Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014 in a city reeling from a housing crisis. It was hemorrhaging tens of thousands of rent-stabilized apartments each year, public housing was crumbling, and a record 53,000 people were staying in city homeless shelters.
De Blasio vowed to turn that around, pledging to “create or preserve” 200,000 units of “affordable housing” within 10 years, last November upping that number to 300,000 by 2026. Yet the most direct routes there were blocked. State law prohibits the city from strengthening rent regulations or their enforcement, and a combination of finances and federal law bar it from building new housing on its own.
That the mayor was dealt a bad hand is indisputable. But how well has he played it?
De Blasio’s record on housing is certainly better than Michael Bloomberg’s. Yet the 34,500 apartments built and the 75,000 preserved have to be measured against the need: more than 61,000 people, mostly families, in city homeless shelters, and more than 600,000 households spending more than half their income on rent.
In contrast, the Mitchell-Lama program constructed almost 140,000 affordable apartments between 1955 and 1978 — one Mitchell-Lama development, the 5,900-unit Starrett City in southeast Brooklyn, accounted for a quarter of the apartments preserved by the city last year — and almost all of the city’s public housing was built between 1935 and 1980.
Those were different times, when there was more land available, and the New Deal ethos was stronger in Washington and Albany than the free-market dogma of the post-Reagan era. But they show what can be possible when politicians and the public share the goal of creating genuinely affordable housing.
De Blasio’s affordable housing record is “a real improvement” over his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, says Thomas Waters, housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society. “The criticism is that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need.”
Afua Atta-Mensah, executive director of the low-income organizing group Community Voices Heard, says that if she were giving grades, de Blasio would get a C on creating new housing, a B-plus on rent regulations, and a D on public housing—with the caveat that many New York City Housing Authority residents would give him an F.
Daniel Barber, head of the Citywide Council of Presidents, the leaders of NYCHA developments’ resident associations, is one of them. “I think he’s handled the situation horribly,” he says.
The Housing New York program is the centerpiece of the mayor’s housing policy, using tax breaks, city subsidies, and enforced trickle-down from market-rate development to encourage private owners to build new housing or limit rents in occupied buildings. The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program rezones neighborhoods to let developers construct taller buildings, in exchange for them having to rent 25 to 30 percent of the apartments below market rate.
(Data via HPD, chart by Lylla Younes / Gothamist)
As of June 30th, according to figures from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development [HPD], the Housing New York program had built about 34,500 new apartments and preserved slightly more than 75,000, for a total of not quite 110,000. In the 2018 fiscal year, it built 3,491 new apartments intended for households making less than half the metropolitan area median income (AMI), the most the city has done since the 1980s, says HPD.
That level, classified as “very low income,” is about $47,000 for a family of three and $36,550 for a single person. HPD lists rents for it at $1,045 a month for a two-bedroom apartment and $680 for a studio. About 2,200 of those apartments are for people who make significantly less.
In contrast, Mayor Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace program, which also relied on incentives for private developers, created or preserved 165,000 affordable units in 12 years, about 50,000 of them new construction. But it built more “affordable” apartments for people making more than $100,000 a year than it did for those making less than $30,000.
In neighborhoods including Harlem, the central Bronx, and East New York, more than 80% of the apartments it built or preserved were too expensive for the typical household in the area, according to a 2013 report by the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development — and many of these apartments were also not permanently affordable.
Housing advocates make similar criticisms of de Blasio’s program. Less than 10 percent of the apartments created or preserved, about 10,650 units, are newly constructed for people making less than $47,000 for a family of three — people below the median income for renters in the city. The neighborhoods rezoned or slated for it, such as East New York, East Harlem, the Jerome Avenue area of the west Bronx, and Inwood, Atta-Mensah notes, are all mostly working-class black and Latino areas, where the affordable apartments cost more than what most residents can afford.
In East Harlem, she says, the biggest need was for apartments that people making around $35,000 could afford. “There could have been a lot more units built at that level,” she says.
Every drop of 10 percentage points in AMI means the unit needs another $25,000 in capital subsidies, an HPD official speaking on background explains. Most of the new apartments built are primarily for people making about 60 percent of AMI — $43,360 for a single person and $56,340 for a family of three — because those bring the highest rents owners can charge and still get the federal credit for building low-income housing. It’s easier to build for the very poor than for people in the $30,000-45,000 range, because there are more subsidies available, such as project-based rental assistance.
In textbook economics, increasing the supply of housing should bring overall rents down. But according to Waters, there is no way to introduce market-rate housing to a poor or working-class neighborhood without displacing residents: “You can have neither — or both.”
In order for market-rate development to subsidize lower-cost units, he explains, there has to be people willing “to pay $2,500 a month for an apartment on Jerome Avenue” — and if there are, private landlords will have a strong incentive to push out current tenants so they can get higher rents.
In East New York, the first city neighborhood rezoned, the median home price increased by 39% from 2010 to 2016, according to a 2017 study by the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. That rise, the study said, was “aided by heavy speculative investment activity in the form of home flipping.”
Most of the housing built so far under Housing New York hasn’t relied on Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, says Waters, but the city is “priming the pump with subsidized construction” to bring neighborhoods to the point where market-rate development will be viable.
Cherry Street in Two Bridges, one of Manhattan's last bastions of affordable housing. (Joel Raskin / Flickr)
Not building is not the answer, HPD responds, because it does nothing to decrease the market pressure. And the program is intended to satisfy the needs of the whole city, not just individual neighborhoods.
HPD is relying on other programs to stop displacement, such as requiring landlords in vulnerable neighborhoods to get a “certificate of no harassment” before they can get a permit for major alterations. It’s also preparing a program called Neighborhood Pillars, which will help nonprofit groups acquire buildings and run them as long-term affordable housing.
“It’s a start, but it’s not good enough,” says Ava Farkas of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, speaking after an August 3rd protest against City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez’s announcement that he would support the city’s plan to rezone Inwood. “It’s not a real solution to the housing crisis.”
The biggest chunk of below-market housing in the city is the roughly 1 million rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments, which have been eroding as tenants move out and landlords raise rents on vacant apartments. Estimates of the number lost to deregulation in the past 20 years range from 100,000 to 300,000; there are no exact figures, since the state does not keep records of deregulated apartments. The mayor has limited power to do more than tweak around the edges to stanch this. State law forbids the city from prohibiting the deregulation of vacant apartments, and the state also handles enforcement of whether rents are illegally high.
De Blasio’s appointees to the city Rent Guidelines Board, which sets maximum increases for rent-stabilized apartments, froze rents for one-year leases for the first time ever, in 2015 and 2016. The 2018 increases, 1.5 percent for one year and 2.5 percent for two years, are significantly smaller than those under Bloomberg. Still, they exceed the 1% and 2% raises city workers got in their most recent contracts.
The administration has also begun a program to guarantee lawyers for low-income tenants facing eviction in Housing Court.
While the rent laws are in Albany’s hands, Farkas says, de Blasio “really didn’t put his muscle” behind lobbying to strengthen them when they were renewed in 2015. He put more effort into trying to save the 421-a tax credit, a subsidy for new residential construction that generates minimal affordable housing, and “did not use his bully pulpit to stand on the side of rent-stabilized tenants.”
Polo Grounds NYCHA houses in Washington Heights (David "Dee" Delgado / Gothamist)
New York’s public housing was already in bad shape when de Blasio took office. Federal aid has been declining since the Reagan administration. Gov. George Pataki cut off state operating subsidies in 1998, and Bloomberg cut off city operating subsidies a few years later.
The mayor inherited a worsening crisis, but public housing during his tenure has been plagued by disaster and scandal. Last winter, more than 80 percent of the apartments went without heat and hot water at least once, and NYCHA has covered up that it knew more than 800 children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. The federal government is in the process of picking a monitor to oversee repairs.
“A lot of excuses were made during a period of tremendous disinvestment,” says Victor Bach, Community Service Society senior housing policy analyst.
Bach credits de Blasio with ending the city’s practice of charging NYCHA $100 million a year for police services, and committing $3 to $4 billion for repairs. But the problem, he adds, is that NYCHA buildings need about $32 billion worth of repairs.
“They’ve been talking about hundreds of millions, but the problem is on the order of tens of billions,” Waters added. A representative from the Mayor's Office did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
Barber cites a list of developments with chronic problems. The Andrew Jackson Houses, a few blocks east of Yankee Stadium, have relied on portable generators for the extra electricity needed in the summer for four years now, with outages every few days when they change generators. NYCHA, he says, claims it’s too costly to connect the development to the Con Ed grid, but won’t have permanently replaced the burnt-out transformer that caused the problem for four years.
The Patterson Houses, about 20 blocks south, went without hot water for a week this summer, and have been using temporary boilers for more than three years, he adds.
He expects NYCHA residents to have problems with heat again next winter. “I believe we’re going to experience the same thing,” he says. “No overhaul has been done.”
Two things are necessary for change, he believes: NYCHA residents must be at the table when revamping the repair system, and repairs have to get at the root cause of the problem—such as going inside walls to scrape out mold, instead of putting bleach on the surface and painting over it.
“NYCHA is the last bastion of truly affordable housing in the city of New York,” says Atta-Mensah. If the mayor wants his legacy to look good, “the time is now” to turn it around.