De Blasio Earns Political Win in NYC Affordable-Housing Vote

  • He compares the victory to getting elected mayor in 2013
  • Seniors and the poor would be subsidized in taller buildings

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio may have achieved his most important victory since his 2013 election as the City Council approved an affordable-housing plan that appeared all but dead when he proposed it last year.

The council Tuesday voted for a system that mandates developers set aside minimum percentages of units as affordable, and to designate which neighborhoods could accommodate increased height limits and other space modifications to create affordable units in rezoned areas.

The measures, approved by overwhelming majorities, overcame a torrent of opposition that arose last November, when almost all of the city’s 59 local community boards rejected the idea. The mayor was able to get approval after he agreed to a council demand to open the program to residents of even more modest means than he had first identified.  

“It’s the biggest vote the City Council has taken in this term, no question about it,” de Blasio said in his City Hall office on the eve of the vote.

His success came after a change in his governing style, getting out more to conduct neighborhood town halls and radio and television interviews. His staff sold the program to a diverse coalition of seniors, clergy and union leaders, just as he had done managing political campaigns.

“If he had failed, it would have been a political fiasco,” said Councilman David Greenfield, head of the land-use committee and a key negotiator with the administration. “It was a centerpiece of the mayor’s 2013 election campaign to create affordable housing, and, for most New Yorkers, it’s their number one concern.”

2025 Goal

The first Democrat in 20 years to run the largest U.S. city, de Blasio set a goal of preserving or building 200,000 units of below-market-rate housing by 2025. Crucial to achieving that was this plan, which offers developers more profitability with bigger and taller buildings as long as they reserve a certain percentage of units for lower-income renters.

At the outset, residents of low-rent neighborhoods opposed it, arguing that the new mixed-income buildings would draw affluent home-seekers and drive them out. Some continued to protest the law at City Hall Tuesday, and about a dozen were ejected from the council chambers just before the vote was about to begin. 

“I did not doubt that the pendulum would swing the other way,” de Blasio said of the early opposition to the plan. “Affordable housing is the number one issue on peoples’ minds, it’s the thing they’re most worried about, and this is the way to address the issue and I knew that we had the high ground because of that.”

Affording Rent

The mayor had just concluded a teleconference with members of the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) that had been scheduled weeks ago to help organize more support for his idea. More than one caller expressed anxiety about being able to afford the rent.

“There’s a real fear out there, so of all the things we’ve done here, this is one of the most powerful moments,” de Blasio said.

The mayor compared enactment of the package to his come-from-behind election in 2013. That year, he emerged from a field of several candidates to win the Democratic nomination by identifying himself as a fighter against income inequality.

His latest coalition-building has coincided with a boost in his standing in the polls. A Baruch College survey last month found 58 percent of New Yorkers approved of his job performance, up from 44 percent in September.

“Where you begin is not where you end,” he said.

Landlord Group

The mayor gained support from at least a half a dozen unions, gathering much-publicized endorsements from civil-rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and a group of more than 60 clergy. He forged an alliance with the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents landlords and developers.

“They welcomed our feedback and sought our input,” said board President John Banks III in an e-mail.

The compromise creates a sliding scale for affordable housing, including an option for developers to reserve 20 percent of the units for families of three making $31,000 a year or less, at $775 a month rent. The scale includes an option reserving some units for households of three earning about $90,000. In return, developers may gain exemptions on height, as well as low-interest financing and tax advantages. De Blasio had sought higher income levels, and community leaders objected, saying that it would exclude more than half the current residents of their neighborhoods.

“The scope and magnitude of these proposals cannot be understated,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said when she announced the deal last week. “They will fundamentally change how our city approached affordable and senior housing production, and is one of the strongest affordable housing plans in the nation.”

In the past decade, median rents in the city have increased 15 percent, while median per capita incomes of renters has increased 2 percent, according to a study by New York University’s Furman Center for research on housing and urban policy. Rents in East New York, a previously blighted area of Brooklyn, are expected to increase 5.5 percent this year, according to Streeteasy, an online real-estate listing service.

De Blasio’s program won’t convince Tom Siracuse, 78, a spokesman for the Rent Controlled Tenants Committee, that it will arrest the trends. The retired teacher opposes the new towers, no matter what percentage they reserve for lower-income residents.

“It’s going to cause greater gentrification and displacement, and affect the character of our neighborhoods,” said Siracuse, a resident of northern Manhattan. “For every below-market unit that de Blasio creates, the city will lose 10 rent-regulated apartments. The city should spend its money creating apartments for the poor and middle class, not subsidizing private developers who will still rent most of their apartments at market rates and turn over these neighborhoods to the wealthy.”

De Blasio says that Siracuse’s anxiety reflects the experience of the past 20 years, in which gentrification proceeded without any policy to slow it or stop it.

“If you leave the market to its own devices, those big, shiny glass buildings will go up and you’ll see a lot of people displaced,” he said. “The role of government is to create some balance, to protect the broader public interest, and until we had some muscular laws that wasn’t going to happen.”

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