(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Eight mayoral candidates participated in a recent forum focused on public and private housing, and homelessness. The December 5 event, which was part of the 15th annual West Side Tenants' Conference, featured Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, entrepreneur Joycelyn Taylor, former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio Maya Wiley, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max moderated the discussion.
The discussion was one of an initial series of candidate forums this year as the mayoral field continues to expand ahead of the June primaries and fall 2021 general election.
The next mayor of New York City — whether it’s a candidate who appeared at this forum or one of the several who didn’t — will inherit many long-standing housing challenges, some of which have been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the next inauguration on January 1, 2022, the city will, hopefully, also be recovering from a recession that saw employment and tax revenue take historic plunges while many small businesses collapsed.
Though at times details were lacking, the candidates at the forum did have a number of ideas for how to fund NYCHA and tackle crumbling public housing, incentivize private building upkeep and development, reduce homlessness, leverage community partnerships, and more. And key differences among the candidates emerged on several programs and potential solutions to some of the city’s most intractable problems.
Funding and Saving NYCHA
Mayoral candidates at the forum had some overlapping but several different thoughts about how to infuse the city’s public housing authority with the tens of billions of dollars it needs to get buildings to a state of good repair. One clear dividing line is the federal RAD (rental assistance demonstration) program that incentivizes the use of housing vouchers by having public housing authorities hire private management companies to run properties. Those companies get to collect rent but also must invest in the properties.
“The system today is just in total disrepair, and we need to be able to move back to what it used to be,” Morales said, reflecting on her parents’ experience with public housing. “NYCHA is the home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, and they have every bit of right as everyone else to live comfortably and safely.”
Everyone agreed that the federal government, which they hope will be more sympathetic to New Yorkers once President-elect Joe Biden enters office, should contribute much more toward public housing. But most seemed to also agree that the city needed to find other ways to fill NYCHA’s immense needs.
“We can decrease the budget expenses by defunding the NYPD dramatically,” said Menchaca, who also called for expanding the city’s capital budget commitments to NYCHA and other top priorities.
“I’m going to look at selling the air rights of NYCHA to local community developers,” said Adams.
“One idea that I think we should put forth immediately is to take $40 million a year over 10 years from the Battery Park City Authority,” said Stringer of his long-standing proposal to infuse those funds to NYCHA from the state authority. The plan needs support from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio but only the former has agreed to it.
“One of the things that we can do for the tenants is we can give them ownership opportunities, which would allow them to have the ability to not just have stable housing, but it will also generate revenue for the city,” said Taylor, who said she grew up in public housing. Selling apartments to a portion of public housing tenants would raise tens of millions of dollars, she said.
Morales suggested charging taxes and fees to private property owners and landlords in order to generate revenue while also discouraging certain behavior. “I think we should be looking at land-value taxation,” she said. “We should be disincentivizing landowners from being able to sit on privately-owned vacated or blighted land while they wait for it to rise in value. Finally, I’d say we need to take a really hard look at expanding fees for luxury developments and for vacancies, and assessing fees for displacement as well.”
Candidates offered differing opinions on RAD as part of a NYCHA rescue plan. The de Blasio administration has expanded its use after some initial hesitation, while also proposing several other large-scale efforts to bring in tens of billions of dollars for NYCHA, like selling air rights and leasing underused space for private housing development, including both market-rate housing and rent-regulated apartments.
Adams, Garcia, and Donovan expressed support for RAD while acknowledging room for improvement. “When I went and saw developments that had gone through the RAD process at Ocean Bay or at Campos II, the tenants were extremely happy,” said Garcia, who served as interim chair of NYCHA for less than a year when de Blasio asked her to step in amid controversy, which eventually led to the appointment of a federal monitor and the hiring of current chair and CEO Gregory Russ. “They were very enthusiastic about what their new home looked like,” Garcia continued.
“As this forum shows, there is deep misunderstanding about RAD,” Donovan said. “RAD does not require privatization; it is a way to get Section 8 resources into public housing just like the preservation trust idea, so we need a reset on RAD.”
The candidates who expressed support for RAD said that communication with tenants needs to improve but that the program is worth expanding.
But other candidates said that tenants did not like RAD and warned of it as a step toward privatizing public housing. “Beyond the incredible removal of agency from NYCHA residents that transforms their relationship with housing, I think that this continues to push conversations around privatization of our public housing, which would be a big mistake for the City of New York,” Menchaca said.
Wiley and Stringer expressed concern about what RAD means for tenants’ rights and a move toward privatization of public housing. “They’re not given that transparency, they’re not given that voice, and therefore they don’t have the options to say what it is they want,” Wiley said. “The principles have to be about keeping public housing public.”
Some candidates also spoke briefly about improving health conditions and making NYCHA part of efforts to fight climate change and to create jobs. “We know that housing equals healing, and that health and housing are linked,” Garcia said, citing rat-infested buildings and broken elevators.
“We should invest in a Green New Deal for NYCHA,” Morales said. “We’ve got to focus on retrofitting our buildings” to make them more energy efficient “and investing in capital repair,” she explained.
“Why shouldn’t we have solar panels on every roof in NYCHA?” asked Donovan. “That could not only lower utility bills, but put capital back into public housing.”
Candidates were divided over the issue of “infill” housing development on underused NYCHA land, a proposal dating back many years that has stalled due to pushback. Such development could take many forms, including different combinations of market-rate and affordable housing, with the idea that certain property-leasing revenues are funneled into making repairs at NYCHA buildings.
“Universally, [tenants] are against this idea,” Morales said. Taylor and Menchaca agreed. Meanwhile, Adams, Garcia, and Donovan expressed support for new housing development on NYCHA land, with Garcia saying it would generate money and Donovan saying those new housing units could go to senior citizens.
“When we have a desperate affordable housing shortage in this city, we need to look at these types of options,” Donovan said.
Wiley and Stringer said that in-fill development is an option, but tenants must be involved in the decision-making process.
Protecting the Private Housing Stock and Preventing Evictions
Candidates suggested that in order to mitigate the pandemic’s adverse effects on private housing, the city should create more public and non-profit-run affordable housing.
“We have a homeless crisis that’s a historic one in size and it’s because we need to understand it as an eviction crisis,” Wiley said. “The eviction crisis is also an affordable housing crisis.” The city, she argued, should buy shuttered hotels and other commercial housing to create affordable housing and generate revenue through rent.
“We see a lot of vacant commercial space and a real estate market that is facing foreclosure,” Stringer said. “We should take advantage of this by using land banks and community trusts to purchase these buildings, turn them into affordable housing or limited equity co-ops.” He agreed with Wiley about purchasing vacant hotels, adding that not-for-profit organizations should be encouraged to buy buildings and create affordable housing.
To protect people against evictions, candidates suggested suspending rent, ceasing evictions, and making sure those facing eviction have access to lawyers so that units don’t end up vacant and New Yorkers don’t end up homeless.
“Nothing is more important than giving those who have to go to the various housing courts the legal assistance that they deserve,” Adams said. “It’s intimidating to go into a courtroom and find yourself losing your home based on a decision that you don’t quite understand.” Wiley and Menchaca also emphasized the importance of legal services for tenants.
“We need to think about how we’re going to cancel rent for tenants,” Morales said, but adding that small landlords like herself must also be protected. She said that the eviction process should be ceased for the duration of the pandemic and the banking industry should be pushed to forgive mortgage payments. Donovan also expressed support for an eviction moratorium and rental assistance.
Candidates also spoke about preventing landlords from warehousing empty units or keeping them vacant through taxation and enforcement. Morales restated her support for changing tax incentives and said the city should exercise eminent domain to repurpose vacant commercial spaces.
Menchaca, Wiley, and Taylor also expressed support for a tax on vacant units. “If you want to keep it off the market, you’ll have to pay to do it, and that creates the incentive not to,” Wiley said.
Helping Homeless People and Creating More Affordable Housing
“I know what housing insecurity is about,” Adams said. “I remember as a child, going to school every day with a garbage bag full of clothing because we thought we were going to be thrown out of our home, and my mom did not want us to not have a change in clothing. So this is real.”
Candidates emphasized the importance of making sure homeless people are able to access permanent housing and not spending long periods in the shelter system. “Our system is fundamentally flawed,” Morales said. “It is focused solely on moving people out of the shelter system and not actually providing them with the support that they need in order to be able to attain and maintain stable housing over the long term."
One way to do that, candidates agreed, is by creating more affordable housing — both buying commercial units and making sure that the lowest-income residents are able to access them.
Several candidates agreed that current affordable housing isn’t really affordable. “No more building unaffordable affordable housing,” Stringer said.
“I too think that we need to be focused on the very-low income,” Garcia said, saying that those who make less than 30% of the area median income should be prioritized. Donovan said the city must make “truly affordable, permanently affordable housing.”
Two candidates spoke about rezoning neighborhoods and how those changes in land use rules could impact affordable housing. “We…have to stop rezoning only in communities of color,” Stringer said, “and recognize that if we’re gonna integrate our city and build out a new generation of affordable housing, we have to look at as-of-right development. And I’ve proposed that 25% of the units in as-of-right development be set aside for affordable housing.”
Menchaca called for “a moratorium on all rezonings until we have racial impact studies for all of them.” He also said 25% affordable housing isn’t nearly enough. “We need to get up to 50, to 100% affordable housing projects across the city.”
Menchaca also spoke about what appears to be a central proposal of his early campaign, a form of universal basic income, an idea popularized by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who is rumored to be leaning toward joining the mayoral race himself in January. “The Universal Basic Income’s gonna help people get to those apartments,” Menchaca said of his plan to implement a pilot UBI. Asked what he’d do immediately as mayor to ease burdens on homeless people, Adams also said he would look into “some version” of UBI.
Asked the same question, Garcia said “for a homeless family, I’d immediately give them the money to go and rent an apartment.” She said the city should be converting office towers into housing units and making sure that vacant public housing units are fixed quickly so homeless families can move in.
Adams also called attention to technology challenges at homeless shelters. “It is embarrassing that we had almost 70,000 children who did not have iPads and a countless number who didn’t have Wi-Fi,” he said. “In the 21st century, the inability to put in high-speed broadband is a crime.” He said that as mayor, he’d get students in shelters the technology they need.
Wiley, Stringer, and Donovan all said that the homeless men of the Lucerne hotel on the Upper West Side should be able to stay there despite hostility from some members of the local community there.
Taylor said it’s important to make sure homeless people have resources besides housing. “Make sure that, when we’re talking about putting them in hotels, we’re not just dropping them in hotels and that’s it. That’s just not enough,” she said. Garcia suggested changing laws around hotels being used as shelters to make sure there are services for homeless people staying in them.
“The problem is we have a mayor who has a shelter-first strategy, who thinks we can solve homelessness with homeless programs,” Donovan said. “Instead, what we need is permanent supportive housing that brings the services we need, and we need to make sure that every time somebody leaves Rikers, every time someone leaves the mental health wing of a public hospital, the city has a plan to get them the housing and the resources that they need.”