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Democratic Mayoral Candidates Talk Tenants and Housing

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Housing (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Nine leading candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to be New York City’s next mayor appeared at a recent virtual forum to offer their stances on issues critical to tenants. Two-thirds of New Yorkers are renters, which means the forum provided candidates a crucial opportunity to impress a large and important group of voters with their policy ideas to solve the city’s housing problems, especially amid a pandemic that has exacerbated existing inequities.

At the February 27 forum co-hosted by tenants advocacy groups Tenants PAC, Tenants & Neighbors, and Met Council Action, the candidates discussed a range of tenant-centric topics, including rent stabilization, land use, NYCHA, code enforcement, homelessness, evictions, affordable and permanent housing, the shelter system, and more.

While candidates found some common ground on moving away from the city’s shelter system toward more permanent and affordable housing, as well as support for rent stabilization and reforming Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) program, they varied on cancelling rent, how they would generate revenue, steps for improving NYCHA, and more.

Questions were posed by tenants and moderator Rachel Holliday Smith, a reporter with THE CITY, to participating candidates: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal housing secretary and city housing commissioner Shaun Donovan, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio, and Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and recent presidential candidate.

Several lightning rounds were embedded throughout the forum, in which candidates answered questions with only yes or no responses. In the first lightning round, candidates were asked if they were tenants, to which only Menchaca, Stringer, and Yang said yes. (Yang owns an upstate home where he controversially spent much of the worst months of the pandemic, but rents in his primary residence in Manhattan.)

Candidates were also asked if they were refusing donations from landlords and real estate developers. Adams, Garcia, McGuire, Wiley, and Yang said no, while Donovan, Menchaca, Morales, and Stringer said yes -- though Stringer’s answer to this semi-regular question was again qualified by him saying he’s no longer accepting money from “big” real estate developers, given he shifted his approach after previously raising money from real estate interests.

Asked if they would support a rent rollback or rent decrease for rent-regulated apartments via the city’s Rent Guidelines Board, candidates were divided in their responses. Adams, Donovan, Garcia, McGuire, Wiley, and Yang said no. Menchaca and Morales said yes. Stringer said he was “open to rollback in certain circumstances.”

Candidates were also divided on ‘cancelling rent and mortgages’ as a result of pandemic-era hardships and nonpayments. Adams, Menchaca, Morales, and Stringer said they were supportive, while Donovan, Garcia, McGuire, Wiley, and Yang said they were not. (It was not immediately clear what the specific definition of canceling rent and mortgages was meant to be in the question, so candidates appeared to assume it meant for everyone, while much of the policy debates surround taking such action for those who have been unable to pay due to loss of income as a result of the pandemic.)

Candidates unanimously agreed that the city’s affordable housing lottery was unfair. Since it was a lightning round, there was no discussion of how to fix it.

For the first longer question, candidates were unanimous in their support for rent regulation as a policy, but their explanations showed some differences.

Wiley and Yang voiced explicit support for an eviction moratorium during the coronavirus pandemic. “Their decision to freeze rents in 2020 was the right kind of move,” said Yang of the Rent Guidelines Board, a nine-member entity that oversees the rent stabilization system in New York City, including determining rent adjustments. “The people I would appoint would take a very similar tack,” he said, adding, “I’m also for an eviction moratorium ‘right to counsel,’” referring to ensuring free legal representation for those facing eviction, which the city has a version of.

Wiley and Adams both took personal approaches to the question. Wiley recalled what it was like to “watch my whole neighborhood displaced when landlords increased their rents, and I got pushed out,” and Adams attested of his childhood, “I know what it is to be on the verge of homelesslessnes.”

“We have to create rent subsidies,” Wiley said, likely meaning additional ones to the many that currently exist, while Adams suggested, “We could expand the Rent Guidelines Board to ensure that economists are on the board, as well, to help deal with the changing economics of our city.” Adams also cited his experience as a building owner, claiming he has never raised his tenants’ rents in more than a decade.

McGuire also voiced support for “supplementing the rent with rent subsidies,” then decried “rising rents” for “[driving] people out of their neighborhoods.” McGuire was the only candidate to suggest providing “support for the small building owners who are also small businesses,” citing his economic recovery plan that would in part provide financial relief options to small landlords.

In addition to Wiley, Donovan connected rent regulation to the homelessness crisis, saying “It's why I've entered public service to ensure that housing is central to people's lives.” Donovan and Garcia also acknowledged the impact of rent regulation on other aspects of tenants’ lives, with Garcia noting that stable affordable housing ensures “you have access to education, you are able to hold a job more easily.”

Morales and Stringer spotlighted their experiences as tenant organizers as evidence of their dedication to advocating for rent regulation. Morales emphasized her plans for sweeping reform; Stringer cited his “pro-tenant voting record” and legislative experience.

“When I was in the State Assembly, and the State Legislature tried to weaken the rent laws and they did that successfully, I was a lone voice to say ‘no’ and voted ‘no’ both in 1993 and 1997,” said Stringer.

“I think we need to guarantee housing for all in New York City,” said Morales. “We need to move toward making sure that rents are affordable for everyone, and that includes advocating and pushing for freezes around rent regulated apartments and also looking into what other reforms in the city Charter and outside the city Charter we can make to permanently protect our residents and our tenants and guarantee housing for everyone.”

Menchaca emphasized campaign finance reform in order to ensure that landlord and developer money cannot sway politics. Menchaca positioned himself as an enemy of real estate developers, saying, “As someone who has been constantly attacked by the REBNY forces, since I first ran in 2013, I can see that power.” He went on to add, “We need more pro-tenant structures that don’t require immigrants and others to have to fight every single time there’s going to be a vote, so that we can actually freeze rents, and I think that part of what we need to do is repeal Urstadt Law.”

Candidates unanimously pledged to appoint public members to the Rent Guidelines Board who would prioritize affordable rent over profits for landlords, with many citing their track records on affordable housing and community partnerships.

“Look, I probably testified to the Rent Guidelines Board more than most people for many, many years” and “you can see the data being manipulated on behalf of landlords,” said Stringer. He credited Mayor de Blasio “for leveling the playing field” for tenants and promised he would “appoint people with deep experience to advocate on behalf of tenants.”

Garcia concurred with Stringer’s point about data, saying, “We need to ensure that we are following the data and not getting manipulated regarding what the numbers show.”

Like Stringer, Donovan touted his record of “working with resident leaders across the make sure that residents had a real voice in their communities,” citing his work on Via Verde, an affordable housing development in the South Bronx he helped create in partnership with community members when he was the city’s housing commissioner during the Bloomberg administration, and where he kicked off his mayoral campaign last year. Donovan also spotlighted his experience working “with tenant leaders like Damaris Reyes of Good Old Lower East Side and so many others around this city.”

Wiley cited her experience in the de Blasio administration, saying, “I was part of a team that ensured that Rachel Godsil was appointed to chair it [the Rent Guidelines Board] in 2014, which was the first instance in which we had the lowest [rent increases] because she was deeply committed as a civil rights attorney to making sure that what we were doing was preserving the rights of tenants and protecting housing.” Wiley connected this to her own experience as a civil rights attorney.

“I would go one step further,” said McGuire, “and make sure that you had appropriate representation for those New Yorkers who currently live in rent-regulated apartments.”

Morales and Menchaca both emphasized collaborating with community advocates to determine who their appointees should be on the Rent Guidelines Board.

“The public representatives of a rent guidelines board should be people who are impacted by the rent,” said Menchaca. He continued, saying, “I’ll also make sure that the landlords who are on this board are the landlords that represent the kind of landlords that we want in the city of New York, that can actually be sensitive to the tenant rights that often get pushed aside.” Menchaca said he is the candidate to fulfill these promises because he is a renter himself and his “leadership style” as a City Council member “has been in true co-governance, in movement with renters.”

Adams defended landlords of color who own smaller properties, like himself, pointing out, “Black wealth is tied in their real estate.”

“I think we need to really separate the micro apartments from the major apartments,” he said, rationalizing that if small Black building owners “lose that real estate, we will displace tenants, and you will see gentrification in the city. But he did not connect his point to the question of appointees to the Rent Guidelines Board.

Yang emphasized community engagement in his response, saying that tenants would have opportunities to speak with his public RGB member appointees “to tell them what’s going on in your communities because they will be there to serve you.”

In the next lightning round, all candidates unanimously agreed to boost code enforcement in all five boroughs; to support passage of Intro 146, a bill to increase CityFHEPS voucher amounts to reflect market rents in New York City; and to support passage of Intros 1104 and 1529, which would increase right-to-counsel income eligibility thresholds and expand the law to cover more eviction cases.

Holliday Smith then cited the de Blasio administration’s mandatory inclusionary housing program, which mandates at least 25% of units in new housing development that gets a density bonus be rent-regulated under certain affordability thresholds, which range significantly from affordable for very low-income to middle-income residents. The policy has been criticized for not being targeted more fully toward lower incomes and de Blasio’s implementation of it has been roundly panned because he has not pushed city-backed rezonings to make sure it is regularly utilized in wealthier neighborhoods, where it is designed to be used, and he has instead rezoned a series of lower-income communities of color, where MIH is far less effective and more city subsidies are needed to ensure lower-income housing, while also risking the acceleration of gentrification and displacement. Overall, the mayor’s housing plan has been criticized by many Democrats, including mayoral candidates, for not being more appropriately targeted to address the crisis of affordability, and therefore homelessness, faced by the city’s low and very low-income residents.

Asked how they would define affordable housing and what the goal income level should be for households to be eligible for affording housing, most candidates avoided specifying income in numbers, while also proposing different solutions for expanding affordable housing.

Stringer, Garcia, and McGuire were the only candidates to specify income brackets in their definitions of low-income housing, with Stringer and Garcia agreeing that it should be defined as “$30,000 for a family of three,” something Garcia also noted is included in her housing plan.

McGuire differed in his response, saying, “Deeply affordable housing is people making below $50,000.”

Morales, Adams, Donovan, and Menchaca did not specify exact figures but did agree that tenants should not pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent, generally the threshold used to determine if someone is rent-burdened.

Yang differed slightly, saying of what’s affordable that “We should be defining it [affordable housing] as 40 to 50% of median income, as opposed to the 70 or 80% that the developers would prefer.”

Menchaca cited his experience as a Council member, saying, “We were, as a community, able to get the apartments down to 30% of AMI [Area Median Income]. I think that’s deeply affordable in Sunset Park.”

Holliday Smith pressed Morales, Adams, and Wiley in particular to specify their views on the maximum income bracket to qualify for affordable housing, but they all declined.

“It depends on the family,” said Adams. “A family of four living in Park Slope is different from a family of four living in South Jamaica, Queens. It’s not clear cut and dry.”

Wiley said she would follow up with a specific figure as part of her yet-released housing plan. She spotlighted her $10 billion capital spending program, which would create 100,000 jobs and allocate $2 billion for improvements to NYCHA housing.

Yang noted that NYCHA “is some of the only truly affordable housing in our city,” adding, “We need to invest in that and actually make it something the city can be proud of.” He did not disclose how much he would invest in NYCHA.

Of his affordable housing plan, Stringer said, “I want to take the estimated 3,000 vacant parcels of land in the city — from vacant open space to a whole host of different areas, we've identified it — I want to give that land back to the people to community-based organizations to build the housing that we actually need.” He also reiterated one of his main housing plan planks: affordability caps for 25% of the housing in any new developments anywhere in the city.

“The single most important thing we need here is rental assistance,” said Donovan. “It's why I've been working with the incoming Biden administration on a proposal for universal voucher assistance.”

Both Morales and Garcia called for converting vacant office spaces, commercial storefronts, and hotels into affordable housing units. They stressed that it was something the city could accomplish immediately, as opposed to other housing reforms, which would require more time, though those conversions also take significant time.

Morales called for an overhaul of the mandatory inclusionary housing program, saying, “We need to move away from this speculative market that commodifies housing, that provides incentives and subsidies to developers and prioritize community development” via “eminent domain and community land trusts.”

Menchaca noted that affordable housing efforts should “[remove] any barriers to undocumnented immigrants” by investing money into “language access.”

At this point in the forum, Wiley and McGuire had to leave for other appointments, but said they would answer the remaining questions in writing, to be shared later.

Keeping in mind the current budget constraints as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, candidates were asked how they would pay for affordable housing and whether or not it should be prioritized. All candidates agreed it should be prioritized, but proposed different funding strategies.

Morales and Stringer said they would end the 421a tax abatement, which is controlled at the state level and Stringer called “a landlord giveaway,” and redirect that money toward affordable housing.

“We need to explore new taxes like the implementation of a land value tax, a vacancy tax — I know that involves going to Albany, but I'm ready to do that,” said Morales. She also called for taxing “landlords that are warehousing spaces for speculative reasons.”

Stringer noted that the city is expected to receive “about $5.6 billion in federal stimulus money,” which he said an unspecified amount could be used for housing. Lastly, he called on Albany to implement a wealth tax.

Morales and Menchaca voiced support for the Invest In Our New York Act, a package of tax increases estimated to raise $50 billion, with plans for investment for housing, as well as healthcare, education, and other sectors.

“We could actually bring $100 billion in the next four years to do things like pay for the $32 billion of deferred maintenance in NYCHA, actually bring a public bank, and finance affordable housing,” said Menchaca of the city’s capital budget.

Garcia called for moving away from the shelter system “which costs a lot and gives us very little back” in favor of building permanent housing instead.

“I've made a commitment along the lines of the recommendations of United For Housing,” said Donovan, referring to an affordable housing advocacy coalition of more than 80 organizations across the city, “to increase our capital commitment from the city by $4 billion...and to increase what we spend from the expense side to get to half-a-billion dollars a year on the city voucher program.”

Donovan again flexed his connections in Washington D.C., saying, “I’m best positioned of any of the candidates to win that help from D.C. given my deep experience.” He added, “We could get tens of billions of dollars for public housing if we access options through Section 8 that are available,” referring to the federal rent assistance program. “I propose creating a citywide inclusionary program and other steps, as well,” he briefly mentioned of other housing policy.

Adams decried upzonings in low-income communities, saying he would “upzone in affluent areas, where you have transit-rich communities, great schools, access to healthy food.” On funding, Adams said, “It’s time to spend our capital dollars. Interest rates are low. This is the time to build, not to cut.” He also again proposed selling NYCHA’s air rights for $8 billion in order to “make it more livable.” Lastly, he suggested “[investing] in new low-income home ownership, such as Nehemiah houses and the Mitchell-Lama program.”

While Yang did not propose specific funding strategies, he called for “relaxing some of the regulations on what housing units can look like” in order to convert vacant office and commercial spaces “and get people affordable housing right now instead of waiting for the developers to get their acts together after we improve the incentives.”

Just before the next series of lightning-round questions, Stringer left the forum to attend another event.

Asked if they would prioritize the conversion of hotels for unhoused New Yorkers, remaining candidates -- Menchaca, Garcia, Donovan, Adams, Yang, and Morales -- unanimously said yes.

Garcia then had to leave the event.

Asked if they would support rent control for commercial tenants and if they would help pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, candidates were more divided.

“Yes, I support some [commercial] rent control. I don't believe the act is the right way to do it. So, it's a yes and no,” said Donovan.

After some back-and-forth, Yang said no.

Adams said no.

Morales and Menchaca both said yes.

Asked if they would require that any housing built on public land be permanently affordable to low- and extremely low-income New Yorkers, Menchaca said yes, Donovan said yes, Morales said yes; and Yang and Adams said they would include moderate-income New Yorkers, too.

Candidates were asked if they support NYCHA ‘infill development,’ utilizing public housing land to build new private housing, though there are various proposals for what that housing would be like in terms of affordability, who would be able to access the units, and more.

Adams didn’t directly answer the question at first, calling for incorporating more technology into NYCHA, such as “QR codes on buildings to see the repairs” and “use drones to inspect rooftops,” as well as “[weeding] out the corruption and mismanagement.” After Holliday Smith pressed him for a more direct response, Adams said he is open to infill development on NYCHA land as long as NYCHA tenants are not displaced. He again mentioned the idea of moving current NYCHA residents into the new units created through the development, thus freeing up NYCHA space for new tenants -- though he didn’t mention it, some see this as a path to moving older NYCHA residents who live alone out of multi-bedroom apartments and into one-bedroom apartments so larger families can access the larger NYCHA apartments.

“I'm generally against this form of infill development. I don't think it solves the problem,” said Yang. “I think that a lot of the friction we're describing is because too many NYCHA residents don't feel like they have a say in how the land is being used, how their communities are being run. One of the things I proposed is that the NYCHA board, instead of being minority tenants, should be majority tenants.” But, he said, if NYCHA tenant leaders supported infill development, then he would consider it.

At this point in the forum, Adams and Yang had to leave in order to attend a rally related to the recent instances of anti-Asian violence.

Holliday Smith reiterated her question about infill development but also asked the remaining candidates about their stance on Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, which has sparked debate, including in the mayoral race, based on the fact that it allows for private management of public housing developments.

Morales and Menchaca voiced their opposition toward RAD.

“I am not in support of private developments on NYCHA land,” said Morales.

Morales said she was supportive of “utilizing NYCHA properties and developments in order to further support the residents,” and only if residents are able “to self-determine how their land is used.” She listed urban farming developments, community land trusts, and workforce pipelines as some ideas of appropriate ways of utilizing NYCHA properties.

Citing NYCHA’s roughly $40 billion need to get to a state of good repair, Holliday Smith pressed Morales to explain how she would fund improvements for the housing authority. To this, Morales said she has committed $2 billion in funding from the city budget, as well as leverage additional funding from Albany and the federal level, but she did not cite specific programs to bring in revenue and expressed opposition to RAD and infill.

Menchaca said he would divert $3 billion from the NYPD’s budget. He also called the budget for the Department of Education “bloated” but did not say how much he would disinvest from it. Menchaca emphasized that any funding should come from the city first in order to galanvaze additional funding from Albany and the federal government.

Donovan took issue with those who equated RAD with privatization, saying, “RAD is shifting funding to Section 8, so that you can access far more funding and preserve public housing. It does not require privatization.” Donvan said, “I am open to partnerships with nonprofits and others,” he said, and he was adamant that public housing should be permanently affordable and public. “I am open to doing new development on NYCHA land that retains public ownership,” Donovan added.

“We need to fix NYCHA without accessing more federal resources,” Donovan said. “I would commit $2 billion a year of city capital,” in addition to Section 8, which “could get us to the $40 billion within a few terms.”

Asked how they would push for tenant protections in buildings that are being converted to private management under RAD, Morales and Menchaca said they would protect residents by stopping any shifts toward the involvement of private companies altogether.

In cases where privatization is already taking place, Morales said she was supportive of tenants’ ‘right-to-counsel’ to avoid eviction and “taking on those private managers who are attempting to circumvent the protections that were supposed to be made available to our tenants.” She said she would try to reverse any deals in place as soon as she took offices.

“I think what is happening is these programs are being implemented badly,” said Donovan, who pointed out, “If someone is eligible to live in public housing, they're eligible to stay with Section 8.” Donovan said that if private managers were failing to effectively protect tenants, then “I would take it back at NYCHA, and I would do it as a public process a hundred percent of the way through and ensure that we’re actually getting results.”

On homelessness, Morales reiterated her support for providing permanent affordable housing for all, which she proposed could be accomplished by exercising “eminent domain to get ownership of buildings that are financially distressed or just abandoned and transfer those things to community control.”

She called for moving away from the shelter system, calling it “a very expensive and ineffective model.”

Menchaca decried “the warehousing of our neighbors” in reference to the city’s shelter system and voice support for expanded rental assistance. “We also need to convert our hotel and commercial, empty spaces to permanent and supportive housing,” he said.

“We ended veteran homelessness in 80 cities,” said Donovan of his experience as HUD secretary under President Obama. “The way that we do that is reimagine our right to shelter in this city as a right to housing.” In addition to investing in permanent housing, Donovan called for the creation of a coordinated system “where every time someone leaves Rikers, leaves the mental health wing of one of our public hospitals, they are directed directly to the resources they need.”

Asked how they would ensure code enforcement among landlords, Donovan was the most specific, saying he “would create an early warning system that would ensure we’re targeting buildings,” including tenant-owned cooperatives. He said he “would revamp the J-51,” a tax incentive for building owners who renovate their buildings. Donovan also promised to “connect residents in those buildings to rental assistance much more effectively.”

Donovan and Menchaca said they would make sure the Department of Housing Preservation and Development exercises its power to make repairs in emergency situations.

Morales proposed “a sort of grading system for landlords that would impose increasing fines or penalties for folks who failed to do that [code enforcement].” She also called for “support services for tenants” to file reports and “advocate for their needs” but did not explain further.

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

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