Gotham Gazette

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At Televised Debate, Democratic Mayoral Candidates Outline Housing, Homelessness Plans

Gotham Gazette:

(top: Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, Ray McGuire; bottom: Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer)

Eight leading Democratic candidates in the race for mayor appeared in the first televised mayoral forum of the 2021 race to share their policy proposals for tackling housing and homelessness in New York City. The discussion had a particular focus on the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which has added a new layer of concern regarding homelessness, evictions, rent and mortgage debt, housing segregation, affordable and permanent housing, NYCHA, the shelter system, land use, and tenants’ rights — all of which and more was discussed during the forum.

The 90-minute forum was co-hosted by United for Housing, New York Housing Conference, and NYU Furman Center on Spectrum News NY1 and moderated by NY1 political anchor Errol Louis.

The eight participating Democrats, invited based on polling and fundraising criteria, were 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 former presidential candidate.

While candidates found broad agreement on most topics, such as divesting from and scaling back the city’s shelter system in favor of rental subsidies, creating more affordable housing, and preventing evictions, they offered some different specific solutions and were notably divided on managing and funding NYCHA public housing.

Candidates unanimously identified preventing tenants from eviction as one of their top housing priorities, citing the citywide residential eviction moratorium that is expected to expire in May, which could force people who owe back rent as a result of pandemic-related joblessness out of their homes, though the new federal relief package is in part aimed at heading off a flood of evictions.

Wiley, Morales, Donovan, McGuire, and Yang explicitly called for extending the eviction moratorium. Garcia called for the creation of a “pathway to prevent further evictions” through “targeted property tax relief and ensuring federal dollars are flowing to tenants.”

Candidates proposed other various strategies for preventing an eviction crisis.

Wiley, Morales, McGuire, Donovan, and Stringer said they would increase rent subsidies and other rental assistance measures for tenants, with Donovan specifically calling for the expansion of Section 8, the federal rent assistance program.

But several candidates expressed concern for small landlords, as well, many of whom are people of color and struggling to make ends meet amid the backlog of unpaid rent and utility bills from tenants.

Wiley pointed to her plan to increase subsidies for tenants and landlords, saying she would leverage $251 million in federal funding that already exists, even before the newly-passed Biden American Rescue Plan, and she briefly mentioned “tax abatement opportunities” for small building owners. She also spotlighted her $10 billion capital spending program plan, which she says would create 100,000 jobs and help stabilize the local economy.

Adams said relief should take into account “the cost that is associated with running [small unit housing].” Adams and Morales both own small multi-unit buildings in Brooklyn and rent to tenants, experiences that came up during the forum as candidates again discussed whether they are renters or home-owners. Six of the eight candidates own their New York City homes, while Yang owns a home upstate, where he and his family controversially spent the bulk of the worst of the pandemic’s impact on New York City last year, and of the eight only Stringer is without a real estate holding.

“We are about to receive $6.1 billion in federal stimulus aid, with more likely to come,” Stringer said of the money that will flow directly to city government. He went on to say “that money must be set aside to cancel rent for the poorest New Yorkers,” though he seemed to ignore that there is other federal money heading to New Yorkers for such purposes. “We have to work with our small landlords to make sure that their mortgages are whole,” he added. “The next mayor is going to have to bring the banks, the mortgage lenders, the tenant advocates into City Hall and figure out a package that is going to make the city whole.”

Like Stringer, Yang said he would “set up a relief fund for the landlords,” though he did cite the $1.3 billion in federal aid that Congress has already designated for rent relief. Yang said the city should “trust the landlords to go get it” because “having tenants try and scramble for those resources, in my mind, isn’t the right approach.”

Several candidates called for more legal assistance for tenants. Morales and Yang said the city’s ‘right to counsel’ law should be expanded, meaning city-funded free legal representation should be provided for more of those tenants facing eviction, a service that has been launched and significantly expanded over the last several years, helping to prevent tens of thousands of evictions. Donovan also proposed “[investing] more in housing counseling and protection so [tenants] know their rights.” Morales called on the city to ban criminal background checks on tenants.

Candidates unanimously stressed the creation of more affordable housing, but their plans revealed some differences.

Stringer reiterated his pledge to use hundreds of parcels of vacant city-owned land, via community organizations, to build low-income housing. The subject has been a matter of long-standing dispute between the two-term comptroller and the de Blasio administration, whose housing department has said almost all of the city-owned vacant lots are in the pipeline for development or are not suitable for housing. The conversation has mostly been frozen for the past few years.

Stringer also mentioned the marquee aspect of his extensive housing plan, which is to pass a law requiring affordability caps for 25% of the housing in any new housing development anywhere in the city. He says this would over time significantly impact the city’s racial and ethnic housing segregation.

In broad terms, Morales emphasized sweeping housing reform overall, saying, “We have to move away from a for-profit speculative housing development model” to one that creates partnerships with non-profit, community-led organizations “to adopt a social housing model.” She stressed the importance of putting more control “in the hands of tenants,” but did not explicitly define what this transformation would look like.

Wiley and Adams, respectively, brought up partnerships with non-profit developers and faith-based institutions.

Candidates broadly expressed support for converting hotels and office spaces into affordable housing units.

McGuire suggested that it would cost approximately a billion dollars to create 5,300 units of low-income housing for those making about $30,000 a year, then Yang said this was not cost-effective. Yang argued that his housing plan would subsidize hotel conversions, ultimately creating 5,000 units for $250 million. “Then we still have money left over to work on supportive housing” to move unhoused people out of shelters, Yang said. He dubiously argued that supportive housing isn’t being built because “the mayor and the governor have not been able to get on the same page,” which ignores that while the two parties have not come together on the traditional city-state supportive housing agreement (known as New York-New York over several iterations), they are each moving ahead with their own supportive housing development plans.

Louis asked Yang specifically how converting hotels into housing units would impact the recovery of the tourism industry, including rehiring of furloughed hotel workers. “Would you rather they lay empty for three years in the hopes that eventually they become used again?,” Yang asked. “Or would you rather use them to address the crisis we see around us every day?”

As with previous housing-focused forums, most candidates avoided specifying a concrete income figure for households to qualify for affordable housing, although candidates mostly agreed that tenants should not pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent, the threshold generally used to determine whether someone is “rent-burdened.”

“Ideally, I would like us to move to a place where we are not charging anyone, who is low- to moderate-income, more than 30% of their income for the rent. That is an established metric,” Morales said.

“Everyone keeps looking for this magic dollar amount, but in actuality, if you are a teacher or an accountant and you have four, five children and you’re paying above 30% of your income on rent, that is unfair,” said Adams when pressed to define a dollar amount. “The real number is: we shouldn’t have New Yorkers who are moderate-income or low-income paying more than 30% of their income on their rent.”

Louis also challenged Stringer to provide a specific income range, as well, and also asked him about whether his calls to further involve community boards in planning would have a positive impact on getting more affordable housing built in the city. As Manhattan borough president, Stringer sought to overhaul and improve the function of community boards, he said, and stressed that as mayor he would use a similar “community-based planning” approach that led to success in getting projects done with consensus.

“Community boards shouldn’t have the final say,” said Stringer, “but we certainly need communities to be part of this.” Stringer, who has indicated he is interested in adding housing density in higher-income and wealthy communities, said affordable housing should prioritize low-income New Yorkers to reduce the homelessness crisis.

Louis posed a series of lightning round questions, during which candidates answered with only yes or no responses. Along with discussing whether they rent or own, as previously discussed, candidates were asked if they have ever been landlords. Morales, Donovan, Yang, and Adams said yes, while Stringer, McGuire, Wiley, and Garcia said no. Asked if they had ever lived in a rent-regulated apartment, all but Yang, Morales, and Garcia said yes. Asked if they had ever been involved in a legal dispute with a landlord or a tenant, all but Adams said no.

On quelling the homelessness crisis in the city, which has grown over the last several mayoral administrations, though there have been halting efforts proven to make progress, candidates called for the city to increase preventive and supportive services, while highlighting their housing plans in the process.

“We need to prevent the homelessness dynamic from occurring in the first place,” said McGuire. “Once we prevent it, we need to make sure we have the services that are necessary, and that services go to mental health care services. We need services for those who are formerly incarcerated, we need services for drug abusers.”

Morales, Wiley, and Garcia called on the city to scale back the shelter system and “shift existing funds, $3 billion, into providing long-term permanent housing,” as Morales said.

There was broad agreement among candidates for expanding and increasing the value of housing vouchers as a way to prevent homelessness, which along with eviction prevention and providing supportive housing is shown to be one of the most effective strategies.

“Spending a little bit more money on the voucher would save us all the shelter cost. It’s a win-win,” said Garcia.

Yang reiterated his earlier point about building more supportive housing, and then called on the city to double the supply of “safe haven” beds, which are often provided by community-based institutions like houses of worship and have fewer restrictions for housing-insecure residents than traditional shelters. Safe haven beds are seen as transitional, a way to help people experiencing homelessness to get off the streets and subways and be offered a safe place to be along with other options for their next phase.

Adams, Garcia, Morales, and Donovan proposed reshuffling various city agencies to different degrees. Adams said he would establish greater coordination between city and state agencies, which currently “exist in silos.” Adams and Morales also called for a deputy mayor position to be responsible for overseeing all aspects and departments that deal with housing — something other candidates have indicated they are planning or considering. Garcia’s housing platform, for example, proposes that homeless services, economic development, and housing agencies all report to the same deputy mayor, who would oversee and coordinate the city’s housing-related issues and departments, including NYCHA public housing.

“We need to make sure every time someone leaves Rikers, every time someone leaves a mental health wing of our public hospital, we have a coordinated entry system directing them immediately to supportive housing and services they need,” Donovan said.

While candidates found broad agreement on most issues throughout the forum, they were divided on NYCHA. A lack of investment and mismanagement over the decades has led to about $40 billion worth of needed repairs, both large and small, to the housing authority’s buildings and apartments. According to NYCHA estimates, this deficit goes up by another billion each year.

A fiercely debated topic in the city is whether to allow private management of public housing developments, with some residents who have experienced it indicating they are very pleased with the accompanying upgrades, while others have voiced concerns about evictions. Several of the candidates who have the most experience with NYCHA, such as Donovan, Garcia, and Adams, have expressed support for taking advantage of the federal program that helps fund such efforts through that private management, call Rental Administration Demonstration (RAD). Others have been skeptical, warning of any type of privatization of NYCHA.

Garcia and Donovan expressed support for the larger NYCHA turnaround plan, “Blueprint for Change,” arguing that it is the only way to generate enough money to make much-needed repairs to the housing authority’s buildings.

“This allows us to leverage federal money. We don’t have to use more city money,” said Garcia, who served as interim chair of NYCHA. “We have tried going to the federal government since the Carter administration,” she pointed out, “we've always come up empty.”

“It is the only pathway where we can truly get to scale,” agreed Donovan.

“Otherwise, the choice is we are condemning [NYCHA residents] to live in buildings with no heat, no hot water, no elevators, mold, vermin, and lead,” Garcia concluded.

“I agree that there is a lot to commend the Blueprint,” said Wiley, “but sadly, there has simply not been sufficient trust.” She, among other candidates including Yang, want to give NYCHA residents a stronger decision-making voice. “I do not agree with Kathryn on giving up on the federal government,” added Wiley, who cited legislation introduced by Congressional Rep. Nydia Velázquez that would allocate $32 billion in funding for NYCHA repairs. (Garcia did not indicate she was giving up on the federal government, but instead focusing on the plan that is in place, which includes leveraging federal dollars, and moving ahead on more of what is under the control of the city and NYCHA, which are under a federal monitor due to the lead paint crisis and scandal.)

Despite the long history of federal disinvestment from the housing authority, Yang also voiced optimism that the federal government would allocate major funding for large-scale NYCHA repairs within a much larger infrastructure bill that is being discussed under President Biden and the Democratic Congress. Yang spoke his most passionately during the forum about fighting for NYCHA funding from the federal government in such an infrastructure package. He, like Donovan, regularly stresses his federal connections -- Yang cites his relationships with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and others built up during his run for president, while Donovan worked closely with Biden in the Obama administration, and he cites extensive relationships with many who are now running the Biden administration, including Harris, whom he says he worked closely with on the nationwide housing crisis when she was California attorney general.

Morales and Stringer pledged to dedicate $1.5 billion annually in city funding to address NYCHA repairs, while also pushing the state government to match that figure. Wiley and Donovan have both earmarked $2 billion annually in city capital for public housing repairs. Stringer also reiterated his proposal for moving $40 million a year away from the Battery Park City Authority and redirecting those funds to NYCHA, which needs multiple approvals and among them only de Blasio has opposed.

Meanwhile, Adams reiterated his focus on selling NYCHA’s air rights to local community developers for what he says would bring in $8 billion. Adams is also among those, like Donovan and Garcia, who are open or supportive of allowing existing NYCHA land to be leased to private developers for new housing development, thought viewpoints vary in terms of how this should be executed.

“I fundamentally reject the Blueprint for Change, the RAD agreement, the RAD deal,” said Morales, who was the only candidate to outright reject the plan. “We need to put NYCHA back in the hands of the residents,” she said, before proposing that tenants be given a majority on the NYCHA board, including a tenant chair. Morales has not outlined how she would fund NYCHA’s needed upgrades.

Candidates were asked how they would handle the long-standing New York City affordable housing policy of community preference, which reserves 50% of new affordable units in city-subsidized development for residents of the community district home to the development. The policy is in litigation, with plaintiffs arguing that it perpetuates racial segregation. Asked directly about whether they would continue to fight the litigation and keep the community preference policy, and about their approach to housing segregation, most candidates did not take a specific stance on the lawsuit and community preference policy.

Most spoke broadly about addressing housing segregation and fostering integration.

“Instead of having affluent New Yorkers moving into poor communities, we should have those low-income new New Yorkers moving into affluent communities,” said Adams, who explicitly called for upzoning wealthier communities to add housing including mandated affordable housing.

Morales said, “I think we need to increase and expand the availability of real affordable housing units in high-income, white neighborhoods predominantly.”

“Anything that discriminates, anything that continues segregation, I will not support,” said Wiley, though she did not specifically discuss the lawsuit or policy, and did not say what changes she would implement to foster integration.

“I think the data clearly shows that it is contributing to segregation and therefore really needs to be fundamentally changed,” said Garcia, and while she took a more definitive stance than most on the community preference policy, she did not say what those changes would involve.

“We have to change it,” said Yang. “I will suggest that if we're successful in converting these hotels and new affordable housing units, some of these hotels are going to be in very nice areas,” he added, indicating that the hotel conversion plan is as of now his main idea for integrating communities.

Stringer called the community preference plan a byproduct of “building out of a segregated city for far too long,” which he added was “wrong.” Stringer then reiterated his policy plan to set aside 25% of any new development’s units for low-income housing.

“We know that a pathway to really attacking the racial wealth gap and inequality in our city is homeownership,” said Donovan, who then highlighted his “equity bonds proposal that would give every child in the city $1,000 and up to $2,000 a year by the time they graduate.”

McGuire honed in on the historic roots of the problem, connecting the desegregation of housing in the city to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. “We need to do whatever we can at once to address segregation,” McGuire said.

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

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