The City Council recently held what for them was a first, an awards ceremony honoring six people for their work in affordable housing.
Did all the effort and expense for the ceremony â€“ Council chambers filled with friends and family, an elaborate buffet, an appearance by Speaker Gifford Miller â€“ mean anything more than just another event at City Hall?
Yes, insisted Councilmember Gale Brewer afterward: Housing, she believes, is back as a potent political issue.
The competition for attention is stiff. In one poll, New Yorkers ranked the economy, the city budget, and terrorism as the most important problems. Only two percent put housing first. But that poll, by Quinnipiac College, was conducted more than a year ago. Ask local officials now about constituent calls, and the answer is different:
“Housing is the number one problem in my district without a question,” said Councilmember Robert Jackson of Harlem in a recent interview. “I see it every day. Rents are going up so high and people are being evicted.”
Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn said she was getting “three or four” calls a day from people with housing problems, and helping landlords and tenants reach agreements that do not involve actual eviction.
There are also about a dozen council resolutions concerning housing issues pending now. In the city budget, the council has proposed using money from a commuter tax to finance affordable housing construction. At the state level, Vito Lopez, chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee said there are probably “10 percent” more bills about housing this year than last.
People are paying more attention not just because rents are going up, but also because
• A new commissioner of the city’s housing department has taken over;
• Cuts to the federal Section 8 program that could increase the number of homeless people are going into effect.
• The probable loss of more Mitchell-Lama apartments is uniting tenants.
The attention will only intensify in coming weeks. On May 13, two events will bring out hundreds, perhaps thousands of tenants: a rally to compel City Council members to adopt a bill to enable tenants to obtain roof-to-cellar inspections of their buildings and an overnight vigil at City Hall Park that begins at 2 p.m. At the same time, the Rent Guidelines Board is continuing hearings to determine whether and how much to raise rents on rent stabilized apartments.
But outside of the city, housing is not as potent an issue.
“I don’t hear much about housing,” said Erik Kriss, who covers Albany for the Syracuse Post Standard. “It’s not a steady issue.”
In his January 20th budget address, Governor George Pataki mentioned housing only once; in his State of the State address two weeks earlier, he had not mentioned housing at all.
State Senator John Bonacic, chair of the senate housing committee, said housing was important but simply a victim of a full agenda in the legislature that is dominated by education, health care and homeland security.
“You won’t find one person who will not say affordable housing is not important because it is,” said Bonacic, a Republican. “It goes hand in hand with economic development, to take care of the economic engine. And there is a critical need for affordable housing, especially for the mid-Hudson to the city, Long Island and Hudson. In terms of a political issue, I don’t think it’s a high political issue.”
A spokesman for Senator Joseph Bruno, majority leader of the State Senate, said housing did not stick out as an issue because the primary solutions to housing problems rest with the private sector, not the government.
“We prefer to see things that can be done to encourage competition through the strength of the market to encourage construction of housing, rather than the government just coming in and building homes or units,” said Marc Hansen, from Bruno’s office.
Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide housing advocacy organization, said attention to housing outside of the city was virtually nonexistent.
“I don’t think any of the players in Albany are paying attention to housing, affordable housing or any tenant protection program,” McKee said.
Assembly Member Lopez begged to differ.
“There is definitely more chatter,” Lopez said. “There is more attention because there is a serious housing crisis.”
Lopez said he expected the Assembly this year to commit $70 to $90 million for construction of affordable housing in the state budget. But that is far short of what is needed, affordable housing developers and advocates have said. In contrast, the mayor’s plan will spend about $3 billion on the preservation and construction of 65,000 affordable housing units through 2008 â€“ and that is short of what is needed, too, experts have said.
This difference in how much attention housing gets in the city and in Albany is not lost on housing advocates. They are planning to apply more pressure on politicians to make housing a priority, particularly by rolling back luxury decontrol, which is part of the rent regulation laws renewed last year.
Luxury decontrol, which allows landlords to deregulate apartments that reach $2,000 monthly rent vacant or when the rent is $2,000 or higher and the household income is greater than $175,000 for two years consecutively, has been blamed for the loss of as many as 100,000 rent stabilized apartments.
Although Republicans in the legislature vocally oppose rent regulation, McKee said advocates are not targeting them alone. Democrats who have failed to win political battles for tenants are being targeted, too, he said. Tenants and Neighbors organized a rally outside of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office on a recent weekend.
The Democrats’ “whole response is, â€what do you expect us to do?’” McKee said. “It’s pretty patheticâ€¦. Well, we expect you to play hardball.”
Acknowledging that making housing a potent issue in Albany would be difficult, McKee said the recent rally was just the beginning of putting pressure on state politicians.
“Normally, the legislature never deals with rent regulation unless it’s a sunset year,” he said. “They’re not going to want to do it. They’re not going to do it unless there is an enormous effort by tenants and advocates.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.