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Reviewing 2007, Looking Ahead to 2008

Is the tenant movement rejuvenated? Many housing advocates think so and point to a variety of achievements in 2007 to bolster that claim. From a renewed sense of mission at the state's housing agency, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, to vigorous legislative lobbying on a variety of bills, in housing 2007 was a year of new energy and activity that helped create a better environment for tenants in the state.

At the city level, officials expressed satisfaction with the progress in 2007 on building affordable housing, among other things. But property owners said 2007 was another costly year for people operating buildings in New York.

A Tough Year on the Streets

Amid the good news the housing crisis in the city remains acute. The city's homeless population still is at record highs and, particularly on that front, 2007 was a bad year.

"Homelessness worsened considerably this year," said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. "We started out the year, in February, sadly breaking the record for homeless families sleeping in New York City shelters. And that number increased during the year."

In accounting for that, Markee blamed the city's affordable housing crisis and what he considers the Bloomberg administration's policies on homelessness.

"I wish I could say that I thought the administration would change its flawed policies but they've shown themselves to be very stubborn and unwilling to revisit their policies," Markee said. The mayor, he added, needs "to address family homelessness as a housing problem as opposed to a welfare or behavioral problem."

In a statement, the homeless services department disputed Markee's assessment. "Far from having flawed policies, DHS has policies that work," a spokesperson wrote. "Street homelessness is down 15 percent in 2007 from two years ago. In November 2007 our single adult census was at its lowest November level in seven years."

Two stories stood out in 2007 as far as those policies go. First, in April, the city abandoned its Housing Stability Plus rent subsidy program. Then, in October, for the first time in decades, the city started denying shelter to some homeless families that the city said had other places to go and so, it claimed, were not, in fact, homeless. That change drew national attention after it led to instances of women and children sleeping on city streets, a sight unseen since the 1980s.

For low- and middle-income people, the rapid evaporation of affordable housing continues to make city living financially miserable. Connected, inescapably, to every other facet of life, the stress of unaffordable housing continues to weigh heavily on a huge number of New Yorkers, perhaps fueling an exodus of middle-income New Yorkers.

Achievements of 2007

Nevertheless, advocates had some reason to be satisfied, if incompletely, with some advances in 2007. They point particularly to actions by Gov. Eliot Spitzer who took office on Jan. 1, 2007.

Spitzer's naming of a new housing commissioner, Deborah VanAmerongen, was one of the first indications that in some ways, Spitzer's inaugural pledge that "everything" would change, was sincere.

In November, for example, the state housing agency said it would no longer allow owners of buildings in the Mitchell-Lama program to use a loophole that let them charge higher rents when they left the middle-income housing program. "I know Gov. Spitzer is not perfect for tenants and affordable housing advocates, but he's done a lot for tenants already just with the regulation blocking the 'unique and peculiar' loophole," said Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, said of the move.

At the same time, the state housing agency is apparently gearing up to enforce rent regulation laws, too.

In many ways, to be sure, Spitzer disappointed advocates: The New York City Housing Authority's budget remains troubled partly because the state still pays virtually nothing to operate the apartment complexes it built, a problem that has persisted since 1998 when then-Gov. George Pataki cut state subsidies.

But Spitzer did try to address the problem. In August, he signed legislation that directs public assistance to pay the same shelter allowance for people in public housing apartments as those in private apartments. That will mean about $40 million more for the cash-strapped housing authority.

Also at the state level, the rewriting of legislation dealing with the program to provide tax breaks for new housing construction in New York City was another notable housing story in 2007. The new law extending the 421-a program expands the areas where developers are required to build affordable housing in order to get the tax exemption.

A United Front

Spitzer's moves came after continued pressure from housing advocates. And their unity was an important, if largely unreported, story in housing in 2007. Starting in February, housing advocates came together under one banner, "New York is Our Home: Affordable Rent Campaign." The unity led to the largest tenant rally in the city in several years: About 10,000 people encircling Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. The sale of Stuyvesant Town for $5.4 billion in 2006 was the largest real estate deal in the history of the United States.

"Housing First five years ago brought us all together for one plan that was broadly accepted," said Marc Greenberg of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. "They hung in there, spoke to all the mayoral candidates and got them to commit to the Housing First plan. It all helped to create an environment where a lot of things started to happen. And it's like this blooming forest of activities now."

Pat Coleman of New York State Tenants & Neighbors echoed such sentiments. "While we've had our ups and downs, there is a unique unity in the tenant movement now," Coleman said. "People are working really well together. There is a really clear focus on what we need to do."

Back in the Five Boroughs

In the city, the year saw a raft of new legislation that reflect renewed activism, said Ben Dulchin of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. He cited pieces of legislation before City Council that would, if passed:

  • allow tenants to sue their landlords for harassment in housing court;
  • establish a right to counsel for low-income senior citizens facing eviction and foreclosure;
  • increase penalties for owners operating illegal hotels;
  • prohibit landlords discriminating against people based on their legal source of income.

"I think there's a lot more activism, a lot more energy," Dulchin said. "All of these efforts are a direct outgrowth of tenant and neighborhood activism that did not exist before."

Dulchin said the use of zoning policy to promote the construction of more moderate-income homes was another positive development in 2007. That approach, known as inclusionary zoning, allows developers to build buildings at a higher density than otherwise allowed if a percentage of the apartments built are set aside to be affordable.

City Hall's Tally

City officials saw 2007 more positively, perhaps, than advocates. In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development pointed to several achievements of note over the year:

  • The city has built and preserved 65,000 units of affordable housing – a year ahead of schedule – as part of the mayor's 10-year plan to build and preserve 165,000 apartments. The $7.5 billion plan is the largest municipal housing program in the country.
  • The city continues to foster environmentally friendly housing development, notably the construction of a housing complex in the South Bronx and in some of its other developments.
  • The sale of Noble Drew Ali Plaza in Brownsville to former Met Mo Vaughn's company is another step toward rehabilitating the 385-unit complex.
  • And the implementation of a new program to enforce the housing code will focus special efforts on 200 of the worst properties in the city each year, compelling landlords to maintain and repair the properties.

In a separate e-mail, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services noted the number of single adults who are homeless has decreased by 8.5 percent. This has allowed the city to reduce the number of shelter beds for single homeless adults by 1,250 beds. Street outreach was also improved in 2007, the e-mail said, with new non-profit agencies helping more homeless people than expected. The agencies also have wireless devices allowing them to input data immediately into a citywide database, the spokesperson wrote.

Not surprisingly, the city had a more positive view than advocates of its new Advantage New York rent subsidy program.

"The Advantage New York Program is extremely flexible, providing subsidies to fit the situation of anyone who is eligible," the e-mail said. "It helps people save money, and even matches their savings, and is available for people who might just need it for a month or two or for people on a fixed income who can't work."

According to the department, the program has helped more than 1,800 families and individuals obtain permanent housing.

The Owner's View

For landlords, the year was difficult, said Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, which has a membership representing over 25,000 property owners in the city.

"How could it be a good year for property owners?" Ricci asked rhetorically. "Water bills are up 11 percent, the cost of fuel has gone up and rent increases don't match it. Ten to twelve percent of multiple dwellings are operating at a loss."

Looking to 2008

Looking to the year ahead, housing advocates hope the Democrats can win control of the State Senate in the November elections. If that happens, the advocates hope the legislature ultimately will repeal vacancy decontrol and other loopholes in rent laws that allow landlords to jack up rents.

Helping the Democrats win is a top priority for many housing activists. "There's no other way to save the rent laws," said Michael McKee, treasure of Tenants PAC. "If people don't get their minds around that fact then nothing's going to happen legislatively. Everything's going to continue to go downhill, the affordability crisis will continue to get worse."

Every advocate interviewed for this article agreed with that view and McKee said failing to win in 2008 could mean the end of the rent laws altogether.

"I think this is the end" of rent regulation if we do not win, he said. "This is not business as usual. It's all or nothing."

Not surprisingly, landlords take a different view. Ricci said if the State Senate went Democratic, discussions there would be one-sided. "It would certainly take some of the balance out of the political debate that takes place in the legislature," he said.

Beyond the fight for the State Senate, predictions abound for 2008. City Council is seen as likely to pass the harassment legislation, sponsored by Speaker Christine Quinn.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis sweeping the country, which has yet to cause major problems in the New York housing market, probably will create more difficulties here in 2008, said Coleman of Tenants & Neighbors.

For the homeless, the year most likely will not bring glad tidings, Markee said. "The numbers of homeless are going to continue to be extraordinarily high," he said.

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

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