...Like It's 1999

What the Budget Battle Means for Housing

Today might not feel like New Year's, but that's exactly what it is for City Hall.

July 1 begins city fiscal year 1999, and that makes today the first day that the budget passed by the City Council—over the veto of Mayor Rudy Giuliani—is law.

For tenants, that should be good news. The council restored several housing-related programs slashed by either the mayor or Governor George Pataki, or both. For instance, the council made up the $263,000 lost in Albany by the Citywide Task Force on Housing Court, which assists tenants in housing court. It added $2 million for an additional 78 inspectors for the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Another $2 million was slotted for legal services for tenants of single-room occupancy hotels, and $1 million for community consultant contracts.

"We're trying to solve some of the problems that stem from this administration's lack of a housing policy," says Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels. "What this administration does for housing is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's peculiar."

But tenants, activists, and even staff at agencies that are direct recipients of the council's funding are hardly planning a New Year's party. Instead, they are cautiously—indeed, skeptically—watching the mayor, expecting Giuliani to make good on his threat to subvert the council budget and refuse to let the money loose.

The mayor can tie up the funds in two ways: by impounding the money, a right he has under the city charter so long as an "emergency" exists, or by simply directing his commissioners not to spend what the council has allocated. "If he doesn't impound us, we're livin' large," says Angelita

Anderson of the housing court task force. "But I've been trying to get through to the HPD person who handles this to call the mayor, but HPD says they're not able to get through to the mayor."

These days, who is? The two wings of City Hall have been brawling since Council Speaker (and gubernatorial candidate) Peter Vallone insisted on putting the question of public funding for a new Yankee Stadium on the ballot. Plebiscite Pete's move so enraged the mayor, Giuliani vetoed the council's entire budget. The council overrode the veto, but the budget's fate is still very much in play, with litigation expected.

Council sources say they expect the mayor won't impound the money, but will opt for the tactic of directing his commissioners not to spend it. One council staffer says combatting that approach "will require a level of oversight at the council that no one is accustomed to." Indeed, mayoral-council relations have so degenerated—last Thursday, councilmembers got word that mayoral agencies were not even allowed to return their phone calls—that the council's ability to implement its budget is in doubt.

And not all housing advocates are convinced that the council's budget is an act of defiance against the mayor. Obvious by its absence from the council budget is the Nehemiah housing development that was to build 500 affordable homes on city-owned land in far-eastern Brooklyn's Spring Creek, near Starrett City.

Giuliani supported the program as far back as his 1989 candidacy, and in 1995, his administration committed two rounds of $5 million for roads and sewers at Spring Creek. But in March, the mayor caved on the commitment. He has said the project "didn't want to be accountable," but the real rift seems to stem from a snub to HPD commish Richard Roberts by a Harlem church group associated with the East Brooklyn Congregations, which builds Nehemiah housing.

In hearings, councilmembers have pointedly quizzed HPD about its commitment to the program. But the council's own commitment is in doubt, since it replaced not a penny of the lost $5 million. "We thought the council was supportive, but when push came to shove they did not restore it," says Mike Gecan of the Nehemiah project. Council sources say funding Nehemiah would be too much of an affront to the mayor, who would certainly never release the money. "It would have just gone down the drain," says a source. Gecan sees it differently: "They simply punted."

Council finance chair Herb Berman says Nehemiah reps met with him too late to make it into the budget. But the EBC's Kathy Maire, says her group spent a full day lobbying the council on May 11, long before the budget was passed.

Maire says Nehemiah advocates repeatedly tried to get timely meetings with Berman, but that his staff referred them to councilwoman Priscilla Wooten, whose district would share the project with Berman's. Wooten, a Giuliani ally, is cool to EBC.

RGB Redux

The rent hike approved last week by the Rent Guidelines Board remains awash in litigation. On Monday, June 29, State Supreme Court Judge Louis B. York heard arguments on whether RGB chair Ed Hochman should be forced to release a report he suppressed because, according to Hochman, it relied on dated information.

At press time Monday, York was expected to rule within a day or two. But he was clearly irritated at Hochman's logic. "I have to adjudicate the shenanigans of various parties," York said in court. "At the very least, I should have the report to determine if it should be public."

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