How the Most Ambitious Affordable Housing Plan in the Country Falls Short

By Imara Jones May 07, 2014

Earlier this week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out his vision for addressing housing availability and affordability in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Yet based upon the available details contained in the 115-page proposal, (PDF) de Blasio’s housing strategy appears likely to fall short of his objective to restore New York as a center of equal opportunity for all its residents. Should de Blasio’s effort on the housing front falter, it would be a setback not only for the city over which he presides but for all who share his progressive vision in the United States and around the world. That’s because for anyone concerned about economic justice, what Bill de Blasio does matters.

The mayor’s plan, which he says is "the largest and most ambitious affordable housing program initiated by any city in this country in the history of the United States," calls for $41 billion in private and public dollars to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years.

According to city standards, "affordable" is determined by your income and varies according to how much you make.

What’s interesting is that these number of affordable housing units contained in de Blasio’s program is just 35,000 more than were created by his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, under whom the city’s affordability and availability crisis ballooned. During his 12 years in office Mayor Bloomberg–himself a billionaire–built and preserved 165,000 affordable housing units.

We’re going to get a little wonky here, but the numbers reveal the story of what seems to be off.

The problem with the "build and preserve number" is that, according to analysis (PDF) by the non-profit Community Service Society and the Office of the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, New York City lost more than 574,000 units of affordable housing during that time.  Even with Bloomberg’s addition to New York’s housing stock, the city still faced a net lost of more than 400,000 units.

To underscore the size of the hole, if you apply de Blasio’s 200,000 unit goal to the Bloomberg Years, New York City still would be short 300,000 affordable housing units. Over the next 10 years, de Blasio would replace only two thirds of the affordable housing units lost in the decade before his program began.

The bottom line is that even with Mayor’s de Blasio’s exhaustive list of new ideas, including a requirement that developers increase by one third the number of affordable housing units in new private housing developments, expanded use of abandoned land, and stepped up enforcement of tenant protections, New York’s housing losses would far outpace any proposed gains.

And given the role that housing plays in de Blasio’s plan to attack economic inequity, the rapid disappearance of homes available for half the city’s populace would undermine the example he’s trying to provide to the nation and the world.

A former Clinton Administration housing aide, de Blasio was elected as part of what The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne described as a "progressive wave" of political leaders last November. At 6 ‘ 5" de Blasio towered literally and figuratively over a vanguard of local office-seekers who were explicitly dedicated to turning back the pernicious inequalities that comprise America’s current economic reality. In fact, the newly-elected mayors of Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles are all shades of de Blasio. The first socialist candidate elected to the Seattle City Council, Kshama Sawant, in over 100 years, is even more so.

With a campaign theme of a "Tale of Two Cities" de Blasio encapsulated his city’s historic economic divide. His heartfelt refrain of his core beliefs enabled him to sweep away his five principal rivals in the Democratic primary and ensured his overall victory in a landslide garnering seven out 10 votes cast. Along the way, he seized international headlines around the world which pointed to a reassertion of economic equity at the heart of American political life. Global op-eds held him up as an example for the way progressives could gain office in democracies around the world. Underscoring his importance, just last month, de Blasio gave the keynote address at the New Democratic Alliance, a gathering of the largest donors to progressive causes.

The key takeaway is that de Blasio is a pivotal voice in shaping the way forward for those committed to economic justice.

Housing availability and affordability is at the core of de Blasio’s plans for a fairer economic future for New York. During the campaign, after job creation, candidate de Blasio listed "a dramatic expansion in affordable housing" as his top goal. But the scale of the problem that new mayor faces is truly enormous.

Though the Big Apple is home to more billionaires than any other city on the planet, and where one out of 20 people is a millionaire, half of its residents live in poverty or are near poverty. The loosening of affordable housing policies under Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s, combined with a massive run-up in the wealth of New York’s 1 percent since then, created an almost unimaginable housing crisis.
While top apartments sell for a record-breaking $90 million, in a parallel historic-first the city has more people on its waiting list for public housing than actual public housing units; 227,000 names for 178,000 apartments.

But the details of de Blasio’s sweeping housing blueprint raises serious questions about whether his local attempt at correcting these eye-popping imbalances has what it takes to make a real difference.

Perhaps the ambition that de Blasio set for himself was too great. Beginning in the 1980s, the federal government abandoned the construction of public housing. Section 8, the program designed to replace public housing with private housing vouchers, is increasingly under pressure. Analysis by the Center for on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the most recent recent budget proposal of House Budget Chair Paul Ryan would slash housing voucher assistance by $580 million. Additionally, the 40-year decline in wages means that each year affordable housing is out of reach for more and more Americans.

The other option of course is for de Blasio to go even bigger and make a commitment that there will no net loss of affordable housing during his time in office. This would require taking on New York’s housing development industry–which like that of the nation as a whole–is one of the most powerful after Wall Street. But this would necessitate a massive political battle with an uncertain outcome. The New York Times observed that the mayor’s current plan "contained few ideas that would rattle the real-estate industry." 

De Blasio’s housing proposal underscores how different running for office is from actually running the city’s front office. That’s why former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once remarked that, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." As more specifics of the mayor’s plan are released in the next several days, perhaps New Yorkers bearing up under Dickensian levels of income inequality, will hear details that match their electoral hopes rather than those which might only mitigate their current lived experience.