakes, though, are undeniably high.

Keeping Rents Reasonable

Approximately 1 million apartments in the city fall under the protections of rent stabilization. Another 40,000 city homes are rent-controlled, which is an older -- and some would say more draconian--version of tenant protections. Brooklyn City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, a former tenant organizer, said he is "very worried about the expiration of rent laws. ... I couldn't imagine [the] whole scenario -- I don't know what New York City would look like" without rent regulations in place.

Under the rent stabilization system, the city's Rent Guidelines Board oversees rent adjustments on such apartments. The board itself is a bit of a hot potato as the mayor appoints all nine members without input or approval from the City Council. The Rent Guidelines Board has never not voted in favor of rent increases since its inception in 1980.

Williams said he is "waiting for someone in leadership to really champion the issue …[but I] haven't seen it."

This weekend, rent protection finally seemed to get notice. The Daily News reported that State Assembly Democrats -- the faction in the legislature most supportive of rent regulation -- could demand a strengthening of these protections in return for backing a cap on property taxes, something that Cuomo and many Republican legislators clearly want.

"If we are doing something with real property tax reform, which affects most areas not the City of New York, then the correlating issue for standard of living is affordability of apartments in New York City and that issue should be addressed as well," Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari of Albany told the paper.

Cuomo, though, rejected the link. " My approach is going to be to deal with these individual issues on their own merits," he told reporters. Cuomo has indicated he favors extension of the rent laws, but has not said whether he would support strengthening them or other changes.

Housing in Turmoil

Mario Mazzoni, director at the Metropolitan Council on Housing said, when it comes to housing and tenant issues, the new governor's "platform has been extremely vague and it seems intentionally so. ... It's clearly strategic.”

Many tenant advocates see a need for government to become more actively involved in creating and maintaining affordable housing. The unregulated go-go mentality of the financial world and predatory lending practices during the housing boom have placed rental buildings at risk of foreclosure, leaving many families facing possible eviction or living in apartments where landlords no longer provide essential services.

This "same dilemma" could sooner face middle-income Mitchell Lama rentals, according to Manhattan State Sen. Liz Krueger, although a recent court ruling preserving rent regulation at those apartments may give tenants hope.

Throughout New York City, Krueger said, people who were ill-equipped and "ill-prepared" to own buildings had "fantasies" about making a killing on peoples homes and then bought properties at inflated prices they could not afford. She pointed to the example of Vantage Properties which "went into real estate with a business model, little experience and [the thought they could] increase profits dramatically...by throw[ing] out rent-regulated apartments." Such avarice, the senator said, "fed into predatory lending, which rolled into the economy."

As a result, Cuomo, Krueger said, "inherits an unresolved huge public policy [issue] ... the impact on NYC is literally overwhelming."

Krueger, who was the ranking member of the housing, construction and community development committeeagreed Cuomo "has kept his positions close to the vest. ... I hope he has an aggressive agenda."

She does not necessarily infer anything significant from Cuomo's silence. He has a history of working on housing and homelessness issues, she pointed out.

Cuomo's Record

In 1986 Cuomo created Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged, now one of the country’s largest builders/operators of affordable housing linked to support services. Connecting support services, such as counseling, with housing as a means to eradicate homelessness was considered groundbreaking at the time.

Cuomo joined the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1992 as an assistant secretary for community development and became HUD secretary in 1996. Cuomo was generally credited with reforming what was once regarded as a grossly mismanaged agency. Overall, Cuomo’s HUD record is considered to be mixed.

Despite this background, advocates find some aspects of Cuomo's track record quite worrisome. Before his election as state attorney general in 2006, Cuomo worked for controversial business/real estate impresario Andrew Farkas and his company, Island Capital Group.

Then there are the massive contributions from the industry to help fund his run for governor. According to the New York Times, real estate interests were Cuomo's biggest donors over the previous three years, accounting for more than 15 percent of what he raised between 2007 and last spring.

Of particular interest is the vast amount donated in 2010 -- more than $150,000 -- by the family of Jerry Speyer, all high-level executives at Tishman-Speyer Properties. Tishman is one of the companies that excessively overpaid and then defaulted on Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, the multi-building Manhattan housing complex created in 1943 to provide affordable housing in more than 11,000 once rent-regulated apartments. The complex was turned over to creditors last year. In the process, the fiasco has become the poster child against real estate speculation and predatory lending.

Cuomo, recent articles say, has turned to real estate interests to raise money for a planned public campaign over the budget and against the state's public employee unions. "Business and real estate executives intend to raise $10 million in the coming weeks in support of Gov.-elect Andrew M. Cuomo's looming showdown with government employees unions over wages and pensions," the New York Times reported.

The director and founder of TenantNet, John Fisher, was blunt: "Andrew Cuomo is basically a creature of the real estate industry. ... He's completely bought by developers and landlords."

The Industry's Efforts

Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group, agreed it is unclear where Cuomo comes down on housing issues. "It's early," Ricci said.

On its website, the group takes credit for what many tenants consider to be the massive weakening of regulations in 1997. "Our long-term lobbying efforts in the State Legislature and the City Council resulted in the greatest benefits for property owners in the history of rent law negotiations including permanent, realistic vacancy allowances, deposit of rent in court and a strict four year statute of limitations," it reads.

If history can serve as a guide, the real estate industry will spend and lobby lavishly to push its agenda -- including the demise of rent laws. In 2003, Common Cause-NY released Connect the Dots, a report on money in the state's politics. It found, "On top of making large campaign contributions, RSA and REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York) each have spent over half a million dollars lobbying in the capital since 1999. ... Both organizations consistently report lobbying on rent regulations throughout this period. In total, they spent nearly $1.2 million lobbying in Albany from 1999 to date."

Real estate interests donated approximately a half million dollars to both senate campaign committees of parties between January and July 2010.

Asked about this, Ricci said he would give his customary response to all press inquiries into the matter, that the Rent Stabilization Association has been “meticulous about campaign finance on disclosures."

Over the years, real estate interests been key supporters of Senate Republicans in particular, and the return of the Senate to GOP hands almost certainly bodes well for the real estate industry.

Though there were a few accomplishments -- such as cracking down on illegal hotel conversions and strengthening the rights of regulated tenants whose building is in foreclosure -- during their two years in control of the senate, Democrats disappointed many tenant advocates.

To their dismay, the leadership did not make Krueger head of the housing committee, instead choosing Sen. Pedro Espada who was instrumental in the coup that held up Albany in 2009 . Upon assuming the chair, Espada blocked reforms already passed in the Assembly and introduced legislation many housing activists considered a "Trojan horse," misleadingly friendly to tenants but harmful to them in the long run. Espada, who was defeated for re-election, now faces various criminal and civil charges.

Coincidentally, or not, the Observer has reported, the real estate industry gave $290,000 to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee in the first half of 2010.

What Cuomo Has Said

In his campaign policy book, Urban Agenda, Cuomo remains silent on rent regulations. The policy book emphasizes the state's need to take advantage of existing federal programs to create affordable housing and spur community development.

It also calls for supporting foreclosure prevention services, and the creation of land banks "to assemble, manage and dispose of vacant land in order to stabilize neighborhoods to encourage re-use or redevelopment of urban property."

Perhaps of the greatest relevance to tenants and owners alike, the Urban Agenda devotes considerable space to the matter of "over-leveraged properties." It calls for the state Mortgage Insurance Fund "to provide credit insurance for refinancing of affordable units" and to work "with bank regulatory agencies to encourage lenders to ...participate in this kind of restructuring process" to save homes and stave off foreclosures.

Beyond that, the book barely discusses the preservation and maintenance of existing affordable homes and says nothing at all about the rent laws, which advocates say are key to keeping affordable apartments affordable. In fact, in his State of the State address last week, Cuomo never discussed the topic though Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in his own remarks, “Let us work together to extend and to enhance the protections for these rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments so that New York's middle-class families will not find themselves priced out of their homes and communities."

Cuomo’s agenda also does not mention more specific issues regarding rent regulations, many of which have been pending legislation in Albany. That includes repealing vacancy decontrol, which allows landlord to remove some vacant apartment from rent regulations and the Urstadt Law, which bars the city from passing its own, more stringent rent regulations; Major Capital Improvement reform, and an increase in the maximum income tenants can have in order to keep stabilized rents.

Met Council's Mazzoni argued, that given Cuomo's "fiscal conservatism" and emphasis on making government work better for less, he should be at the forefront of strengthening rent laws. "All other affordable housing programs account for barely half the size of rent regulations" which costs the government very little," Mazzoni said. "Ending vacancy decontrol would accomplish more than future constructions of affordable housing."

Cuomo's agenda also omits mention of controversial tax abatement programs that have given developers huge -- though not necessarily permanent -- tax breaks to create small amounts of affordable units. These include the city’s J51 or the state's 421A programs and inclusionary zoning.

These programs do cost the state revenues, which could make them vulnerable in tough fiscal times. That would be fine with some tenant groups.

In a separate email, Mazzoni wrote, "We need to end the so-called affordable housing programs that are geared toward for-profit developers and landlords. It's extremely expensive and inefficient when the cost of running an affordable housing program includes subsidizing landlord profits. It also leaves these assets in the hands of entities whose goals are to maximize profits, not to provide decent housing to people who need it the most -- so they'll always be looking for loopholes to get out of their obligations."

One of Cuomo’s biggest issues during the campaign was to clean up Albany. He stressed that again in his State of the State speech. This could reduce the power of money by establishing public financing of campaigns, establishing low campaign contribution limits for lobbyists and eliminating so-called "pay-to-play" practices.

For Krueger, reform is the key to everything. "The most important is campaign finance, [fighting] abuses, the public interest versus the private interest of lobbyists, who have disproportionate power...[and] say in the legislature and in policy," she said. "I hope Andrew Cuomo is committed to challenging the status quo of lobbyists and funders as the state government."

Jillian Jonas is a freelance journalist focusing on local and national politics, government and public policy. She is a former national political analyst for U.P.I.

Council Approves Safe Housing Act

worst buildings list
One of the buildings that made the city's list in 2009.

Taking aim at the city's worst landlords, the City Council expanded a housing program Wednesday that forces property owners to make improvements to the city's most uninhabitable buildings.

The program targets 200 dilapidated apartment buildings a year and requires landlords to address their housing code violations. If they do not fix the problems, the city does it for them and sends them the bill.

Under the expansion, the city will target larger buildings to more than double the number of units under the program. It will also include housing violations directly related to asthma, such as vermin and mold, for the first time.

"Imagine if you were sick and every time you went home it made it worse," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "Unfortunately, that is what's happening all over the city."

The bill, Quinn said, would fix that. Dilapidated roofs be gone and say sayonara to some heatless winters.

Despite widespread support for the program, dubbed the Safe Housing Act, it has come under scrutiny since the city failed to capture all of the funds it has invested in improvements from landlords.

Nonetheless, Wednesday's unanimous approval was hailed by tenant and housing advocates, who say the expansion will be a large step toward ridding the city of its most unsafe structures.

"The city will recoup those costs in the future," said Javier Valdes, deputy director for the advocacy group, Make the Road New York. "What's really good for the tenant is that those repairs are done now."

The Expansion

Advocates and residents have horror stories.

Leaky ceilings, mold-infested bedrooms, rats.

Sebastian Riccardi, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, recalled one building that made the city's top 200 in Crown Heights. It had a gaping hole in the roof that was so large someone "nimble" could climb through it, Riccardi said.

To be targeted by the city, these buildings must have the highest ratio of housing violations per unit. Most of them already have tax liens, a city official said. In order to get out of the program, under the initial version of it, all improvements had to be made and all city debt paid.

The initial program, approved in 2007, inadvertently included a disproportionate number of smaller buildings. The expansion will instead target larger buildings.

As a result, the program, which will continue to target only 200 buildings, will go from about 1,000 units to nearly 3,500, said council officials.

In most of the buildings in the program, city officials said, landlords are spurred to make improvements just by landing on the list. But with a third of the owners, who may have abandoned the building, the city is forced to step in to make improvements.

Since the program started, a spokesperson at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said the city has spent $17 million on improvements to these buildings. It has only received $4.5 million back from landlords.

Arguing in support of the program, officials and advocates say the city will recoup improvement costs plus the cost of any liens on the property eventually.

"It's sort of an investment," said Riccardi.

Over the course of three years, the city has seen only 192 property owners out of 600 graduate from the program. Fiscal year 2010 was the city's worst performing year to date with only 57 buildings exiting the program.

To spur landlords to actually pay back the money, the city's retooled program will include a new payment plan that will enable property owners to pay back the city in installments instead of one lump sum.

Council officials and advocates say the cost of the program will eventually even out. To save tenants' lives, Quinn said, it's well worth it.

"You can't have tenants living in that state of disrepair, while we get the money," said Quinn. "We have to make peoples' conditions livable."

Homeless Cuts Take Aim at Families

Photo (cc)

Christine Nieves clung to a child-sized coat slung over her chest just outside of the Auburn Family Shelter.

It was one of the first December days where a conversation would leave a trail of chilly smoke -- a clear sign winter was approaching. Nieves, 27 years old and Manhattan born, has been calling the city-run Brooklyn shelter home since early summer, she said. Nieves and her three children, two boys, ages 6 and 7, and one girl, 9, have been in and out of the city's shelter system for two years, she estimates.

"There is always a lot of fights in the building," said Nieves. People -- Auburn houses both families and single women -- "bring in drugs, liquor, knives," she added.

Her small children share a "dirty" bathroom with other families.

But for Nieves, things could get worse.

As part of an attempt to close a $3.3 billion budget hole next fiscal year, the Bloomberg administration proposed nearly $1.6 billion in new cuts last month, nearly $19 million of which would strike the Department of Homeless Services over the next 18 months. To close the gap, the department wants to try housing single-parent families with small children in shared "apartment style" units. It plans to scale back the realtor fees for placing homeless families in permanent housing and reduce spending on contracted security at city-run family shelters by 15 percent.

All of this occurs after the city shelter population increased by nearly 9 percent between 2005 and 2010.

"With unprecedented, escalating numbers of homeless families, rising rent burdens along with deepening unemployment and recession incomes -- even growing rent arrears in [New York City Housing Authority] public housing where rents are affordable -- it doesn’t take a policy expert to question the severe cuts proposed for the DHS budget,” said Victor Bach, the director of housing research at the Community Service Society.

With that sentiment in mind, some city officials and advocates are gearing up to strike back. Several officials plan to make fighting the cuts to the city's homeless -- particularly slashes at services for youth and families -- their top priority this budget season, and they are using the mayor's own language as a weapon.

Battle Ahead

In 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged he would reduce the homeless population, then at approximately 33,687, by two-thirds by 2009.

The mayor's pledge was punctuated by one of the worst recessions to hit the country in decades, spurring nine rounds of budget cuts, an unemployment rate above 9 percent and a foreclosure crisis that devastated parts of southern Queens and Brooklyn.

The day after Thanksgiving this year, the department had 36,654 people, including 8,259 families with children, in city shelters. The total homeless population using the city shelter system has decreased slightly since last winter -- when it reached a peak of more than 39,000.

While the recession has increased the shelter population, the economy has ripped holes in the city's budget. Despite the circumstances, newly minted Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond remains confident he can continue to fulfill the mayor's campaign promise.

"We are very aggressively working to reduce the population," Diamond told Gotham Gazette last week. "The overall census is down 5 percent in the past year."

"We are [reducing the budget] in a way that we think is creative," the commissioner explained.

One of those innovative methods, Diamond contends, would be to test putting different families with single mothers and children under five in the same unit. Diamond said each family would still have its own bedroom but would share a kitchen and bathroom. He argued the living situation would provide comfort and stability for families who can rely on each other for support.

Those in and out of the shelter system do not see it that way.

"I don't want to share rooms with anyone else," said Nieves back at the Auburn Family Shelter.

"Why would I want another family with me?" asked another woman at Auburn, who did not want her name used, as she walked her daughter to school.

Patrick Markee of the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless said the city had adopted a similar policy in the 1980s. But the City Council eventually banned it.

"When the city used to shelter homeless families in doubled up arrangements, there were all sorts of problems: Children and adults getting sick, children going to the bathroom in tin cans because they are afraid," said Markee. "The City Council passed the law in the '90s to move away from those terrible and unhealthy conditions."

In order for the administration to test the plan, which the department would like to do at eight facilities with the potential of adding between 5 and 40 units per facility, the City Council would have to officially revise the law. Already, the department has an uphill battle.

“The law in question is in place to protect the health and safety of our city’s homeless families and children," said Councilmember Annabel Palma, the chair of the council's General Welfare Committee. "I do not want to see us, as a city, move in the wrong direction and roll back hard won reforms.”

Council Speaker Christine Quinn's office said the council would review the proposal, which would take effect during the next fiscal year, at the "appropriate time."

Keeping Services Up?

Beyond doubling up, the department plans to reduce broker fees from 15 percent to 12 percent for those who find housing for homeless families. Advocates question whether the reduction would provide less of an incentive for realtors to find homeless families permanent housing.

It also plans to provide a financial incentive for shelter providers to move families into permanent housing at a faster pace. Currently, providers start receiving a lower rate of pay after a family has been there for six months. To save money, the department will begin reducing pay after five months.

Several shelter providers refused to be interviewed for this story, fearing fallout from the department. Some did confirm to Gotham Gazette their overall concern for how these cuts would affect getting services, especially for families.

Shelter Safety

The department will cut its contracted security at the four family shelters it directly runs, like Auburn, by 15 percent.

According to the latest data from the Mayor's Office of Operations, critical incidents at family shelters have gone up 250 percent this fiscal year. Diamond attributed the increase to an expansion in the definition of "incidents" to include domestic violence.

"We are reducing [security] from a very high level to a high level," Diamond said. "At the end of the day, we still have to have safe and secure facilities."

Diamond's determination to keep services the same has not quelled concern among those using those services, like Chanel Daugherty.

The 32-year-old woman, who has seven children between the ages of 3 and 9, lost her home on Staten Island after a fire. Now she is at Auburn and is waiting to get a permanent placement from the city elsewhere.

She called the conditions inside the shelter system "terrible." The lack of heat leaves her kids shivering all night.

"I hope a change comes about," Daugherty said.

Homeless Youth

The homeless have taken hits outside of this department's budget.

Drawing the ire of advocates and officials, the Department of Youth and Community Development has proposed to eliminate all of its funding for outreach for homeless and runaway youth and reduce funding to its five youth drop-in centers. The total cut in fiscal year 2011 would be $569,000.

The city's loudest opponent of the proposal, Councilmember Lew Fidler, says it is downright hypocrisy.

"A lot of these 3,800 kids that are on our streets every night aren’t looking to be helped," said Fidler. "Someone has to be looking for them."

Several weeks before the citywide election last year, the mayor announced a commission to study lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender runaway youth. The report came out this summer, Fidler said, and called for more shelter beds.

Now, Fidler said, they are cutting instead.

"Happy holidays, merry Christmas," Fidler said. "What could be crueler?"

In response, a spokesperson from the Department of Youth and Community Development argued that, up until now, funding for runaway and homeless youth has been spared.

"Due to a combination of city and state reductions for fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2012, [the department] has made the difficult decision to reduce runaway and homeless youth services funding," said Andrew Doba, the department's spokesperson. "This reduction was proportionally less then other reductions in the [the department] portfolio."

Unlike the Department of Homeless Services proposal to double of families, this cut may not need City Council approval. In between fiscal years, the mayor can direct agencies to cut spending. Only new appropriations need council approval.

Nonetheless, the council kicks off its budget hearings on the entire mid-year plan today.

Council to Expand Safe Housing Act

Photo (cc) 2010 Courtney Gross. HPD Commissioner Rafael Cestero, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Gale Brewer announce new legislation Tuesday.

Clutching a sign splashed with the slogan, "No More Asthma," Rodrigo Castillo relayed the saga of living in a dilapidated, practically abandoned apartment building in Sunset Park.

From the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, Castillo described through an interpreter the winter he spent without heat or hot water and the endless trail of rats and cockroaches permeating his place.

He also described his 11-year-old son, Nicholas, whose asthma continues to get "worse and worse and worse."

Nonetheless, Castillo's landlord has done nothing in response.

But thanks to a retooled city program, Castillo and more like him can get help, City Council officials said. Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced Tuesday the expansion of the Safe Housing Act, originally approved in 2007 to target 200 buildings with the worst housing violations for improvements. As part of the expansion, the council will consider legislation to isolate larger buildings and properties with violations connected to high asthma rates, like mold and vermin infestations.

Quinn said the proposal's approval would eventually curtail emergency room visits in neighborhoods saturated with dilapidated and distressed residences.

"We are recognizing that peoples' homes can actually make them sick," said Quinn. "Asthma has a tremendous amount to do with housing."

Keeping Housing Safe

When first approved, the program captured more than 1,000 units in 200 buildings per year. Under the expansion, the program will continue to target 200 buildings per year, but it will aim for larger ones. The council estimates the expansion will more than double the number of apartments covered by the program, climbing to as many as 3,000.

The latest iteration (Intro 436) of the Safe Housing Act is part of a focused enforcement effort by the city to pour inspectors into buildings with the most hazardous violations. Under the effort, if a landlord refuses to make repairs to bring a building up to code, the city makes the improvements for them. The city then sends the property owner the bill.

Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Rafael Cestero estimates two-thirds of landlords make the repairs on their own.

Under the new proposal, buildings with less than 20 units could be targeted if they have more than five immediately hazardous violations, like mold, per unit for the preceding two years. If a building has more than 20 apartments, each one would have to have approximately three hazardous violations to qualify. The legislation also could impact buildings with liens for emergency repair charges from the city.

The latest expansion, Quinn said, would not bear any substantial additional cost to the city.

When announcing the expansion Tuesday, a swarm of advocates and residents cheered on the council from the steps of City Hall. They claimed the bill would save lives.

"With the expansion of the Safe Housing Act, we can learn how to more effectively address pest and mold violations that negatively impact the health of thousands of asthmatic New Yorkers, and ultimately improve the quality of life for those children and families," said Michelle de la Uz, the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, an advocacy group in South Brooklyn.

Quinn said the council would hold a hearing on the bill on Dec. 14, and it would be approved shortly thereafter.

Traffic Calming Transparency

As fierce controversy over the increase of bike lanes heats up, the City Council approved legislation Tuesday to force the Department of Transportation to map out criteria for the construction of certain traffic calming devices, including speed bumps and bike lanes.

The bill, (Intro 376) which was approved unanimously, will reveal to the public the logic behind installing traffic calming measures, from median islands to curb extensions, council officials said. Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, the bill's chief sponsor, said it would also provide a check on the administration to ensure these measures are being approved or rejected appropriately.

"It means people are going to have the power to advocate for themselves," said Vacca.

The bill would not list reasons for each individual installation, but would provide a broad definition of why one measure goes in a certain kind of traffic area. Vacca said when the legislation goes into effect, community members will know why a lane goes on one street and not another.

The bill would only apply to bike lanes used as traffic calming measures, not lanes that are installed to connect to other bike lanes.

But in this transportation climate, some questioned whether the bill could be used as a weapon against bike lane expansion.

Vacca said the bill was not "anti-bike."

Job Creation Requirements

Also on Tuesday, the council unanimously approved legislation (Intro 256) to require the Economic Development Corp. provide more information on the lease and sale of city-owned property.

The corporation will have to release an annual list of each lease the city has, the rent it receives from each property and the conditions of any property's sale.

Under the legislation, which was passed unanimously, the corporation will also have to create a database, which includes all job creation information for city-subsidized projects.

Creating Affordable Housing: How Koch Did It

Ed Koch
In his third and last term, Mayor Ed Koch, shown here at a parade in Brooklyn in the mid 1980s, focused on finding ways to build affordable -- but not necessarily low-income -- housing in the city.

In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan to increase affordable housing in the city, a plan that, whatever its success, has become a hallmark of his administration. In embarking on the project, Bloomberg was taking a page from one of his predecessors, Ed Koch. As New York emerged from the fiscal crisis in the 1980s, it faced a shortage of housing. Koch set out to address that, using new strategies and innovative financing.

This excerpt from the new book, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, by Jonathan Soffer (Columbia University Press), explores the thinking behind the Koch housing plan, the obstacles it encountered and the successes that made Bloomberg look to it as a model some 15 years later.

Ed Koch

In his 1985 State of the City message, Mayor Edward I. Koch announced the most ambitious plan of his political career: a five-year $4.4 billion city-financed program to build and rehabilitate 100,000 low and moderate-income housing units. The idea took off, and several weeks later he more than doubled that goal, expanding it to 252,000 units, with a revamped 10-year plan, revised once again in 1989, that committed $5.1 billion to finish building the units by 1996.

It was an extremely risky move. At first, no one in his administration knew exactly where the money would come from. But Koch and his aides managed to pull much of it off, and the housing plan became his most enduring achievement.

The plan began modestly enough during a lunch of senior administration officials. Abraham Biderman, then a housing adviser to the mayor who later served as housing commissioner, recalled that they sketched out the first draft of one of the largest housing investments in New York's history on the back of a napkin.

The Housing Crunch

They realized that New York was facing an affordable housing crisis. Between 1978 and 1981, the number of apartments renting for $200 a month declined by 43 percent, with 67 percent of renters spending more than 35 percent of their income on rent. And in Koch's first term, 81,000 units of housing, mostly at the lower end of the scale, disappeared.

"At that time, the city population was growing, the jobs were growing, but there was no housing being created for all sorts of reasons, and this was the critical linchpin to the whole city economy," Biderman recalled.

The New York Way

The new housing program was very much in the tradition of the public agencies, workers cooperatives and public-private partnerships that had been building housing for low- and middle-income people in New York since the 1920s. The most unprecedented element of the Koch plan was that, while it would be financed with cross subsidies from luxury projects, and from state entities such as the Battery Park City Authority, the bulk of the money would come from the city's capital budget.

Public housing had a bad name in many parts of the country because it was often badly managed by political hacks, and it was seen as a dumping ground for the poorest of the poor. But 20th century New York had a long tradition of public housing that was well maintained by civil servants. The Housing Authority continued to provide quality housing, even during the fiscal crisis, when money for maintenance was increasingly hard to come by.

But Koch had little interest in building new high-rise projects. Housing officials understood that one reason for the relative success of New York's public housing was adequate expenditures on maintenance, and they were loath to undertake any housing project that would permanently increase the expense budget. So while the Koch plan was generous with capital funds, officials hoped that private and nonprofit ownership would shift most maintenance expenses to private owners. The city also aided this goal with tax subsidies designed to subsidize maintenance and improvements.

Putting Meat on the Bones

The scale and complexity of the various programs that made up the Koch housing initiative were breathtaking. The plan had four main goals: gut renovations of all suitable city-owned vacant buildings; moderate renovation of all occupied city-owned buildings; promotion of below-market-rate loans and tax breaks to encourage owners of low and middle-income housing to renovate; construction of new homes for owner-occupants. The units would be located all over the city but concentrated in the South Bronx, Harlem and central Brooklyn.

In New York, supporting affordable housing is, in theory, as safe an issue as opposing littering. In practice, the mayor got flak for his program from both the left and the right. The right wanted an unregulated private housing market, arguing that market forces would lead to construction of more affordable housing.

At the same time, Koch's housing program came under fire from housing advocates on the left who had become more concerned about redistribution and homelessness than about class and racial integration. They deplored Koch's decision to build significant amounts of middle-income housing, demanding that the needs of the poor come first. Bonnie Brower, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, argued that the Koch housing program did not sufficiently address the needs of low-income households. "If they want to build middle-income and upper middle-income housing, let them at least call it by its right name, and let us deal with it on its merits," Brower commented.

The Koch housing program, though, was primarily an economic development program, not a welfare program. Koch aimed to rebuild areas devastated by abandonment and neglect into neighborhoods that were viable and self-sustaining without continuing cash subsidies or maintenance expense that would have to be paid from the expense budget. Deputy Mayor Stan Brezenoff wrote, "We cannot preserve the city's long-term health if we do not address the needs of the middle class by putting public resources into creating housing for this group. If we don’t, who will be here to fill the jobs and pay the taxes that support services and housing creation for the poor?"

Low-income subsidy projects cost more, which meant fewer renovations could be undertaken with the funding available, leaving more holes in the fabric of neighborhoods. An program relying entirely on subsidies also would tend to create ghettos of low-income families who had the least social stability, a particularly questionable idea in 1986 at the height of the crack epidemic.

Housing commissioner Paul Crotty was impatient with complaints from "ideologues and advocates" that most of the housing was aimed at middle-income residents who could afford to buy housing in the $25,000 to $40,000 range or pay equivalent rent in proportion to their income. He kept telling them, "Not every program can meet all the income targets There's lots of notes on this organ; you have to hit all the notes."

Repopulating New York

Such a complicated set of programs, with so many sources of funding, posed daunting obstacles to construction. "The hardest thing to get built is housing," a frustrated Koch told the press after a year and a half of trying to cajole the bureaucracy into building buildings. Complicated financing and regulation, the impact of scandals, and the need to create effective bureaucratic channels between a hodgepodge of agencies all militated against his will to build.

Until the mid-1980s, New York's housing stock did not grow significantly. In 1983, for example, the addition of 11,251 newly built or renovated units was offset by the loss of 11,133 units through demolition and conversion to nonresidential uses -- a net gain of only 118.

Nonetheless the Koch administration policies and an improving economy began to turn the shrinking city into a growing one. Once the recession ended in 1984, losses of housing slowed to a trickle, and the combination of private and public construction led to a net gain of 37,000 units by 1987, boosting public confidence in Koch's new expanded housing program.

After 1986, there was much more local control over the kinds of projects that were built, because the housing initiative was using mostly city and state money. Local control and the continuing destabilization of neighborhoods had made construction of affordable housing popular again.

The program shifted the goals for government housing programs from a welfare model primarily interested in housing the poorest to a more racially and income diverse affordable housing model, presaging a similar shift in public housing projects (as Nicholas Dagen Bloom points out in his book Public Housing That Worked). "We definitely wanted to have a mix. ... It's a combination that we strove for, including the working poor and a little bit of the middle class," Biderman recalled.

Finding the Funds

Cobbling together the complicated financial package to do this took significant politicking at the state level. Most of the money came from the city's capital budget, after the legislature freed up billions in borrowing capacity by creating a separate Municipal Water Finance Authority for the enormous third water tunnel project. More money came from various state agencies that had surpluses or that owed the city money, including the refinancing of Municipal Assistance Corp. (MAC) bonds, a $200 million payment in lieu of taxes from the World Trade Center (less than Koch had hoped), $3.2 billion in increased borrowing by the Housing Development Corp. and approximately $400 million from the Battery Park City Authority, which was borrowing against anticipated funding from the World Financial Center. Interestingly Koch saw the transfer of Battery Park City Authority Funds to low-income housing as a way to justify state subsidies for a luxury downtown development.

Progress was slow for the first two years following the initial announcement of the housing program in January1985. The fallout from the Parking Violation Bureau scandal of 1986 made the task of creating new shortcuts around bureaucracy even tougher. Auditors and prosecutors monitored every city transaction, subpoenas disrupted the normal work of agencies, and anti-corruption procedures increased paperwork in a system that was already drowning in it.

By the end of 1987, the city had managed to increase both direct and indirect capital budget support for housing, though turning that money into occupied units was more difficult than Crotty had anticipated. Almost immediately, the transportation department was able to start upgrading streets and infrastructure near affordable housing project sites. The greatest holdups were the bureaucratic hurdles involved in disposing of city property. The housing commission could provide city-owned land for only about 3,000 new units.

The Reagan administration, which by 1984 had cut federal budgetary authority for housing to one third of its 1980 levels, actively disliked government housing construction programs. Reductions in federal aid to cities began under the Carter administration, but conservatives hastened the process. Federally funded gut rehabs and new housing starts in New York City plunged from 6,500 in 1983 to fewer than 500 by 1988. The only assistance Washington offered Crotty was the badly conceived and ideologically driven voucher program.

What They Built

The public-private hybrids that actually constructed much of the housing under the plan did not always work smoothly. Some were disasters, such as Tibbets Gardens, the failed four-year effort with the Real Estate Board of New York to build housing in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. The Manhattan real estate professionals were used to working on a large scale and "just couldn't adapt their overhead and their whole method of operation, including the nature of the subcontractors that they used and the cost of those subcontractors, to the environments that we were working in," Biderman explained.

Others flourished. From the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes to the well-heeled Rockefeller-sponsored Housing Partnership, nonprofits managed to transform the streets of once decimated neighborhoods. Andrew Cuomo's Project Help, which built transitional and permanent housing for homeless families, was one of the most successful, in part because it benefited from the generous funding that the son of a sitting governor was able to obtain. Despite the difficulties and delays, Koch's program of decentralized public investment stimulated private developers in the Bronx to build new structures on undeveloped land within a few months of this initial announcement.

City projects also improved in quality during Koch's third term. Deputy Mayor Robert Esnard, an architect by profession, believed that aesthetic appeal and amenities were key to successful public housing construction, even for the homeless. He convinced the prominent architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, to design apartment blocks that each contained 24 units of transitional housing for homeless families, with counseling and recreation facilities on the first floor and the apartments above. The first one, an unobtrusive three-story hundred-unit building at 346 Powers Ave in the Bronx, was completed in 1990, with 10 more sites under construction or approved by the Board of Estimate. The firm earned nothing for the design itself.

New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger described a prototype as "an impressive building, at once sensible and humane," noting particularly the apartment design of "eight single rooms around double-height living rooms."

The housing commission's programs did more for homeless families than single adults, who needed more intensive social services. In a 1992 interview, Biderman said, "We almost came to the point where we eliminated the [welfare] hotels [as temporary housing for homeless families] altogether but unfortunately, since then, they have begun to grow again."

Red Tape

Housing advocate Kathryn Wylde [now president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group] chafed at the relatively slow pace of construction, especially during those first two years. Wylde argued that New York's bureaucratic delays and paperwork made the cost of delivering a manufactured house to moderate-income buyers in New York 30 percent higher than for the same house in New Jersey. But the Koch administration argued that progress was remarkable given the slow paper flow through primitively computerized agencies, the distraction of subpoenas and the proliferating new safeguards against corruption.

Koch and Crotty began to take Wylde's complaints more seriously when the Daily News in an editorial probably inspired by Wylde, described the "nightmarish" and "Kafkaesque" bureaucracy required to build new housing in New York City. To drive home the point, the News illustrated its editorial with a diagram of 35 pieces of paperwork required to complete an apartment rehab, nothing that "printing the diagram for a major project -- say, a new apartment house -- would require a Playboy-style centerfold." Crotty challenged the accuracy of the diagram, which, he said, "confused the approval process with the construction process."

Still, bureaucratic absurdities abounded. "Different agencies didn’t want to be pushed into different things ... so we were always in a state of mini-war with agencies," Biderman remembered.

Financing sometimes failed to materialize, and in July 1986, when Koch and Crotty announced the second phase of the MAC housing plan, it came out at the press conference that only one 16-until building on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn had been completed under the first phase, with a second building underway on Staten Island. Instead of the 800 units for $20 million first contemplated for phase one, the project had been scaled back to 450 units with a budget of $15 million.

One area that scared the bureaucrats was the innovation of public-private partnership, which sometimes crossed then-sacred legal boundaries between public and private. Deputy housing commissioner Charles Reiss, speaking at a 1984 conference, called the Housing Partnership's New Homes program "the hardest and most difficult to get going, and to follow through to construction and occupancy" of all the city's housing ventures.

City bureaucracies were woefully limited by rudimentary computers. In an age with only primitive word processors, Reiss cited as the primary obstacles to housing construction the glacial production of legal papers, a process that "seemed to take longer than the actual construction of the houses." Reiss also feared that housing built on vacant city land in bad neighborhoods might not be marketable, creating a huge budgetary scandal.

The 1986 city corruption scandals made it harder to give away city property for fear of impropriety, even for the laudable purpose of building affordable housing. The administration responded by setting up a high-level committee under Esnard to value the land for each project. Housing activists and developers complained that the committee greatly increased their paperwork, but such painstaking preparation in the first two years of the housing initiative paid off.

"This was one of the major public works programs, which was never tainted by scandal, kickbacks, shoddy work. And to get that done we had to have all the right systems in place. And it took time. But once they were in place, it definitely began to move," according to Biderman.

By fiscal year 1988, the pace of construction began to pick up. Housing completions went from 12,763 in FY1987 to 15,388, a 17 percent increase and the most since 1976, with nearly two third of the units in the outer boroughs. Between FY 1987 and FY 1990, annual expenditures under the hosing program went from $62 million to $340 million.

In the early 1980s, Koch was widely mocked for putting window detail of Venetian blinds and potted plans on abandoned buildings overlooking the Cross-Bronx Expressway in a vain attempt to make them look better. By the 1989 mayoral campaign, Koch was able to break ground on a project to renovate those same buildings, and the mayor traveled to the Bronx to remove the first decal himself. By the time Koch left office the following January, the housing program alone had renovated 3,000 apartments, with 13,000 more under construction and design work started on an additional 20,000.

"My plea is to the next mayor: Don’t undo the housing efforts of the Koch administration," wrote Willa Appel, executive director of the Citizen Housing and Planning Council shortly after Koch's defeat in 1989. The Dinkins and Giuliani administrations continued to build housing under Koch's 10-year plan, using the bureaucratic pathways he had bushwhacked, though Dinkins increased the subsidies and numbers of apartments built for the poorest families. Giuliani eventually decreased annual capital expenditures to $235 million in 1998, about one third of what Koch had spent at the program's peak. In the previous 10 years, New York spent a total of $4.4 billion on the housing program -- a step forward but less than needed.

More than two decades after the program was announced, Koch's initiative has generally been viewed as the greatest success of his 12-year mayoralty. The housing he built did not end homelessness but did help rescue New York. Vacant abandoned houses are no longer a common sight, and the value of homes in the city remained more stable than in most other areas of the United States during the general housing contraction that began in 2007.

In total, between 1987 and 1993, more than 100,000 units were renovated or constructed, Overall, however, the cost of housing in the city remained high and would continue to increase, in part because the population increased from 7.5 million in the Koch years to more than 8 million in 2008.

In 1998, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer invited Koch to the Bronx to see the fruits of his success. Times reporter David Gonzalez was present and rhapsodized that as a result of Koch's 1-year housing plan, "entire blocks have come buzzing back, with children and families living in new townhouses and renovated apartment buildings."

Koch has frequently been criticized, sometimes with justification, for being a crisis-oriented mayor -- governing through short-term responses to the headlines. But his major strategic decisions -- the restoration of New York City's credit and the 10-year housing plan -- were exceptions that put the city on an upward curve for the next generation.

Jonathan Soffer is an associate professor of history ay New York University's Polytechnic Institute, specializing in 20th century American and urban history.

Excerpted from "Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City" by Jonathan Soffer. Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Soffer. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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