Housing (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
While there have been no shortage of Zoom forums and candidate discussions, it is fitting that the first televised gathering of mayoral hopefuls focused on housing and homelessness. The city is in the throes of a housing emergency that the pandemic has only exacerbated. One million households were rent burdened before the pandemic and now hundreds of thousands of households are at risk of eviction, with tens of thousands more at risk of foreclosure. This is just one way to quantify the scope of the problem facing the next mayor, who will likely be tasked with providing immediate housing relief to pandemic-impacted households while also addressing the crisis’ underlying conditions.
My organization, the New York Housing Conference, organized a broad coalition called United for Housing – comprising 90 policy experts, practitioners, and advocates from a diverse range of backgrounds – to lay out a policy vision to help combat this challenge. And last week, our coalition was proud to partner with the NYU Furman Center and NY1 to host a mayoral candidate forum that fostered a meaningful policy conversation among frontrunners in the Democratic primary. The fact is that New Yorkers should be encouraged by what they heard – but this is only the first step.
The most encouraging sign is that each of the eight candidates have promised to meet United for Housing’s goal of doubling city capital spending on housing to $4 billion annually. This is a significant promise that reflects the seriousness with which every candidate is treating housing – a spirit we have seen as we’ve briefed candidates on the vision laid out in our report, United for Housing: From the Ground Up, throughout the campaign.
This carried over into the forum, where candidates were pressed on issues ranging from COVID-19’s impact on the housing emergency to the affordable housing and homelessness crisis to ownership to NYCHA to racial equity. And while there is some disagreement on the best path forward, there is broad consensus on the scope of the problem and even some of the most important solutions.
For example, every candidate agreed to make rental assistance vouchers available to youth aging out of the foster care system – a smart, targeted way to prevent young New Yorkers from experiencing homelessness at a key moment in their lives. Candidates also agreed on the big questions, highlighting that we need to build more deeply affordable housing, that housing, eviction prevention, and rental assistance are essential tools in the homelessness crisis, that NYCHA residents need to be better involved in the future of their homes, and that we need to take an active approach to end systemic discrimination and segregation in housing.
The broad agreement coupled with the fact that so many candidates have boldly committed to such a robust ramp-up of city expenditure on housing is the most significant development of the campaign thus far from a housing perspective. But it alone will not be enough: key differences on the details remain among the candidates, including how they will use that money, where it will be targeted, and even what each means by the term “affordable housing.”
Over the next several months, it will be incumbent on every New Yorker to continue pushing candidates on the details. New York City cannot afford anything less than a real plan that will meaningfully address the problems we are all facing. And it will be incumbent on the next mayor to take the lead: while there are promising signs of new support from Washington, it is essential for every level of government to make a historic commitment on housing to actually move the dial.
This is only the first step. When the next mayor takes office, we will need to ensure that the proper resources are made available and fight for a more affordable New York. After all, the next mayor’s choices will shape not just our COVID-19 recovery, but also the next decade of housing policy – and it is crucial that they get it right.
Brendan Cheney is the Director of Policy and Communications at the New York Housing Conference, which convened the United for Housing coalition and authored the From the Ground Up report. On Twitter @brendancheney of @thenyhc.