His plan to “build or preserve” 200,000 units of “affordable” housing over ten years ranks as one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiatives. Housing New York, as the plan is known, has financed more than 77,000 “affordable” homes since January 2014, including “the highest three-year streak of affordable housing production in the city’s history.” Though these include some 9,700 units priced for middle-income families (earning up to $141,000 annually), rents for those earning less than $68,000 are fixed—paid for through subsidies for the private developers who own the buildings.
More than two-thirds of these 77,000-plus units are so-called preservation units, by which the city means not physical preservation but the maintenance of subsidized rents in “expiring-use” buildings—which would otherwise have been converted to market-rate housing. The administration presents this policy as tenant protection in gentrifying neighborhoods—a sure political winner. But not all New York neighborhoods are gentrifying; far from it. In fact, many preserved units are located in lower-rent neighborhoods. For instance, not far from the preserved affordable units of Newport Gardens apartments on Lott Avenue in Brownsville, a nonsubsidized two-bedroom apartment was recently advertised for $1,450 a month—barely more than the nearby “affordable” rent in Newport Gardens of $1,348 per month. Housing New York would be wise to compare market rents with “affordable” rents before making its investment decisions, rather than prioritizing rent preservation.
De Blasio’s approach to construction of new subsidized housing has proved politically divisive. “Mandatory inclusionary zoning,” proposed for 15 neighborhoods from East New York to Inwood, offers private developers zoning permits that allow more units to be built, and sometimes property-tax abatements, in exchange for their subsidizing “affordable” units for a range of income groups. But more units mean higher-rise construction—and community groups are less than thrilled with that prospect. In response, city council members have killed proposed developments in Washington Heights and in Sunnyside, where council majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer, a liberal Democrat, led the opposition.
The prospect of a majority of units being set aside for nonsubsidized tenants has sparked attacks on the mayor from his political left—with East Harlem protesters characterizing the proposed inclusionary zoning as “ethnic cleansing” and demanding that 100 percent of new units be made affordable. That view conflicts with de Blasio’s vision of buildings with tenants of mixed income and with his model for financing the affordable units. To get a zoning change for East New York, for instance, de Blasio had to promise city council member Rafael Espinal $267 million in capital investments—“an expensive development plan,” as the Gotham Gazette put it. Such rezoning-related demands are likely to persist.
What New York needs is more housing—of any kind—to prevent rents from rising across the board. Crain’s New York’s Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein gets this exactly right when he argues that affordable-housing advocates should back “market-rate housing so that middle-class and wealthier families aren’t competing for ‘affordable’ apartments. And instead of opposing new developments in gentrifying neighborhoods, they should be campaigning for more developments there and in other neighborhoods, too.” Such is the voice of a rational, nonpolitical housing policy, a supply-first approach both fairer and more practical than the “inclusionary” vision that makes new construction contingent on social engineering.
Perhaps the best part of the de Blasio administration’s housing policy has gotten the least notice. The administration is pushing ahead with a Bloomberg-era plan to build new, mixed-income housing on vacant land such as parking lots at public-housing projects. Such developments promise to spin off payments to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), helping it afford sorely needed capital repairs to the city’s largest affordable-housing stock: 326 public-housing developments. The new apartments can even offer a way to relocate the thousands of NYCHA tenants who are “over-housed” and could use smaller units, thus making way for those on waiting lists for larger apartments.
This bright spot isn’t enough, though, to obscure the fact that Housing New York, if it has accomplished nothing else, has succeeded in politicizing New York housing development even more than it already was. New York has far more public and subsidized housing as a portion of its housing stock—including more than 1 million rent-regulated units—than any other American city. And the city always seems to have a housing-affordability crisis. That won’t change anytime soon.
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