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

Nearly 40 years ago, two trailblazing Community Service Society (CSS) researchers published a groundbreaking study that showed how public shelters were failing to meet the needs of the city’s homeless. 

Inspired by their research, the study’s co-author Ellen Baxter founded Broadway Housing Communities in 1983. BHC would go on to pioneer a model known as permanent supportive housing, a concept combining low-income housing with supportive services such as medical and mental healthcare, job training and placement, benefits and substance abuse counseling, and help with independent living skills. 

With support from CSS, BHC opened its first project in 1986 called The Heights, located on West 178th Street and serving 55 formerly homeless single adults. Today, BHC continues to operate supportive housing and mixed-use community projects serving thousands in West Harlem and Washington Heights. 

Two years after The Heights opened, CSS launched the Ownership Transfer Program (OTP) to assist tenant organizations purchase their buildings when they became at risk of foreclosure due to landlord neglect and abandonment.  Both projects were consistent with longtime efforts by CSS and its community-based partners to promote the maintenance and expansion of New York’s social housing stock. Not unlike movements to preserve public housing, reinvent the Mitchell-Lama co-operatives program, build support for Community Land Trusts and similar housing models that enable tenants to exercise control over their housing, The Heights and OTP exemplified a basic principle: all New Yorkers regardless of economic status deserved stable and affordable housing. 

In the face of today’s growing housing affordability crisis rooted in the real estate industry’s near monopoly over ownership and control of housing, there is an urgent need for a housing system (and policies) that emphasize housing’s value as a public good rather than as a vehicle for private profit. Of equal importance is laying the foundation to scale these efforts to the great need.  

How can we achieve this? Two words: Social Housing.

Over the years, New York City and State governments have created social housing projects and conversions. However, the problem has been a lack of resources supporting these efforts. And on the rare occasion that we do them, the scale is modest, typically targeting small landlords instead of some of the bigger real estate players.  

The sad truth is we spend a tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars on sustaining the inequitable status quo in housing, which has produced deep racial inequality, persistent homelessness and widespread uncertainty in the housing market. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this is 421-a, a tax break for real estate developers that has produced copious amounts of luxury housing but very little affordable housing despite costing the city $1.8 billion in uncollected tax revenue. To the great relief of housing justice advocates, Albany lawmakers wisely let the program expire in June.   

A new CSS report released this month, Pathways to Social Housing in New York: 20 Policies to Shift from Private Profit to Public Good, offers a unique set of policy proposals and interventions to promote housing stability by shielding tenants and the housing system from the economic impacts of speculative investments, building tenant power and expanding opportunities to reorient public spending toward social ownership and permanent affordability. The report presents a roadmap for strengthening and expanding New York’s social housing system. It identifies four broad aims and offers specifics about how we can reach them: democratic control of housing; financial resources for housing justice; tenants’ rights and protections; and code enforcement and tools for safe conditions. 

Of course, to be successful in putting New York on a path to social housing transformation, our policymakers must be prepared to buck historical trends of austerity and predation, while demonstrating the political will to embrace an alternative vision of how housing should be owned and operated. At a Nov. 14 virtual panel discussion on the future of social housing in New York, city and state elected officials voiced strong support for recommendations put forward in the Pathways report. Many of them are aligned with the framing of the report having championed bills themselves supporting social housing concepts. Even so, their response was an encouraging sign that the policies and ideas proposed in the report have broad application and relevance for localities across New York State. 

Pathways challenges us to fundamentally rethink how we approach, regulate, distribute and relate to housing in New York, while taking aim at unaffordability, displacement, discrimination, evictions, homelessness, and substandard living conditions. This is a fight that can be traced back to the foundations of racial capitalism, back to 20th century exclusionary lending, zoning, redlining and development practices that perpetuated segregation and urban disinvestment. 

To be sure, creating a social housing program will not be easy. It will require committed groups of tenants and immense political power. But if the initial reaction to the Pathways report is any indication, we have several elected officials who are ready to lead and support this movement.  

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 175 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.

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