On November 8, the day after he won a second term as mayor of New York City with 66.5 percent of the vote, Bill de Blasio declared “the beginning of a new era in this city.” Citing achievements from his first term such as universal pre-kindergarten, safer streets, and two rent freezes, he said that the overwhelming vote to re-elect him “sends a clear and serious message: They’ve seen that real change can happen. They want more.”
But what will those changes be? As City Councilmember Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan) put it, “We need real change, not chump change.” Tenants and affordable-housing advocates are calling for expanded efforts to protect tenants and communities, and a rejection of the Goldman-Sachs model of development.
Replace Alicia Glen
“The first thing he should do is replace Alicia Glen,” declared Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a leader in the Real Affordability For All coalition, which includes Met Council. Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, has been responsible for implementing the de Blasio administration’s policy of creating “affordable housing” by requiring market-rate developments to include some. As managing director of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs, Glen put together mega-deals for big developers including L+M Development, BFC Partners, and BRP Development. In her four years as deputy mayor, she has worked with these developers to create luxury housing from the Bronx to Harlem to Fort Greene to Far Rockaway, with a relatively small amount of affordable units that often cost more than what most people in the neighborhood can pay.
In an effort to address the homelessness and affordability crises he inherited after 20 years of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio has taken major steps to protect vulnerable tenants and preserve affordable housing. He hired Steve Banks, the former head of the Legal Aid Society, as his welfare and homeless-services commissioner, and sharply increased funding for rent-arrears grants and lawyers to keep people facing eviction in their homes. But the ranks of the homeless continue to grow, as landlords enabled by weakened state rent laws have been able to force out tens of thousands of families every year. With federal aid dried up, the city has very limited ability to build the new and permanently affordable apartments it needs. But the Goldman- Sachs model, by introducing a substantial amount of market-rate housing into working-class communities, unleashes the forces of gentrification and displacement and does more harm than good.
Experts in the field of nonprofit housing suggest that the city would be better off hiring developers solely to put together the financing and manage the construction of new housing on a “fee for services” basis, rather than giving them control of the land and management of those buildings— which builds in a profit motive that drives rents up.
One initiative being discussed is a community land trust, which ensures that housing will be permanently affordable. However, with available land in the city extremely scarce, this offers only a limited opportunity.
Another possibility involves the city taking title to more buildings from landlords who engage in illegal activities, such as deprivation of essential services, harassment, and rent overcharges. Several of the bills passed earlier this year as part of the “Stand for Tenant Safety” package increase the city’s ability to place liens against buildings owned by delinquent landlords. If those liens are not paid promptly, the city could take over those buildings and either keep them as public housing or, using the third-party transfer program, turn them over to nonprofit or tenant management.
“We have to strengthen the rent laws”
“There is a lot to do in Albany,” de Blasio said Nov. 8. “We have to strengthen the rent laws. If this were a more just world, we would be able to achieve greater self-determination for New York City when it came to our rent laws. But either way you slice it, they must become stronger to protect millions of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled tenants.”
De Blasio mentioned highrent vacancy decontrol and rent increases based on major- capital and individualapartment improvements as areas where tenants need stronger protections. He said this should be addressed at the first opportunity, and not wait until the state’s rent laws come up for renewal in 2019.
Met Council and other advocates are calling on the mayor to support ending the preferential- rent loophole and the 20 percent “eviction bonus” landlords are awarded every time a stabilized apartment turns over, as well as the complete repeal of high-rent vacancy decontrol and the reregulation of all apartments decontrolled since that loophole was created in 1993—as opposed to merely raising the threshold for decontrol, as de Blasio implied in his remarks Nov. 8.
Time for a Rent Rollback
More is needed at the Rent Guidelines Board as well. Keeping a campaign promise he made in 2013, de Blasio appointed public members of the RGB who understand the plight of the 1 million rentstabilized households, which have a median annual income of about $40,000. But the rent freezes enacted in 2015 and 2016 merely kept rents at levels already unaffordable for more than half these tenants, while landlords continue to reap annual profits of 40 cents of every rent dollar, and this year, rents went up again. It is time for a substantial rent rollback, to reverse the decades of unwarranted increases and bring rents down to sustainable levels.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has a long list of proposals, including “Pre-planning for zoning proposals that really includes preservation of rent-regulated units, the building of permanently affordable housing, and a focus on support for NYCHA and those who are homeless.”
“My overwhelming priority is the full implementation of the 19 anti-harassment bills signed into law by the Mayor on August 30th,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan). “They represent a sweeping reform to the Department of Buildings, and will have a lasting impact on the lives of tenants across our city. Many of the bills, such as my legislation creating an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the DOB, are aimed specifically at ending construction as a form of harassment, where a landlord uses unsafe and disruptive construction to force tenants from their homes.” These laws expand the definition of harassment, strengthen penalties, and mandate that the Department of Buildings prioritize the safety of tenants across New York City, she added.
Much of what de Blasio accomplished in his first term was enabled by his effective partnership with outgoing Council Speaker Melissa Mark- Viverito. His ability to move his agenda in his second term will likewise depend in large measure on his relationship with the next speaker, who will be chosen after the new Council convenes in January.
The fate of de Blasio’s Albany agenda in 2018, including stronger rent laws, will depend on whether he can win support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo, who has taken millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the realestate industry, has a cozy relationship with the Republicans and turncoat Democrats who control the state Senate, who likewise take millions in realestate money to keep rent laws weak. So far, Cuomo has shown more interest in frustrating de Blasio’s initiatives than in working with him to benefit the people of New York City.