Mitchell-Lama Advocates Ponder Next Steps

In the aftermath of the state court decision striking down the city’s attempt to protect Mitchell-Lama buildings, tenant advocates are heartened that the issue is on the political agenda—but are increasingly worried as the situation gets worse.
“For the first time, people are talking about preservation as a priority,” says Dina Levy, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. The massive numbers of apartments being removed from the program by landlords and the potential sale of Starrett City have convinced many people that action is needed, she says—but the problem is that “the reason for that is we’re in a crisis, and we don’t have any substantive regulatory framework to stop it.”
Those numbers are borne out by a study issued last month by the Community Service Society, entitled “Closing the Door 2007: The Shape of Subsidized Housing Loss in New York City.” In 2006, almost 3,700 Mitchell-Lama units were lost, 9 percent of the remaining stock, and more than a quarter of the 39,400 apartments still in the program are in jeopardy, with more than 4,700 in the process of being bought out and almost 6,000 in Starrett City. The city is also losing other forms of privately owned, government-subsidized rental housing—mainly project-based Section 8 apartments—but at a much slower rate.
“This loss is now well-documented, but no level of government has yet produced a coherent policy response to it,” the report says. “The housing being lost will be difficult to replace. It is affordable to families with much lower incomes than those to be served under Mayor Bloomberg’s new Housing Marketplace Plan, and many of the developments are much more centrally located. Under the mayor’s plan, we are seeing a shift to a less stringent definition of affordability as ‘below market,’ and to a greater degree of economic segregation, with the transformation of more and more of Manhattan into a ‘luxury product,’ unaffordable to most working people.”
The CSS identified several trends in the loss of subsidized rental housing. In the 1990s, most of the losses came in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. But as the city’s housing market heated up in the early part of this decade, owners began taking Mitchell-Lamas out of the program in Manhattan, especially on the Upper West Side. In the last three years, as housing prices have escalated in the rest of the city—and the number of Mitchell-Lamas in Manhattan dwindled—the pattern has spread to less affluent areas; more than half of the 3,700 Mitchell-Lama units lost last year were in the Bronx. Meanwhile, project-based Section 8 buildings are more likely to be at risk from deterioration or financial distress than from the market, but market-based threats move much faster. Almost half of the apartments in buildings that had received a buyout notice by January 2006, the report says, were out of the subsidy program a year later.
Several bills to preserve Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 housing are pending in the state Legislature. On May 21, State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) introduced a bill that would give tenants the right of first refusal to buy buildings taken out of either program; it’s essentially a state version of Local Law 79, the city law that was struck down because the court held that it had usurped the state’s prerogative. Assemblymember Jonathan Bing (D-Manhattan) may introduce a version in the lower house. Bing has also sponsored a bill to ban “unique or peculiar” rent increases in rent-stabilized buildings taken out of the program. And on May 15, the Assembly passed a measure introduced by Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) that would put Mitchell-Lamas occupied after 1973 under rent stabilization if they leave the program. The vote was 106-38.
Meanwhile, the “PIE” (protections, incentives and enforcement) coalition, an alliance of housing groups that includes UHAB, is calling for a moratorium on buyouts until an adequate preservation plan is developed. The group is also urging administrative changes at the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal; Levy describes Commissioner Deborah VanAmerongen as sympathetic.
None of these initiatives have received any significant support from either Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Gov. Eliot Spitzer, says Levy; they’re “certainly not doing any heavy lifting.” She’s more optimistic about the prospects for a federal law similar to Local Law 79. The New York congressional delegation is looking at preservation strategies, she says, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is committed to enacting legislation.
“We made a mistake in allowing for-profits to do this much work in affordable housing,” Levy concludes.