Mayoral Hopefuls Offer Limited Specifics on Housing

If New York’s next mayor were selected based on the applause they got when they talked about  housing at a Washington Heights candidates’ forum Jan. 31, it would be Ydanis Rodriguez, the neighborhood’s city councilmember. He isn’t seeking the nomination, but received the loudest cheers when he said the next mayor should make sure “that black people stay in Harlem, that Latino people stay in Washington Heights,” instead of being pushed out by gentrification. 

The five candidates who are actually running in the Democratic primary all cited affordable housing as a crucial issue, along with education and policing. Yet when asked what they considered “affordable,” none gave an answer as clear as, for example, “what someone who works for the post office can afford.”

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is generally considered the front-runner, said affordability should be determined “neighborhood by neighborhood,” based on their economic level, the kind of housing that’s been built there, and their level of gentrification. Comptroller John Liu said that the standard currently used to define affordability, the median income for the entire metropolitan area, is too high, and said it should be defined relative to the median income in each borough.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said he “led the way on affordable-housing legislation.” Former Councilmember Sal Albanese and former Comptroller Bill Thompson both praised the late Mayor Edward Koch’s housing-renovation program.

Liu said that with gentrification driving people out of neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Williamsburg, “inclusionary zoning is the way to go.” This would require developers to include a percentage of affordable units in exchange for letting them erect taller buildings. He said there must also be a mechanism to enforce community-benefits agreements, in which developers promise to provide affordable housing and hire local workers. 

The comptroller also said he would support commercial rent control, because “high rents are the number-one cause” of small businesses closing. While he was in the Council, he added, he cosponsored a bill to require arbitration of disputed commercial lease renewals.

Thompson said we have to preserve rent-stabilized, rent-controlled, and Mitchell-Lama housing, but also build new housing, financing it with a combination of tax breaks and programs. As “Albany controls our destiny,” he said, “you’re not going to get new rent controls.”

De Blasio said Hurricane Sandy showed “we are living a tale of two cities… what’s divisive is not acknowledging the growing income disparity.”

He said he didn’t oppose Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem “100 percent,” but “the city has to drive a much harder bargain” with developers, to maximize affordable housing, local jobs, and community input. He also criticized the New York City Housing Authority, saying it “does a horrendous job of making health and safety repairs.”

Speaker Quinn was the most specific. “We need to repeal the Urstadt law,” she declared, as it’s caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of units. 

She highlighted legislation passed by the Council to prevent affordable buildings from deteriorating. These include the Safe Housing Act, which she said has turned around 1,000 of the city’s worst buildings, and the new law that requires city inspectors to cite the underlying causes of problems such as leaks, and authorizes the city to make repairs itself and sue the landlord for their cost.

She added that she’s been working with the city’s Proactive Prevention Initiative to hold the “slumlord” Vantage accountable for maintaining buildings. Vantage is one of several owners that bought buildings “with the hope of flipping them.”

In response to a question shouted from the audience, she called the Rent Guidelines Board a “kangaroo court,” and said its members should be chosen “with the advice and consent of the City Council.” 

But Quinn also said she had no regrets about enacting the law enabling Mayor Bloomberg—who has picked RGB members who inevitably approve rent increases—to run for a third term, because it was a decision “to give New Yorkers a choice” in an “unprecedented economic crisis.” She also justified blocking a bill to require employers to give workers paid sick days, saying it would hurt small businesses.

Neighborhood activist Jeanie Dubnau was incensed that the reporters on the panel choosing the questions didn’t ask more about housing. She and others submitted “a whole list,” she said, including “who would you appoint to the RGB?”

 “Seeing is believing. You know candidates, they say all the right things,” said Cynthia Allen, the woman who shouted the RGB question. She was disappointed no one on the panel had asked about it, because “that’s what’s pushing us out, and the mayor has some control over it.”

Allen lives in the Riverton apartments in Harlem. The bank that took over the complex after foreclosing on former owner Laurence Gluck is also trying to get the rent-stabilized tenants out, she said. “Between gentrification and the RGB, we don’t have a chance.”