Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Last month, an article of mine ran dissecting the state-administered process known as 'Major Capital Improvements' (MCIs) for rent regulated apartments. The article is part of an ongoing joint series between City Limits and City&State on the 2015 housing affordability battles.  

The piece really raised the ire of some of the more independent tenants activists in the city. I was pilloried for including so many organizations who they perceive to be very much part of the problem. One of the most prevalent accusations over the years is that they have been co-opted and compromised by elected officials and individuals with personal agendas. Also, that they have provided cover or served as 'astroturf'' groups for former Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, to help perpetuate the lie she was committed to tenants rights. 

In my defense, I was forced into an untenable position as a journalist because the relevant state agency--the Division of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR)--refused to grant any kind of interview or to respond to specific questions. I had to rely on whatever reports or analysis I could find to appropriately portray a picture about this highly dysfunctional, often unresponsive and capricious agency.

And regarding state dysfunction, it's been very interesting to read the post-arrest prognostications written about Sheldon Silver. They have ranged from "cultural" explanations to the realization that maybe Silver wasn't so progressive and tenant-friendly after all. One only has to remember what transpired over the 1997 rent law negotiations to know where Silver's loyalty has always been. For those reporters who are still referring to Silver as a one-time tenant ally, I recommend doing a little research. Even the 2003 negotiations were telling. 

As expected, the revisionism and whitewashing has already reached a fever pitch. Many are scrambling  because there are more than a few "activists" who have given Silver (and likewise, Quinn) the ability to talk out of both sides of his ass. More than a few are inevitably trying to protect their own reputations. 

Another key criticism stems from how many support mandatory inclusionary zoning (IZ), as featured in Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plan--particularly among so-called progressives. I have seen some articles showing IZ can work in other cities, but not necessarily in the version advocated by the administration. This is what I wrote about IZ last year on Ethics Ain't Pretty.

One of the few things I remember from my time as an MPA graduate student is the concept of 'spillover effects,' the unforeseen consequences of public policy decisions, also known as unintended consequences.  It seems glaringly obvious that no one championing IZ here is considering, or concerned with, any such ramifications.

In fact, there's currently an ongoing debate about whether or not IZ would add in any meaningful way to the number of "affordable" units versus those generated by the 421a program. Some have even argued such programs result in a net loss of affordable housing.

Regardless, these endeavors usually result in two major outcomes:

1. Developers end up the big winners, and we still have a serious shortage of real affordable units;
2. Primary and secondary displacement of both residential and commercial tenants and the segregation of lower and middle income earners who are subsequently treated as second class citizens in their homes. Limiting access to amenities and poor doors are only a few examples.

The mayor's 'State of the City' address last week made it clear both IZ and 421a are both on the table.  This, despite what the de Blasio campaign posted on its website in 2013: "In 10 years, New York City has lost nearly as many affordable apartments as it has built or preserved. Gentrification, unscrupulous landlords, and the real estate lobby’s hold on government have pulled tens of thousands of apartments out of rent stabilization, and more are lost every year." 

Even with the mayor adding resources to target at-risk tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods, Tenant.net appropriately tweeted, "De Blasio's $36M for tenant legal help is too little, almost too late; only in rezoned areas, not throughout city, won't stop displacement."

The above link to the story about East Harlem demonstrates that given the city's abysmal track-record, will more money actually help? As it is, HPD can barely prove when a tenant is harassed by an owner---whether out of incompetence or lack of will. To be fair, HPD's inaction is only a part of the puzzle that is designed to make it as difficult as possible for tenants to prevail.

The department's great solution has so far been to embarrass slumlords by posting their names on its website. At last year's Council hearings to 'strengthen' the anemic Tenant Protection Act, HPD's representative testified the agency had no other solutions of any substance to combat tenant harassment and foster better landlord accountability. 

Moreover, it can't be ignored East Harlem is one of the neighborhoods singled out by the de Blasio administration for development. Who can fault my cynicism?

It's been almost a year since the mayor produced his affordable housing plan, albeit absent many critical details. Last week's speech did little to shed light on many of those areas.

But, because the ideological similarities between the current deputy mayor for housing and economic development and Bloomberg's development tsar--deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff-- are so striking, one important detail was underscored: there indeed will be little substantive change in housing policy between Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio--at least, not where it IS NEEDED the most. 

In case you missed it, news broke last night about the arrest of employees from HPD and the buildings department for "widespread housing fraud and bribery schemes." For the record, HPD and DOB are both notorious for being among the most corrupt, inept and poorly-run of all city agencies. Not surprisingly, property managers were found to pay off city workers in the face of serious code violations.  

These kinds of stories and arrests have been going on for years, whether it applies to buildings, elevators, construction safety etc., particularly as the last two administrations created a kind of wild west for development--emphasizing self-certification while cutting inspectors and regulations. 

Mayor de Blasio's housing plan also discussed some of those same goals, using similar buzzwords: Streamlining inter-agency coordination to simplify and expedite development approvals and permits:
"The City will convene a task force to solicit input from the industry and other stakeholders about how to consolidate and streamline the permitting and review process across agencies in order to reduce costs and avoid delays for developers." The plan also calls for speeding up the ULURP and the environmental review process. 

If this vacuum of oversight continues to be widened as the system of checks-and-balances still remaining is further dismantled, don't expect a better outcome. These arrests are always a big show, but really, will anything change if the city's priority remains ensuring that it's easier for developers to build?
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