At last Thursday night’s mayoral debate on housing policy at an East New York church, Joseph Lhota, the Republican newcomer to the race, distinguished himself by being quiet. The housing forum showed how hard it is to run for mayor by talking to everyone, and how politically brave one has to be to try. The hosts and the questioners accepted as fact that New York faces an affordable-housing crisis and that it’s the city’s job to fix it. Everyone who spoke wanted the city to build or “preserve” city-controlled housing—whether private, rent-regulated buildings or public units. The first questioner, Erica Townsend of Brooklyn, asked: “Mayor Bloomberg is on the right track to build and renovate 165,000 units of housing, 15,000 per year. . . . Do you agree, and commit to preserving and building a total of 60,000 of housing [units] over four years?”
Not one of the candidates on stage—four Democrats, Lhota, and fellow Republican Tom Allon, a publisher—dared say no. City comptroller John Liu; his predecessor, Bill Thompson; and public advocate Bill de Blasio all agreed that 60,000 new city-supported housing units should be the minimum. Liu said that he had used $440 million in city-guaranteed pension-fund money to invest in 38,000 units of government-controlled housing; De Blasio said Liu hadn’t done enough.
Christine Quinn, the Democratic city council speaker, jumped in, too. Touting her “first job” as a tenant activist, Quinn said, “we’ve lost 300,000 . . . affordable housing [units] in this city” in recent years “because of the way Albany has eroded rent protection.” Quinn cautioned that building new city-controlled housing would not be “cost-free.” Her solution? “You need to decide it’s a priority in your capital budget.”
For a small-l libertarian—as Lhota describes himself—or just someone concerned about groupthink, there was plenty to respond to here. Lhota could have pointed out that when the city devotes taxpayers’ money to building brand-new housing for a few, it does so at the expense of investments in subways or keeping cops on the street—spending that benefits everyone. When Lhota did speak up, he quibbled only with housing programs’ inefficiency. Depending on what your particular subsidy is, he said, “you gotta talk to HPD, sometimes you gotta talk to HDC, sometimes you have to talk to City Planning, you always have to talk to the Buildings Department, you’ve got DEP on water bills, you’ve got . . . the rent-control board, there’s NYCHA, there’s Section 8 from NYCHA or from HPD. . . . The entire housing apparatus of the city needs to be completely reorganized . . . and focused on the problem at hand.”
Lhota showed that he is not politically naive. Politicians must pick their battles. Falling on his sword over public housing inside a church surrounded by public housing would have disqualified him on grounds of political incompetence.
Yet Lhota missed opportunities to turn a debate over one issue into a debate about who can best manage all of the city’s issues. He could have said that, as MTA chief until last month, he learned that public-housing residents needed better bus service to get to their jobs. That’s why he restored service that his predecessors had cut. He could have pointed out that, as deputy mayor in the 1990s, he learned that all New Yorkers—whether they live in public housing or in rent-regulated apartments in poor neighborhoods—deserve a safe, quiet environment. That means fixing the city budget so that we don’t lose another 6,000 cops, as we have under Mayor Bloomberg. The audience might have been receptive to a candidate willing to depart from issue-advocacy talking points.
When Townsend, the first questioner, asked about affordable housing, she also said that “at one time,” East New York “resembled a war zone, burned-out buildings, abandoned buildings,” with “drug dealers” operating under cover of burned-out street lamps. Townsend added that she had fought for “more police patrols in my neighborhood.” Someone on stage could have responded: Your affordable housing isn’t good enough if you can’t send your kids outside without getting shot, or if you can’t get to work without a long delay.
Lhota will have other chances. Nobody will remember that he treated the first debate as an opportunity to watch and learn, whereas everyone would have remembered a gaffe. But Lhota should remember that voters already have access to elected officials who use their current jobs to fight for their favorite special interests. New Yorkers want the next mayor to see the big picture.