Mayor de Blasio Answers Housing Critics

On Oct. 14, in a high school gym in Washington Heights, Mayor Bill de Blasio, accompanied by key commissioners and other top staff, held a two-hour town-hall meeting to trumpet his accomplishments in protecting tenants and increasing the supply of affordable housing. He highlighted the historic rent freeze which took effect Oct. 1 for hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized tenants who choose one-year lease renewals, as well as his ten-year plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of housing affordable to low, moderate, and middle-income people.

The mayor also spoke of his accomplishments regarding immigration, including providing legal counsel to help keep families together and inaugurating the “NYC” municipal identification card, which is unique in that it does not require documentation of citizenship or immigration status, only of that you live here.

The meeting was planned after de Blasio’s popularity-poll numbers slipped following a relentless negative campaign by those who oppose his agenda of trying to reduce economic inequality. The attacks began as soon as he took office, starting with things as irrelevant as his eating pizza with a knife and fork. They escalated after de Blasio publically urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “show leadership” in the fight to strengthen rent and eviction laws in Albany earlier this year, and Cuomo responded in typically vindictive style. 

The mayor, a strong supporter of both public schools and unions, has also been targeted incessantly by both the charter-school movement, much of it financed by hedge-fund billionaires, and the real-estate industry. When de Blasio’s Rent Guidelines Board enacted the one-year freeze in June, Joseph Strasburg, president of the landlord-advocacy group the Rent Stabilization Association, said he was just “keeping a campaign promise”—as if keeping promises were something an elected official should be criticized for. The mayor has also faced growing demands to address the homelessness crisis he inherited after 20 years of Rudolph Giuliani’s and Michael Bloomberg policies. 

De Blasio stayed late and took questions in English and Spanish from tenants in the audience, ranging from succession rights to residents of a TIL building trying to get $10,000 to fix the roof. With two city commissioners at his side, Human Resources Administration head Steve Banks and Peggy Breen of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, he was able to give clear and positive responses, including confirmation from Breen that resources are available to fix the TIL building’s roof. 

The most significant exchange concerned the administration’s plan to increase the supply of affordable housing through mandatory inclusionary zoning. If approved following the land-use-review process, which is just getting started, the proposal will allow developers to construct market-rate housing in 13 neighborhoods, including East New York and the Jerome Avenue area in the southwest Bronx, so long as they also create housing permanently affordable to low, moderate, and middle-income tenants, under three formulas involving the rent levels and the number of apartments. This would replace the discredited 80-20 program, wherein developers could construct housing that was 80 percent market-rate, with the other 20 percent often “affordable” only to tenants earning over $100,000 a year. 

Construction of market-rate housing has caused gentrification in many neighborhoods, including Harlem and Williamsburg, pushing out long-term and lower-income residents through a process known as “secondary displacement.” If landlords see signs that rents are rising, they often use all means at their disposal, both legal and illegal, to force lower-rent residents out.

Jeanie Dubnau, a Met Council member and chair of the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, expressed to the mayor the concerns of many about his mandatory inclusionary zoning plan. “I understand that you want to do the best thing,” she said. “You want to build affordable housing. But a lot of us are very worried about your plans.” 

She pointed out that a whole block of stores on West 162nd Street and Broadway already stands empty because the landlord refused to renew their leases at rents the small businesses there could afford. “He knows bigger things are coming,” Dubnau explained ominously. 

De Blasio acknowledged skepticism about elements of his plan, but said he predicted that people will be pleasantly surprised when it results in a substantial increase in affordable housing and the preservation of neighborhoods. The plan also bans “poor doors,” when developers require tenants in affordable apartments to use a separate entrance from the market-rate residents.

Aware of the risks of displacement, welfare commissioner Steve Banks, formerly head of the Legal Aid Society, is running greatly expanded anti-eviction programs which include increasing funding for legal services to $60 million—a tenfold increase from only a few years ago—and has greatly increased the availability of rent-arrears grants, to keep people from losing their homes. (The mayor noted that when a family is evicted from an affordable apartment, the rent is usually sharply increased, and the apartment is permanently lost as an affordable unit. Approximately half of the 25,000 families evicted every year had lived in rent-stabilized apartments.) Some of these new programs are being targeted specifically at the areas slated to be rezoned.

De Blasio argued that in order to create a significant amount of new affordable housing under current economic conditions—including the drying up of federal aid—it is necessary to join with private developers by using zoning law to tie the construction of luxury housing to the creation of permanent affordable housing. The city could use its resources to create only affordable housing, he replied to Dubnau, but that would produce far fewer affordable apartments.

But the risks of secondary displacement are real, even with sincere and massive efforts to mitigate the damage. “If you introduce luxury housing into a working-class neighborhood, displacement is inevitable, even if the city spends a lot of money trying to prevent the foreseeable consequences of its actions,” observes Moses Gates, a visiting professor at the Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning. The way to avoid secondary displacement in working-class neighborhoods, Gates noted, would be to upzone wealthy neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side, Forest Hills, or Park Slope, because bringing lower-income tenants into new developments in those neighborhoods will not force existing residents out. But upzoning in these neighborhoods is politically challenging because of local opposition.