When it comes to housing and development, New York City often devolves into a war zone. The battle over Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, defeated plans for a Jets Stadium on the Far West Side of Manhattan and the commercial and residential development of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn have aroused deep emotions, as developers, elected officials, affordable housing advocates and neighborhood preservationists fight for land in a city with limited space.
But the drama isn’t exactly unwarranted. The population of the city has grown significantly since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, with more than 168,000 new residents. As a result, space, especially for housing, is at a premium. Affordable housing for New York City’s middle class, which seems to be at the heart of today’s housing debates, is a particular concern.
We asked each mayoral candidate to clarify his position on these issues, and to expand on other housing challenges, like infrastructure support, rent control and stabilization, historic preservation and property taxes. If information on one of these subjects does not appear under a candidate’s name, it means the campaign did not provide information on that topic.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, running as a Republican
Under the Bloomberg administration, nearly 80,000 new units of affordable housing were added to the city. He also helped maintain 21,000 city-regulated units that are part of the Mitchell-Lama program—an initiative created in the 1950s that is expiring out of its requirement for affordability—by creating regulatory and financial tools that allow owners to refinance, restructure and extend existing mortgages. While housing advocates have applauded Bloomberg’s efforts to create affordable housing for middle-income families, they are pushing his administration to focus on helping Mitchell Lama residences maintain their long-term affordability, and directing city resources at fixing and repairing existing units and buildings.
After the 2008 Housing and Vacancy Survey showed that the city’s vacancy rate was 2.88 percent, well below the 5 percent rate the rent control law requires, Bloomberg signed legislation extending rent stabilization. The Rent Stabilization Law has been re-signed every three years since 1979. On the state level, Bloomberg supports legislation being considered that would prevent units expiring out of the Mitchell Lama program from having their rents arbitrarily raised. He also signed into law the Tenant Protection Act, which protects tenants from landlords who willingly or inadvertently create an untenable living environment that forces residents to vacate their rent-controlled homes; landlords can then rent out apartments at market rate prices. Unlike his two opponents, Bloomberg has not called upon the Rent Guidelines Board to halt raising prices on rent-controlled units this year.
During his tenure, the Bloomberg administration has made development a priority, to the chagrin of many critics who say he leaves neighborhood character and affordable units by the wayside. But the mayor says he won’t stop any time soon. One of the mayor’s major initiatives was rewriting the city’s zoning rules that restrict housing in industrial areas. Through a campaign of rezoning, the mayor has cleared the way for residential development in transit hubs that were heretofore home to run down or vacant factories. As part of his Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan, his answer to the economic recession, the mayor is proposing even more rezoning to reinvigorate the city and encourage new development.
As the mayor encouraged growth in the city and made it more habitable for young families, critics say his administration dropped the ball on supporting infrastructure, especially when it came to public education. District 2, which covers the East Side and parts of downtown, is so packed that hundreds of children seeking to enter kindergarten in their zoned schools were turned away earlier this year. The city expects that gifted program placements should resolve most, if not all, of the overflow for Upper East Side schools, and is securing more space in the downtown portion of the district. Still, the mayor says he is sufficiently planning for infrastructure improvements. As part of PlaNYC, Bloomberg’s 20-year sustainability plan, he plans to add more public schools, especially in areas targeted for new development. For example, in Hunters Point South, a middle-income development project in Queens, the mayor plans to add an intermediate school for the children who will end up living there.
Since 2003, the city has given historic protection to more than 2,400 buildings on the mayor’s watch. To date, the city has designated 20 historic districts and is on track to designate more historic districts citywide than any other previous administration. Still, critics and preservation advocates argue that the immense development the city has recently undergone has not kept pace with the need to preserve and landmark historic sites and neighborhoods across the boroughs. On the Upper West Side, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering a proposal from the West End Preservation Society to give historic status to approximately 100 buildings on West End Avenue between West 70th and 107th streets. The commission is also considering extending the Upper East Side historic district to protect 76 additional buildings. But the commission has not supported a 13-year attempt by Upper West Side residents and elected officials to designate Morningside Heights a historic district.
During the economic downturn that followed 9/11, the mayor raised property taxes to help balance the city’s budget. Once conditions improved, Bloomberg has given property owners a $400 rebate ever year since 2004 and later imposed a property tax cut. During the most recent economic turmoil, however, Bloomberg tried to end the rebate and reinstate the full property tax, but the City Council fought his attempt and kept the rebate alive.
Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., Democrat
As part of his campaign for mayor, Thompson has been meeting with affordable housing advocates to discuss the challenges for working- and middle-class families living in New York City. He has accused the mayor of overburdening families with too many taxes, and he has pledged to make affordable housing a priority. But he has not expounded on specific plans.
As comptroller, Thompson is responsible for four of the five city pension funds and has overseen $100 billion in assets. He used that position to create more units of affordable housing by investing New York City Pension Funds into efforts to build and save more low- and middle-income housing. He allocated more than a $1 billion in investments toward affordable housing, a significantly higher amount than his predecessors of the last two decades. Still, critics say Thompson has yet to articulate a comprehensive housing platform.
Thompson has called upon the Rent Guidelines Board to implement a rent freeze this year, in light of the economic crisis. The board raises rents annually on rent-controlled units; this year, there is a proposed hike of 2 percent to 4.5 percent for one-year leases, and 4 percent to 7.5 percent for two-year leases. At press time, the vote was scheduled to held on June 23.
Thompson has called for smart growth, which he characterizes as encouraging development with a purpose. He says he is committed to attracting developers to New York City, and in a speech to the New York Building Congress, he noted that, “We need to make sure that companies can find what they need in New York, because if they can’t, we know they will take their business elsewhere.” He has simultaneously called for the city to provide adequate infrastructure to keep apace with development.
Thompson has accused the mayor of overtaxing the city, and rejected the mayor’s claim that the city cannot afford property-tax rebate checks this year. He suggested that the mayor use the nearly $2 billion that was being rolled over into the following year’s budget to pay out the rebates. Thompson told a group of affordable-housing advocates that particularly in these difficult economic times, “I understand what New Yorkers are dealing with. They have less in their pocketbooks every month and the mayor’s proposed tax and fee increases are making matters worse, not better.”
Council Member Tony Avella, Democrat
Avella is a critic of using the Metropolitan AMI, or area median income of New York City residents, to determine eligibility for affordable housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development currently requires applicants for affordable housing to fall below a certain percentage of that number. Avella argues that the system is flawed, since neighborhoods often include such a wide range of incomes, and he is in the process of drafting legislation to change the procedure used to determine eligibility. The Bloomberg administration has not taken a position on Avella’s proposed legislation, but a representative for the mayor said his affordable housing plan addresses people at a variety of income levels. Avella also said that landlords who do not properly maintain their affordable housing units should be “thrown into jail,” a critique of the city’s laxity toward unscrupulous landlords. Avella pointed to a building in his district where a landlord ignored city violations for so long that the Fire Department was forced to step in and evacuate tenants for eight months until repairs could be made. Violations should be enforced and landlords who do not regularly upgrade their buildings or keep them clean, functional and safe should face repercussions, the Council member says.
Like Thompson, Avella has also called on the Rent Guidelines Board to impose a rent freeze this year. But he has gone one step farther by advocating for dissolving the board altogether. He characterized the board as a “phony sham” controlled by landlords and developers. The board, which is made up of nine members, is chosen by the mayor, with two members representing tenants concerns, two members representing the general public and a chairperson appointed at the mayor’s discretion. If elected, Avella says he would place control of he board directly into the hands of the mayor and the city.
Avella believes that the city needs to invest funds in creating more affordable housing. He does not, however, think that it will be difficult to attract more upscale development to the city. Avella opposes all public financing for private developments, including Yankee Stadium. Public funds should go to affordable housing, not private enterprise, according to Avella. “New York City is the place to be,” he said. “Big developers are going to come here. You just have to put some limits on construction.”
Large-scale development often comes with side effects that directly impact the city’s infrastructure, like the need for additional sewer systems or new public schools. If elected, Avella says he would require developers to fund infrastructure improvements. Those who argue that they cannot afford to provide those services and still make a profit will be forced to open their books to prove it. “If you’re putting in a development and it’s going to overburden the infrastructure, someone has to be responsible,” Avella said.
Avella wants more community control and oversight for development, which includes giving community members more power to landmark buildings and neighborhoods. He currently envisions more community board oversight of development, but he did not offer specifics on exactly how much power the neighborhood body should have. While he applauds the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Avella said the agency is understaffed and not fully equipped to deal with the number of buildings under threat. He also called for the dissolution of the Board of Standards and Appeals, the agency that gives variances to developers seeking a waiver for zoning regulations.
Avella believes the best stimulant for the economy is a tax cut. He proposes lowering the property tax to allow more middle-income families to buy real estate, and he argues that the lower taxes would also encourage and attract development. What about balancing the budget? Avella said there are other ways to raise revenue. One suggestion is for the city to stop contracting out nearly $9 billion a year in services. While Avella does not have specifics on which city services should not be contracted out, he said the option should be explored as an alternative source of revenue.
Experts rate the mayoral canididates
By Shayndi Raice
We asked a handful of representatives from various housing and development groups what they thought of each candidate’s work on the issues. Below are brief summaries of their feedback.
David Hanzel, policy director for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a membership organization for New York City housing nonprofits.
Michael Bloomberg: “Generally, we believe that the Bloomberg administration has made an ambitious and historic commitment to creating and preserving affordable housing across all income levels. Our consistent issue is around the issue of long-term affordability. When he announced he 2030 sustainability plan, we thought there was an opportunity to extend affordability for city projects and that opportunity was missed.”
Bill Thompson: “Thompson has not articulated a comprehensive housing platform. The only thing that we’ve been aware of is his work trying to protect Battery Park City. He aligned with the mayor on that. The other thing that he’s been a lot stronger on is the importance of strengthening rent regulation. The mayor has been conscpiciously absent on the need to stregthen rent regulation.”
Tony Avella: “What we’ve been concerned about is that the Rent Guidelines Board has increased rents at a rate that doesnt match where landlords are. I’m not sure that zero percent increase [Avella’s position] is the right amount. There needs to be a fair examination of what the actual costs are from both sides [so they can] come up with a reasonable increase.”
Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, the largest trade association in the city that represents property owners.
Michael Bloomberg: “For our members, the two issues that matter that the mayor has control over is property taxes and water and sewer rates. Bloomberg has presided over an administration where both of those have risen dramatically.”
Bill Thompson: “He has taken a position of zero rent increases for the Rent Guidelines Board and that’s problematic, given the reality of the costs that owners have seen. He’s been very vocal on the issue of water and sewer rates. We’ve had double-digit increases for a couple of years now.
Tony Avella: “Tony Avella is the most far to the left. He’s very anti-real estate and very anti-development. He’s been part of a City Council that has voted for two years for mid-term tax increases.”
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a citywide advocate for historic districts and preservation.
Michael Bloomberg: “Under Mayor Bloomberg, many more historic districts have been designated than under any other mayor. The landmarks agency has finally grown. This Landmarks Commission is seemingly more responsive to community. Every mayor of New York is pro-development. This mayor has been shockingly more pro-development than anyone ever anticipated. There has been a number of instances that have been very disappointing from a preservation point of view. Any large-scale development seems to have the backing of the mayor, and therefore any hope for preservation is at best an afterthought, and that’s a very disturbing thing.”
Bill Thompson: Thompson has not responded to questions posed to him in March from the Historic Districts Council. Bankoff, therefore, could not comment on his position on historic preservation.
Tony Avella: He is the diametric opposite of Bloomberg. He takes community input very seriously. He has made community-based planning a major issue and he is very “anti” what he regards to be overdevelopment. As chair of the Zoning Committee, he has seen an enormous amount of rezoning, more than any other Council member, and met with people all across the city who wanted to have rezoning done. He seems very sympathetic to people who are concerned about their neighborhood character. He’s been a very strong supporter of the Landmarks Commission. He actually sponsored the demolition-by-neglect bill, which enabled the City Council to charge fines for buildings that are being neglected.”
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