Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Stated Meeting: Housing Discrimination

Finding an apartment in New York City is a challenge. Finding one with a Section 8 voucher or a Social Security check can be far more difficult.

A simple search on Craigslist reveals that many apartments across the five boroughs will not accept applicants if they pay their rent with government assistance. "No programs," reads a listing for a one-bedroom apartment in an elevator building near Prospect Park.

But under legislation approved by the City Council on Wednesday, that landlord would be subject to penalties under the city's human rights law for discriminating against a prospective tenant based on the source of his or her income.

In addition to the housing legislation, the council also approved a resolution urging the state Legislature to repeal a tax break for Madison Square Garden, a bill that commissions a study on the city's stormwater management and legislation that requires the distribution of information on subsidized health care at day care centers.

No Programs Accepted -- No More

Any resident who receives a government-funded voucher for housing already must meet strict requirements, including income caps, location restrictions and time allotted to find an apartment.

According to a report by the council's Committee on General Welfare, at least 75 percent of Section 8 recipients, who receive housing subsidies from the federal government, must make less than 30 percent of the area's median income. They must contribute at least 30 percent of their own income to their rent and find an apartment in 180 days.

A study conducted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which was released last year, found that 21 percent of property owners in New York City have properties available that meet the federally funded program's rental limits, but less than 50 percent of them actually accept tenants with Section 8.

This led Councilmember Bill de Blasio to introduce legislation (Intro 61-A) that would include income discrimination in the city's human rights law. Any property owner whose building has more than five homes cannot base a tenant's selection on the source of his or her income, whether it is cash, a Section 8 voucher or any other government subsidy. The council approved the bill by a vote of 38 to 8.

It is estimated, according to the council, that 85,313 households lease Section 8 units from 30,067 landlords through the New York City Housing Authority. Currently, nearly 20 percent of people with Section 8 vouchers are unable to use them. When similar legislation was enacted elsewhere, like in Chicago, New Jersey or Massachusetts, studies have shown that Section 8 recipients able to actually participate in the program increased by an average of 12 percent.

Advocates hailed approval of the bill which was first floated at City Hall in 2004. Oversight of the legislation will be under the Commission on Human Rights.

"This law will provide sorely needed protection to tens of thousands of working families and seniors throughout New York City who rely on Section 8 to pay the rent and make ends meet," said Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, in a prepared statement.

Members who voted against the measure were James Oddo, Dennis Gallagher, Vincent Ignizio, Leroy Comrie, Erik Dilan, Simcha Felder, James Vacca and Peter Vallone Jr. Kendall Stewart abstained.

Some opponents questioned the bill because it applied to landlords with as few as six units, meaning it would affect property owners who might not be able to deal with Section 8's so-called "red tape." Felder said there was no substantial evidence that Section 8 recipients are turned away because of the source of their income. He called the bill a "feel good thing."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also voiced opposition, raising the possibility of a mayoral veto. In a statement to the Staten Island Advance , the mayor said the bill threatened established case law as well as property owners.

In an e-mailed response, a mayoral spokesperson said the administration opposes the legislation. Instead the administration wants to reduce bureaucratic hurdles in the Section 8 program so landlords want to participate, not create obligatory legislation that targets landlords. The bill is a "solution in search of a problem," reads the e-mail.

The vote's approval margin, though, would defeat a mayoral veto.

Garden's Tax Break Blocked

After years of debate, the City Council approved a resolution urging the State Legislature to rescind an approximately $12 million annual tax break for Madison Square Garden, which has been in place since the Koch administration.

The resolution (Reso 90-A) was approved by a voice vote, and little opposition was heard.

For 25 years, city officials said, the Garden, whose parent company is Cablevision, has not had to pay approximately $300 million in property taxes. The exemption was first granted during the 1980s, a bleak fiscal era for the city, to keep several New York sports teams, including the Knicks and the Rangers, inside the city limits. Now, said city officials, since the city is no longer at risk of losing these athletic franchises, it is time for the Garden to start paying.

"Madison Square Garden is the only entity of the city of New York that has or has ever had an open ended tax abatement," aid Quinn. "They have been more than fairly compensated for staying in this city."

Some members, such as council members Letitia James and Domenic Recchia, questioned whether the resolution equally treated other developments or corporations in the city. Recchia pointed to breaks given to both the Yankees and Mets for their new stadiums' construction, while James cited the breaks given to Atlantic Yards.

The legislation's prospects, some observers said, does not look rosy, because Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is unlikely to take up the measure. (Some point to Bloomberg's doomed West Side stadium, which Silver blocked, possibly because of a lobbying effort by Cablevision in the state capital.)

In response to the resolution, the Garden released the following statement: “We have previously communicated with the mayor and agreed to discuss this issue with him at the appropriate time. The City Council’s decision to single out Madison Square Garden, an engine of economic activity that provides jobs for New Yorkers, when more than a billion dollars in benefits have been given to the other pro sports teams in New York City is obviously based on politics, not sound public policy.”

Stopping Stormwater

In light of PlaNYC 2030, Councilmember James Gennaro introduced legislation (Intro 630) mandating the city draft a stormwater management plan. The plan will incorporate green building tactics to divert pollutants from the city's waterways. The bill was approved unanimously by a vote of 48 to 0.

An estimated 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage enters waterways throughout the city annually, all because of a sewer system that is overwhelmed by more than one-tenth of an inch of rain. About 60 percent of the sewer system is connected to the stormwater system.

Overhauling the entire stormwater system, which some advocates say is necessary to really solve the problem, is an overwhelming and expensive task, officials have said. This bill would attempt to incorporate "progressive and cost effective strategies," such as green roofs and permeable pavement, to address stormwater management, said officials.

Insurance Information At Day Care

A bill unanimously approved by the council by a vote of 48 to 0 requires day care centers to distribute pamphlets on health insurance. The bill, (Intro 293-A) sponsored by James, would add day care centers to the likes of the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which already distribute such information. James hopes with more information, the number of uninsured children in the city will decrease.

Agency Rule Changes Go Electronic

Under legislation (Intro 643) unanimously approved by the council, all rule changes by city agencies must be distributed to the public and the City Council at least 30 days prior to a public hearing. Though agencies are already required to distribute such information, the bill, which was sponsored by Felder, sets forth a timeline so citizens can fully digest and study the proposed changes.  

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