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Critiquing The Mayor's Housing Plan

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Mar 09, 2003
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In December, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined his plan to build or renovate 65,000 homes over the next five years, he was praised for his ambition. It represented the most significant housing proposal in the city, many said, since 1986 when Mayor Ed Koch promised to build some 100,000 new homes.

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But as the details of the mayor's housing plan become clearer - and as lawmakers and residents of individual neighborhoods look at what it means for their communities – some say the mayor's plan falls short.

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Last week in its first round of budget hearings, the City Council took the lead in voicing some of the first public criticism of the mayor's plan – of the budget, his proposed zoning changes, and conflicts with neighborhood priorities.

First, the council is concerned about the housing budget. While Bloomberg has committed $3 billion over the next five years for his plan, he has nevertheless cut the capital budget for housing by 16 percent. On top of that, the mayor is slashing specific housing programs, one of which provides legal assistance for tenants who are being evicted.

Second, a fundamental part of the mayor's plan is the difficult task of reforming the city's zoning and building codes. The mayor is particularly interested in building on abandoned waterfront and underutilized manufacturing areas across the city. While some argue that these changes are essential, local lawmakers, community groups and real estate developers all have their ideas about what should and should not be done. (Read Councilmember David Yassky's article on his ideas for the Brooklyn waterfront.)

Third, each neighborhood wants a say in what happens. New York City Council members - who have the power to vote on the fate of an individual building project, deciding whether it is built or rejected - are already saying that the mayor's plan will not necessarily help their communities.

"Only one-third of the people in my neighborhood in Harlem can participate in this program," said Councilmember Bill Perkins. "This is top down planning. And those at the bottom are getting left out."

FINDING THE MONEY FOR THE PLAN

The mayor's housing plan calls for $3 billion in spending; about two-thirds of the money will come from the city's capital budget - the portion of the budget for long-term building projects. The New York City Council – which must approve the budget - has said it agrees with many elements of Bloomberg's plan.

"It is quite similar to what I have been saying for several months, which is use the capital budget as effectively as possible … which means renovating existing apartments that are in dilapidated condition," City Council Speaker Miller said. "I'm glad the mayor is agreeing with that now."

But given the city's $4 billion deficit and a sluggish economy, the mayor is also looking for more creative ways to raise money.

The mayor's plan calls for raising $500 million through a complex system of financing. According the Independent Budget Office, the details of how this money will be raised are still unclear, but at a recent hearing the city testified that the money would indeed materialize.

The mayor's plan calls for auctioning off remaining city-owned vacant land. However, some question whether such auctions should continue and cite a recent study that found that hundreds of lots sold since 1996 remain empty and unused.

"The land has been sold away, housing costs are out of control, and vacant lots are a hazard in my community," said Marie Pierre of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). "Many landholders need to build affordable housing on their property or give it back."

The mayor is also proposing some severe cuts, which alarms housing advocates. Last year, the mayor reduced the capital budget for housing by 16 percent. In addition, the mayor is calling for $324 million in cuts to the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development over the next four years.

"The proposed $324 million cut indefinitely defers building and preserving at least 5,000 homes for New Yorkers hardest hit by the housing crisis," said Lloyd Brown a vice president of Bank of New York and member of the coalition group, Housing First.

Also some of the City Council's favorite programs are eliminated in the mayor's plan, including legal assistance for tenants who are being evicted, grants to 60 community groups for tenant organizing, and a landlord training program that aims to educate owners on how to run a safe building.

The council said it will fight to get these programs reinstated.

It is also not just a matter of finding the money, some argue, but making sure it is spent on the people who need it most.

About half of all of the apartments to be built or renovated under the mayor's plan will go to families that make between $88,000 and $157,000 a year, according to a recent study by the Independent Budget Office. About 16 percent will be designated for families that make less than $50,000 a year and about two percent for housing the homeless.

"Most of the people who come into my office have housing complaints or are dealing with eviction," said Councilmember Robert Jackson. "My priority is ensuring that those people are helped."

REFORMING THE CITY'S ZONING

New York City's zoning laws were drafted in 1961, when the city's population was much smaller and the manufacturing industry played a more significant role in the city's economy and landscape.

"Everyone agrees that New York City's zoning and building codes are ridiculously outdated," said Michael Schill of New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Policy.

Mayor Bloomberg's plan calls for major revisions of the city's codes to make construction easier and less expensive. He especially wants to target abandoned waterfront and underutilized manufacturing areas like East Harlem, Long Island City, Port Morris in the Bronx, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (The Department of City Planning has some of these rezoning plans on its web site.)

But some caution that this will be technically and politically difficult, especially building on so-called "brownfields," abandoned lots that contain environmental hazards.

At a recent forum, former City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose called brownfield development an "expensive bureaucratic morass" and questioned if the mayor's proposed code reforms will yield the promised results. In 1999, Rose also proposed an overhaul of the city's zoning codes, but the plan eventually stalled.

The City Council – which must approve all zoning changes – will also be tested. The council has a limited staff, will face heavy lobbying from various interest groups, and because of term limits, about a third of the current council members will be forced out of office in the next two years, giving them little time to focus on complicated zoning issues.

"Right now, some council members are very concerned about how they can ensure that some of this new housing built in their area is affordable," said Councilmember Melinda Katz, chair of the land use committee.

DEFENDING LOCAL CONCERNS

Many local communities have already spent years drafting their own development plans which include housing, parks and commercial areas while paying close attention to neighborhood concerns. Many local lawmakers are wary of the mayor's specific proposals.

"We need to work with affordable housing developers and the mayor to make sure we are being creative," said Brooklyn Councilmember Diana Reyna. "We can't just have one program handed down to us."

Some council members are already clashing with the mayor.

Recently Councilmember Bill deBlasio called for a limit on the height of a proposed apartment building on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, unless the developer included apartments for low- and middle income residents. The move alarmed the Department of City Planning which quickly held a press conference, saying that limiting the height of buildings in that area would be "criminal."

And in the past, council members have demonstrated that they will vote against the mayor if another member asks them to.

Last April, a Bloomberg administration plan to provide 40 low-income apartments on Sterling Street in Brooklyn was halted when Councilmember Yvette Clarke opposed it. Clarke said that the tenants in the building had not been consulted on the plan. The rest of the council voted with Clarke. The administration is still working to resolve Clarke's concerns, but no definitive agreement has been reached.

Some housing advocates say that while all of these concerns – the budget, rezoning issues, and community concerns – must be taken into account, they hope that all of the parties involved can work together to move the mayor's plan forward.

"Housing is very complicated and no one wants to admit how much it costs" said Carol Lamberg of the Settlement Housing Fund. "We often spend so much time debating what would be best, that it is impossible to get anything done. I hope that everyone can step up to the plate."


Related Article:
Waterfront Housing For Everyone by David Yassky


Other Links:
Mayor Bloomberg's Housing Plan
(Gotham Gazette 12/02)

Transcript of Mayor's Housing Speech - December 10. 2002

Bloomberg Plan: "New Marketplace: Creating Housing for the Next Generation"
(in PDF format)


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