When it Comes to Affordable Housing, Policy Should Come Before Politics

Pedro Espada, Jr.

March 31, 2009

Growing up in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx at a time when so-called rent protections contributed in no small part to the blight that made the borough the poster child for urban decay, is why I am advocating a measured, conscientious and deliberative approach to the rent law debate in Albany.

The urgency being placed on the Senate to rubber-stamp the Assembly’s rent-regulation template, which has been set on automatic pilot for years, is being driven by the politics of the Working Families Party. The new Democratic majority leadership, including myself, was elected by the constituents of our districts to achieve broad objectives, not the political goals of the Working Families Party or any other special interest group.

The agenda of the Senate housing committee will not be determined by politics, but rather by sound, sensible policy. Advocacy groups for tenants, labor, landlords, developers, not-for-profits, for-profits and financial lending institutions will be invited to participate in this important discussion, provided they leave their politics at the door.

From whichever perspective you approach this debate, clearly now is not the time to implement prohibitive restrictions on an industry that remains one of the few capable of fueling the economic engine of the City and State during a recession. When investment in housing dries up, not only does it exacerbate the affordable housing crisis, but jobs, contracting businesses and tax revenue streams disappear as well.

The challenge during this unprecedented economic crisis is to strike a balance that will protect tenants and encourage investment that will preserve existing and create new affordable housing. The Senate majority leadership is already shaping prudent housing policy with proposed legislation that seeks to:

    •     Improve the SCRIE program (which provides rent exemptions to senior citizens in
          rent-stabilized apartments) by providing a tax credit incentive to stimulate landlord

    •     Protect tenants against landlord abuse by increasing harassment penalties and making
          harassment of Section 8 tenants unlawful;

    •     Require landlords to provide written notice to DHCR and tenants when they intend to
          modernize apartments, as well as require DHCR to review and audit these improvements;

    •     Prohibit the sale of tenant "blacklists;"

    •     Expand tenant protections by limiting an owner’s ability to take possession of units for
          their personal use, and

    •     Implement a moratorium through 2010 on the buyout of Mitchell Lama apartments.

We have already won restoration of operational subsidies for the New York City Housing Authority and millions of dollars in capital improvements funding in the State’s 2008/09 deficit reduction plan, and now are leading efforts to provide $60 million in additional operational aid to NYCHA and to restore $200 million in capital funds for affordable housing in the 2009/10 State budget.

Next month, the Senate Housing Committee will assemble a panel of renowned housing experts from academia, think-tanks, and the not-for-profit and for-profit housing development community for a major summit to begin the process of developing a sweeping housing agenda. Through my efforts, we are coordinating with the new HUD secretary, HPD commissioner and Democratic Senate the formation of a public-private partnership to insure effective utilization of Federal economic stimulus, as well as State and other funding streams, to develop new and preserve existing affordable housing for low-income, middle-class and working class families throughout the State.

We are also carefully assessing and analyzing the economic impact of the recent J-51 court of appeals decision and the potential wave of disinvestment, foreclosures and litigation that could follow in New York City. In addition, I am against Governor Paterson’s proposal to take $270 million from the Battery Park City fund to balance the State budget because this money is essential to helping construct or preserve 165,000 affordable housing units under Mayor Bloomberg’s "New Housing Marketplace Initiative."

Current State housing policy has led to a renaissance in affordable housing in the outer boroughs. Politicizing the process will bring us back to the bad old days of urban blight. Responsible governance with sound, well-planned housing policy may not meet the political agenda or timetable of the Working Families Party and others calling for immediate action, but it will help place the City and State on the fast track to economic recovery with jobs, new tax revenue streams, and the preservation and new construction of affordable housing.