David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

In a few months, New Yorkers will head to the polls to vote for the next mayor.

The victor will inherit a diminished budget and a pandemic-ravaged economy that continues to threaten the livelihoods of many New Yorkers. And with health experts warning a more virulent strain of the virus could arrive as early as this spring, our next mayor must be ready with solutions for fixing inequities in the city’s broken healthcare system – structural flaws that led and continue to lead to too many needless COVID-19 deaths.

Our new mayor will also have to contend with a housing crisis driven by rising homelessness, deferred maintenance, and disinvestment in the city’s aging public housing infrastructure – all made exponentially worse by the economic after-shocks of the coronavirus – together with the reality that much of the city’s “affordable housing” remains unaffordable to those who need it most.

A look back at the last seven years of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure offers lessons for the candidates, particularly his administration’s approach to building and preserving housing. A new Community Service Society (CSS) report, Assessing De Blasio’s Housing Legacy: Why Hasn’t the `Most Ambitious Affordable Housing Program’ Produced a More Affordable City? analyzes the administration’s impact on housing across various sectors, including affordable and market-rate development dynamics, overall affordability, land use, homelessness, and public housing preservation.

The lessons offered here include how to do things, but also how not to do them. The report, authored by CSS Housing Analyst Samuel Stein, argues that the administration overemphasized top-line numbers, such as overall number of housing units produced, and dollars committed – at the expense of producing the kinds of housing that we needed to stabilize the city.

During his 2013 mayoral campaign, de Blasio drew a stark contrast between his vision for the city and the policies of the Bloomberg administration, which he characterized as favoring the rich at the expense of the poor. He vowed to tackle the city’s inequalities, offering “policies that take dead aim at this Tale of Two Cities.”

On some level, he succeeded. De Blasio pledged during a 2013 mayoral forum co-sponsored by CSS and Teamsters Local 237 that he would stop the cash-starved New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) from having to turn over more than $100 million in annual payments for police and sanitation services – a practice started under Rudy Giuliani – and held true to the pledge. His administration also established and funded a (so far limited) Right to Counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction; created and expanded rental assistance programs; mandated a housing set-aside for homeless New Yorkers in city-subsidized apartments; and appointed Rent Guidelines Board members who passed rent freezes or low-rent increases for rent-stabilized tenants.

But on another level, the CSS report finds, de Blasio fell far short. His signature affordable housing initiative, Housing New York (later Housing New York 2.0), made little more than a dent in the overwhelming need. The plan sought to create and preserve 300,000 units of private affordable housing, but focused on numbers over need. For example, household income targets did not match the populations with the severest rent burdens or those most vulnerable to becoming homeless. Indeed, the plan met less than 15 percent of the need of the lowest income New Yorkers, with the most units built and preserved targeting averaged-size households with annual incomes between $51,000 to $82,000.

At the same time, the administration’s decision to exclude public housing from its affordable housing initiative led to significant funding disparities between public and private housing preservation funds and reduced the administration’s interest in focusing on NYCHA – at a time when NYCHA needed huge amounts of help, in particular to shore up its crumbling infrastructure and to make basic repairs. NYCHA, home to nearly half a million predominantly low-income Black and brown New Yorkers, was relegated to second-class status.

Similarly, the Housing New York plan initially treated homelessness as a separate issue from affordable housing, despite the fact the de Blasio administration inherited a homelessness crisis of historic proportions. As a result, overall homeless spending more than doubled between 2014 and 2018 (from $1.2 billion to $2.98 billion), while new construction for homeless New Yorkers and placements in permanent housing lagged behind the pace of the growth of homelessness.

The CSS report offers recommendations for the next administration on housing and preservation that bring together all forms of housing and invests in long-term solutions for those suffering the most from inequalities, but there are no easy fixes. The report acknowledges that the city’s housing problems are bigger than one mayor, and will need substantial federal and state support.

Our next leader will have their hands full due to the current administration’s missteps and missed opportunities. De Blasio charged into office pledging to reduce inequality, but while he made a number of significant positive changes, many of the system’s most pernicious features endure. We are still living in the Tale of Two Cities. Our next mayor will need to choose a new book.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.