Fresh thinking to produce more NYC affordable housing (from

This op-ed by Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, appeared online in the New York Daily News on May 24, 2022 with the headline, “Fresh thinking to produce more NYC affordable housing.”

Mayor Adams’ expected release of a housing plan this week will, I suspect, be the occasion for another set-piece between self-described progressives and self-described moderates, with little in the way of genuinely new or flexible approaches. We must do better.

The first hurdle a transformative housing plan must overcome is the widespread unwillingness — shared by many elected officials and housing advocates alike‚ to see any geography beyond the neighborhood as a “community.” We need to stop performing a parody of “Animal Farm” (local good; central bad) and take seriously the utility of a citywide lens.

If the city is a community, then it is easier to understand that all parts of it belong to all of us (a profound contrast to the stark residential segregation that continues to plague us). If we’re concerned about inadequate numbers of apartments affordable to households considered extremely low income (income up to $36,030 for a family of three), then our principal concern can be monitoring closely the citywide supply of such apartments and making sure that citywide number grows, without advocating that we build the housing in the very neighborhoods that already experience concentrated poverty — and that, typically, are segregated either Black or Latino.

Using a citywide lens does not mean that one ignores disparities between and among different areas of the city — on the contrary, it is a citywide lens that enables that analysis. Thus, for example, the enormous imbalance in where affordable housing was and was not built during the eight years of the de Blasio administration has recently been documented by the New York Housing Coalition, and extensively reported on. By my own analysis of the data provided, the aggregate affordable housing production of 31 of the city’s 51 City Council districts was less than the combined total for two low-income Council districts (one in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx). There are 26 Council Districts that each on average produced fewer than 100 units per year.

Just as the segregation-perpetuating, poverty-concentrating pattern is now clear, the remedy is, too: For the foreseeable future, we should build an overwhelming number of new units where they have not beenbuilt in the past.

It is hardly news that market-rate development in New York’s best-off neighborhoods is a very profitable proposition. And it has long been accepted that the cross-subsidy from those market-rate units can help subsidize affordable units. But we can improve our return.

If New York City itself acted as its own developer (and I am talking here of pilot projects to test viability), those cross-subsidies from market-rate units would not need to be cut into by the profit margin reserved for a for-profit entity. Further, it would have the heft to acquire parcels far beyond the means of not-for-profit developers. If New York City took the additional, simple step of combining market-rate condominium units with affordable rental units, it would allow for quick recapture of a very substantial portion of the capital expenditure and allow for the non-market units to be sustainably affordable.

Another way for the city to leverage resources is to appreciate the potential that is inherent in working with developers to repurpose for mixed use a wide range of city-owned properties that currently do not have a housing component (schools, libraries, administrative offices and social-services offices come most readily to mind). The local NIMBY contingent will be out in force — especially with respect to schools — but that resistance needs to be faced down with new resolve.

There’s more. With the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) having “an enormous $40 billion backlog of outstanding repairs at its various projects across the city,” and with scandal after scandal after scandal at NYCHA exposed, new public housing (as opposed to newly privatized, until-now public, housing stock) is not on many radar screens. But not having built any new public housing since the beginning of the Reagan administration more than 40 years ago has taken an enormous toll on a city that is more populated than it has ever been.

We not only need to grapple with the fact that much of the existing stock of public housing needs the equivalent of being provided with emergency-room treatment (followed by intensive care), but we also need to model how sound preventative care can keep new public housing in good health.

This means adequate capital and maintenance budgets from the outset. It means much better management than NYCHA has had in decades.

It means, as is the case with affordable housing in general, that it needs to be built where it has resolutely not been built before. That historical legacy — a consciously discriminatory one well-described in Wendell Pritchett’s “Brownsville, Brooklyn” — needs to begin to be unwound.

Here, I have only begun to scratch the surface. I’ve said not a word, for example, about the enormous crisis of homelessness, how to fix the existing NYCHA nightmare, the extent to which households at different income bands should or should not be served by the city’s affordable housing programs, how to protect residents of the more than 200,000 tenant-occupied apartments in buildings of three to five units that are currently exempt from rent-regulation, the culpability of suburban counties that fail to build their fair share of affordable housing, or the massive threat that the current Supreme Court poses to rent regulation altogether (and the workarounds for that).

The main idea, though — meant for self-described progressives and self-described moderates, for social housing advocates and free marketeers — is that the one thing we know is that we have, at best, been treading water. We need to be open to new ways of thinking.