News & Politics

Can Bill de Blasio’s Enemy Make New York Any More Affordable?

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“Is he really building affordable housing?” asked Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican candidate for mayor, of Bill de Blasio. “Ask the people of the city of New York if they feel their city is more affordable, because preserving affordable housing is not creating affordable housing,” she continued. “His numbers are quite skewed because he’s including financing of affordable housing, he’s including preservation of affordable housing, but not necessarily creation.”

The striking criticism, coming a few weeks ago during an unrelated press conference on the steps of City Hall, could have been fashioned by any of de Blasio’s liberal critics. Despite positioning himself proudly on the left flank of the Democratic Party, the mayor has not quieted the activists and academics who view him as a politician unwilling to make the transformative change he’s promised.

On police reform and transparency, Brooklyn councilman Jumaane Williams — a progressive who backed the mayor four years ago — said de Blasio was no different from his predecessor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg. (Robert Gangi, a police-reform advocate running against de Blasio in the primary, more than agrees.)

On affordable housing, Jonathan Westin — the leader of New York Communities for Change, a progressive group once close to the mayor — said de Blasio has serious vulnerabilities that could be exploited by the right candidate.

That candidate never really emerged. De Blasio’s strongest opponent in the Democratic primary is Sal Albanese, a former city councilman who has run for mayor twice before and garnered less than 1 percent of the vote in 2013. The two will debate tonight, giving Albanese much-needed exposure, but de Blasio has a tremendous fundraising advantage and enough popularity with rank-and-file Democrats to ignore Albanese and set his sights on the general election.

There lies Malliotakis, a 36-year-old assemblywoman from Staten Island who is guaranteed the GOP nomination because all her opponents, for a variety of reasons, dropped out. Malliotakis, like any long-shot candidate, has been staging frequent press conferences to blast the mayor. She highlights, whenever she can, the corruption investigations that dogged the mayor until early this year, the ongoing homelessness crisis, and the breakdown of a subway system that largely lies beyond his control.

It was during an August 10 press conference on de Blasio’s failure to produce a long-promised list of donors who didn’t get favors from City Hall — Malliotakis debuted a countdown clock — that she began attacking him, including on his failure to make New York City a less expensive place.

“The mayor is all smoke and mirrors. He promised to end a tale of two cities, to lift people out of poverty, and yet people still remain in poverty. Our homeless crisis has gotten significantly worse,” Malliotakis said. “How about, instead of building ninety homeless shelters, you build more affordable housing and supportive housing with that money, number one.”

Malliotakis isn’t entirely wrong. In 2013, de Blasio campaigned on making the city more affordable for the working class and poor, and despite his earnest efforts, he has mostly failed so far. While the market for luxury rentals has softened, prices continue to skyrocket for apartments on the lower end of the scale. Rents overall have risen 33 percent since the end of the recession in 2010, according to StreetEasy.

De Blasio has undertaken an ambitious plan to build and preserve two hundred thousand units of affordable housing over a decade, mandating that up to 30 percent of units in rezoned developments include some level of housing for lower-income New Yorkers. The mandatory inclusionary housing policy is expected to produce at least twelve thousand of the eighty thousand below-market units the city hopes to build in a decade. (Housing advocates worry the formula used to determine what housing is affordable doesn’t cover the people who truly need housing the most.)

The trouble with de Blasio’s plan is that it will probably not go far enough to make a significant difference in the city’s overheated rental market, where vacancies are low, demand is high, and gentrification roars on as affluent families who can’t afford Manhattan or the priciest enclaves of Brooklyn now move deeper into the outer boroughs, displacing the working class and poor who can’t pay to live in the city anymore. Increasing the supply of housing would help, but de Blasio isn’t doing it fast enough — or forcing developers to build enough units for low-income people — to alter housing trends.

Malliotakis, though, doesn’t have much of an answer. If de Blasio can be accused of not being aggressive or ambitious enough, his Republican rival is something else: angry that de Blasio isn’t building more low-income housing, yet convinced even 30 percent affordable housing in rezoned developments is too high.

“What we’re seeing is, 30 percent is not working to produce the results you want because developers are not moving forward with projects. It’s gotta be a little less than 30 percent,” Malliotakis argued at the press conference. “I can’t give you a percent without doing an analysis and talking to people within the industry of what would work, what won’t work. But what I see is right now, projects are being stalled and not moving forward because 30 percent is too high.”

The only project Malliotakis cited was Astoria Cove, a proposed mixed-use development along the Queens waterfront that was stalled because of the shaky finances of a developer. The de Blasio administration and the developer, Alma Realty, also blamed the temporary expiration of a controversial tax break known as 421-a.

In a statement to the Voice, Malliotakis called for “increased cooperation between City Hall, the governor, the state legislature, and a wide range of stakeholders including: the unions, major corporations, universities, and hospitals to build the affordable housing New Yorkers need.”

What’s been missing from her campaign is any nuanced alternative to de Blasio’s housing platform. Beyond redirecting the money de Blasio intends to spend on new homeless shelters — $300 million over five years, according to the city — to new housing, Malliotakis has few solutions.

She is right that the state has a role to play, but she never noted how her own state legislature, over the course of a couple of decades, repeatedly gutted tenant protections. This is mostly the fault of a Republican-controlled state senate and — to a lesser extent — a Democrat-controlled assembly that, more often than not under the disgraced former Speaker Sheldon Silver, acquiesced to the demands of the real estate lobby and allowed the loss of tens of thousands of rent-stabilized units over the past twenty years.

Malliotakis had her own small role to play, voting against legislation passed by the assembly in 2015 that would have added a number of tenant protections, such as making it harder for landlords to take their apartments out of the rent-stabilization program. Blocked by the senate, the legislation didn’t become law.

The writer Michael Greenberg, who recently chronicled New York’s housing crisis in searing detail in the New York Review of Books, suggested a sales tax earmarked specifically for low- and middle-income housing. This would be a good start, but not likely something the tax-cutting Malliotakis would consider.

Then again, what does she really want to do? Can she flesh out a serious vision before election day? The explosion in street homeless over the last decade, a problem in urban areas nationwide, has hit New York so hard because this is now such an unaffordable place for a staggering number of people. The homeless and housing crises are inextricably linked: One does not get solved without the other.

Undoubtedly, de Blasio needs to do far more than sweeten the pot enough for developers to want to build so-called affordable housing. He needs bolder solutions and distance from the real estate industry. He also needs a state government, including a hostile governor, to offer actual assistance, not tax breaks for the wealthy or the middle finger.

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