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Housing policy that works for everyday New Yorkers

BILL THOMPSON | 2/14/2013, 1:34 p.m.
Comptroller Bill Thompson

Middle-class and low-income New Yorkers--particularly from Black and Latino communities--continue to leave our city in alarming numbers. The 2012 Census confirms this trend. Of course, for those of us active in our neighborhoods, we hardly need a government survey to tell us what we already know: the city is becoming an increasingly difficult place to make it if you're not fortunate enough to be one of the wealthy and the well-connected.

Perhaps no factor is driving this trend as directly as the rise in housing costs.

Rents continue to go up; new developments take the place of older, more affordable ones; rent-stabilized units leave the rent-regulation system; and utility bills become higher than ever. All this is happening in the backdrop of the Great Recession, which resulted in incomes stagnating and jobs lost. That's why I thought someone was playing a bad joke when I learned about the New York City Housing Authority's plan to lease property in and around NYCHA projects to developers for the purpose of building new luxury units. The idea is to raise money off the leases to pay for long-needed maintenance. It requires building high-priced units atop land that is currently used for playgrounds and other open spaces belonging to housing projects.

This is a terrible idea that couldn't come at a worse time.

We need creative ways to pay for backlogged repairs and maintenance. However, giving sweetheart deals to developers and building luxury units next to low-income housing is the wrong answer. Our focus must be on moderate- and low-income housing for poor and working families who are being squeezed out of the city, not on paving the way for another avenue for gentrification that drives long-time tenants out of our neighborhoods in favor of newer, wealthier residents.

But this is not merely about demanding better policy judgment from another government agency. What we really need is strong leadership from a mayor who cares about keeping our communities intact and understands the tremendous strain our families are under. As the status quo goes: NYCHA produces bad housing policy after bad housing policy, and the mayor hides behind the agency's convoluted bureaucracy to dodge accountability.

I've proposed a plan to overhaul NYCHA's governing structure and make the mayor--any mayor--take responsibility. If I'm fortunate enough to be elected mayor, I will take direct responsibility for board appointments and policy set forth by NYCHA, with an eye towards housing initiatives that foster middle-class and low-income families. The board will be made up of volunteer members consisting of housing, government and finance experts as well as individuals who actually live in NYCHA units.

Including public housing residents will be crucial in ensuring the voice of the residents is adequately represented and their needs have a real, meaningful platform to be addressed. Reforming NYCHA's governing structure will make the mayor stand behind housing policy and prevent ill-conceived ideas like placing luxury housing ahead of affordable housing. It will be an important step toward keeping New Yorkers in New York and ensuring that the grand promise of our city extends to all who call it home.

William C. Thompson Jr. is a former New York City comptroller and president of the Board of Education. He is chair of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Minority and Women Owned-Business Enterprises Team and currently serves as chief administrative officer and senior managing director at the nation's largest minority public finance firm, where he leads efforts to underwrite loans for schools, bridges and infrastructure projects. Thompson is running for New York City mayor.