How’s Bill Doing? Two campaign promises fulfilled, a mixed record on appointments

Bill de Blasio speaking at a “People’s RGB” forum in the Bronx last June, while he was running for mayor.Bill de Blasio has been mayor of New York City for a little more than two months. Elected on an unambiguously progressive platform, he has already delivered on two campaign promises of great importance to tenants. 

In his initial budget released in February, he ended, at least for this year, the practice of having the New York City Housing Authority pay $75 million a year for police services. That means NYCHA—the only property owner in the city required to pay for police protection, a policy initiated by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and stubbornly maintained by our dearly departed Mike Bloomberg—can now use that money to make urgently needed repairs. De Blasio put other funds into the Police Department budget to replace the NYCHA payment.

The budget also includes funding to subsidize the rents of tenants in the HIV/AIDS Services Administration program. Unlike tenants in other subsidized-housing programs, whose rents are usually limited to 30 percent of their income, HASA tenants have been required to turn over all their income (usually from government disability programs) to the city except for about $12 per day. However, the bill to change that rule must still make it through the state legislature.

 

Waiting for a rent freeze

Several seats are vacant on the city Rent Guidelines Board, but de Blasio had not announced any appointments by the time Tenant/Inquilino went to press. The mayor gets to pick two of five public members this year, to fill one vacancy and replace chair Jonathan Kimmel. One tenant-representative seat is vacant after the resignation of Brian Cheigh, and the mayor also has to decide whether to reappoint Harvey Epstein, whose term ended Dec. 31. One landlord representative’s term has also ended. 

On Feb. 7, 13 tenant and community organizations sent a letter to the mayor that thanked him for advocating for a rent freeze, urged him to reappoint Epstein, and recommended two Bronx tenant leaders, Fitzroy Christian and Carmen Vega-Rivera, for the other tenant seat. It also urged him to appoint public members more fair-minded than the real-estate sympathizers Bloomberg chose, and to ask the three Bloomberg-appointed public members whose terms don’t expire until the end of the year to resign now. The letter also asked the mayor to instruct the RGB to hold public hearings in boroughs outside Manhattan and during evening hours when working folks can attend.

The RGB’s first meeting of the year will be on March 27, with a preliminary vote on rent adjustments set for May 5 and the final vote in late June. Will tenants win a rent freeze at last? Stay tuned.

 

A Wall Street banker to oversee housing & jobs

De Blasio’s appointments to housing-related positions have made some of his supporters nervous. He caused a good deal of private grumbling among housing advocates when he named Alicia Glen deputy mayor for housing and economic development in late December. Glen had been head of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs, which has invested millions of dollars in low-income communities, for 12 years. One of her pet projects was a market-rate apartment building in Bedford-Stuyvesant that policy analysts have criticized as fueling rapid gentrification and displacement of long-term tenants.

“I don’t care about any stereotypes or assumptions. I care about who shares my values and can get the job done,” de Blasio said in defense of choosing a Wall Street banker. The administration said Glen would lead its efforts to invest in emerging industries, “retarget” unsuccessful corporate subsidies, build a new generation of affordable housing, help New Yorkers secure good-paying jobs, and turn around the New York City Housing Authority. A tall order, indeed.

 

The permanent government rides again

If Glen raised eyebrows among progressives, de Blasio’s early February appointment of Carl Weisbrod as chair of the City Planning Commission must have caused a few folks to have a mini-stroke. Weisbrod, who has served in a variety of government and quasi-government entities over the last four decades, exemplifies the city’s permanent government. A partner in HR&A Advisors, a real-estate consulting firm that developed the economic arguments and rezoning strategy for the High Line, he reportedly took a large pay cut to work for the city.

Weisbrod’s most visible project was probably the Disneyfication of Times Square. But he was also executive director of the City Planning Commission, founding president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and headed the real-estate operation of Trinity Church, a major property owner in lower Manhattan. After leaving Trinity, he became the first president of the Downtown Alliance, the lower Manhattan business improvement district steered by Robert Douglass, longtime power broker for the interests of the Rockefeller family and Chase Manhattan.

Weisbrod was also chosen by Mayor Koch as the first chair of the city Loft Board, established in 1982 to oversee the legalization of live-work lofts in commercial buildings and their transition into rent stabilization. Loft tenants were not fans.

 

HPD, HDC & NYCHA

The mayor’s choice to lead the Department of Housing Preservation and Development is Vicki Been, former director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University. Been had reportedly been in line for the City Planning job, which many feel would be a better match for her talents, and was given HPD commissioner once de Blasio settled on Weisbrod.

At the city Housing Development Corporation, which finances housing development, Gary Rodney replaces Marc Jahr, who’d served as president since 2007. Jahr was admired by both affordable-housing providers and by the establishment, but all the squawking by the permanent government failed to save his job from Glen’s ax.

At NYCHA, the mayor appointed Shola Olatoye as new chair, replacing John Rhea, and announced that Cecil House would be kept on as general manager.

Olatoye comes from Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that finances affordable housing. Before that she was a vice president of HSBC Bank, and worked at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. House was brought in to run day-to-day operations in the last year of the Bloomberg administration and has earned the respect of many inside and outside the agency.

Public housing is one of the toughest challenges facing the de Blasio administration. NYCHA’s properties are aging and most need serious repairs. Many tenants live in inhuman conditions, with repair requests going unheeded for years. While NYCHA denies it, it seems that a substantial number of apartments are sitting vacant, waiting for the funds needed to fix them up before they can be rented.

There is no way to turn NYCHA around without new capital. The state and city have both ended operating subsidies, and the federal government’s neglect has been catastrophic. The U.S. government has increasingly starved the nation’s public-housing stock since the administration of President Ronald Reagan. New York City, with the most public housing in the nation, has suffered proportionately. Its 334 public-housing developments are officially home to more than 400,000 people—more than live in Minneapolis or Cleveland—and another 150,000 to 200,000 more are staying there doubled up with relatives or friends. Another 235,000 households in privately owned buildings receive rent subsidies through the NYCHA-administered federal Section 8 program.

A fundamental rule in housing low-income families is that one cannot run the building on the rent roll, let alone make necessary improvements and replacements. Government subsidies for operations and capital funds for replacing aged systems are a must. Mayor de Blasio clearly understands this. He has suggested to other mayors that they should work together to demand Congress support programs and funding for urban areas.

It is also devoutly to be hoped that our new mayor will change NYCHA’s culture so it treats its residents with respect. Tenants who are hauled in for administrative hearings for supposed infractions, or whom the agency sues in Housing Court, are treated as criminals, guilty until proven innocent—and unlike accused criminals, they almost never have a lawyer representing them. The agency also needs to reduce the number of non-payment and termination cases, and to stop rejecting applicants for minor criminal offenses such as possession of marijuana. 

 

Human Resources

If advocates view de Blasio’s housing appointments with uncertainty, his choices in the arena of human resources for poor people have been inspiring. In December, he named Department for the Aging commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli as deputy mayor for health and human services. She headed HPD and the Human Resources Administration in the 1990s, but was replaced after she questioned Rudolph Giuliani’s welfare policies.

“You don’t stop prevention to save money,” Barrios-Paoli said at the news conference announcing her appointment, criticizing Bloomberg’s 2011 termination of a rental-subsidy program intended to keep formerly homeless people in their new homes. “That’s a mistake that government makes in all kinds of fields. I would have never cut prevention, I think at the end of the day you spend more.”

She will oversee agencies including HRA, the Department for the Aging, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Department of Homeless Services. Her priorities include tackling the city’s homelessness crisis and expanding community health clinics.

The appointment of longtime Legal Aid Society head Steven Banks as HRA commissioner, announced Feb. 28, has also heartened advocates. Banks has frequently sued the agency he now heads over the last three decades, notably the cases that won homeless people a right to shelter, requiring the city to house them.

More recently, he sued Bloomberg to stop a 2011 regulation that instructed city shelters to turn away single adults unless they could prove that they had no other housing options. A state appeals court ruled in 2013 that the plan violated the law.

“I’ve been waiting my entire  professional life to have a mayor who embraced HRA’s mission in the way that this mayor does,” Banks, who lost a City Council primary to de Blasio in 2001, said. 

With these two appointments, Bill de Blasio has demonstrated that he is committed to making the lives of poor New Yorkers better.

 

The Future?

On March 3, Deputy Mayor Glen and HPD Commissioner Been met with several dozen advocates for affordable housing. While the group was too large to get any real work done, the two officials made it clear that they want to engage advocates in policy discussions of policy, and promised to continue.

The meeting had a ceremonial feel, but the symbolism was powerful. “For too many years we have been used to coming in this building and turning to the right, to the City Council,” Benjamin Dulchin of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development remarked as several of us climbed the steps of City Hall. “It’s a new feeling being asked to a meeting in the mayor’s office.”

How is Bill doing? So far, all things considered, not so bad, not bad at all.