Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Rent Guidelines Board: Will It Hike The Rents?

 Every year, the Rent Guidelines Boarddecides how much to increase rents on rent stabilized apartments, affecting millions of New Yorkers where it matters most: in their wallets. On June 17, the board will make its final decision, after several highly charged public meetings. Nearly half of the people in the city stand to be directly affected by the ultimate decision.

The board's staff prepares detailed studies of landlords' income and expenses, of the mortgage market, of tenants' incomes and affordability of housing.

The final outcome is a reflection of what numbers the board's members thought were most compelling. The nine members include two who represent tenants, two who represent landlords and five who represent the public at large. The public members constitute the swing votes. They include an investment banker, an attorney, a real estate developer, a consultant to non-profit organizations and an architect.

Political intrigue is common. This year, the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords across the city, submitted to the board estimates of costs that tenant groups say are greatly exaggerated.

"There's no economic justification for a rent increase this year," said Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants and Neighbors. "All the data show that landlords are doing extremely well and tenants are suffering. The data don't lie."

The "net operating income" for landlords - that is, their profit - rose by 18 percent from 1989 to 2002. From 2001 to 2002, however, profits declined slightly -- by 0.1 percent. Tenant advocates like to point out that in that same two-year period people's real wages declined, and that New York City has lost almost 200,000 jobs since 2001. The advocates argue that landlords are making decent profits on rent stabilized buildings, while tenants are being squeezed: Slightly less than a quarter of tenants have "severe rent burdens" -- that is, they're spending half or more of their income on rent.

The landlords sees it differently from the tenants.

"The range of guidelines that are proposed just barely touch on what is needed for property owners to stay afloat," said Jack Freund, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association. "People can afford a reasonable rent increase. If you don't provide what owners need to maintain their buildings, you're going to hurt the people you're trying to protect."

Freund dismissed the reported increase in net operating income as well as talk of an affordable housing crisis. "To the extent that there is an affordability issue in the city, that is a government issue," Freund said.

The board's meetings put landlords and tenants within arm's length in the same room. Even if they were at a cocktail party, that would be provocative. But when the subject is money, it is going to become contentious, as was clear at a recent board meeting, where there were hisses, boos, chants and shouts. The chairman of the board, Marvin Markus, lost his gavel trying to pound the meeting back to order. "Calm down, Mr. Chairman!" someone shouted. He threatened to have some people removed, but did not ask police at the doors to carry out the threat.

The already passionate landlord and tenant relationship - the second most important relationship after marriage, some say - is on view at these meetings.

At its May meeting, board members rejected proposals from tenant members for no increase and from owner members for significant increases. For the first time, they set a range for increases on one- and two-year leases of 3 to 5 percent and 4.5 to 7.5 percent respectively. The vote was 5 to 4.

In a recent interview, the board's chairman, Marvin Markus, an investment banker, said the housing situation in New York City was not bleak. He also dismissed the exaggerated numbers submitted by the Rent Stabilization Association.

"Last year, the increases (passed by the board) were not anywhere near what the numbers show," Markus said, referring to the increases in costs that landlords faced.

"I can tell you if it's left to Markus the final will be as high as possible," McKee said. "We don't call him Marvin Mark-up for nothing."

McKee said tenants need to come out if they want to show Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appoints all of the board's members, that the board's decision could cause him political problems.

"It's not an economic decision - it's a political decision," McKee said. "And there's one person responsible, and that's Mayor Bloomberg."

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.

Mobilizing Community Concerns Against Mobile Phone Antennas

 The residents of 33rd Street in Astoria, Queens weren’t looking for trouble. It literally fell into their backyard.

In June of 2003 a curious set of engineering plans floated from the roof of a building and into the backyard of Mario Bazzolo, setting off a chain of events that could have long-term repercussions for the expansion of wireless technology in New York. As fate would have it, Bazzolo, an electrical engineer, immediately recognized what the details of the blueprint represented and in reporting his findings to his neighbors confirmed what some had suspected all along: That recent construction on the roof of 32-42 33rd Street was not the work of a cable television company, as one of the men working on the roof had falsely claimed. The antennae which looked onto surrounding homes and families on this quiet residential street were in fact part of a base station transmitting radio frequency (RF) signals used for mobile phones.

Since that day in June in 2003, the residents living in and around 32-42 33rd Street, organized now as the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, have been fighting to have these antennae removed. In doing so, they have become lay experts on “non-thermal ionizing radiation” (radiation that does not heat tissue) and have discovered that there are over 200 antennae located within a mile and half radius of their block, primarily on residential buildings. From there they have taken on the wireless phone industry and New York City zoning officials while prompting two legislators to introduce bills that would begin to more closely regulate the mounting of cell phone antennae in New York City neighborhoods and state-wide. Perhaps most importantly, the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition has inspired a growing city-wide effort to rein in what some consider to be the unchecked proliferation of cell phone antennae across the city, and to bring public awareness to potential health risks posed by their radiation emissions.

The cell phone industry, mostly in the form of wireless service providers and communication technology companies, real estate developers, construction companies and others with a vested interest in a multi-billion dollar business, say these fears are unfounded. In extolling the safety of cell phone base stations, they also emphasize the importance of cell phones in times of emergency (almost ten thousand 911 calls are made from wireless phones in New York everyday) and point to American society’s growing reliance on cell phones.

Debating Possible Health Risks

Cell phones started appearing regularly on New York City streets in the early 1990s. Today there are approximately 10.5 million wireless phone subscribers in the city alone. More to the point, there are thousands of cell phone antennae throughout the city, although no one knows the exact number or even how to get an accurate count. Yet while cell phones have become a highly visible and ubiquitous feature of modern life, the mobile phone industry’s rooftop infrastructure remains largely unnoticed by the general public. In fact, there was little evidence that the public cared where cell phone towers were placed until there was political oppositionto recent attempts by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to rent public school rooftop space to cell phone companies.

Cellular phone facilities typically consist of three primary parts: the antenna, the base station, and the equipment. Antennae send and receive signals to and from cellular phones using RF radiation at frequencies between 800 and 1990 megahertz (MHz) which is greater than most FM radios, cordless telephones, and television broadcasts, but less than microwave oven frequencies.

At the heart of the dispute between organizations like the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition and the New York Wireless Access Coalition, a wireless industry advocacy association, is their interpretation of research that has been done on the safety of these antennae. While the radio frequency used by cell antennas may seem no more dangerous than a microwave oven, it is the constancy of the emissions and the proximity of antennae to humans that has raised questions among scientists and prompted countless health studies. Most of the research done so far is limited and inconclusive at best, neither denying nor concluding that cell phone antennas pose a public health threat. In fact, at a recent City Council hearing, both wireless phone advocates and their detractors quoted excerpts from the same World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet to champion their cause.

The wireless phone industry, public health officials and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) all point to the fact that there is no smoking antenna, no proof that the radiation produced by cell antenna radio frequencies constitutes a real health risk. As a result, wireless advocates maintain there is no justification for trying to impose regulations on the cell phone industry.

Anti-proliferation organizers and members of the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition acknowledge that cell phones are important mainstays in today’s society, but argue that the need for more scientific research is reason enough to at least monitor cell phone antennae construction. Evie Hantzopoulos, a spokesperson for the Coalition who freely admits to being an avid cell phone user herself, points to the city’s experience with asbestos as a cautionary tale of how medical science is often years behind the growth and use of new technologies, innovations and materials.

The research debate is a highly complicated one, not only because opinions within the scientific community - some of which has been underwritten by the cell phone industry itself - vary greatly, but because no one has yet been able to complete a long term study that accurately simulates real life conditions and antenna exposure.

While Jessica Leighton, the Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health testified at City Council hearings that antennas were “unlikely” to pose a health risk, she also admitted “it is fair to say that some questions have not been conclusively answered. While more study may be warranted, it would take an enormous amount of time, money and expertise…Entirely different training, expertise and professions are required to evaluate emissions, exposure and health outcomes.” Leighton concluded that “Better studies are based on very large populations, followed for many years into the future… Short-term health studies conducted locally are not likely to shed meaningful light on these issues.”

The Fight In Astoria

In addition to the seemingly divine hand that delivered the errant blueprints to Bazzolo’s doorstep in Astoria, it took a very aggressive community organizing campaign by the coalition for the issue of cell tower proliferation to take on a broader city-wide profile. After learning that the owner of 32-42 33rd Street was renting rooftop space to T-Mobile, residents discovered that the rooftop was accessible to the residents of the building, lacked proper signage and that three of the antennae were openly exposed, within mere feet, to people living in the adjoining building - all in violation of Federal Communications Commission(FCC) guidelines.

In response, the coalition quickly produced a 500 signature petition demanding that the antennae be removed, called on their public officials to get involved and requested an inspection of the base station from the FCC. In the process they also learned that securing the legal right to have the antennae dismantled would not, however, prove to be so easy.

Normally, telecommunication companies are required to apply to the Board of Standards and Appeals and then appear in front of a public hearing before they can build in a residential neighborhood. However in 1998 Deputy Commissioner of Buildings Richard Visconti issued an order that exempted cell phone companies from this long and expensive neighborhood process. Visconti explained his action by saying, “The department recognizes that the cellular telephone has become a prevalent form of communication essential to the public interest. As such, those companies wishing to erect cellular antennae and install related equipment are to be treated with the deference afforded other public utilities.”

As such, cell phone carriers operate under very little control or oversight, not only in New York, but statewide. According to an open letter issued by the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, “telecommunication companies themselves are not required to inspect or monitor the sites. The FCC issues a blanket license for a geographical area. As long as the company self-certifies that the site meets federal guidelines, they can put up an antenna sites wherever they wish...[N]o agency on the local, state or federal level tracks where these antennae are being sited.”

Because the New York State Public Service Commission is regarded as a competitive market, they do not regulate wireless companies. Furthermore, local and state governments across the country are prohibited from using health concerns as a guiding principle in the zoning of cell phone antennae and base stations because, the FCC reasoned in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, there is no solid evidence linking cell phone technology with heath risks.

In the meantime, the coalition has questioned the validity of the exemption that was granted the wireless phone industry and contemplates a class-action lawsuit. Hantzopoulos asserts that Visconti’s action was “in violation of the New York City Charter” and he “had no authority to issue this exemption”.

The coalition has already been successful in compelling T-Mobile to remove three of the nine antennae, the ones that directly exposed residents in the adjacent building. By the time the FCC arrived in October of 2003 to inspect the site, it represented perhaps an even more significant victory for the coalition: The Queens Chronicle reported it was the first inspection of a New York City cell phone antenna ever conducted by the FCC. What arguably should have been routine, was, in fact, a landmark event for the agency that took months and a great deal of applied political pressure from Queens to achieve. As a result of this experience, Hantzopoulos surmised that when it comes to wireless technology, the “FCC has neither the expertise nor the capacity to ensure public safety”.

Legislative Action

Indeed, the coalition’s allies have proven to be closer to home. A target of the coalition’s advocacy, Astoria City Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. has introduced a billthat, if passed, would mandate that the city maintain a list of where cellular phone antennae are erected, thus giving the public the ability to at least track antenna locations. Vallone has called for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to study the long-term effects of living and working near multiple antennae and base stations and has already prompted the City Council Committees on Health and Housing and Buildings to hold hearings in April of 2004 on the proliferation of cell phone antennae.

Astoria Assemblyman Michael Gianaris has been pushed even further in sponsoring Assembly Bill 9897, which is designed to “promote the responsible and efficient placement of wireless facilities in residential areas”. Specifically, the legislation would establish a four-month moratorium on the construction of wireless facilities, allowing time for the establishment of a new siting board that would ensure certain criteria are met before a wireless tower is erected.

Gianaris’ legislation would also mandate a study on the health effects of cell phone tower emissions; require companies to demonstrate the need for each wireless facility; require written notice of the facility to residents living within 500 feet of the proposed tower; call for public hearings on specific construction proposals; and require that cellular phone facilities conform to the aesthetics of the surrounding neighborhood.

The cell phone industry has not taken this lying down. In her testimony before the New York City Council hearings, Laura Altschul, Director of National Siting Policy at T-Mobile USA Communications, said that while these legislative initiatives are “well intentioned, they have the potential…to threaten the city’s wireless communications systems and undermine the advances New York City has made in telecommunications to date.” In addition to emphasizing the important role that cell phones play in originating 911 calls, Altschul argued that the tracking of cell phone antennae could be exploited by terrorists to threaten homeland security.

A Growing Movement

But the protest genie may have already escaped the bottle, both locally and nationally. For instance, several independent grassroots campaigns in San Francisco aimed at halting the placement of wireless antennae in residential areas joined forces in 2000 under the banner of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union(SNAFU), a city-wide coalition of individual residents and neighborhood organizations. And taking the lead from the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, community boards #1 in Queens and #7 and #8 in Manhattan have passed resolutions calling for the study of potential cell antenna health risks, while boards #3 in Manhattan and #10 in Brooklyn have recently placed the matter on their agendas.

In the meantime, with three antennae removed, but six remaining on the roof of 32-42 33rd Street, the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition continues its fight and has become the leading grassroots voice for people across New York desperate for information and advice regarding cell phone antennae. Hantzopoulos says that she and the coalition members have received countless emails and phone calls from people facing their own dilemmas: Co-op boards and landlords wondering whether to accept money from companies seeking to put antennae on their roofs; cancer victims questioning their own close exposures to antennae; residents, grassroots organizations and elected officials considering how to mount their own local anti-antenna campaigns; even a parent trying to decide whether to buy a house on the coalition’s block. “This is going to be a major public health issue in the years to come,” Hantzopoulos said. “The public is just beginning to learn about it and they will be outraged.”


Residential Segregation

Thanks to the fiftieth anniversaryof the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, talk this month is about segregation in the schools.

Our education administrators could easily brush off the fact that city schools remain separate and unequal by blaming residential segregation - and with some justification. After all, most students go to their neighborhood schools, particularly students whose parents have limited resources and can't afford long school commutes. Still, our educators should acknowledge that educational apartheid is both a product of residential apartheid and a stimulus for it. Whites protect their exclusive residential enclaves to protect their privileged schools.

In "Separate and Unequal: Racial and Ethnic Neighborhoods in the Twenty first Century," the Lewis Mumford Center found that the income disparity between black and white neighborhoods is gaping - black incomes are 55 percent of white incomes. The disparity between Hispanics and whites is even greater.

Today the ethnic division of the city is complex. Over one third of the city's population is foreign born. The city's newest immigrant groups are much more diverse than in the past. They come from many more countries and their incomes vary more widely. They don't easily fit into the historic black/white racial categories that have dominated the U.S. since the early days of slavery. Yet they are segregated.

There are of course many reasons for residential segregation, there is no agreed upon strategy for eliminating it, and it's not obvious what integration really means. But it is incredible that in this city where those formerly dubbed "minorities" are now the majority there is no public discussion about how the city's policies may be responsible for segregation and the inequalities that go along with it. The political establishment seems to think everyone is color blind.

One set of city policies that appears to be immune from scrutiny relates to land use and zoning.

Zoning and the City of Enclaves

The main government mechanism for exercising land use policy is zoning. In principle, zoning separates industrial, commercial and residential functions, and controls the form and density of new development. In practice, zoning has been used to separate people by income and race. Zoning by itself isn't the cause of segregation, but it codifies and reinforces segregation patterns created by discrimination in real estate, and makes it difficult to change them.

There are at least two main ways that zoning codifies segregation and inequality: by encouraging gentrification and by maintaining environmental racism.

When the city's planners propose zoning changes in diverse neighborhoods that would spur massive new housing development, as they have done in Greenpoint and Williamsburg (Brooklyn), for example, they encourage the displacement of low-income working people and people of color, stimulating the conversion of the neighborhood to an all-white upscale enclave. As neighborhoods improve and property values go up, property owners put pressures on the city to change zoning rules and allow for new development. The city's planners normally applaud such trends as evidence of healthy development, and they then bestow on property owners windfall gains by "upzoning" sections of the neighborhood. But this kind of zoning change has a ripple effect, jacks up property values in the surrounding areas, and makes the neighborhood unaffordable to the people who now live there. The end result is income segregation, and since blacks and Latinos disproportionately fall on the lower end of the income scale, the outcome is also racial segregation. Ironically, many of the working class tenants of European descent now living in Greenpoint will be forced to move from a relatively integrated neighborhood to a lily-white suburb.

There are tried and true zoning techniques that aim to prevent this gentrification from further segregating neighborhoods. One of these, inclusionary zoning, mandates that a portion of all new residential development be affordable to people with low incomes. Alas, the City Planning Department recently opposed a proposal for inclusionary zoning in Park Slope, Brooklyn and is resisting demands for inclusionary zoning in other parts of the city.

At the same time that relatively diverse central neighborhoods are turning into yuppie enclaves, the city's planners gleefully provide zoning protections for the less diverse lower density neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. Recently recommended zoning changes in Staten Island, for example, will provide further protections to white homeowner enclaves.

Environmental Racism

Another way that zoning reinforces segregation is by allowing most of the noxious, polluting infrastructure to be located only in the city's shrinking number of manufacturing districts. The people who live and work in and near these districts are disproportionately people with modest incomes and people of color. A fascinating but little-known study by Lehman College professor Juliana Maantay (Solid Waste and the Bronx: Who Pays the Price) showed how white neighborhoods have managed to get their industrial districts rezoned for new residential development much faster than low-income communities of color. Since 1961 the city's wealthiest borough, Manhattan, converted industrial zones to residential and commercial zones the fastest, while in the Bronx, the city's poorest borough, there have been the least conversions. Prof. Maantay looked more closely at waste-related facilities in the Bronx and found that 87% of people living within one-half mile of these noxious uses are people of color. These are neighborhoods with high rates of asthma and other diseases related to noxious uses.

Since the city has no long-range plan for retaining industry, it does very little to help clean up existing facilities so they will be compatible with residential neighborhoods and continue to provide industrial jobs in those areas. Instead, the city is basically telling neighborhoods the only way they can get rid of bad industrial neighbors is to become upscale, lily-white bedroom enclaves,

What About the Suburbs?

To be fair, New York City must share the responsibility for discriminatory zoning with the suburbs. Many towns in upstate New York, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut require minimum lot sizes for homes of half-acre, one acre, and in some cases up to 20 acres. As a result, only the most expensive homes can be built. Since whites are disproportionately among the wealthiest homeowners, this effectively excludes blacks and other people of color. It's also no coincidence that NYC has the majority of the region's low-income public housing units.

While whites find opportunities for affordable housing in the suburbs, middle class blacks usually have a much harder time finding any housing. As reported in the Mumford Center's Separate and Unequal study: "Findings indicate that even minorities who have achieved higher incomes and moved to the suburbs live in more disadvantaged conditions than their white peers."

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.



















Back To The Fore?

The City Council recently held what for them was a first, an awards ceremony honoring six people for their work in affordable housing.

Did all the effort and expense for the ceremony – Council chambers filled with friends and family, an elaborate buffet, an appearance by Speaker Gifford Miller – mean anything more than just another event at City Hall?

Yes, insisted Councilmember Gale Brewer afterward: Housing, she believes, is back as a potent political issue.

The competition for attention is stiff. In one poll, New Yorkers ranked the economy, the city budget, and terrorism as the most important problems. Only two percent put housing first. But that poll, by Quinnipiac College, was conducted more than a year ago. Ask local officials now about constituent calls, and the answer is different:

“Housing is the number one problem in my district without a question,” said Councilmember Robert Jackson of Harlem in a recent interview. “I see it every day. Rents are going up so high and people are being evicted.”

Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn said she was getting “three or four” calls a day from people with housing problems, and helping landlords and tenants reach agreements that do not involve actual eviction.

There are also about a dozen council resolutions concerning housing issues pending now. In the city budget, the council has proposed using money from a commuter tax to finance affordable housing construction. At the state level, Vito Lopez, chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee said there are probably “10 percent” more bills about housing this year than last.

People are paying more attention not just because rents are going up, but also because

• A new commissioner of the city’s housing department has taken over;
• Cuts to the federal Section 8 program that could increase the number of homeless people are going into effect.
• The probable loss of more Mitchell-Lama apartments is uniting tenants.

The attention will only intensify in coming weeks. On May 13, two events will bring out hundreds, perhaps thousands of tenants: a rally to compel City Council members to adopt a bill to enable tenants to obtain roof-to-cellar inspections of their buildings and an overnight vigil at City Hall Park that begins at 2 p.m. At the same time, the Rent Guidelines Board is continuing hearings to determine whether and how much to raise rents on rent stabilized apartments.

But outside of the city, housing is not as potent an issue.

“I don’t hear much about housing,” said Erik Kriss, who covers Albany for the Syracuse Post Standard. “It’s not a steady issue.”

In his January 20th budget address, Governor George Pataki mentioned housing only once; in his State of the State address two weeks earlier, he had not mentioned housing at all.

State Senator John Bonacic, chair of the senate housing committee, said housing was important but simply a victim of a full agenda in the legislature that is dominated by education, health care and homeland security.

“You won’t find one person who will not say affordable housing is not important because it is,” said Bonacic, a Republican. “It goes hand in hand with economic development, to take care of the economic engine. And there is a critical need for affordable housing, especially for the mid-Hudson to the city, Long Island and Hudson. In terms of a political issue, I don’t think it’s a high political issue.”

A spokesman for Senator Joseph Bruno, majority leader of the State Senate, said housing did not stick out as an issue because the primary solutions to housing problems rest with the private sector, not the government.

“We prefer to see things that can be done to encourage competition through the strength of the market to encourage construction of housing, rather than the government just coming in and building homes or units,” said Marc Hansen, from Bruno’s office.

Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide housing advocacy organization, said attention to housing outside of the city was virtually nonexistent.

“I don’t think any of the players in Albany are paying attention to housing, affordable housing or any tenant protection program,” McKee said.

Assembly Member Lopez begged to differ.

“There is definitely more chatter,” Lopez said. “There is more attention because there is a serious housing crisis.”

Lopez said he expected the Assembly this year to commit $70 to $90 million for construction of affordable housing in the state budget. But that is far short of what is needed, affordable housing developers and advocates have said. In contrast, the mayor’s plan will spend about $3 billion on the preservation and construction of 65,000 affordable housing units through 2008 – and that is short of what is needed, too, experts have said.

This difference in how much attention housing gets in the city and in Albany is not lost on housing advocates. They are planning to apply more pressure on politicians to make housing a priority, particularly by rolling back luxury decontrol, which is part of the rent regulation laws renewed last year.

Luxury decontrol, which allows landlords to deregulate apartments that reach $2,000 monthly rent vacant or when the rent is $2,000 or higher and the household income is greater than $175,000 for two years consecutively, has been blamed for the loss of as many as 100,000 rent stabilized apartments.

Although Republicans in the legislature vocally oppose rent regulation, McKee said advocates are not targeting them alone. Democrats who have failed to win political battles for tenants are being targeted, too, he said. Tenants and Neighbors organized a rally outside of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office on a recent weekend.

The Democrats’ “whole response is, ‘what do you expect us to do?’” McKee said. “It’s pretty pathetic…. Well, we expect you to play hardball.”

Acknowledging that making housing a potent issue in Albany would be difficult, McKee said the recent rally was just the beginning of putting pressure on state politicians.

“Normally, the legislature never deals with rent regulation unless it’s a sunset year,” he said. “They’re not going to want to do it. They’re not going to do it unless there is an enormous effort by tenants and advocates.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.




























Rent Overcharges


Almost two years ago, Mary Zuniga found a two-bedroom rent stabilized apartment for $1,500 near Columbia University. The Texas native had a friend from her home state that wanted to come to New York City and the two agreed to split the rent.

What Zuniga did not know at the time was that the $1,500 rent was apparently illegal, about $600 more than the legally registered rent.

She is hardly alone. Rent overcharges are common in the city and many tenants do not know they are paying too much. But complaints about overcharges are dwindling. Some believe this is a direct indication of the dismantling of rent regulation.

Rent stabilized apartments make up about half of all rental apartments in New York City. A state agency, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, establishes the legal rents for these apartments and landlords must report any increases.

Rents increase in these apartments in a number of ways.
*The Rent Guidelines Board meets annually to decide whether rent regulated apartment rents should increase to cover landlords’ costs.
* If an apartment is vacated and a new tenant moves in, the landlord can increase the rent.
*If the landlord renovates the apartment, she can request an increase of 1/40th the cost of renovations from the state agency or apply it directly if an apartment was vacant.
The cost of building-wide improvements can also be passed on to tenants in rent increases.

In Zuniga’s case, the landlord said he had improved the apartment by replacing the appliances and the floor. Although the floor looked new, the appliances were old, Zuniga said. After finding a free attorney through a community organization, Zuniga and her roommate filed a complaint over a year ago with the state housing agency, which is pending.

Sondra Rutherford, a tenant advocate, has helped tenants file thousands of overcharge complaints over the last 20 years. After she helped lead a rent strike in her building in the early 1980s, people sought her assistance with overcharge complaints. In any given year, she had 100 to 125 active cases; for the last few years, she has averaged only 15, she said.

“I developed it into a nice healthy business for 20 years,” Rutherford said. “But with changes in the last five years, I have reached rock bottom. I can’t afford to give it full time focus anymore.”

The heyday of overcharge complaints ks gone, she said. The state housing agency was unable to provide numbers on the cases.

“They’re less and less common because of the phase out of rent regulation laws,” she said. “As soon as a tenant moves out, the landlord renovates the apartment…. [The landlords] jack the rent up to market value. They’ll get paperwork from contractors claiming $30,000 to $40,000 in renovations. The agency accepts it without any substantive review.”

Bob Katz, legal counsel to the Queens League of United Tenants, agreed, adding that the state housing agency has changed rules on rent overcharges and other ways for landlords to raise rents.

“All these rules are to maximize rents for landlords – to do away with rent regulation,” he said. “They’re succeeding very nicely.”

One significant change in the way overcharge complaints are judged concerns how far back a review of the apartment’s rent can go. When the state legislature renewed rent regulation laws in 1997, they limited a rent history review to four years. That means if a landlord can get away with an overcharge for four years, challenging it becomes moot.

Other mechanisms to increase rents have also been relaxed, Katz said. “Major capital improvement” increases were once allowed only for improvements that were depreciable according to the Internal Revenue Service. But that rule has been abandoned and now anything goes, he said.

In one large Queens apartment complex, the landlord was allowed to increase rents not only to cover the cost of putting in boilers, but also for the costs of pruning trees and building an office in the basement.

All of these increases simply speed up the deregulation of apartments, a problem that housing advocates say is exacerbating homelessness and forcing middle-income people to leave the city as the stock of affordable housing evaporates. Once a rent stabilized apartment’s rent reaches $2,000, a landlord can apply to the state housing agency to deregulate it.

Katz said he is preparing to file a federal lawsuit against the state housing agency for effectively denying tenants their right to due process of law by changing the rules in midstream.

“I’m finding enough of these cases where there is a change of standards by [the state housing agency],” he said. After a tenant files a complaint, he said, the rules are changed and the tenant loses the case as a result.

For Zuniga and her roommate, that possibility exists. Almost two years after filing their complaint with the state housing agency, they have yet to get a decision.

“All they can tell you is that your case is still open,” she said. “They don’t have much to say to you at all.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.




















The Nets Arena Is Not The Real Issue In Development Of Downtown Brooklyn

Should downtown Brooklyn get a 19,000 seat basketball arena designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry? Developer Bruce Ratner, who proposes to build the arena for the Nets, a team he hopes to own, seems to want everyone to believe this is the question Brooklynites and their elected officials have to answer. Ratner is a principal in Forest City Ratner, downtown Brooklyn's biggest office developer. Forest City built the Metrotech complex in the 1980s and most recently the Atlantic Center Mall.

Take your eye off the ball for a minute or you'll miss the real game. The most important contest for Brooklynites and all New Yorkers is the public debate over what kind of downtown we need and want. Should the downtown of tomorrow be just offices, arenas and high rise apartments? Or should it be a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week community with a variety of opportunities, a healthy and safe environment, and a better quality of life? Should it be served by mass transit or cars? Should it have housing opportunities for people at all income levels?

Unfortunately, the fast-moving balls in this development game have taken the public's eye off the fundamental issues at stake. It's not development versus no development, jobs versus no jobs, housing versus no housing, but what kind of city do we want? Instead of debating this basic question, everyone's forced into the developer's court, where the pros are throwing hook shots and faking everyone out.

Another fast move by Ratner is to draw attention away from the real estate scheme behind the arena. Gehry's signature building would be accompanied by 4,500 apartments, 2.4 million square feet of office and retail space, and some 3,000 parking spaces at downtown Brooklyn's busiest intersection. What's really happening is the tail is wagging the dog. The New York Times, for example, titled its December 11, 2003 article "A Grand Plan in Brooklyn for the Nets' Arena Complex" but buried in the article is a revealing statement by Ratner that "it was not economically viable without a real estate component." In other words, the arena alone is a loser. This squares with the findings of most economic studies that sports facilities lose money and have to be subsidized. In this case, Ratner is still likely to benefit from public subsidies for the arena while making a killing on the larger deal. We'll never see these moves because they're being made in the private game Ratner is playing with public authorities.

Ratner hired big name basketball players like Bernard King to convince the public that the arena will give every kid a chance to be a pro, enhance their self-esteem, and cure asthma. But according to the local group Fans for Fair Play, "By stitching together a few Brooklyn Nets jerseys, having Bernard King show up at a press conference, and cloaking their scheme in syrupy Brooklyn Dodgers nostalgia, they believe we'll fall for a ruse using the seduction of a pro-sports team in order to build a massive real estate/commercial development."

Wind-up cheerleader Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz marches around the borough claiming the Nets are the reincarnation of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are "on board" Ratner's bulldozer. Pataki sent the signal to his appointees on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who own the rail yards over which most of the project will be built, that they should give it to Ratner - or at least that's the impression Ratner is giving us.

Mayor Bloomberg can hardly turn his back on Ratner's arena at a time when he's trying to finesse his proposal for a Jets stadium on the West Side of Manhattan using the same kind of fancy footwork. After all, bad stadium feelings can spread. On the West Side the real deal is the 28 million square feet of office space and 10 million square feet of apartments, not the green-washed "eco-friendly" football arena decorated with post-modern windmills. Another thing the two stadium proposals have in common is the fiction created by the developers that most fans will use mass transit instead of parking in the huge garages that will be available both on and off the sites.

Many Brooklyn community groups are mobilizing against the Ratner proposal. A full collection of articles and arguments pro and con may be found online. In an articlefor Gotham Gazette, the City Council person for the area, Letitia James, pokes holes in the arguments that the development will bring lots of jobs and affordable housing, while having a minimal impact on traffic, congestion and the environment. However, all the debate is still focused on Ratner's agenda, not the most important item -- what kind of city do we want for our children and grandchildren?

Ratner's Past Projects

While everyone's watching Forest City Ratner's fast passes, they forget the damage the company has already done in Brooklyn. Imagine that Ratner actually had to compete with other developers to get the land he wants. Imagine there is a competent public planning body to select the best proposal. The first thing they would look at is Ratner's most recent Brooklyn project, the Atlantic Center Mall. This shopping center looks and feels like a medieval fortress. It arrogantly turns its back on the surrounding residential neighborhood and is built for the quick entry and exit of shoppers in cars. The "public" space inside the mall is minimal, poorly equipped but well endowed with electronic and human surveillance. The streetscape around the building is like a concrete wasteland with a handful of trees. If being a good neighbor is a criterion for getting public support, Ratner would be in trouble.

Ratner's Metrotech is bad planning on a grand scale. This 7 million square foot 14-building complex in downtown Brooklyn is a classical suburban office mall. On one side the complex turns its back on the nearby Fulton Street, a bustling and popular venue for working people. On another side the six-lane Flatbush Avenue divides Metrotech from the Myrtle Avenue shopping strip in Fort Greene. Metrotech's interior green space isn't really used by the public at large but serves as a back yard for the corporate tenants.

One of the first planning principles for new downtown development should be the integration of the project with the rest of the downtown. If the Atlantic Center Mall and Metrotech are an indication of what Ratner's new development will be like, we'll have another segregated, wall-off enclave in a downtown where streets are increasingly clogged with traffic and polluted.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.













Public Subsidies Flowing Up the West Side

 Proposing to convert Manhattan’s west side from a low-rise, formerly industrial waterfront community into high-rise housing, office towers, and grand civic space is nothing new. Neither is controversy about whether public subsidies should be used, and whether any of the new housing will be affordable to the average New Yorker.

So perhaps it should not have been a surprise when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city would use $350 million from the Battery Park City Authority to help pay for the proposed Jets Stadium and Javits Convention Center expansion. Still, affordable housing advocates were stunned. They claim that the city is breaking a long-standing promise to use these funds for affordable housing. West Side stadium opponents were also dismayed, complaining that the publicly-subsidized stadium and related development will spell the end of Hell’s Kitchen. Meanwhile, the Bloomberg Administration claims that the stadium and related development are the highest and best use for the West Side.

The skirmish over the Battery Park City surplus is only the latest in a 40-year battle that serves as a lesson in how community development and real estate development interact in New York City.

Two-Thirds Of Battery Park City Was Supposed To Be Affordable Housing

In the early 1960s, the government began to plan a major new neighborhood in place of rotting piers along the southern section of Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront. In a 1969 agreement that seems utopian today, Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller pledged that two-thirds of the 15,000 apartments in the new Battery Park City would be affordable to families of low and moderate incomes. According to the development’s master plan, “one-third of these apartments are to be low-income, one third moderate-income, one-third conventionally financed units. The units will be thoroughly mixed throughout the project to create an economically and racially integrated community without enclaves of high or low rent housing.”

The development and operating costs for Battery Park City have been heavily subsidized by New York City taxpayers. The Battery Park City Authority leases the land from the city, and then sells land to developers, or charges rents and “payments in lieu of taxes” (which are called PILOTs) to landowners. The authority makes an annual payment to the city. However, over the past 20 years this payment has averaged just 20 to 35 percent of what the land would be taxed at under the city’s normal tax rate. This is why Lindsay developed the plan to make two-thirds of the housing units affordable. ''If you are going to use public land and public money, you have an obligation to be sure that it is racially and economically integrated or at least benefits people of all classes,'' according to then-Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton .

Battery Park City Turns Luxury, With A Promise To Subsidize Affordable Housing Elsewhere

That obligation to develop an integrated community, however, was abandoned by the time Battery Park City was finished. By the mid-1980s, as the property market in lower Manhattan rebounded after the city’s fiscal crisis, it was agreed that Battery Park City would be an exclusive, luxury community – with very few affordable units (there are today around 325), instead of the 10,000 that had been promised. In place of those units, the city agreed to use $1 billion generated by the Battery Park City Authority to subsidize affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

In 1986, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature agreed to issue $400 million in bonds – backed by the Battery Park City Authority surplus – for 24,000 units of housing for people of low and moderate income, but it would be off-site. Far less resulted: $143 million of bonds were used to create 1,557 low-income housing units in Harlem and the Bronx, including the much-praised New Settlement Apartments.

In 1989, Mayor Koch signed a new agreement with the Battery Park City Authority – in which the authority agreed to give the city $600 million to pay for affordable housing around the city. The city agreed not to use any of the $600 million to substitute for existing city spending. Instead, it was supposed to be new money for affordable housing, beyond what the city would already have spent.

No Money For Housing

Mayor Bloomberg’s March 25th press release quotes Battery Park City Authority Chairman James Gill saying that “After fulfilling our commitment of providing $600 million to the City of New York for low-cost housing, the Battery Park City Authority is proud to work with Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and Comptroller Thompson for the joint purpose of expanding the Javits Center and providing economic opportunity for Manhattan's West Side.” To the claims of advocates like Housing First!that this was not true, City Hall spokesman Jordan Barowitz said “Through four administrations and 18 years, the city has allocated the Battery Park City money in the same way, and to claim foul now is sophism."

Sophism perhaps, but certainly not a new claim. A 2000 study by City Project concluded that while the Battery Park City Authority had paid several hundred million to the city, none of that money had produced any identifiable housing. Instead, the money has simply gone into the city’s general revenue, helping it to balance the budget. The City Project report concludes: “The 30-year history of the Authority confirms in several respects a common criticism of public authorities … Although created to serve a public interest, they largely benefit narrow private interests at huge public cost. The primary public purpose of the Battery Park City Authority was to fund a substantial number of affordable housing units in New York City. With one modest exception, the State, City, and Authority have collectively failed to meet that public goal.” (See Public Authorities by Glenn Pasanen, who was the author of the City Project report, and Gail Robinson)

This criticism is not leveled only by advocates. Meyer Frucher, president of the Battery Park City Authority from 1984 to 1988 and later CEO of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange told The New York Times in 2001 “I am terribly disappointed. I think it has been a breach of faith.” . And even mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg called in 2001 for “renewing the promise of Battery Park City to support affordable housing.”

But three years later, it is the Jets who stand to benefit. From the Administration’s point of view, the key feature of the Battery Park City surplus is that it can be given to the Jets without any approvals from the City Council. And with 60 percent of New Yorkers opposing using public money for the Jets’ stadium, and a growing number of City Council members opposed, that flexibility may be needed.

West Siders see an even greater irony here. Harvey Epstein, Associate Director of Housing Conversation Coordinators claims that “the stadium and related plans for the redevelopment of Hell’s Kitchen will displace existing low-income tenants, and take away the option of space to build many more units of affordable housing in the years to come.”

If you are keeping track for the next 35 years, the Department of City Planning has indicated that there will be 1,500 units of affordable housing amidst the 20 to 40 million square feet of commercial, residential, convention, sports, and open space development on the Far West Side in the coming decades. No word on whether any of them will be funded with future revenues from Battery Park City, or from the Jets.

Brad Lander is the director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, and former executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Affordable Housing in 2004

Bloomberg's New Marketplace: housing rehabilitation on East 129th Street.

Vincent Byron, 52, has seen a lot over the 30 years that he has lived at 54 East 129th Street in Harlem, much of it bad -- drugs, prostitution, and so many assaults that the street got a nickname: "They used to call this block 'Gunsmoke,' because someone got shot every day." It is no surprise, then, that many of the buildings on the block were burned out and boarded up.

That is no longer true. The building he lives in has been completely rehabilitated, each apartment having expansive rooms with big windows, modern kitchens and shiny hardwood floors. What's more, last month Byron and his neighbors bought the building from the city, for a total of just $4,500, in return for promising to keep the apartments affordable.

"It's beautiful to me," said Byron, now the super of the building. "No one believed this could happen - not even the people in the building."

More than a year ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited Harlem as a prime example of a community renewed thanks to both public and private investment in housing, when he announced his ambitious new housing plan for the city, which he called The New Marketplace, a five-year plan to create or preserve 65,000 apartments, at a cost of $3 billion. It included a steep rise in funding for the Tenant Interim Lease program, the program that enabled Byron and his neighbors to fix up and buy the building.

"This commitment demonstrates that, even in these difficult budget times," the mayor said then, "the city is not walking away from the job of funding affordable housing."

But the Tenant Interim Lease program is scheduled to come to an end before the end of the decade, when its funding will be cut off after some 20 years of transforming more than 20,000 apartments -- 20,000 when at least 100,000 more are needed within the next few years "even to start meeting demand," according to Oculus Magazine's special issue on affordable housing in New York.

In the 16 months since the mayor unveiled his plan, in December, 2002, construction has started on about 1,200 of the apartments. Meanwhile the need for affordable housing has become even more desperate -- and the barriers to get it have grown higher.

Last week, in the City Council's response to the mayor's proposed budget for 2005, it put a priority on the construction of affordable housing, with several proposals to expand some programs and create new ones. But their ideas for funding these proposals – primarily the reintroduction of a commuter tax, which the state legislature would have to approve, something it is very unlikely to do – in effect point to the problem without really solving it.


There have been three recent developments that have made things worse.

Cutback in "Section 8"

The Bush administration has proposed drastic cuts to the federal rent subsidy program known as "Section 8." People on Section 8 get help with rent in one of two ways. In Section 8 housing projects, tenants pay a share of the rent – not more than one-third of their income; the government picks up the rest. Others who qualify for Section 8 subsidies receive vouchers they can use in apartments owned by private landlords who accept Section 8 tenants. Already, some of the 30,000 private landlords who accept Section 8 are fed up with its bureaucracyand are opting out of the program, while almost 140,000 low-income New Yorkers who qualify for this rental assistance are on a waiting list that closed almost a decade ago. In the budget Congress passed for the fiscal year starting in July, the people waiting can probably give up: New York City would lose as many as 30,000 vouchers by 2009, according to an analysis of the cuts.

Mitchell-Lama Buy-Outs

There is an accelerating number of housing developments “buying out” of the Mitchell-Lama program, which had provided financial assistance to help developers construct apartment buildings in exchange for keeping the apartments affordable. Since 2000, ten housing developments with about 3,500 apartments have left the program; now, 11 more are in the process of leaving. As many as 15,000 apartments that have been kept affordable by Mitchell-Lama, according to a report(in pdf format) by the City Comptroller, may soon be too expensive for the middle income people who have lived in them for decades.

Erosion Of Rent Regulation

At the same time, the city continues to lose thousands of rent stabilized apartments to luxury decontrol, a 1997 change in the law that allows landlords to take apartments out of rent stabilization when their rents reach $2,000. Housing advocates failed last June to convince state legislators to rescind luxury decontrol and an estimated 100,000 affordable apartments have been lost since the law was passed.
These specific problems exacerbate three long-term trends:

Rise in Population

The problem is clear in the numbers provided by such reports as NYU’s State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods and the Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey. Though the number of people living in New York City reportedly increased by almost 700,000 from 1990 to 2002, the city saw fewer than 100,000 new apartments built in roughly that same period.

Although it varies according to neighborhood, the demand for affordable housing, then, simply outstrips the supply available. Since the 1960s, the number of apartments built in New York City has steadily declined. This trend was reversed last year, 2003 seeing more new construction, and there are indications that this will be the case this year as well. Most of the new building, though, is of luxury apartments, unaffordable to at least 80 percent of all New Yorkers.

High Construction Costs

If the demand is there, why isn’t more housing being built that the average New Yorker can afford?

The cost of building in the city is the highest in the nation, significantly more than in many other cities, according to one report. A variety of factors make this so:

  • land in the city is expensive
  • construction materials are expensive
  • the rules governing construction are complex
  • labor costs are high
  • Taxes and fees on building increase costs
  • Corruption costs, too.


Fall-off In Government Funding

One definition of affordable housing is housing in which a person is spending no more than a third of his income on rent. But affordable housing has traditionally had another meaning as well -- housing that is built with government funding or government-sponsored incentives (usually tax breaks) for developers. Government has virtually gone out of the business of building housing itself, called public housing. But it now also is cutting back sharply in providing incentives for private developers, or subsidies for individual tenants.

"Right now, there is a housing crisis throughout the nation, especially in the Northeast, because of a fall-off in outlays from both federal and state governments," said Charles Lyons, the president of the National League of Cities. "There is not even a conversation happening."

Affordable housing is particularly losing out in the competition for federal dollars.

"In the way the appropriations are passed, funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development is included with veterans' benefits and NASA,” said Jon Sheiner, a legislative aide to Representative Charles Rangel. “Which do you think is going to win – veterans' benefits or housing?”

“The picture is very, very negative,” said Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society. “I think the federal government has to get back in the business of providing affordable housing. The city and state need to understand the dimensions of the crisis, the kind of loss that will occur, the displacement and how it will increase pressure on the homeless system.”


Almost a quarter of all households in the city pay more than half their income on rent. But the lack of affordable housing does more than hurt individuals economically. Having less affordable housing affects the city because, for example, it directly results in more homelessness.

"Homeless families are staying in the shelters longer – at a great cost to the city," said Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid Society attorney who works on housing issues. Almost 40,000 people – a record – are in city shelters on any given night. Helping homeless families costs the city about $3,000 per family per month.

There is a rise as well in overcrowding. While some families are taking smaller apartments because that is all they can afford, others are doubling up apartments in order to share the cost of a high rent. There is also an increase in the number of illegal apartments, some of them in spaces that were not built to be used as housing, such as basements and garages and attics.

“It’s not just a matter of cost,” said Joe Weisbord, staff director of Housing First!, an advocacy coalition. “Poor housing conditions and homelessness have a direct and serious impact on educational attainment, health and success in the work force. There are real costs at stake here.”

The lack of affordable housing also hampers the ability to attract new businesses, and to retain old ones. And, says Charles Lyons, "if your police, firefighters and teachers cannot afford to live in your community, how can you even call it a community?"


There are at least three facts on which housing advocates agree. The first is that the city needs help from the federal government and from New York State in order to meet the needs of affordable housing.

The second is that it makes sense for government to be involved: “In study after study, government investment in housing produces a nine-to-one return,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the East Side of Manhattan and is the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Standing Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development. “You create construction jobs; you keep people housed. It’s a win-win situation from the perspective of both public policy and economic policy.”

The third is that adequate support will not be happening anytime soon. "How do you build affordable housing in a society that has no commitment to financing it?" asked Bruce Dale, of the Community Preservation Corporation, a private local financer of affordable housing. "It's largely a question of political will."

But advocates, though they have critiqued Bloomberg's plan, appreciate the city government declaring affordable housing as a priority: “Under the Giuliani administration, the city was saying we’ve solved the housing problem in the city,” said Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a consortium of housing organizations. “At least now they are acknowledging the problem.”

And, as the urgency for affordable housing grows, several ideas for solving the problem seem to be getting more attention.

Stem The Loss of Affordable Apartments

Hundreds of thousands of apartments in New York City fall under some type of regulation that prevents landlords raising their rents to market rates. The mayor is asking state legislators to pass laws that require the apartments that leave the Mitchell-Lama program to be put under rent stabilization, which would prevent landlords from dramatically increasing rents on the apartments. The mayor’s proposed legislation could also protect almost 40,000 other apartmentsin buildings that were constructed in the 1970s with help from the federal government.

Some see rent regulation as part of the problem, saying that it acts as a disincentive to build affordable housing. Others say this simply isn’t true, pointing to reports from the city’s Rent Guidelines Board that rent-stabilized buildings are profitable for their owners and have gotten more so over the last 10 years.

Give Large Apartments To Large Families, Low-Rent Apartments To Low-Income Renters, Etc.

At least one developer of affordable housing believes in “rationalizing” the use of affordable apartments in order to free up thousands of affordable apartments. In public housing, for example, almost 40,000 apartments are “under-utilized,” a spokesman for the New York City Housing Authority said, occupied mainly by tenants who have raised families but now live alone in apartments with two or three bedrooms.

Similarly, in rent stabilized apartments, some large apartments with low rents are being occupied by people who have enough income to afford to pay more.

Mark Alexander, who has been involved in building affordable apartments for almost 30 years, said efforts should be made to assure that only people who really need affordable apartments actually get them. Alexander admitted his was not a politically popular point of view.

Others put it more strongly: "Is he heartless and cruel enough to go up to someone who is 70-something years old and say get out?" asked Howard Marder, the spokesman for the housing authority.

Use New, Cheaper Construction Materials

If construction costs were lower, developers said they could build more affordable housing. "Right now, the price of steel has doubled in the last year, and so has the price of copper," said Jeffrey Levine, of Levine Builders. If the city’s building code allowed the use of new, cheaper materials, Levine said, costs would be lowered.

Change Zoning

Some developers said that the most effective way the city could help them would be to allow them to build more housing on the land available. This means changing the zoning.

How land is used in the city is dictated by the city’s zoning code. On most of the land that is zoned for residential use in the city, developers can build one- or two-family houses. In areas where big apartment buildings can be built, "inclusionary zoning" allows a developer to build more apartments (in the language of planners, increasing "density") in return for a commitment to keep them affordable. (The affordable apartments do not have to be built on the site of the main development). It is called inclusionary zoning because it encourages developers not to exclude renters with lower incomes.

The Housing Development Corporation, a public corporation that finances the construction of affordable housing, has built 8,853 apartments using inclusionary zoning since 1987. In these “80-20” buildings, 80 percent of the apartments lease at market rents and 20 percent are reserved for families of low and moderate income.

“Nothing is going to change in terms of the costs of materials, union labor and land,” said Hugo Subotovsky, a developer who has built affordable housing in Manhattan and the Bronx. “These are political issues that are probably going to get worse. But if you create more square feet it will amortize the cost of land. We should work very closely with city planning to improve zoning."

The Department of City Planning has proposed allowing inclusionary zoning in several areas of the city where it has not been used before, including parts of West Chelsea and the far West Side of Manhattan.

Inclusionary zoning has its drawbacks. In some small-scale neighborhoods, residents have balked at the idea of big apartment buildings even if those buildings would help solve the affordable housing problem.

Not Lacking In Ideas

There are many other ideas. The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, for example, last year put out a report entitled “Ten Steps To Create More Affordable Housing In New York City”(in pdf format), which recommends specific changes in the building code and the zoning resolution (such as eliminating some requirements for parking and allowing for the construction of smaller studio apartments) -- changes that could be accomplished “without significant public funding.” The National League of Cities offers “Practical Approaches To Affordable Housing Challenges” (in pdf format) and PolicyLink, a national nonprofit organization, offers an "Equitable Development Toolkit”

"It’s not like there is a lack of ideas that could work," said Senator Krueger. “We just don’t seem to be able to get people to understand that, for the future of the city and other areas in the state, we need housing for people to live in."

Joe Lamport, Gotham Gazette's housing topic page writer, is assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.

Another Museum Boom

Over the next few months, museums across the city will complete major construction projects, planned when the economic picture was sunnier and sustained in spite of the difficult fundraising environment of the past few years. The weak economy has caused some donors to reconsider their commitments, and museums such as the Guggenheim have had to put their plans on hold. But, remarkably, most projects appear to be on schedule, including expansions of established institutions like the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Morgan Library, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Brooklyn Children’s Museum and openings at the new Rubin Museum of Art and Skyscraper Museum.

Many of these projects were planned during the 1990s, when museums in New York and across the country rode a wave of unprecedented popularity. Visitors flocked to big-name shows, to extended hours and added programming like movies, concerts, and dance parties, and to retail stores and cafes. More than just temples to art, museums became social destinations and community centers, places to hang out with the kids or meet a date. With the help of upgraded, visitor-friendly facilities and innovative designs, museums are hoping to build on this legacy well into the 21st century.

Brooklyn’s Front Stoop

Though the Brooklyn Museum of Art never shut its doors during its multi-phase renovation, it has planned a celebration this month to inaugurate what its director, Arnold Lehman, refers to as “Brooklyn’s greatest front stoop”--the museum’s new entrance and public plaza.

The museum has long had an image problem. The 1893 building was intended to face Washington Avenue, where the architecture team of McKim, Mead, and White had envisioned a hemispherical entrance. This plan was never realized, and the Washington Avenue side is now the museum’s parking lot and rear entrance. Along Eastern Parkway, the museum’s main entrance, there was once a massive staircase--twice the height of the stairs in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- that took visitors to the third floor. The staircase was removed in 1934 to provide easier access to the building, leaving behind an unwelcoming Beaux Arts façade.

The new entrance is designed to lend the building a sense of openness and transparency--its glass and steel design providing a window into the artwork and the people inside. A sheer-glass pavilion leads to the main lobby, and an elevated promenade provides views into the museum and around the neighborhood. The modern design won unanimous support from the city’s Landmarks Commission, Lehman says, because it builds on the original plan: the stepped-glass pavilion recalls the old stairway, and the hemispherical entrance echoes the architects’ unrealized design.

The 80,000-square-foot plaza in front of the museum, once bisected by a driveway, has been reclaimed as public space. Five hundred people can sit on the curved, wooden steps--the “front stoop”--to watch outdoor performances or enjoy the new fountains, designed by the same showmen that created the spectacular water show outside the Bellagio Casino, in Las Vegas.

The museum is using the reopening to show off its rich artistic community. In Open House: Working in Brooklyn -- the first comprehensive survey of the borough’s arts scene -- emerging and established artists will show painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, film, and installations, and accompanying performances will feature local dance, music, and poetry.

New Museums Open Downtown

Also this month, the Skyscraper Museum will open in its first permanent location, on the ground floor of a 38-story tower in Battery Park City. Designed by Roger Duffy of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the museum is one of the first signs of downtown’s cultural renaissance. The museum has held temporary exhibits since 1996 (its curators helped to create the viewing walls around Ground Zero, which depict the towers’ history). But it now has a chance to take on an important role as interpreter of New York’s history as a “vertical metropolis,” and as a participant in the ongoing debate among architects, engineers, builders, and the public about the safety and ethics of skyscrapers.

Later this year, the Rubin Museum of Art will open its doors in Chelsea, on the site of an old Barney’s department store. This new museum is the product of one couple’s passion for a culture that will be unfamiliar to most art lovers. Donald Rubin, who made a fortune in managed care, and his wife, Shelley, collected art from the Himalayan region (Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal) for 25 years. When they couldn’t find the right museum for their collection, they decided to create their own.

Public Works in Tough Times

How did these institutions sustain major capital campaigns during one of the toughest fundraising climates in decades? Part of the answer may be that buildings have inherent populist appeal. Public buildings -- particularly architecturally notable ones -- can be a source of pride for individuals, corporations, and cities. To raise spirits and generate jobs great public works are often built during tough financial times; the National Gallery of Art was built during the Depression. “It’s easier to raise money for a building than a show,” Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim, told a New York Times reporter in 2002. “A building is permanent.”

Another reason is that City Hall, and perhaps corporate and individual donors as well, have come to accept what reams of research has shown: culture fuels the local economy. According to a study by the advocacy group Alliance for the Arts, capital spending on construction by nonprofits from 1992 to 2002 totaled $2.4 billion. One-quarter of the funding for capital construction came from the city, and this investment helped to leverage private and other government funds by a ratio of three to one. In 1997, thanks to a change in policy, the Department of Cultural Affairs was able to make donations for capital projects to any nonprofit organization--not just the 33 city-owned cultural institutions that had been its longtime beneficiaries.

The city recoups its investment in culture in the form of income and sales tax, and down the road in tourist dollars. Another Alliance for the Arts study looked at the 1992-93 winter season, when just three museums (the Guggenheim, the Met, and MoMA) attracted an estimated 1.3 million tourists to blockbuster shows, with half of the tourists saying they came to New York specifically to see them. All together, out-of-town visitors brought an estimated $617 million in tourist dollars to New York, reaping $60 million in tax benefits for the city and state.

It’s up to museum directors and curators to capitalize on their donors’ confidence and widespread popularity. During the 1990s, critics argued that museums were becoming too populist, that dazzling architecture, visitor-friendly facilities, and extra-curricular programming were delegating art to a back seat. But it’s not such a radical notion to make visitors feel comfortable and welcome, to allow them to enjoy just being in a museum. For a least a couple of centuries, people have been drawn to culture’s reflected glamour--to plush opera halls and tony theaters--and, so far, culture has survived.


The Jets Stadium: Another Sad West Side Story

The opposing view on the proposed west side stadium:

Related article on New York's sports economy:
The Bringing the Jets Home
by Jay Cross
New York's Sports Economy
by Mark Berkey-Gerard

And in Community Gazettes, how sports play out in Staten Island and Brooklyn:
Reviving Coney Island
(Coney Island, Dist. 47)
St. George: Waiting for the Ferry Terminal
(Staten Island, Dist. 49)

Supporters of the proposal for a football stadium on the Hudson railyards describe it as a way to revive the neighborhood, the city, and the region. In reality, the plan serves only the needs of the New York Jets.

Stadiums have not proved to be sensible public investments. On game days, they clog the streets with traffic -- in this case in an area where streets are already straining under the weight of the Javits Center, Madison Square Garden, and the theaters on Broadway. In other cities, when no events are scheduled at a stadium, by contrast, the surrounding area turns into a ghost town. This pattern discourages other types of developments nearby.

This would be bad for the west side even if no public money was used. But stadiums always require huge public subsidies to build and often operate only with additional public money. Yes, the $800 million that the Jets propose to invest is unprecedented. But the city and the state have each pledged $350 million to deck over the railyards and build a retractable roof. And that doesn’t include the $700 million the city is going to invest in the stadium by creating open spaces, condemning property, and constructing parking garages nearby.

Before the city pours over $1 billion into this project, we should consider that not one football stadium in the country works in such a dense urban area.

Some claim that this stadium will be the exception. It been dressed up with the current flavor of sustainable architecture and presented as part of a larger plan for the area. But recent additions of a Museum of the Science of Sport and a community theater are just window dressing. The retail square footage is minimal—equivalent to a large Duane Reade or CVS. The proposed open spaces around the stadium are hard-surfaced plazas and walkways--not parks. All of these items are in the service of the main event—the75,000 seat stadium.

Councilmember David Weprin recently said that the stadium would be good for the city’s finances. However, his financial analysis was not independent. He later clarified it was taken from a report commissioned by the Jets.


Prior to the political arm-twisting by Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Jets, the officials of the Javits Center showed little interest in the stadium-equals-convention-center idea. Plans developed by the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, the state entity that operates the Javits center, proposed an expansion to the north, completely covering two blocks and erasing two streets, with a high-rise hotel on 11th Avenue and 42nd Street. The stadium plan to the south was a footnote to their planning efforts.

But when the leader of the effort to bring the Olympics to New York, Dan Doctoroff, became the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, this footnote became the plan’s main storyline. Doctoroff has pushed hard for a stadium in Manhattan as a vital part of the Olympic plan. But there is no reason that the Olympic stadium couldn’t be built in Queens instead.

Now the Jets propose to enter a business they know nothing about and run it at a profit. But convention centers are generally run by public authorities, whose goal is only to cover expenses. Convention centers are not intended to earn money for the operator, but to make money for the city or region where they are located. Their purpose is to draw visitors to a city to spend dollars on hotels, restaurants and other attractions. Many convention centers actually lose money.

When the Jets realize that they cannot make money running conventions, they will probably begin to compete with Madison Square Garden for events like concerts or circuses. If they succeed in this, the west side stadium will not bring new business to New York, but merely pull existing events a few blocks westward.


It is a good idea to make a large public investment on the west side, by decking over the rail yards, laying out streets, and building sewers and streetlights. Instead of the Jets stadium, the city should break the railyards into several sites. The Javits center could then expand both to the north, as currently proposed, and to the south into the railyards. Then we could also build a new park overlooking the Hudson and create infrastructure to encourage the private sector to redevelop six blocks of exceptionally located waterfront real estate.

This would spread the risk out over a range of businesses in a variety of business sectors – office, commercial, retail, residential, hotel. The city’s increased tax revenue would not depend on a single business, especially one using a plan that has proven itself a failure elsewhere.

Joe Restuccia, the executive director of the Clinton Housing Development Company, is on the board of the Hell’s Kitchen/Hudson Alliance, an organization of community groups and elected officials opposing the west side stadium.

After Mitchell-Lama

For more than 20 years, Marc Richardson has called the Lower East Side home and despite gentrification and increased rents in his neighborhood he has been able to do so thanks largely to the fact that he lives in a Mitchell-Lama apartment building.

But his days in the apartment may be numbered: The owners of the Lands End One complex, which includes 251 apartments, announced late last year that they have opted to buy out of the Mitchell-Lama program - and seek market rents for the apartments.

"Tenants are really feeling it," Richardson said, a member of the Lands End One Tenants Association. "There's very little affordable housing in this city. Where are we going to go? I really don't know where I'm going to start looking for an apartment."

There is growing fear among tenants of Mitchell-Lama apartments that they may have to leave their apartments or pay significantly higher rents. An appeals court decision at the end of February only added to their anxiety. City-sponsored legislation in Albany and City Council bills have set off a political battle.

There are about 60,000 Mitchell-Lama rental apartments left in New York City, mostly located in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They exist in buildings developed with state and city low-interest loans provided through a 1955 law sponsored by Manhattan State Senator MacNeil Mitchell and former Brooklyn Assemblyman Alfred Lama. The laws helped spur the development of almost 150,000 apartments in New York City, according to the city Comptroller's office.

"Mitchell-Lama housing is absolutely critical," said Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, who represents district 4 on Manhattan's East Side, which has several Mitchell-Lama projects in it. "It's one of the most well designed affordable housing programs the city has and a model for the nation. It's a force for stability in the city. [If it is undone] you're going to undo the very stability you've created."

In return for the loans and real estate tax abatements, developers committed to keeping the apartments affordable. But not forever. A buyout option allows developers to take the apartments out of the program depending on what year they were built and whether the building's mortgage has been paid. For developments like Land's End One, which was opened for occupancy in 1978, a 20-year commitment to affordability expired in 1998. About 32,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments face a similar fate; 11 developments are currently in the process of buying out.

That developers can buy out of the program is not really the issue, advocates and tenants said. What is really at stake is what will happen to the rents. Rents will increase dramatically, perhaps four or five times the current rent, if developers are allowed to charge market rate rents. At the very least, tenants would like their apartments to become rent stabilized, with rent increases set by the Rent Guidelines Board and important tenant protections, like the right to lease renewals and sublets.

Running Out Of Rent Subsidies

For buildings built after 1973, some people have accepted that their rents will go to market rates. At the Lands End One development, that could be the case. Tenants might qualify for federal rent subsidies through Section 8 or Section 236 "enhanced vouchers." But federal assistance is facing radical cuts under current budget proposals from the Bush Administration. The vouchers would last only one year unless the money is increased.

The New York City Housing Authority recently confirmed that it has just 300 Section 8 vouchers left for 2004. These vouchers are reserved for the neediest cases - victims of domestic violence, intimidated witnesses and homeless families that have been separated. As more than 150,000 people who qualify for Section 8 assistance are currently on the waiting list, that is just one indication of how great the need for rental assistance is.

A spokesperson for Lands End Associates, which decided to buy out of Mitchell-Lama, said the company did not think it would lead to massive displacement of Lands End One tenants unable to afford higher market rents.

"Eighty-seven percent of tenants will qualify for the enhanced vouchers," said Devorah Fong. "For the remainder, (Lands End Associates) are sure they can make reasonable adjustments. They're willing to work with the residents."

Fong said she did not know the company's response to the possibility that enhanced vouchers might not be available due to budget cuts.

Will Ex Mitchell-Lama Apartments Become Rent Stabilized?

As February ended, an appellate court decision paved the way for one developer to charge market rents for apartments in three buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The ruling was significant because the buildings had been built before 1973. Until the ruling, the law seemed to indicate that pre-1973 buildings would become Rent Stabilized.


Carol Abrams, a spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said state legislation sponsored by the city, which would place into rent stabiliziation all apartments that have left the Mitchell-Lama program, would not be affected by the appellate court's decision. State legislators will begin discussing the legislation this month.

"The question is whether, after a buyout, an owner could apply to adjust the rent under the provision of rent stabilization that was the subject of this ruling," Abrams wrote in an email message in response to questions.

Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society, said the city-sponsored legislation did not go far enough. As many as 36,000 apartments that were built with federal assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also may be expiring, he said, destined for market rate rents.

"We are urging whatever the bill it should include HUD-subsidized developments," Bach said. "These are not officially Mitchell-Lama and are not covered in the mayor's bill. If they are not included then they will be lost."

Bach said that legislators need to understand that the loss of affordable housing provided by the programs would cause even greater problems for the city. City and state leaders need to be more assertive, he said: "I think the city and the state need to understand the dimensions of the crisis, the kind of the loss that will occur, the displacement, and how it will increase pressure on the homeless system."

Moskowitz said she was committed to preserving Mitchell-Lama.

"There's a lot of support on the council" for the two pieces of legislation to protect Mitchell-Lama. "A lot of us grew up middle class."

Lands End One tenants have responded, Richardson said, but it has not been without great effort.

"There's a lot of confusion," he said. "We've had to really scramble to get ourselves organized. We've been all about town to talk to various organizations. There's a lot to do in such a short time."

They are hoping to hold city leaders to the promises they have made.

"At least there are some politicians showing some concern for this issue," he said. "We just have to make them connect their words to action."

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.

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