Small Victories in Affordable Housing? We'll Take it!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Small Victories in Affordable Housing? We'll Take it!
By Patricia Swann, Senior Program Officer, Thriving Communities, New York Community Trust

The affordable housing shortage is no longer just a problem in strong market cities like New York and San Francisco, it is a blue state/red state, urban, suburban, and rural problem. In New York City, we are familiar with the dreary statistics: 60,000 people in homeless shelters, most of them families … another three or four thousand living on the streets … prices of $400,000 and up for modest homes in working class neighborhoods. Here’s a new stat: a recent lottery for 297 affordable apartments in a new downtown Brooklyn development yielded 92,743 applications.

And yet, a few victories here in New York City have brought us incremental progress. After years of advocacy, with philanthropic support, three important tenant protections were passed into law:

  • Right to Counsel, guarantees legal representation in eviction procedures for tenants with incomes 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level;
  • the Tenant Protection Act, creates stronger enforcement of penalties for property owners who use construction as a form of harassment in tenant-occupied buildings; and
  • the Certificate of No Harassment  law requires construction permit applicants to establish that they have no prior history of tenant harassment.

And thanks to Steve Banks, the advocate-turned-commissioner, and a progressive City Council under the leadership of outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito, the City also doubled down on its investment in eviction prevention legal services, ‘baselining’ more than $62 million dollars in this year’s budget, adding to multi-million dollar commitments in previous years.  And it’s working—eviction cases are trending down, largely due a decrease in frivolous eviction cases that had been choking the city’s housing courts.

Housing advocates were instrumental in pushing for mandatory inclusionary zoning as a way of maneuvering the real estate market to generate affordable housing in addition to housing for the affluent and the near-affluent. The mayor’s housing plan applies inclusionary zoning to a dozen or more neighborhoods that are being up-zoned to accommodate denser development, with the stipulation that at least 20 percent of the apartments in new residential buildings are made available at below-market rents. This is a significant achievement, but there is collateral damage. Speculation and rumors distort neighborhood markets long before the first zoning lines are set. And the ratio of 20 percent affordable to 80 percent market rate may make financial sense for developers, but over time it is a recipe for gentrification and secondary displacement. Also, exactly what is “affordable”??? 

It should be noted that new guidelines with lower household income options for inclusionary zoning were included in the mayor’s revised housing plan with a new goal of 300,000 housing units to be produced or preserved by 2026. The administration also signaled an interest in community land trusts, the yin to the yang of inclusionary zoning, by committing over $1.5 million for early stage exploration of community land trusts as a housing preservation strategy.

We can and should celebrate these achievements. All are the result of years of persistent and effective advocacy, supported by philanthropy. But we should acknowledge that there are still areas calling out for new strategies and policy responses. For example, the right to legal representation in eviction cases is a good thing, but it means little to the thousands of immigrant families who are understandably reluctant to get involved with courts and legal actions. New York City still loses five-to-six thousand rent regulated apartments every year; efforts to plug the leaks in the rent regulation system are consistently blocked in Albany. Finally, low income housing tax credits lost a fifth of their value when the corporate tax rates were lowered (thank you, tax overhaul!), creating instant finance gaps in many affordable housing projects underway or in the planning stages. Speaking of tax overhaul, the projected federal deficit resulting from that legislation will intensify the pressure for budget cuts to Section 8, public housing, and other federal programs that support affordable housing.

Let’s acknowledge and celebrate the fact that incremental progress is possible, even in places where the magnitude and complexity of the housing crisis often makes it seem intractable and unsolvable. None of it would have been possible without persistent and patient philanthropic support for advocacy that ‘moves the needle’. Now begins the hard work of translating these policy changes into concrete results.

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