"City in Transition: NYC Issues 2001" is a series
of seminars developed by the New
York University Center for Excellence in New York City
Eastern Center and Citizens
Union Foundation (publisher of Gotham Gazette). Starting
this week, they are being offered for free to candidates
and their staff. For the seminars, experts, mostly academics
from New York University, have been asked to explain the
key issues facing New York City, and the options available
to these candidates to solve the problems. We will post
these "options papers" on our site as they become available.
In addition, the contributors of Gotham Gazette will offer
our own overviews of the issues, geared more to the public.
More And More Affordable: The Housing
Industry and Housing Advocates Suddenly Speak the Same
by Rebecca Webber
Affordable housing. Advocates demand it for the homeless
and the poor. Tenants insist upon it. Landlords and developers
want to provide it. Since all agree that it is sorely
lacking, candidates for New York City's 2001 election
will have to deal with it.
Affordable housing is the catchphrase for the 2001 elections.
That is because there is so little of it. As the economy
boomed over the past ten years, rents rose relentlessly.
Demand was high and vacancies low. At the same time, government
at all levels reduced the funds and programs earmarked
for housing. Now, more than 500,000 households pay more
than half of their income in rent, according to the 2000
New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey.
TENANTS WHO CAN'T AFFORD TRUMP
The more than 2 million New Yorkers who write a rent
check each month are concerned about keeping that payment
affordable and maintaining strong tenants' rights.
"We're looking for a new mayor who is going to be a leader
on housing issues and tenants rights. Someone who will
visibly advocate," said Michael McKee, associate director
of New York State Tenants & Neighbors. "Generally speaking,
this is an issue that candidates don't like talking about.
We are hoping to inject tenant rights issues and affordable
housing into the campaign."
Other tenants' organizations are taking a similarly forceful
stance. The Association
for Neighborhood & Housing Development, Inc., in conjunction
with other like-minded organizations, has developed a
housing platform that all candidates for elected office
will be called upon to endorse. It includes provisions
for a 10 billion-dollar capital investment over ten years
to create 100,000 units of affordable housing. Half of
the money would be used to develop new housing, the other
half to preserve and improve the existing housing stock.
Advocates also hope that housing code enforcement will
be a priority for the newly elected. "There are three
million violations on the books - ranging from falling
ceilings, to rats, to lack of heat," said Kenny Shaeffer,
vice chair for the Metropolitan
Council on Housing. "That's like three million crimes
that aren't being prosecuted." A bigger budget for more
inspectors and tenant lawyers could begin to address the
RENT REGULATED TENANTS
For those tenants in rent-controlled or rent-stabilized
abodes, the new mayor and city council could directly
affect their future leases. The new mayor will appoint
members to the Rent
Guidelines Board which determines the yearly increases
in regulated rents. Rent regulation advocates hope that
the new mayor's choices for public members will represent
the diversity of the city and that they will, as Schaeffer
puts it, "believe in the law they are enforcing."
The new mayor and city council members could urge the
state legislature to reconsider the Urstadt
Law, which has deprived the city of home rule over
rent increases since 1971. They could also champion campaign
finance laws. Campaign contributions have allowed the
real estate industry to dominate Albany, said Schaeffer,
and Albany has been weakening rent regulation laws.
"The mayor and city council need to advocate for their
constituents to make sure state and federal governments
are doing their part to ensure affordable housing," said
The real estate industry - which includes builders, property
owners, brokers, managers, architects and attorneys -
also hopes that local officials can convince state and
federal legislators to support affordable housing through
tax incentives and targeted programs.
"We used to have ambitious federal housing programs which
were well-funded until the 1980s, when they were severely
curtailed or eliminated." said Warren Wechsler, senior
vice president of the Real
Estate Board of New York, the industry's trade association.
"The burden has fallen to a large extent on localities
that are not so awash in money."
Like everyone else, the Real Estate Board's priority
is to see more affordable housing constructed in the city.
It sees a need for re-zoning to create more development
potential throughout the city. Much of the city is zoned
for manufacturing, an industry that long ago departed
for foreign shores, and these sites seem ripe for residential
and retail development.
"If it were possible to build more housing," said Wechsler,
"the market would see to it that housing prices were more
moderate because consumers would have more to choose from."
The lack of affordable housing has been the primary cause
of the city's burgeoning homeless population, said Patrick
Markee, senior policy analyst for the New York City Coalition
for the Homeless. This year, the number of homeless in
the city's shelter system topped 25,000, a level not seen
since the 1980s.
While working on solutions for long-term affordable housing,
the mayor and city council could choose to offer homeless
families immediate relief through rent subsidy programs
which cost less than shelters. They could create a supportive
housing program for people with mental illness, AIDS,
and other disabilities, similar to one that once created
5000 units of such housing and directly reduced the shelter
population. They could also institute reforms to the shelter
system to make it easier for people to get off the streets
and into shelters, said Markee.
WHERE TO BUILD
In spite of the consensus that New York City needs more
affordable housing, arguments still break out about where
it should be built. Development plans invariably encounter
community resistance and widespread concerns about gentrification.
"We are seeing a ripple effect of people who are priced
out of Manhattan moving into Queens and Brooklyn," said
McKee of New York State Tenants & Neighbors, "People look
for something they can afford over the river. If you look
at the pattern over the last few years, the upward pressure
on rents increases one subway stop at a time."
New arrivals can alter the demographic landscape of the
neighborhood, drive up rents, and cause gentrification
-- the displacement of long-term, lower-income residents.
Tenant advocates believe government commitment to the
maintenance of low-income housing and anti-displacement
can counter this effect.
Others see a different solution.
"Residential communities would just as soon lift the
drawbridge. They don't want their schools bursting at
the seams, they don't want their subway lines crowded,"
said Wechsler. "Lots of communities would rather not see
their populations go up."
Newly elected officials should exhibit the political
will to encourage housing development despite this reluctance,
So the constituents are diverse and their housing problems
many. But candidates for the 2001 election can't go wrong
if they approach these issues with two words in mind:
Option Paper for Housing