From the July-August 2014 issue of News & Letters
New York—When new Mayor Bill de Blasio was campaigning, his pledge was to end the “two cities” here, one of the rich and one of the rest of us. And a major component of that was to address the housing problem. Some may contend that not enough time has passed to give his efforts a fair evaluation, but the facts argue otherwise.
One of his first choices to head the City Council was a councilwoman from Spanish Harlem and the South Bronx, Melissa Mark-Viverito who has been denounced by low income groups in her district for being a force behind gentrification and forcing long-time residents of both communities out and replacing them with upper-class professionals willing to pay high rents that regular people cannot afford.
‘AFFORDABLE HOUSING’ IS NOT
De Blasio gave his consent to the construction of high-rise luxury apartment buildings on the East River in Astoria Queens, where, of the 2,500 proposed units, only 400 will be “affordable housing.” This is not even the 80/20 formula that Bloomberg used.
In a major development in Brooklyn, on the site of an old Domino sugar factory, de Blasio’s housing czar made a big deal of the fact that the builder of two high-rise towers had increased the number of “affordable units” from 400 to 700. However “affordable units” would be restricted to families of four or more making more than $60,000 a year.
De Blasio has sent a clear signal that housing for the truly low income, seniors, people on Social Security or SSI (Supplemental Security Income), and homeless people will be a low priority of his administration. That section of New York’s population needs subsidized housing where only a percentage of their monthly income is used for rent and utilities. There has been no indication of any plan to build tens of thousands of units of subsidized housing, even though there are more than 50,000 homeless people in New York City, and tens of thousands more who live the precarious lifestyle of “couch surfing,” i.e., having no permanent place to live.
Although de Blasio had campaigned on improving the housing projects owned by the City, one of his first actions as mayor was to visit a City housing project in Harlem and announce that a part of it would be placed on the open market, with open market rents—a giant step towards the eventual privatization of the City public housing system.
Nowhere is there any serious effort to end the blight of urban homelessness. His plans to reserve 750 public housing units for homeless families is short of the 2,500 some advocates and elected officials would like to see set aside. The number of New Yorkers in shelters is now close to 53,000 — and 23,000 of those are children. Roughly 5,000 apartments of the more than 178,000 units run by the NYC Housing Authority become vacant each year. The number of people on their waiting list is about 247,000.
REAL ESTATE LOBBY CALLING THE SHOTS
Some point to the allegedly massive housing program of de Blasio as evidence of his good faith. But even this multi-billion dollar plan falls far short of what the city needs. For example, one columnist noted that in the plan’s 80,000 new apartments, developers would be required to include 50% “middle income” apartments—more accurately, for the upper middle class, designated for households with incomes of roughly $100,000 to $140,000, and renting for $2,500 to $3,500. Another 30% would be for “moderate income” households, who make $67,000 to $100,000; these would rent for about $1,700 to $2,500. The remaining 20% would be for “very low income” households, those making less than $42,000.
And where would the money come from? Of the $41 billion that de Blasio says will be committed to his project over the next decade, the vast majority, $30 billion, is to come from “private funds,” that is, the real estate lobby that put him in office in the first place. You can be sure that sector will not be investing in subsidized housing for the very poor.
But even in relation to the already existing public housing projects, de Blasio has said that his first focus will be improving the security systems at the projects, not taking units out of mothballs, repairing them, and renting them out at subsidized prices. In fact, one of the ironies is that the City of New York is one of the biggest owners of vacant but habitable apartments, a fact which came out when Bloomberg was mayor, but which has been forgotten.
So what is the bottom line? For tens of thousands of the homeless, people with low incomes, immigrants who sleep ten to a room in illegal basements because that is all they can afford, and senior citizens, de Blasio’s housing plan is a big zero.