Public housing works, it can help the housing crisis, but The New York Times isn't helping

 This Richmond Barthe sculpture near the Johnson Houses contrasts the image of intended residents (white families) with the current racially diverse demographics of NYCHA residents, which is part of why support for public housing has vanished. That must change. (homebodynetwork)

This Richmond Barthe sculpture near the Johnson Houses contrasts the image of intended residents (white families) with the current racially diverse demographics of NYCHA residents, which is part of why support for public housing has vanished. That must change. (homebodynetwork)

Over the weekend, the New York Times came oh-so-close to writing a fair, nuanced story about NYCHA. Most of the time, the paper of record ignores the 80-year old agency, the 2,500 buildings it manages, and the 400,000 New Yorkers who live there. When the paper does write about it, it is almost always in the context of failure, scandal, and waste. There’s plenty of that to go around, which is fair game, but there are many other positive facets of the agency’s story that remain, at best, alluded to while the core problem fueling these issues — federal abandonment — is only referred to passively.

The paper’s approach to public housing does a disservice to NYCHA residents and the agency, but it also does a disservice to public housing in the US in general. The simple truth is that public housing works and should play a larger role in solving the affordable housing crisis. In order to leverage public housing’s vast potential, we must first change how we talk about it.

I find this particularly frustrating because at the same time, there are elements within the Times that are (slowly) changing the conversation around housing. It published Matthew Desmond’s work on how the federal government spends $134 billion a year subsidizing $1million dollar homes across the country. Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui wrote a devastating series on the eviction machine in much of America.

These provide important context to the affordable housing crisis, but public housing never seems to get that same coverage. The paper certainly doesn’t put all of these elements together to show why public housing (and other models like community land trusts) need to be part of the solution.

The problem with the Times coverage on public housing can be captured almost entirely in the title: “After Years of Neglect*, City Public Housing Is Poised to Get US Oversight.” Two problems jump right out.

(*The online edition appears to have replaced “Neglect” with “Disinvestment” after I started writing this. The print edition’s title is “US is Expected to Get Oversight of City Housing”. In either case, the problems remain obvious.)

First, it is bizarre to refer to impending federal oversight of a domestic government agency as “US oversight.” This might strike you as nitpicking — and I’m not blaming writers for editor’s decisions — but this falls into the much longer problematic history of how the Times (and the media at-large) adopts colonialist language when writing about housing in the US. Think of every real estate section story about mostly white “urban pioneers” moving to neighborhoods that…have been lived in by (mostly non-white) New Yorkers for decades.

Framing the built environment like this completely warps the public discourse around housing, specifically on gentrification and displacement. These are complex topics with significant policy trade-offs, but we aren’t presented with equally-weighted narratives to consider them responsibly.

This may be because the press, at any given level in an organization, is uninterested, only partially informed, or even ideologically opposed to public housing (its hard to see how corporate media would be inclined to support it). As much as the press gets labeled “left wing” or accused of having a “liberal bias,” public housing is a good example of that simply not being the case.

So much of the media adopts a real estate-centric language that the public conversation has already been shaped to internalize the virtues of market outcomes exclusively. (This is also true because poverty barely gets written about in the press. And that’s because poor and/or minority writers are absent from pressrooms.)

When minority communities speak about feeling like they live in occupied territory, particularly in the context of excessive-force by the police, this type of real-estate centric language is also what they are referring to. It either erases existing communities or otherwise “others” them into feeling like they are part of some imperial conquest that views them as an inconvenience. This language has real world impact and the Times should know better by now.

It should also be noted that no NYCHA residents were interviewed for the article. It quotes Ritchie Torres, the councilmember from District 15 in the Bronx and chair of the committee that oversees NYCHA, who grew up in public housing. Not for nothing, he suggested, correctly, that NYCHA should sue the federal government for neglect.

That brings us to the second problem with the title — where is the blame for neglect placed? And what neglect is actually being referenced? Just reading the headline makes it seem that the city is to blame. Even within the article, it largely frames the neglect as failures of the agency. That. Isn’t. True. For all of the many flaws that NYCHA is guilty of, they are not guilty of neglect (nor is the city.) They are obviously trying to manage their buildings. But they are doing so under untenable and inexcusable circumstances.

The true neglect, as Councilmember Torres pointed out, comes from the federal government. The federal government helped fund the creation of NYCHA and public housing for the first 30 years of its existence but (as it became less-white) subsequently abandoned it and demonized it (and its residents).

In NYCHA’s case, since 2001, the federal government has cut an estimated $3 billion in operational funding. This is a catastrophic loss. Out of NYCHA’s $3 billion annual operating budget, almost 2/3 comes from the the federal government, either from direct federal budget support (29%) or Section 8 subsidies (30%). These are existential cuts that compound quickly across such a large and old system. When the premise of public housing is based on continued federal funding, it doesn’t work when that funding dries up. Pretty simple.

The article dutifully mentions these cuts but frames it as background on the agencies’ problems rather than central to them. While the failures of NYCHA are presented as direct fact from the writer, the funding cuts are presented as “city estimates” and even the issue of racial prejudice is mentioned in a quote by a professor. Those are apparently not facts. This may be unintentional (the Times and much of the media generally shies away from calling something “racist” or “a lie”) but it means the narrative of this story (like every other NYHCA story) misses the more salient point.

The real story is the federal government slowly abandoning thousands of Americans. Adding in the fact that these Americans generally aren’t white deepens the scandal, but not much more.

Just as problematically, this narrative absolves the federal government from responsibility for fixing NYCHA and presents the only real solution implicitly or explicitly as privatization. That’s been the editorial board’s position for some time.

This article, despite its detailed analysis, is no different. It mentions the city and state squabbling over increased funding but also says (accurately) that neither can fill the gap in funding. It discusses some of the public/private options being explored (which also won’t cover the gap) but doesn’t entertain the idea that the federal government could return to previous funding levels, let alone why it should. What is the solution other than the slow death of public housing?

It matters when no one at the paper of record is explicitly defending the idea of public housing. It’s not a reporter’s job, but they should at least be covering the many people who are. Ignoring the argument for it robs the public of the full housing policy landscape.

It matters further because most Americans, including many well-meaning liberals and even housing advocates, are guilty of holding decades of media-fueled negative stereotypes of public housing that harm residents and harm our prospects of solving the housing crisis: Public housing equates to scary looking, crumbling brick towers by the highway. Crime and rodent invested buildings. Poor and lazy minorities. A well-meaning but failed experiment from another age. A poorly run government program that should be privatized. But these images are bullshit.

There’s a more accurate way to think about public housing’s legacy and future. A civic treasure that has provided affordable homes for 80 years. A collection of buildings that have held up remarkably well and just need proper maintenance. A refuge for a population that the government and the market has otherwise ignored or exploited. A well-meaning but failed promise that should be renewed. A solution to a failed market that will always fail to provide enough housing. A vision for a more equitable republic.

The biggest tragedy of NYCHA’s recent history — which has included federal investigations for fraudulent lead inspections, boiler failures in the dead of winter, the slow selloff of assets, the unfortunate resignation of its Chairperson, Sholya Olatoye (who wasn’t exactly set up to succeed), and now a cynical state takeover — is that its viewed as a failure at all.

Its frankly remarkable that NYCHA is standing with such gaps in funding, indifference from the public, and flagrant neglect from the federal government. In a city where there are over 60,000 homeless and the average rent in Manhattan is over $4,000, the average rent in NYCHA is $509. That’s incredible. NYCHA is a success story. (The article points out that NYCHA is a “relative success” compared to other housing authorities.)

The truth is that NYCHA has been a victim. One that is as resilient as it is flawed. It has been a victim of federal neglect but it is also a victim of terrible federal policy, which is why the affordable housing crisis exists and persists. Without making the story about the federal government failing in its responsibility to fund public housing (while giving away billions of tax dollars to wealthy homeowners) nothing will improve for public housing or for the housing crisis.

Housing advocates should place more effort on making the case that public housing works and call out the media for lazy tropes that keep it off the political agenda. Even more importantly, they should help the already highly organized tenants groups within NYCHA have the reach they deserve to improve their homes.

Finally, we should all outline what public housing could look like in the 21st century if we force the federal government to return to its basic responsibility. We should then make the case that a reboot of public housing can help Americans all over the country have secure affordable housing.

The real estate section shouldn’t be the only place the average American reads about housing issues. And failures shouldn’t be the only thing they read about public housing. As the paper of record, the Times must do better.

What startups can teach community land trusts about narrative

 You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

Recently, Grounded Solutions Network, which is the national umbrella organization for community land trusts, received $1 million from Citibank’s development arm to form an accelerator to launch more CLTs. As a housing advocate, a startup founder, and a tech educator who runs an accelerator, I’m excited. I’ll talk about the accelerator in a moment, but I’m particularly excited because it finally gives me a chance to talk about all three through the power of narrative. Forming a strong narrative is drilled into startups from the get-go, but the housing community, so far, has failed to appreciate its importance, or at least how to do it right. That might be changing.

A bit of background first. I got involved with the community land trust movement 6 years ago to help solve the foreclosure crisis in Brooklyn. As part of a grad school studio at Columbia, we were contracted by the New Economy Project (they were NEDAP at the time) to come up with a way to protect minority homeowners from losing their homes or to regain their lost homes from the particularly heinous predatory lending practices that laid waist to many majority-minority communities. (The foreclosure crisis has never endedin these communities, by the way.)

While working with visiting professor Jeffrey Lowe and the legendary Peter Marcuse, we were able to study the CLT model in great depth. I visited and researched the Lake Champlain CLT in Burlington, VT (the biggest CLT in the country) and Dudley Street Neighbors Initiative in Boston, MA (the first community group to be granted powers of eminent domain).

I was and remain enamored by the story of these organizations and the people that made them possible. The CLT model changed the destiny of these communities. It created permanent, community-controlled affordable housing in places largely abandoned by the public and private sectors. These people showed how working together against unbelievable odds could make something big happen.

Their stories made me believe that CLTs could happen in NYC. By the end of the studio, we began crafting a vision for how the model could work and how it could help these homeowners and communities who had been sacked by the financial industry. It was a very exciting time.

However, most people in city government had no idea what a CLT was or flat out laughed at a bunch of lefty grad school students and community groups for suggesting that it could work in the real estate capital of the world (that is slowly changing). This is despite the presence and decades-long success of Cooper Square, the first CLT formed in NYC. Even in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, when the city was taking over hundreds of properties, the model never found an audience. In retrospect, we put a lot of work into research and policy, but failed to appreciate how crafting a good narrative could get people’s attention.

At the same time, on an entirely unrelated note, I was launching my first startup company, Brightbox. (Going to grad school for urban planning and building a tech company confused a lot of people -including my parents- at the time) Brigthbox is a secure cellphone charger for bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that allows people to charge their phones when they need to. My good friend Adam Johnson came up with the idea while we were bartenders in NYC’s Meatpacking District dealing with this problem every night. Our experience as scene-y bartenders gave our product two key insights —highlight security and sexiness. Through some grit, dumb luck, and smart luck, we got funding and began the Quest to Scale into other markets and sectors with some notable ups and downs.

Along the way, there was one key lesson that we could always come back to for guidance — no matter who we worked with, whether it was a dive bar or Disney, as much as they liked seeing the product, they loved hearing the story about how we were bartenders. We saw an everyday problem first hand and did something to solve it. It is a great story.

To this day, it is clear to me that the power of that narrative — simple, plucky, aspirational — is what took Brightbox from a literal cocktail napkin idea to a business with hundreds of kiosks across the country and world. (One of my former coworkers just shared a Facebook memory from Internet Week 2012, where Brightbox shared a small booth in the back corner of an event with Uber. We obviously didn’t learn how to scale compared to them.)

Telling a good story is the foundation for growing a startup company (or a campaign or a religion). It’s what attracts users, talent, and investors that ultimately help build the product and the business. I have kept that lesson with me as I have started my second company, homeBody, and we drill it in to my students at CUNY Startups: Everything is built on the power of your unique narrative. There’s a big problem a lot of people have. But there’s an elegant solution. You’re the one who can make it. You’re the one who can get it to people. A lot of people. And it’s going to change everything.

This urgently needs to happen with the affordable housing crisis. The crisis is massive and painful, but housing advocates have not been able to craft a narrative to solve it that captures the nation’s attention. Coincidentally, as I worked on this blog this week, Citylab had an article about the nonprofit agency Public Interest who is trying to make an “Inconvenient Truth” type doc about the crisis to do just that. I hope they do it.

That’s why I’m so excited about Grounded Solutions CLT accelerator. It shows that a powerful narrative is forming about how to solve the housing crisis: communities taking control. First, the fact that Citibank is investing in it shows that at least some major financial institutions are coming around to the model. I have no love for the financial industry or its role in creating the housing crisis, but there is no way to solve it without them playing some role either. Second, creating a formal structure to grow more local CLTs spreads the model to more organizations and more communities. The more people hear about CLTs, the more they like them. The more they get started and succeed in one place, the more they will get started and succeed in other places.

The Ground Solutions accelerator isn’t like a traditional startup accelerator, but calling it that shows a willingness to adopt a startup vernacular, which is an important signal to the public (and press) that there is something cutting edge going on in the housing crisis. I hope that insight is embraced within the accelerator as well — Leveraging technology to form and manage CLTs; Adopting branding and growth hacking techniques to gain support; telling a compelling story to secure stakeholders in the community.

I’m excited to see the beginning of a convergence with my startup experience and my housing experience. Of course there are unique complexities in trying to scale a community-based model of housing that don’t compare to scaling a hardware startup, but there is at least one major similarity. It’s a heck of a story.

There is a massive, wide spread problem (phone batteries die, housing is too expensive) with a really simple, elegant solution (secure phone charger, community-owned housing.) As the accelerator gets off the ground, I hope that Grounded Solutions, their local partners, and other housing advocates continue to embrace the tools startups use to craft their narrative. The CLT model can be a game changer in the housing crisis if more people hear its story.

3 Reasons Local Landlords Should Support Stronger Tenant Protections

 (@homebodynetwork)

(@homebodynetwork)

Cynthia Nixon, the former actress and longtime public education advocate who is mounting a primary challenge to Governor Cuomo, announced a progressive housing plan that continues her disciplined assault on the governor’s dismal track record from the left. The plan, called Rent Justice for all, outlines many long-sought after reforms to protect renters across the state. A few real estate publications, including the Real Deal, have been quick to point out that landlords won’t like it.

I think this is partially true. Some landlords will absolutely hate these proposals and many of those landlords are quite powerful. However, I’m here to argue that I believe there are other landlords that should welcome stronger tenant protections — the majority of landlords, in fact.

Small, local landlords own more than half of the 2.18 million rental units in NYC and most have very little in common with bigger developers, publicly traded property management companies, or private equity firms that have flooded parts of the NYC market. However, small landlords don’t come close to having the same political power, which often means their interests are ignored or actively subverted.

Despite this contradiction, these more powerful interests continue to successfully flatten the perception that all landlords are the same homogenous blob (buffered by the generally uncritical real estate press in NYC). This narrative is obviously false, but big developers and Governor Cuomo trade in it freely. For example, the Governor’s Affordable New York plan does nothing for small landlords and gives away millions of public dollars to major developers (while failing to provide enough actual affordable housing).

This narrative maintains the strict landlord vs tenant political divide that feeds the toxic decades-old political status quo in New York: A small contingent of highly dedicated tenant groups fight to maintain tenant protections while the affordable housing stock slowly disappears. Small landlords get squeezed. Big developers get more tax concessions and rezoning opportunities. And the affordable housing crisis continues on unabated.

Breaking this toxic political status quo is the first step towards addressing the affordable housing crisis on a meaningful level. Housing advocates can start by rejecting the narrative that all landlords have the same shared interests and recognize that small, local landlords are hurt by this dynamic too.

We must do more to convince small landlords that they have more cause to work together with tenants. There is no meaningful solution to the affordable housing crisis that doesn’t incorporate small landlords and doesn’t make it easier for them to operate. As Matthew Desmond points out in his Pulitzer Prizing winning 2016 book Evicted, 3/4 of all affordable housing in the US is provided by small, local landlords. We must make the argument that these landlords will benefit from stronger tenant protections.

In previous blogs, I have written how I think a universal rental control could work, but to sum up quickly, I stress that it would not represent a simple extension of the current system (to be clear, I support the measures in Ms. Nixon’s proposals but think they must go further). It would be an entirely new system that would also need to offer more diversity in housing options (from co-living to senior living) and would absolutely involve trade-offs that no doubt would appear to be painful, particularly for some older rent controlled tenants. Measures to protect these tenants would have to be included (preferably with federal aid). Clamping down on the small minority of tenants that abuse the current system would also be a necessary step as part of a new system. This is no small task and I understand that many readers will be skeptical of even engaging in this discussion.

That being said, the first step in a larger reform is making the easy argument that small, local landlords will have more success by working with tenants rather than bigger landlord interests. Here are three reasons why I think this is true:

1. Simplifying compliance reduces costs and hassle

It is no secret that managing multiple classes of tenants makes compliance more challenging for small landlords. Many of these types of owners are landlords as a second source of income and are not professionally trained or resourced. This invites a lot of mistakes that can turn into costly problems that hurt both parties.

Having all renters fall under the same level of protection would remove a number of the steps that most small landlords trip over. Rather than having to follow every evolving law, loophole, MCI exemption, or annual RGB guideline and see how that impacts certain units, both sides would know exactly what to expect and what is required under a universal system.

A system where protections are offered across the rental landscape for every unit would potentially alleviate a lot of the tensions between rent stabilized tenants and landlords, particularly on fixing infrastructure within units. Much of the distrust that arises between both parties comes from a landlord’s reasonable need to make upgrades to a unit and a tenant’s reasonable fear that this will trigger a rent increase that may lead to a larger decontrol. Without the fear (and perverse incentive) of vacancy decontrol and bonus, both sides can operate in good faith.

It could also offer tenants more options. In many cases right now, landlords and neighbors change while a rent stabilized tenant remains. In a classic example, a tenant might age while their neighbors get younger. This might not be the ideal environment for that tenant, but moving to a better-suited location is virtually impossible financially. Knowing that a system is in place that could provide a similarly priced unit (again, presumably with some federal or state aid) with similar long-term protections could make moving more attractive.

2. More tenant protections mean fewer expensive eviction processes

Eviction is an ugly, painful process for all parties involved. However, the loss of shelter is simply nowhere near the loss of rental income. Greater tenant protections mean more resources to keep tenants in their homes — and to keep the rent checks coming to landlords.

This is already happening in NYC. Mayor de Blasio signed a Right to Counsel bill last year that guarantees tenant legal aid in housing court. These resources mean that fewer disputes will lead to evictions (which could save the city $320m a year). Intervening earlier in the cycle gives the tenant more opportunity to receive the necessary help to maintain good standing with their landlord.

No doubt there are bad actors in real estate (more on that later) but for the most part, small, local landlords aren't; they don’t have the resources for a lengthly eviction fight and don’t want it to get to that point. Landlords also generally don’t want to kick people out of their homes outside of the most extreme cases. They want peace and quiet.

More resources for tenants means a greater ability to intervene at critical junctions when a tenant may be at risk of falling behind on rent payments. Every landlord can support a process that appeals to their humanity and their bottomline.

3. Discouraging bad actors from the market opens up space for more local landlords

One of the biggest, if perhaps abstract, benefits of universal tenant protections to small, local landlords would be the shift in the market that would transpire over time.

The vast commodifcation of the American housing market caused the Great Recession. Instead of solving that crisis by reducing the incentives to speculate on homeownership, the economy has morphed into exploiting rental housing.

Large investment companies, private equity firms, and foreign capital all compete on small-scale properties in NYC. It’s difficult information for the casual observer to find, but, particularly in neighbors facing displacement concerns, these entities are forcing out small landlords who are often local, community-connected operators (which is why I have been stressing the ‘small, local’ modifier.)

The idea that the best, highest use of capital is virtuous on its own merits doesn’t hold up when you see the practical implications of this trend in housing. In many neighborhoods across NYC, poorer residents (many of them minorities) are being replaced by wealthier (largely whiter) residents. (This is a particularly shocking reality in California as well.) Many of these properties sit vacant as investment shields or as Airbnb cash cows.

NYC is already one of the most economically stratified cities in North America. Continuing this trend (which mirrors other trends of disinvestment in public institutions and local infrastructure) is simply not sustainable. The long-term viability of the city, let alone a given neighborhood, is at risk if it is simply closed off to all but a select wealthy population.

NYC is a city of immigrants, entrepreneurs, and artists — many of them start out poor. Many of them start out renting from small, local landlords. This can not end.

I will continue to advocate for more public housing and alternative forms of ownership, but I also believe that the private market must play a central role in property management in NYC. But this must be in the form of local landlords. New Yorkers should be able to cycle into ownership and renting in their communities. As housing advocates, we must acknowledge the importance of local landlords and reach out to them as allies.

The Fight Over SB-827 Shows Why We Need a Massive National Plan for Housing — Again

 The Williamsburg Houses (1938) still provides 1,630 homes for 3,121 New Yorkers. (nycarchitecture)

The Williamsburg Houses (1938) still provides 1,630 homes for 3,121 New Yorkers. (nycarchitecture)

This week in California, public hearings have begun on SB-827, the bill (which is a series of bills actually) proposed by State Senator Scott Weiner from San Francisco which calls for a radical realignment of housing policy away from single-family car-centric development to multi-family transit oriented development. It didn’t take long for it to get ugly. The battle lines for and against the bill have skewed the typical partisanship we’ve come to expect in American politics, pitting NIMBYists (homeowners, many of whom would otherwise lean progressive) against YIMBYists (a wider range of pro-market and even anti-market interests). It will absolutely get uglier.

That’s because the stakes couldn’t be higher. Along with California, the entire nation has been locked in an unprecedented affordable housing crisis and to solve it someone has to lose — big. Until that reality is faced, this crisis has no end in sight. 

The housing crisis won’t end until we stop calling it a housing crisis and start calling it what it is — a crisis of capitalism in housing. 80 years of housing policy that viewed it as a form of wealth creation has severely damaged our communities and our economy. It has racially stratified our society and left millions behind. It has ecsaserbated our climate’s instability. 

If we want to “fix” the housing crisis we need to fix capitalism. In the long run that means changing how we view — and finance, build, and use — housing. That obviously won’t happen over night. But we can start by looking at how we solved previous housing crises in the US. 

When has the market solved a previous housing crisis? Never. 

The scale and length of the current housing crisis is unique in American history, but housing shortages are not. What is also unique today is the lack of national policy initiatives to fight it. 

Many people (including many supporters of SB-827) will argue that we don’t need national policy. We justt need to unleash the free market to match supply with demand. That’s a nice idea, but we’ve tried that before.

New York City is the perfect example of what happens when you rely on the market. From 1890 to 1920 the city’s population grew from 2.5m to 5.6m due to a massive wave of immigration. The unregulated housing stock at the time was already overwhelmed and hellish (the tenement-dominated Lower East Side was the one of the densest areas on earth) but it couldn’t keep up with such a huge population increase. Even as the city physically expanded and private development sprung up further from lower Manhattan, adequate, affordable housing was hard to find the majority of the population.

There was minimal government intervention in housing at the time — this was pure market. It was before land use, occupancy, or even fire safety regulations let alone government sponsored housing. The city did however finance rapid transit, thereby indirectly subsidizing the construction of new housing on vast tracks of cheap green development in the boroughs— yet at no point was the private market willing or able to create enough affordable housing for the growing city. Expensive slums still persisted.

It should be noted that the federal government did build public housing during the tale end of this period in other parts of the US. During World War I, a massive influx of labor around war time production put a severe burden on port and industrial cities’ housing supply, causing inflation and price spikes. (A large part of this influx was the beginning of The Great Migration, which saw over 6 million African-American families move from the rural south to the urban north and west.)

The federal government built thousands of housing units for workers — although many of them were purposefully constructed as temporary to avoid angering local real estate interests who lobbied against the effort even during wartime. The market was and never will be interested in meeting demand.

How were previous crises solved? The federal government.

The housing crisis in NYC continued even in the boom years of the 1920s and came to head during the Great Depression. Millions of Americans lost their homes (whether they owned or rented) and were forced into dangerous tenements or shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles.” The market ceased to exist in any conventional sense.

Famously, President Roosevelt was able to enact the New Deal, which was a set of legislation that radically changed the relationship between the federal government and the economy. The two housing bills of 1934 and 1937 were, ultimately, a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, the scale of the Depression obliterated the ideological arguments against intervening in the housing crisis and spawned the first wave of public housing construction across the country. In conjunction with local governments, the federal government sponsored thousands of modern, clean housing complexes — in cities and in more rural parts of the country. Millions of Americans — the majority of which were middle or working class — received access to affordable housing never seen before.

On the negative side, the New Deal legislation racially segregated public housing and in fact displaced many communities of color to build public housing for white residents.

Even more damaging in the long the run, this was the beginning of massive subsidies for single-family housing. Originally conceived as a construction industry bail-out, the Federal Housing Administration would set the precedent of backing mortgages (for whites) that evolved into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These policy decisions have shaped the physical definition of America and the social and economic destiny of all Americans. It is no stretch to say that these polices set the country on a course that would inevitably lead to our current crisis. 

This time must be different. 

It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to think about what could have been different. Had the federal government intervened with public housing sooner, at the beginning of the 20th century, would it have demonstrated its value in different, smaller scale models that could have gained more political currency? Could the federal government have intervened by creating more mass transit and denser suburbs before the advent of the automobile? Could the it have avoided the racism that doomed a large segment of Americans and cities for generations?

Could we have avoided the tragedy of building our national and personal economic prosperity on homeownership? 

These questions are important to ask because we must learn from the past if we are to truly solve this housing crisis. The short answer for all of these are yes, if we valued the public good over private interests. If we valued democratic outcomes over market outcomes. If we valued shelter before wealth. If we stopped equating the market with virtue or even basic efficiency.

It starts by learning the lessons from the fight over SB-827. Homeowner interests can not come before the public interest. Local towns can not implicitly segregate themselves through down-zoning — at least near public transit (and extend that publicly-funded highways.) Special interests can not kill the democratic process.

Next, it means avoiding the failed lessons of relying on the market with minimal regulation from the early 20th century and avoiding the failed lessons of the New Deal focus on homeownership and slum clearance as national policy goals. We need more public housing in addition to more density. This is the only way to ensure that displacement doesn’t ruin another generation of low-income families chances of mobility. 

It means addressing the bigger problems inherent in our choice to make homeownership a priority because it drives wealth creation. There is nothing wrong with promoting homeownership, but doing so by warping the true cost of it is irresponsible. We learned that during the Great Recession and then quickly forgot it. We must finally address this at the national level. 

Finally, we must address the larger errors within capitalism that have warped what a home is. We can’t allow homes to be speculated on by private equity firms, international investors, or even flipping enthusiasts. Homes are for living in, not extracting profit from. 

We can’t allow homes to be the sole or majority source of a household’s wealth. It’s no wonder that homeowners freak out about potential risks to their home values — for too many Americans their perceived value is their only economic security. That is absurd and will likely trigger another major economic crisis in the years ahead. 

The only way to do all of this is for the federal government to intervene with the resolve of a national emergency. We must push for our elected officials to make the difficult decisions and political sacrifices to ensure that Americans can find affordable housing everywhere. The stakes are clear. The costs of inaction are clear. The way forward remains unclear.

Latest Trump Attack on Cities Shows We Need a Constitutional Amendment to Recognize Them

 If only the Founding Fathers paid more attention to their surroundings (stevenmarkos)

If only the Founding Fathers paid more attention to their surroundings (stevenmarkos)

Last week the Trump Administration announced that it will be adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census for the first time since 1950 (it has been part of the smaller, more targeted American Community Survey). By loudly adding this question, the administration is clearly hoping to suppress participation by immigrant communities, which is part of its broader effort to demonize, marginalize, and ultimately reduce immigrants in the US — legal or illegal.

If the plan works, the overall populations of cities across the country will be undercounted, leading to a loss of political power and financial resources. This is just one of many ways that this administration has purposefully (although sloppily) tried to undermine America’s cities since taking office.

The best way to stop this is to change the Constitution.

Before you eye roll your way off of this blog post, hear me out on two points. First, I know this is unlikely to ever be a serious political conversation. Second, this argument has little to do with President Trump and more to do with states.

Cities don’t exist in the US Constitution. Any governing power not explicitly allocated to the federal government, the people, or the states rests with the states as outlined in the 10th Amendment. This structure is a product of the country’s origins as separate (competing) colonies and the Founding Father’s fears of centralized government.

Those fears are wildly misunderstoodth to be a product of the Revolutionary War’s struggle against a despotic monarch, but the story is more complicated than that. There were many factions within British and American political life that get flattened by that narrative. I don’t want to go off on a historical tangent (actually, I’d love to), but the point is the war and the aftermath that led to the Constitutional Convention can really be seen as a conflict over local control.

All of this is to say that the Founding Fathers designed our system to prevent the concentration of power in any single person or people (that’s why we are a republic and not a democracy). It was also obviously designed to prevent the majority of the population from participating in government or to even be counted as people, so we can take a lot of this rhetoric with a grain of salt and adjust accordingly (RIP Anthony Scalia). Regardless of these failures in practice, the overarching theories embedded within the Constitution are based on principles of personal liberty, self-government, and checks and balances — at the federal level.

State governments were viewed as a check against an overly aggressive federal government. However, the opposite was not true. The US Constitution did not protect citizens from their state governments.

The Guarantee Clause in Article 4 Section 4 outlines that the federal government will guarantee a republican form of government in each state but fails to elaborate on what that means and what agency the government has to enforce it. The Constitution doesn’t even require state’s to have their own constitution.

This seems like a pretty big oversight if the point of the Constitution is to maintain personal liberty, self-government, and a system of checks and balances. But the Founders were primarily concerned with limiting the power of the federal government to act harshly and the people to act rashly. As strange as it seems to us that the founders would be skeptical of federal government, but not state government, it makes more sense contextually.

States had their own forms of charters or constitutions that predate the Revolutionary War (shout out to my home state of Connecticut for being the first). The Founding Fathers were already used to the role of state governments and saw their state as their default identifier. It was clear that a states-first arrangement failed with the Articles of Confederation, but it still served as the primary organizing principle for the Constitution.

This is why they are silent about the role of state government and their obligations to individuals within states. It was largely an afterthought that simple proximity would make state governments more responsive to its citizens. As far as these men were concerned, state governments were more responsive (virtually all of them were highly powerful in their respective states). This assumption seems laughable given how domestic US history has played out for most other people.

This issue of ignoring the responsibility of states to their citizens wouldn’t be addressed in law until the the first civil rights era (resulting in the Reconstruction Amendments) and the 20th century Civil Rights era, (the last great achievement, the Fair Housing Act, is celebrating its 50th anniversarythis week). Outside of these radical (and ultimately short-lived) moments in US history, the idea that the federal government is the protector of individual liberty, including from state repression, has had a drastically smaller following than those who think the federal government impedes personal liberty.

I don’t have much time for people who argued that the federal government became despotic under President Obama or who argue for states’ rights in general. Historically and, alarmingly, contemporarily, that term has been a racial dog whistle or partisan war cry more than a concrete philosophical argument. The inherent distrust of federal government and unjustified trust in state government has been embedded in our political DNA with disastrous results.

That brings us to cities. Yes, President Trump is nakedly hostile to the political power of cities and their residents. He wants to punish sanctuary cities; he wants to drastically cut affordable housing funding; he wants to cut transportation funding; That he has failed so far shouldn’t make us less vigilant. The weaponization of the Census is certainly a way to harm cities for a generation to come.

But the real problem for cities is at the state level. Many conservative state lawmakers who protest federal overreach into local control have no such qualms about superseding cities’ governing power within their states. Bathrooms in North Carolina and gun laws in Florida have made national headlines, but many state governments have blocked cities from attempting to address local issues that reflect their population’s preferences.

This is true even in seemingly liberal states. Globally powerful cities like NYC or Chicago are handcuffed by state governments who control spending on major policy decisions and are often dominated by rural political interests or well-funded and coordinated special interests. NYC has a particularly challenging environment dealing with Albany, but also must work with New Jersey and Connecticut with limited success, particularly on transportation policy.

The US Constitution has always favored smaller, rural populations by vesting so much power in the Senate and granting each state two senators regardless of population. This divide has consistently undercut the political power of cities (and of minorities, immigrants, and the working class who historically concentrated in cities) but much of the economic power of the country was still split evenly between agricultural and industrial interests, giving some cover of justification. That is no longer true.

As the economy increasingly moves into technology-based services, cities have become the undeniable economic and cultural engines of the US. The 20 largest metro areas produce over 50% of the national GDP.

The 2016 Presidential Election exposed this deepening split dramatically. Secretary Clinton won less than 500 counties (to President Trump’s 2,600), but won the popular vote by over 3 million votes. That’s because most of her support was concentrated around major metropolitan areas. These counties represent 64% of US GDP, but have much less political power than that.

I’m not claiming that economic output should dictate political power (although that has been the de facto reality in our late capitalist age as witnessed by the disproportionate power of wealthy individuals and corporations) but clearly our political system is dangerously unresponsive to the reality of how we are organizing our society in the 21st century.

Without recognizing the unique role that cities play in our evolving society, the US will continue to be flat-footed on issues of environmental degradation, economic inequality, and ethno-nationalism that represent existential threats to our republic.

But what would a constitutional amendment that recognizes cities look like? How much would we need to define a “city”? How would we prevent the erosion of state power? These are complicated questions and deserve a more detailed follow up and debate. However, I think any amendment should tackle two specific topics.

First, it should acknowledge the unique importance of cities to the nation’s health and future by preventing state governments from unfairly superseding the republican outcomes desired by city residents. States may have once been the great laboratories of democracy but today money and the nationalization of politics have ended that. Cities are leading the way on environmental policy, immigration, public safety, and other policies because federal and state politics have failed to lead. They must be allowed to experiment more freely based on the will of their citizens.

An amendment doing so might be something as simple as an add-on to the Guarantee Clause preventing states from superseding cities of a certain size or definition or on certain local matters. In practice, we could use the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (before it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013) as a template for how the federal government could review and intervene on such matters as a right.

Second, it would recognize that many cities span beyond their historic city and state lines and must be allowed to coordinate public policy as a cohesive entity accordingly. Cities should have political oversight into areas that reflect their natural domain, perhaps defined by their commuter-shed or their metropolitan statistical area. Whether this means greater annexation powersor more formal regional organization or both would need to be hashed out, but Congress has created similar entities before like the Appalachian Regional Commission.

You can see from these relatively moderate suggestions that I’m not suggesting ripping up the Constitution or devaluing the state as a political entity. And unlike others who champion modern localism, I don’t believe in giving up on the federal government. Quite the opposite — we need what I have called a national reboot along the lines of the New Deal to create a federal government much more responsive to the challenges and opportunities that will define America in the 21st century.

The Constitution has structural flaws but I believe it is philosophically admirable and has grown when it needs to. Now is such a time. Recognizing cities is an important start but any lasting change must come from removing the power of money in politics. We are fooling ourselves if we think anything else will have the necessary impact to make our republic more representative and more innovative.

Finally, President Trump, his approach to cities, and the larger backlash to cities within the conservative movement are symptoms of a deeper malady facing America. At some point in the next century, we will stop being a majority-white country. For many Americans that fact is met with fear, but it shouldn’t be. If we are as committed to the principles outlined in the Constitution, as we have claimed to be, then we have nothing to fear from more diversity and everything to gain.

Indeed, what is happening demographically in the US could perhaps be considered the Last Great Experiment in self-government. Is America committed to its republican principles that span color and creed or are some of us more committed to a majority-white identity? Cities are already the front line in this battle. The Constitution must be on the right side of it.

Cuomo is Full of It On NYCHA and Has Always Been Full of It On Housing

 They haven't aged well (nymag)

They haven't aged well (nymag)

Governor Cuomo is apparently shocked, shocked that NYCHA is crumbling. He has spent the last couple of weeks visiting a few buildings, surrounding himself with cameras, taking shots at Mayor de Blasio, and touting his resolve to bring in more state money. No doubt this money will help residents who have been suffering greatly this winter and beyond, so it is welcome, but the fact that these trips represent the majority that the Governor’s has made to a NYCHA property since he took office in 2011 should tell you all you need to know about his commitment to public housing. The truth is, Governor Cuomo has always been a cynical opportunistic when it comes to housing. He’s built his career on it and hopes to carry it all the way to the White House (he won’t.)

Cuomo rode his name to the top of HUD and then abandoned it’s legacy

It is one of those obvious things that gets lost over time, but Governor Cuomo is Governor Cuomo largely because his father was Governor Cuomo. The son worked on the more popular father’s campaigns and what he lacked in his father’s robust liberal principles, he made up for in sharp insider elbows.

It was housing where Andrew stepped out from his father’s orbit (as much as you would want or need to when your father is a popular governor toying with the presidency) by setting up a non-profit, Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP). The organization did good work then and still does today and I make no suggestions otherwise, but its clear that Cuomo saw housing as a means to score liberal cred while building relationships with powerful developers, a play he has repeated many times since.

This cred led to a position under Mayor Dinkins (where he came into contact with future nemesis Mayor de Blasio) as chair of the Homeless Commission where he backtracked Dinkins housing-first policy goals and claimed that homelessness was a “human” problem not an economic one. 

After Dinkins lost re-election, this “tough thinking” led to a position in the Clinton Administration as an assistant secretary at HUD. His father’s legacy as a working class ethnic liberal from the northeast made his son an easy choice for the southern, conservative Democrat. Both were cynical politicians fluent in empty gestures.

Contrary to his father’s robust liberal legacy, Cuomo’s record at HUD is very similar to his later record as governor — lots of big talk, lots of press coverage, some decent ideas, but little follow-through that would challenge powerful interests in finance or politics. 

He became HUD Secretary in 1997 (Mayor de Blasio was hired to run HUD in NY-NJ) and served till the end of Clinton’s administration very much in the fashion its neoliberal triangulation that has haunted the Democratic Party ever since.

That triangulation helped lead to the Mortgage Crisis in 2008, which Cuomo played a role in creating. While half-heartedly warning against lowering standards for mortgages and against the rise of pernicious lending practices, he raised the benchmarks for banks and Fannie/Freddie to issue more mortgages to lower-income households that the agencies ultimately couldn’t back when the market tanked. Some have argued that he is more responsible for the crisis than any other single person. That might be a stretch, but he has never accounted for his role in the crisis.

He also did nothing for public housing. This is partly because the Clinton Administration embraced homeownership over rental assistance, which itself was very much a bi-partisan standard given the general dominance of conservative ideology during the era, and also because the Clinton triangulation required the deconstruction of the welfare state. Along those lines, public housing was seen as a place people needed to be moved out of, not into.

There were positive efforts to address extremely distressed public housing during the Clinton Administration, but much of it occurred while Governor Cuomo was assistant-secretary in community development. Those efforts lost steam when he became Secretary, despite his claim otherwise

For the most part, HUD abandoned the mission of public housing and oversaw the destruction of many public develops and the withering away of funding for remaining ones. Cuomo didn’t cause the current crisis in NYCHA, but he did nothing to stop the squeezing of federal funds that has crippled it. He has also never accounted for this legacy.

The governor has always been a generic product of the political times he exists in and his effort to promote homeownership (a disaster that both parties were guilty of) along side the Clinton Administration’s dismal record on affordable housing, came at the expense of public housing funding and later the nation’s economy.

Then he rode his housing experience at HUD to Albany and abandoned that

His spotty record at HUD didn’t stop Cuomo from running for governor (again) on his housing cred and name, winning in 2011. Given that he ran on that experience, his subsequent disinterest in housing policy is even more egregious.

He could have used that experience, especially the lessons learned from the crisis, to become a major leader in changing national and state housing policy away from subsidizing homeownership and towards funding sustainable affordable housing by supporting NYCHA, rent regulation laws, and alternative housing policies like community land trusts. His campaign narrative could have turned into transformative, highly-experienced governing.

Instead, Governor Cuomo ignored housing issues. When he did have to address them, he was lukewarm on protecting let alone extending rent regulation laws and unquestionably friendly to subsidizing big developers. His big public talk always resorted back to closed-room deals with private interests. Not surprisingly, that’s why it costs taxpayers $400k–$600k per unit under the Governor’s affordable housing plan.

Governor Cuomo has also completely ignored NYCHA for 7 years. While threatening to declare a state of emergency for the housing authority (which would put its 178,000 homes under state control, bypassing the existing leadership in the agency and the city) and touting an additional $250m for the agency, he keeps reminding us all that the state has no obligation to fund NYCHA. Aside from the obvious shot at Mayor de Blasio, this statement shows on some level the Governor knows his lack of support looks bad. Because it is bad.

It also looks bad that the state had already approved $200 million for NYCHA but hasn’t allocated it. He had previously committed $300m in 2015 that hasn’t materialized yet either. This pattern of promising lots of resources for housing but failing to deliver them is a long-established habit. We should be extremely skeptical that these announcements will turn into funding that helps residents any time soon.

 We should also be concerned that these funds will come with strings attached. He has also already entertained the idea of bringing in private developers if he does declare an emergency. This would only reinforce the perception that for all his talk, he is interested in helping his powerful developer-backers first. Any help for NYCHA residents is welcome, overdue, and deserved, but the fact that we are left to wonder if, when, and to whom it will materialize is a scandal.

NYCHA faces a truly daunting list of challenges, some of which are entirely self-inflicted. But it is short $20 billion dollars in maintenance and capital costs. The Governor’s pledge, especially as the former head of HUD, is a sick joke compared to that.

And now he wants a promotion

Many people have noted that the timing of the Governor’s new found interest in NYCHA comes as he is preparing for re-election and a potential run for the Democratic nomination in 2020 thereafter. He knows Mayor de Blasio is unpopular in many circles (for some self-inflicted reasons, much like NYCHA) and hopes folks that haven’t paid attention to his own indifference for years will see his efforts now and line up to support him. It is an insult to New York voters, but it has worked in the past.

But it’s not clear that Cuomo will get much traction or credit for his intervention in NYCHA now (or how sincere he will even be in the long run). Residents know that as rough as they’ve had it under Mayor de Blasio, they haven’t gotten help from Cuomo. It won’t take much to remind them that Cuomo ignored them at two different jobs.

It will also be fascinating to see what the governor says about rent regulation laws which are up for renewal in Albany again next year. The annual Rent Guidelines Board meetings will be taking place over the next few months and we can expect many advocates to press the Governor on his position now. 

His record, as I’ve already stated, has been dismal. Expect him to tout his support for the laws and to mention his $20 billion five year plan for housing in the state but to angle for concessions to developers as he tried to get during the 421a renewal last year. It could blow up in his face this time.

This is because, after all these years of triangulation, the Governor is in trouble. He had a taste of this last year during the budget shutdown. Whatever he decides to do with NYCHA and rent regulations, he will alienate a key element of his re-election strategy. He needs Democrats, especially progressives, to back him (or at least remain divided), but he also needs his usual wealthy backers. There are few plausible scenarios where he can secure both.

The Governor has never had a strong constituency or political base either in NYC or outside of the city. He has relied on New York’s horrendous voter apathy and deep-pocketed developers to aid his re-election before. Now, however, in the Trump Age, progressives have woken to enemies within both parties and many are gunning for him on the left (even before former-actress, qualified lesbian Cynthia Nixon announced her primary challenge.) Even if he continues his cynical lurch left, very few progressives will buy it and many more voters will be paying closer attention for the first time.

Governor Cuomo’s record on affordable housing is clear. He has been at best indifferent and at worst hostile to policies that don’t include massive subsidies to private developers. Under his administration, help for public housing, rent regulation laws, and alternative housing models like community land trusts has been largely ignored, slow-walked, or superficially supported.

That hasn’t stopped others from acting in his absence, but the lack of leadership has been glaring given that his entire career is based on his alleged housing expertise. Trying to make up for years of indifference now might get him some press, but it won’t erase a career of opportunism around housing. That isn’t the only reason will never be president let alone the nominee in 2020, but it might very well jeopardize him even in 2018.

Making the City’s Vacant Land Work for the Public (via Gotham Gazette)

 (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

(photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

This post was first published in Gotham Gazette

Last month, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced that it selected developers to build affordable housing on 87 city-owned vacant lots, which could produce almost 500 affordable homes. This came the day after Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report criticizing the city for moving slowly on developing such lots.

As New York City staggers through the unrelenting affordable housing, homelessness, and displacement crises this plan is a missed opportunity that we can not tolerate. The city has repeatedly squandered the most value asset - land - it has in fighting these crises. Instead of giving away these vacant lots, the city should keep them and create a public land trust.

New York City owns 1,125 vacant lots. For decades it has relied on an insider-favoring process that turns over vacant properties to private developers and some non-profit developers. That number doesn't include city-owned distressed properties, which is bound to spike as foreclosures are nearing great recession levels. In either case, the transfer comes with laughable requirements for (and definitions of) affordable housing.

This process is the result of a long retreat from the public ambition that defined New York City during its period of great growth in the first half of the 20th century. An activist city government - albeit one tainted by machine politics and systemic racism - built institutions that expanded the very idea of what public life could be and made modern New York City possible. That all ended in the 1970s and left subsequent leaders wary of ambitious public growth and reliant on powerfully connected private actors.

This must change. Our over-reliance on the private market has demonstrably failed the public interest and carries much of the blame for the mess we are in.

Using the community land trust model, the city should retain ownership of the land - removing it from the speculative market that drives up prices - and contract out development based on a fixed equity model that incentivizes construction while limiting costs. It would then directly own and manage this housing stock, guaranteeing that 100% of it is permanently affordable for low- and middle-income households.

Make no mistake, what I am suggesting is public housing. A new, 21st century form that avoids the previous century’s mistakes of massive public housing developments while retaining its public virtues.

Public housing, for all of its problems (thanks to a loss of $1 billion in federal funding since 2000, with more reductions on the way), is still the best vehicle for providing New Yorkers with sustainable affordable housing.

Despite its operational failures, NYCHA currently offers an average monthly rent of $509 to over 400,000 New Yorkers in 176,000 homes and has a waiting list of 257,000 families. Public housing works and we need more of it.

A public land trust that takes advantage of small-site development on vacant lots would work even better as a public housing model in today's economic, political, and social landscape. Instead of the discredited 'shotgun' approach of megablock development that destroyed existing communities while isolating its newly created ones, this approach would be a syringe-sized injection of affordability into existing communities and landscapes.

Neighbors would barely notice the physical changes while enjoying the practical protections of permanent affordability taking root across individual sites. Most of these lots are in distressed neighborhoods that are at high risk of displacement as speculative developers (many of them private equity firms) swoop in. The best, fastest way to address displacement in these neighborhoods is through public-owned land anchoring their development.

The community land trust model works, too. It has successfully provided permanent affordability across the United States for decades, notably in Burlington, Vermont (initially supported by then-mayor Bernie Sanders) and in Dudley Square in Boston (created by local residents who were granted eminent domain). Even here in New York City, the city's first trust, Cooper Square, has quietly managed hundreds of homes in the Lower East Side as a community land trust since 1994.

Speaking of Cooper Square, through its efforts along with the New Economy Project and NYCCLI, the community land trust model has finally started to get the attention it deserves in New York. Last year HPD and Community Enterprises announced $1.65 million in initial funding for the creation of new CLTs and training programs. Many elected officials like Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Members Donovan Richards and Margaret Chin, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have all worked to expand CLTs in the city.

These developments represent the chance for a fundamental shift in how to create permanent affordable housing in New York City. The land trust model does not rely on excessive tax-subsidies to private developers, flimsy definitions of affordability, or unenforceable protections for maintaining affordability over time. It is simple and sustainable. We should all be excited that the city finally sees this as a viable policy tool.

However, if Mayor de Blasio wants to deliver on his promise to build or protect 300,000 affordable housing units while also recommitting to public housing and NYCHA, he should take the next step by transferring the city’s many vacant lots into a public land trust.

We know the model works. The city knows the model works. Usually the hardest part is acquiring the land, but the city already has it. There is nothing to stop a public land trust from getting into the fight.

New York City was once capable of envisioning and delivering bold progress for the public good. We need this again, updated for the 21st century. The mayor has at the very least claimed this rhetoric and along the way tapped into a respondent audience in many corners of the city. Now it is time to act.

Debunking “Tech Will Save Cities”

 Peter Thiel's Dream City - no government, no poor people (smartcityhub)

Peter Thiel's Dream City - no government, no poor people (smartcityhub)

This weekend Emily Badger posted a great story in the New York Times on the supremely stupid concept that pops up across the media and tech landscape about how Tech Saviors (be it individuals or companies) are going to save cities. No, they will not.

Beyond that first point, I’ve gathered a list of things for everybody to keep in mind when reading these stories. Hopefully this will also reach people writing them. I have no illusions that it will reach any of these tech people or companies or that it will change their minds. But if it helps others ignore or stop these clowns, that’s fine.

1. Cities Don’t Need Saving

Cities in America have a variety of problems for sure (and they vary a lot based on size and region.) But it’s important to reject the basic premise that they need to be saved.

This kind of thinking justified disastrous top-down urban renewal projects that devastated cities in the 20th century and betrayed their residents (especially the poor and people of color). Many of our cities’ current problems come from past efforts to ‘save’ them.

“Saving” in this context always seems to exclude or dismiss the agency of the people living in these cities and the institutions that serve them. It’s akin to imperialist European language of “discovering” or “civilizing” North America. No, they didn’t.

Starting with this premise erases the people, institutions, and ideas that are already working to improve cities and will almost by definition lead to solutions that ignore them and their needs.

2. Tech People Aren’t Saviors

The savior complex is rampant in tech culture. Sure, some of this is earnest entrepreneurism and marketing moxie that attracts investors, press, and consumers. Some of it is based on sincerely transformative technology that creates transformative products and services. Some is based on techtopia futurism that believes in positive humanist progress.

But a lot of it is simply bullshit. Bullshit based on a toxic combination of ahistorical libertarianism and insular class privilege. My descriptors here are largely redundant. It’s painfully obvious that anyone holding libertarian beliefs (basically the keystone of Silicon Valley) is ignorant of history and misreading present reality. It’s equally obvious that the upper class (mostly white, mostly male) that dominates tech is insular and profoundly unaware of the consequences of its privilege (although that is slowly starting to dawn on them.)

These same people with these same ideas and pronouncements are the ones that have created the products, services, and behaviors that are currently helping to rip apart the civic fabric of our country and drive up extreme inequality. What’s worse, the initial intellectual small/closed mindedness that created these products has given way to a vast commercial oligopoly that has little incentive or ability to fundamentally fix these problems.

After all this, surely we know better than to trust tech to save us. It will be us that needs to save tech from itself.

3. Technology Won’t Save Cities

It’s bad enough that urban planners speak in technocratic language devoid of values, but it flat out scares me when tech people speak about cities like they are engineering problems.

The core problem of this language is the implicit assumption that there is a right way to engineer cities or that there is an optimal state for how cities should function. It also implies that the existing systems and people running them are doing things wrong.

But these existing systems and people are products of a democratic process (however flawed) that is the only basis for governing legitimacy in our society.

To tech saviors, at best that doesn’t seem to compute or at worst it is part of the problem. This is techno-fascism. Democratic legitimacy is an afterthought in this mindset because it is assumed that of course there is a right way to run things and of course they know better than everyone else what that is.

That’s not how cities work. They are supposed to be contested spaces. The “right way” to run a city is to build a solution that has as much input and consensus as possible, with everybody knowing that it will never be perfect and then getting on with it. It’s messy, but that’s the only legitimate way to maintain a society. If you think technology can replace that, then you don’t respect people and democracy, let alone cities.

There are certainly better ways to organize existing systems and processes within cities — to help them reach more people, perform their tasks cheaper or faster, or to create more of them. Technology can obviously help. No one riding the MTA right now would disagree that it needs upgraded technology and a new leadership structure.

But technology is a means to an end. When we overemphasize the technology part, we fail to define what the end result will be. Who controls this technology? Who runs this technology? Who is served by this technology? Who profits from it? Too often, new technology leads to a smaller, exclusive power center calling the shots for all of us, which leads us to the next point.

4. Tech Doesn’t Want “Better” Cities

For all it’s rhetoric of individual freedom, greater connection, and meritocracy, tech culture actually translates into a rejection of the public sphere and a worship of the Ayn Randian hero-dictator instead.

Big tech in practice fetishizes the private consumer and fears the public citizen.

We may all be on Facebook, have Amazon Prime, and use gmail, but we have individual relationships with those companies. We have very little control as individuals or as a group over what Facebook, Amazon, or Google does or doesn’t do (as is the case with most technology platforms). We are consumers first and only. Their business models rely on that to a disturbing degree.

These companies don’t really want us to act as citizens because a citizen would be skeptical of or outright hostile to the power of these platforms over our public and private life. It would be healthier for society, not so much for the bottomline.

This is especially true in cities, where, if we bother to look, we can easily see how dominant these companies are and how problematic it is. Whether it’s horrible labor practices, creepy privacy issues, or monopolistic bullying, their business models have negative consequences for our society.

Addressing those consequences takes public action. And it could mean a potentially painful loss of economic clout for these companies. There is no way they would willingly help cities at the expense of their shareholders and we shouldn’t expect them to.

All of this is to say that if tech saviors really cared about cities, they would speak in terms of supporting the public life that sustains urban life — both through improving the public institutions that provide services and by helping citizens engage with government and each other. Tech culture isn’t doing that because its business ethos can’t allow it to.

5. Building “New Cities” Isn’t a Thing

Most tech saviors recognize this problem on some level. They don’t want to engage with these existing messy systems in cities and don’t actually have answers for how to ‘save’ them.

For Amazon and Google, this means asking cities instead to hand over large chunks of land, public money, and governing power. Google is doing this in Toronto. Amazon will be doing this somewhere near DC (sorry other finalists, not gonna happen.)

For others, it means trying to build entirely new cities or by influencing developing cities outside of America. The former is an act of folly that ignores geographical legacies that foster development (cities pretty much already exist where they should) and even an elementary school-level awareness of environmental concerns. The later is an act of racist imperialism that shouldn’t be entertained and instead should be punished for believing.

In either case, the fact that most tech saviors don’t imagine engaging with existing cities and residents reveals the fundamental arrogance of this exercise: they aren’t designing these cities for real people living in real cities (definitely not the poor most of all). They might as well keep focusing on Mars.

We have hopefully learned from the mistakes of past policy makers and planners to dismiss the idea of saving cities. We have learned from the mistakes of current tech companies to believe that they are any better.

But at the heart of it, we shouldn’t entertain the grand savior mythology because it allows us to ignore the many small public and private actors that are on the ground helping their cities right now. We need to help these people and these institutions because they actually want to help us.

Planning Report Favors Process Over Values, No Wonder No One Listens

 (inclusivecityreport)

(inclusivecityreport)

A report released last week titled “Inclusive City” outlined an extensive plan to redesign land-use policy and related community engagement in NYC. It is the result of a large working group established last year that included elected officials, community groups, professionals, and advocates all tasked with addressing the very serious issues of environmental impact, displacement pressures, and community control.

The practical goals as stated in the report are to create a more inclusive, comprehensive, and equitable land-use planning process that will ultimately allow community input in zoning decisions to build more affordable housing. It has a number of admirable recommendations, particularly around adopting New Jersey’s “cross acceptance” process of combining top-down and bottom-up planning strategies. There is a lot to like in this report in terms of process.

However, the report fails on a basic level that speaks to a broader problem in the neo-liberal technocratic model: values. First, what are the core public-minded values that can be achieved through better land-use planning? More importantly, in the larger sense, what is the role of our city self-government in defining and supporting the public good?

On closer reading, this report doesn’t have a clear answer. This harms the potential impact of the report, but it also harms our ability to identify and address the larger problems facing our city.

This is a problem that we are seeing play out at the local level and the national level with increasingly scary implications. Without clearly defined public-minded values serving as the organizing structure and source or legitimacy of our self-government, trust in that government process continues to erode dangerously. The anti-public values that fill that vacuum are even more dangerous to the public good.

As an example at the national level, most people would broadly agree that we share certain universal public-minded values: we are all created equal, no one is above or below the law, we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These values were enshrined in the structure of our government (obviously not perfectly, consistently, or universally.)

However, the explosion of inequality over the last 40 years (you know, that whole thing about how 82% of stock is owned by 10% of Americans that made the news this week) and subsequent anger and disillusionment across many corners of the population exposed that, in practice, our national government has ceased to subscribe to those public values. When Congress talks about tax cuts or healthcare, whatever process-based discussion on benefits they turn to doesn’t ring true to most of us; rightfully so. Our national government is anti-public.

Though our national government might be failing public-minded values, not surprisingly it is very successful at supporting private profit-seeking values. But let’s be clear, favoring private interest over the public good is not an American value. Promoting the public good through the protection of private interest certainly is. That distinction has been lost in our contemporary society and we are all suffering for it.

The problem is that this erosion of pubic-minded values has coincided with the rise of technocratic methods in governing. The sophistication of processcreates the impression of greater public oversight but has actually baked in the anti-public values that undermine it.

This is my problem with the report. It first lays out a clear rationale for the problems with the current planning process: it is inconsistent across neighborhoods; it favors wealthier communities over poorer ones; it provides limited resources and recourse for neighborhood groups. It then proposes specific changes and strategies to address them that include all stakeholders. This is all true and good, but to what end? I don’t know. The process is the point of this report.

This is backwards. The values informing the process should be the point of the report. I don’t get a sense of what a better planning process will do to materially improve the major problems in the city — a lack of affordable housing leading to greater displacement, a lack of resources for public infrastructure leading to a lower quality of life and opportunity, an inability to plan ahead on climate change and other long-term issues that existentially threaten our future.

I’m not saying a better planning process won’t do that. I know it will. But I know what “better” mean to me. People reading this will say “of course the report talks about values” and, yes, it is even titled “Inclusive City” and talks about how it wants more community engagement, buy-in, and control. Inclusivity, decentralization, transparency — they certainly sound like values. But in reality, they are more Stephen Colbert “value-y” terms than actual value claims.

The authors of the report believe that a more open rezoning process is good because it encourages inclusivity. They believe that inclusivity is good because it creates more faith in government process. More faith in government process creates a shared vision for the future of the city.

Setting aside the potential challenges in executing these recommendations or if they would even address the bigger problems they aim to, none of this articulates what any of these authors think the vision of the city should be, why we should have faith in government process, and why we need that process to be inclusive.

Perhaps those values could be something like “because the city has an obligation to provide the basic foundations of prosperity. That all citizens — especially the wealthy — have an obligation to the city and each other. Because there should be more public-ownership of land and resources. Because the only way self-government has legitimacy is if it is pursuing the public good as defined by the engaged public.” That’s just one idea, but I get what a better planning process is trying to achieve then.

This report also commits another common technocratic error. It, perhaps strangely given its focus, ignores the anti-public values that in practice have created our city’s land-use problems in the first place (and presumably undermined the success of the current planning regime). It alludes to the current, flawed process but doesn’t name names as to who benefits and why. Clearly some people are benefiting under this system.

We can only really understand what this report is trying to change and if it is serious about doing so if it does challenge those that benefit from the current system. Without doing so, the process lets those actors and those anti-public values off the hook. This, unfortunately and perhaps unintentionally, reinforces the basic operating premise of anti-public values that allow that small group of private actors to benefit over the general public good in the first place.

The other related problem is that by not calling them out, the report might (again, perhaps unintentionally) allow the casual reader (or voter) to innocently assume that this report is on the pubic good side, while it’s nebulous value claims actually just allow the status quo to remain in place.

The average citizen knows how hard living in NYC is, how much inequality there is, but she can’t reasonably be expected to know how land-use policy impacts that. The authors of this report do know (or should know) but fail us by not using their expertise to articulate it and how to fix it. We need them to speak up for the public and the public good. That means speaking out against people that oppose it.

Will more community control reduce displacement? Maybe, but what is the community and who gets to define it in any given neighborhood? This report doesn’t say. Will a more inclusive planning process create a more legitimate city government? This report doesn’t say what gives government legitimacy in the first place. If it is still ultimately serving private interest over public interest, who cares if the public has a nominally greater opportunity to weigh in? The powerful will still prevail and the public will still suffer.

We only need to look at previous technocratic revolutions in NYC to see that we’ve had this problem before. In 1975 — after the fallout of Robert Moses slash and burn development era — NYC created the modern community boardmodel and ULURP process (which were again reformed in 1989.) These reforms were also about improving process and about inclusivity, decentralization, and transparency. This is the process that now needs a new process.

The city does need a new land-use process. The city needs smart, engaged, and trained people to help craft it. We are lucky that so many people are already at the public’s disposal and willing to try. But we must have public-minded values that create the legitimacy of our self-government define the goals that any process should achieve. Without them, process won’t matter. Indeed, without them, process is just a weapon used against the public.

Counting the Homeless and the Ways We All Fail Them

 (Lawrence'sLense via CityLimits)

(Lawrence'sLense via CityLimits)

(This piece originally appeared in CityLimits) 

Last Monday, a record 4,200 volunteers fanned out across the five boroughs to count how many homeless New Yorkers live outside of the city’s shelter system. The effort was part of the national Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) and has been conducted annually through the Department of Homeless Services since 2005. I don’t know if the numbers are available yet, but last year, 3,900 individuals were counted.

Many of these victims are probably known to DHS, but getting an accurate count of the unsheltered homeless helps identity people that might not know what services are available to them. In addition to the survey, we arrange for anyone who is interested to get picked up and driven to a shelter and we distribute information about comfort centers around the city. On a practical level, the count also sets the amount of additional federal funding the city gets for homeless services — and the city needs all the help it can get.

This is my second year volunteering and, as someone who writes about housing issues a lot, I have been following the shocking rise in homelessness in New York since the Great Recession with increasing alarm. There are 61,000 people in the city’s homeless shelters, the vast majority of them women and children. That is a staggering amount of suffering.

HOPE has put this broader crisis into very concrete and intimate terms for me, as I’m sure it has for all of the volunteers. It has made me stop thinking about homelessness as one big crisis and forced me instead to see what it really is: 61,000 individual crises. It’s all too easy for us not see it that way.

We dehumanize, demonize, and demoralize the homeless in New York City. We dehumanize by referring to them as “the homeless,” a thought-terminating phrase that hides more relevant descriptors like “PTSD-suffering veteran,” “abuse victim,” “addict,” or “mentally/physically-disabled.” And of course, all of these should be further qualified by adding “poor.”

We demonize every time we object to homeless shelters in our neighborhoods. Some argue about a flawed “process” of community engagement, some about the unfair distribution of shelters in poorer neighborhoods. Whatever validity these arguments have doesn’t erase the fact that most of us don’t want homeless people, especially men, around because we are afraid of them and disgusted by them — ignoring the fact that they are the ones who are more likely to be victims of crime and abuse. Our property values will be fine.

We demoralize them because there is no end to this and they know it better than anyone. Imagine the catastrophic events that led someone to being homeless and how that would weigh on that person. Imagine enduring the cycle of shame, confusion, and despair that comes with navigating the limited resources of our shelters and social services. Then imagine that there is no end in sight.

Many of the sheltered homeless are women with children fleeing an abusive home. Many cycle through to supportive homes and on to permanent ones. No doubt there is hope. Tangible, obtainable hope. We should be hearing more about these stories because they are important to champion.

But for too many, especially the people that I have met canvassing for HOPE, where is the actual hope? Are they going to get the medical and mental care they need? Are they going to get the support from the community they deserve? Are they ever going to get a safe, reliable home?

I would be lying if I told any of these men — and I know for sure that I recognized some of them from last year — that I thought so. Maybe they will, but I don’t know. They know better than I do. Many of them were appreciative of our efforts, but in a knowing way that at times made it feel like they were trying to comfort us.

So I’d like to say that participating in HOPE makes me feel good and to an extent it does. I am helping and it does matter. I don’t know how the people of DHS, the NYPD, and other outreach groups manage this on a day-to-day basis. Maybe, at least for one night, I’m helping them carry the weight just a little. I hope that helps too.

But mostly, when I get home at 4 a.m., I feel exhausted, angry, and full of shame. I am not doing enough. We are not doing enough.

I said earlier that I now feel like there are 61,000 crises instead of one big one. But there is one big crisis. Our economic system is obviously failing most of us. Until we fix capitalism — or whatever bizarro form of it we are fooled into accepting — too many New Yorkers will suffer. We are all partaking in a system that demands the dehumanization, demonization, and demoralization of all the poor and vulnerable. Right now, we accept that.

It’s easy to blame the homeless and keep on walking down Broadway. It’s easy to blame the feds for not sending enough funding or the mayor for botching the shelter system and volunteer one night of the year. But these are our sins. I hope that more of us see that because if we do, I know we can change it.

Why Tenants Everywhere Should be Excited About the California Housing Proposal

 The status quo must change, and maybe it is (mercurynews)

The status quo must change, and maybe it is (mercurynews)

Recently, Scott Weiner, a California state senator from San Francisco, proposed several truly radical housing bills. One would remove local land-use controls and establish density minimums around transit, one would create more worker-specific housing, and another would reshape how local data gets used to determine housing allocations. All three would basically do the opposite of what California has done over the last half century and represents a truly exciting reboot for housing policy with implications beyond the state.

Of course, radical change brings lots of resistance, especially from homeowners. Without being familiar with California politics, I can’t speak to the chances of these bills passing, but in a very important way, it doesn’t matter. At this stage in the affordable housing crisis, the fact that such a radical bill has entered the discussion in California should have tenants everywhere excited.

That’s because the most important part about these bill proposals is how radical they are. Housing advocates need to reject the housing policy status quo. Namely, we must evolve away from deferring to the market worship that frames every discussion (which needlessly creates economic and political winners and losers that harm the public interest) and instead embrace larger principles like housing as a right, which creates a shared vision that strengthens the public interest.

You do this by actually proposing huge, far-reaching visions for housing and outlining simple, clear goals that can achieve them. Senator Weiner has made an important contribution to this effort and, perhaps, has shown the way for more state leaders to follow. Here are three key ideas:

  1. Rolling back the power of homeowners

The first bill, SB-827, would supersede any local development restrictions about height and density close to public transportation centers. I’ll talk about the transit next, but the most important aspect of this bill is creating the precedent to override the power of local homeowners to block development in their cities or towns in the interest of creating more affordable housing.

I’ve written a ton about how policies favoring homeownership have been adisaster for the US. They were demonstrably based on racism; they created shocking economic and social inequalities; and they have caused lasting environmental damage that has also paralyzed our built environment.

All of these problems have manifested into the repressive, anti-democratic power that homeowners have to prevent development near them, which hurts all non-homeowners (and some less connected homeowners). Nowhere has this been worse than in California, where low-density single-family housing still dominates most of the state, especially in economically productive places like Silicon Valley.

Because we treat housing more like an asset than a consumable good, homeowners are incentivized to protect/promote the value of their property. This almost always means restricting what gets built around them out of fear that it would lower property values. And this almost always means passing highly-restrictive land-use policies that go far beyond their original intent of protecting people from pollution, noise, or other nuisances.

These policies typically favor ownership over renting, low-density over high-density, and restricted development rights over as-of-right development. Often they are presented as benign intentions towards preserving the character of the neighborhood, controlling traffic and road safety, or maintaining neighborhood control. But, at its core, they are about protecting or enhancing the wealth of a few incumbent property owners.

The end result is homeowners, through pliable or aligned local governments, are allowed to veto development (public or private) and to block other people from living in their communities. Especially in places like Silicon Valley, thiskills the economic and social mobility that has defined American opportunity in previous generations.

SB-829 will be the biggest political fight of the three bills because it attacks the largely-accepted concept that homeowners have the divine right to dictate development in their towns or cities. But overcoming this misguided and abused view is the first dragon that must be slain to change the housing debate in the US.

2. Combining housing policy with transportation policy

In addition to overriding local land-use control, SB-827 creates a proper incentive (indeed, a mandate) to build close to public transportation. Under the proposal, developers can build tall buildings, denser streetscapes, and fewer parking options as-of-right within 1/2 mile of transit stations or 1/3 mile of frequent bus routes. In fact, the proposal has mandatory minimums for heights and density in these zones.

This has an obvious virtuous cycle. Public transportation is designed to support high-density populations. The more you can build around it, the more people will use it, and the more an area will prosper (see NYC). This creates a more diverse housing stock which allows a more diverse group of people and businesses to cluster in more parts of the state. It’s estimated that the proposal could create an additional 3 million units in these zones across the state. That would almost single-handedly solve the affordable housing crisis in California.

As much as California is portrayed as a car-crazy, traffic-inundated dystopia, this bill rightfully recognizes that many major urban centers already have extensive transit systems or at least the foundation for them. However, ridership on the Metro, BART, and Caltrain, are all declining. This is because the lack of density near lines and stations severely limits these systems’ viability for many residents. If you have to drive to a transit station, you might as well just keep driving to your destination.

With this bill, more people could live closer to these already-functioning stations. Increased ridership and development would create more incentive to invest in and expand these systems across the state. The environmental and social benefits of reduced car dependency would have its own virtuous cycle.

The importance of thinking about housing policy and transportation policy together is the larger principle articulated in this bill and it should be central to all housing advocates’ arguments. Whether you are making a moral argument or an economic argument for housing, transportation should be central to it.

3. Helping every type of tenant and holding every type of town accountable

SB-827 is getting a lot of attention, but the other two bills both have far reaching implications for building more housing for more types of tenants. SB-829 allows farmers to use parts of their land to develop worker housing as-a-right. SB-828, changes the standards for how each city/town collects data required for affordable housing allotment. In both cases, this shows that a comprehensive housing vision can help all constituencies, especially under-represented tenants.

Agriculture makes up a huge part of the California economy. (It shouldn’t, but this isn’t the time/place for that argument, see Cadillac Desert). This requires a considerable amount of low-income, seasonal labor that falls on immigrant (and in some cases, illegal) working populations that deserve, safe, affordable housing too. Many rural communities resist worker-housing for the same NIBMYist reasons (and in some cases, racist reasons) that bigger cities resist density. Senator Weiner is showing a crucial, broad commitment to higher principles of affordable housing that aims to reach all tenants.

SB-828 goes a step even further by changing how housing goals are determined for each city and town through the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). Currently, this system is easily gamed by many wealthier towns that get lower allotments while poorer, less connected cities or towns get a higher allotment. This allows some towns to escape development, while raising displacement pressure on others.

The bill would create a streamlined, consistent data collection and analysis process that would create more equity in development across the state. Development can’t just happen near transit centers and can’t just happen near easily-displaced populations. It must be spread across all communities, especially in wealthier ones.

I hope that these bills get serious consideration in Sacramento. There are many reasons to support them and many allies in the state to help do so. Even if they fall short right now (which is no sure thing) they have begun the bigger process of reframing the housing debate in the state that might be suffering the worst from the affordable housing crisis. The rest of us should take noticeand start forming similar plans in our own backyards.

NY Times (as usual) Misses Real "Bomb" in Story on NYCHA Heat Failure

 Shola Olatoye visiting an emergency command center at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven (facebook/nycha)

Shola Olatoye visiting an emergency command center at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven (facebook/nycha)

As the Bomb Cyclone continues to squat on much of the Northeast, bone-chilling temperatures have made being outside highly dangerous. Unfortunately, for too many NYCHA residents, it has also been dangerous inside. According to the New York Times, the heating systems in at least 35 buildings (out of 2,462) have failed leaving as many as 15,000 residents without heat at some point during the week leading up to and during the storm.

Though NYCHA has set up Warming Centers for residents and appears to be restoring heat in a methodical manner, the Times (as usual) ignores the larger story: The funding bomb dropped by the federal government on NYCHA.

I don’t want to excuse NYCHA management. It is unacceptable not to provide heat for residents. It’s fair to suspect human and system error (and even negligence) somewhere on the tactical level be it in inspecting, reporting, or communication.

NYCHA has had a history of mismanagement (though it doesn’t get enough credit for a vastly improved operation in recent years) and, most recently, it lied about federal lead inspections. This scandal does not get Chair Shola Olatoye or NYCHA leadership much sympathy this time around.

That being said, the article demonstrates a larger problem with how the media covers public housing by ignoring the larger landscape NYCHA exists in and by consciously or subconsciously projecting ideological bias against it.

The Dickensian narrative of public housing

First of all, the media rarely covers public housing. For every dubious or class-blind trend piece the Times publishes on real estate, it only focuses on NYCHA when something goes really wrong.

I include “really” because a lot goes wrong with NYCHA on a daily basis. But because these are generally chronic problems facing poor people, the media ignores them. (Crime-related stories of course get plenty of coverage.)

NYCHA is the largest and oldest public housing authority in the country and serves over 400,000 residents in 178,000 units across 2,462 buildings. Of course being that big and old means having a lot of problems. Perhaps the biggest problem is the estimated $17 billion capital shortfall that leaves much of its infrastructure in dire condition (and susceptible to private appropriation, but more on that later.)

While the media ignores the chronic problems facing public housing, it feasts on acute events like the heat failure. As a result, the only time public housing is on the public radar, it is presented as a Dickensian hellhole run by at best helpless or at worst negligent public employees populated by equally helpless poor people.

The heat failure is an important story and I don’t want to appear to downplay the suffering of residents during a historically cold storm, but is an issue in basically 1% of NYCHA buildings a sign of massive systemic collapse?

Not only does this narrative rob NYHCA employees and residents of their agency, it also completely obscures the source of these problems: the federal government, which has abandoned public housing and its residents.

The federal government has cut off over $1 billion dollars of operating support for NYCHA over the last decade as well as $300 million in capital support. The Trump Administration is also attempting to cut another $300 million this year. NYCHA gets 2/3s of its $3.2 billion annual operating budget from the federal government. It is a testament to the agency that it has survived this assault at all.

I don’t understand how any reporter could write about the problems facing NYCHA and not frame it through this information, which explains many of them. The article only vaguely references this funding collapse through a single quote from Public Advocate Letitia James. That’s an unacceptable oversight.

And the ideological contempt underneath it

Part of the explanation, no doubt, lies in an ideological bias against public housing that much of the media landscape is guilty of consciously or subconsciously. This bias comes at least in part from the basic economics of the media industry.

There is a fascinating history of real estate developers creating, owning, or buying local news outlets to further their interests. The playbook has been to concern troll about homelessness, crime, and radical activism to provide public cover for the state (the police, mostly, but also zoning) to pacify neighborhoods in order to take control and redevelop. For a contemporary example, Jared Kushner bought the New York Observer in 2006 and the paper subsequently started bashing homelessness in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village where his family owns 40% of the housing stock.

A more benign but no less compromising factor is the reliance that many media outlets have on real estate advertising. Historically, real estate listingsand classified ads were a major source of revenue for local newspapers. The latter has collapsed, but the former has increased in importance. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal have put greater emphasis on digital real estate ads and digital real estate products.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy or underhandedness against public housing by the media or the Times specifically. But the media’s basic business model gives it no incentive to support public housing practically or philosophically.

Whether it’s trying to sell ads about real estate or luxury cars, the Times in particular is seeking an affluent audience that high-dollar advertisers crave. That affluent audience either doesn’t care about public housing or actively opposes it. It’s impossible to ignore that this basic logic informs the operation of the paper, from what writers get hired, to what stories get pursued and published.

This ideological bias also informs how NYCHA’s funding shortfalls are presented when they are written about. I mentioned earlier that NYCHA faces a $17 billion capital funding gap. Making the case for increased federal funding is never seriously considered in the media. Instead, the only viable solution presented is public private partnerships, which many advocates fear is just a dress rehearsal for future privatization (it is.)

Framing this issue so narrowly limits the ability for the public to consider alternative options or to even know that they exist (they do.) It also handicaps progressive elected officials, empowers conservative ones, and lets most of them off the hook entirely.

What we as the public are left with is a woefully incomplete view of the problems facing public housing and a suspiciously uncritical view of why those problems exist. This allows a deeply flawed narrative about public housing to dominate public perception and to frame policy discussions.

Just as critically, we are never shown why public housing exists, why it is a public good worthy of our support, and how successful it has been. There are just as many stories about the amazing things NYCHA does as an organization (especially given its funding restraints) and just as many amazing stories about NYCHA residents that tell a more complete story of public housing in the US.

Right now, too many NYCHA residents are cold. We must hold NYCHA accountable to fix this as soon as possible. But we must hold ourselves accountable too. We can’t allow the media to ignore the larger ‘silent bombs’ of poverty, sickness, and economic isolation that plague many NYCHA residents — any many other New Yorkers– everyday.

3 Anti-Market Victories for NYC Affordable Housing in 2017

 Tenants and advocates had real success this year (ANHD)

Tenants and advocates had real success this year (ANHD)

For affordable housing advocates in New York City, 2017 was a sum-of-all-fears kind of year. The affordable housing crisis continues to touch all corners of the city (and America) leading to a shocking increase in homelessness, foreclosures, and rent burdens. The election of Donald Trump and the placement of Dr. Ben Carson at HUD have expedited the federal retreat from housing aid and removed the possibility of national solutions for affordable housing (and for helping NYCHA.) Finally, the squabbling of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo has nearly paralyzed efforts for reform and relief at the state level.

But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Largely through the tireless efforts of local tenants and advocates, the cause has seen several key victories at the city-level. 

Further more, these three victories show that even modest tweaks to the existing political and legal framework can lay the foundation for the type of profound change that we need to address the crisis at a structural level. Namely, we need to reject the market ideology that has caused the crisis and continues to exploit it.

1. Community Land Trusts have arrived as a powerful affordability tool

Any reader of this blog knows how important homeBody thinks community land trusts are to ensuring permanent affordable housing in the city. CLTs separate the value of the land from the value of the structure on it by placing the property in a trust, permanently removing it from speculation. After many years of organizing by NYCCLI and New Economy Project, it finally seems that NYC gets it too.

In July, the Department of Housing and Preservation announced a request for information on CLTs for the first time and has partnered with Enterprise Community Partners NYC to offer $1.65 million for the formation of three new CLTs in the city: Interboro CLT, El Barrio, and a brand new coalition CLT through NYCCLI.

Just last week, the City Council passed a law recognizing CLTs in the city’s administrative code, which opens them up to working with city agencies on a more formal basis.

These are modest steps, but incredibly important ones in helping the model take off in the city. The fact that it has taken almost a decade for these measures to happen, shows what a slog it has been. But it also shows how quickly things are starting to happen.

Building off of Cooper Union (the first and longest tenured CLT in the city), the newest CLTs have a long way to go to grow, but the necessary roadmap, administrative tools, and advocacy groups now in place will help to do so.

The hope now is that other community organizations will become aware of the model and have the tools to go forward with their own CLT. I also hope that the city beings to think seriously about turning over city-owned land to CLTs or even forming a municipal land trust as quasi-public housing.

Either way, introducing a model that removes speculation on land values in the city is a major win for affordable housing and sustainable communities.

2. Right-to-Counsel will prevent evictions and reshape housing court

In August, the city radically reshaped its housing court structure by becoming the first city in the US to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants in eviction fights. For a relatively modest $155 million over 5 years in legal aid, tenants that were previously outgunned in housing court now have a greater chance of avoiding eviction altogether. As of 2015, 90% of landlords had legal representation, while only 10% of tenants did. This rebalancing will have a profound impact on the cost to families facing homelessness.

With the homeless population now exceeding 60,000 people in NYC, keeping families in their current homes also becomes the most important homeless policy tool for the city. Right-to-counsel will reduce the cost of providing homeless services by an estimated $320 million and will hopefully alleviate some of the political pressure associated with homeless shelters and clustering that is crippling the city’s ability to meet the sadly growing homeless population. Keeping families in homes is the key.

The larger hope with this move is to alleviate the equally crippling pressure on the housing court division. There were over 350,00 filings last year for only 50 judges. This backlog locks thousands of landlords and tenants in slow proceedings that ultimately undermine the ability for the city to ensure transparency and accountability. The rule of law is only as good as a government’s ability to enforce it and creating more balance on the tenant side will hopefully recalibrate this dynamic for the better.

3. No Harassment Certification is a small step towards decommodifying housing

The other big development on enforcement occurred at the end of November, when the City Council passed the Certificate of No Harassment (CONH) legislation, largely through the efforts of ANHD. This law, along with the larger Stand for Tenant Safety package also passed this year, aims to stop the common and pernicious practice of landlords harassing rent-regulated tenants out of their units in order to increase profits.

With the skyrocketing value of property across every borough, there is large incentive for speculators to buy a building and force out rent-regulated tenants. The goal in many cases is to either demolish a building or increase the rent-roll in order to flip it. This practice has been difficult for tenants and the city to prevent.

The CONH is intended to disincentivize this speculation by putting the pressure on landlords to prove that they are not harassing tenants. Buildings that fall into certain categories of risk (related to speculation) must receive this certificate if they are to begin construction projects or otherwise impact the quality of life of existing tenants.

It is ultimately still just a speed bump rather than a roadblock against speculation, but it shows that tenants and advocates fighting back against more powerful financial interests can win. Removing the worst actors from the housing market by raising the risk and cost of harassment is a necessary first step in radically reforming the property landscape in NYC.

 

I don’t want to suggest that these three events were the only “victories.” There are other events this year that I could have spoken about, such as Mayor de Blasio’s Housing 2.0 plan for his second term, or Governor Cuomo’s new housing budget.

However, I chose them because these three items speak to the larger hope that we can reduce the suppressive power that “the market” has over our housing discussions. Market solutions have their place in any affordable housing policy discussion but only after we reposition the basic premise of housing as a basic right.

Speculation destroys cities by devouring neighborhoods and dehumanizing housing. It really is that simple. Treating housing as an asset-first policy has led us to the affordable housing crisis and has scarred many communities in NYC, perhaps permanently.

If enough people force the discussion on housing to return it to shelter-first, we absolutely can find practical and lasting solutions to the affordable housing crisis. As many tenants and advocates have shown this year, it is also absolutely possible.

In America, There Isn't an Inn (or Even an Airbnb) to Begin With

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 4.20.13 PM.png

It is snowing today in NYC, the first of the season. As a New Englander originally, I can’t help but have the same childlike glee and wonder whenever it snows, even in the city, even as a currently jaded New Yorker. It has such a purifying and calming affect on life in the city and I love that it comes around Christmas. As a Catholic kid, as cold and wet (and, eventually, disturbingly colored) as snow can be in NYC, it will always be associated with the message of peace, love, and community that the birth of Jesus represents.

Partly because of that association, but largely because of the coldness and wetness, the first snow also fills me with profound sadness knowing that there are so many fellow New Yorkers that meet it with dread.

The affordable housing crisis is a slow motion plague spreading across literally all of America, but in NYC, it’s easy to see it accelerating. There are over 60,000 homeless in NYC right now, by far the largest on record. That number probably undercounts many unsheltered homeless, mostly men, who fall through the cracks. The vast majority in shelters are women and children.

I know many of those children have the same glee and wonder that I have about snow — what child doesn’t — but I know that it won’t last for them. If we remain on our current development trend, these children will know that snow means harder times, fewer beds, and longer lines. It means suffering, neglect, and loneliness.

All the while, New York City is experiencing a wave of economic growth and stability that it hasn’t seen in generations. The Great Recession was 10 years ago and for all its devastation nationally, it felt like a blip in NYC.

But what have we gotten with this economic boom? Our schools are still chronically underfunded and unfairly criticized, our transit system is groaning from decades of neglect and our streets are clogged with freeloading private ride-share companies. And the affordable housing crisis — which by now is frankly too big, too crushing, and too unchanging to be called merely a ‘crisis’ — is eating the salaries, savings, and futures of too many New Yorkers.

The same can be said for the rest of the nation. By our exceedingly flawed popular metrics, the economy is “doing well”: 82 months of job growth, the lowest unemployment since 2000, and a rising, if frothy stock market. If things are so good right now, why are so many people suffering? Why are there 554,000 homeless across the country? Why is that number growing?

I’ve gotten into the weeds in plenty of blogs about why our flawed housing policies –locally and nationally — are part of the problem. I’ve talked about how the illusionary effects of debt and other financial tools mask our deeper economic problems. I’ve also argued that the nihilism and greed inherent in our period of late capitalism are rotting our economy and our civic institutions (see: tax plan).

But as I marvel at the snow covering the Christmas reaves around Stuyvesant Town, and worry about how thousands of homeless children in NYC are doing tonight, I know that our problem is more basic than that: we are a profoundly unchristian society.

This reality seems particularly pronounced today. It is near cliche to say we are bitterly divided along partisan lines that are defined by equally deep, cultural divisions. Those divisions are increasingly presented as conservative and Christian against liberal and secular. 

But that demarcation has never really made sense to me.

I’d love to write about why these divisions are tragic because they prevent people who share the same problems from forming political unions to solve them. I’d love to write about how wealthy firms and individuals cynically fuel and exploit this tragedy to dominate our politics. I’d love to write about how the Founding Fathers hoped to avoid this very scenario by separating church from state and by forging a universal civic identity and purpose.

But I want to help the homeless. I want to explain why it is important for Americans to care about them, Christian or not. More importantly, I want to talk about how I think we can help.

Of course a lot of people care about the homeless. Last week, Eillie Anzilotti of Fast Company wrote about the many programs mayors in major cities are enacting, all the millions of dollars that are being provided, and all of the organizations that are involved. One of her colleagues even wrote about how a tech startup is trying to use blockchain technology to help the homeless create a digital identity to access services. No, the homeless don’t need the blockchain, but the intentions are good. The intentions across many cities, organizations, churches, and individuals are always good.

But the results aren’t good and never will be if we don’t build a society from top to bottom that reflects the values many Americans falsely claim to follow. That doesn’t mean being a Christian nation, but it does mean applying Christian values (and Jewish values, and Muslim values, and humanist values, and so on) to our society. 

But what are those values? A lot of people on the right in this country speak about ‘values’ based on the word of Christ and, for some truly confounding reason, people on the left don’t seem to. I’ve been guilty of that. 

I’ve always been hesitant to frame my views on housing as a right and my aspirations for America as a more just and equal society in a religious context. This is partly because of my own struggles and admitted ambivalence towards Catholicism, but also because I just don’t think its necessary. I don’t need to reinforce my arguments with an appeal to higher authority. My arguments stand on their own merit because they are true and just; because I believe they also reflect the values in our Constitution that I deeply respect as an American.

So it bothers me when people use their Christian faith as a rhetorical crutch in political arguments. It is alienating to people of other faiths or beliefs, of course. But mostly — certainly because of my Catholic upbringing, Jesuit education, and leftist beliefs - I’ve never recognized where the ‘Christian values’ are in the political views of the right in America. (Of course this has only become more pronounced with the bizarre support for Roy Moore in Alabama.)

More specifically, I don’t recognize where the ministry of Jesus informs the right’s public policy choices, the leaders they support, or the lifestyle they lead. I don’t recognize faith in their arguments at all.

I don’t think a Christian society would allow 554,000 Americans to be homeless. I don’t think it would allow thousands of women and children to face the cold and wet without a home in a city of ungodly wealth. I also don’t think it would tolerate the naked greed, violence, and intolerance that underwrite our domestic and foreign policy. But our society does.

It is beyond obvious that a truly Christian society would provide shelter, food, wellness, and other basic needs for its most vulnerable. It would create a system of justice where no one is above the law and no one is below it. It would create a culture that strengthens its civic institutions at all levels, respects the beliefs of all people, and engages the world as equals. 

The fact that we can actually for serious 100% afford to do this, but choose not to shows how unchristian we truly are. And don’t believe that we can’t. We could create that society in 40 days if we wanted to.

I don’t know why Christians in America are worried about secularism creeping into public life. That’s the whole point of our Constitution. Right-leaning Christians in America should be more concerned about how little Christianity seems to be seeping into their belief systems and political aspirations. That’s what is killing our country.

I don’t want our policies and laws to reflect the type of Christianity I see on the right. Those empty slogans, appeals, and litmus tests have allowed a deeply unjust and intolerant society to appear as something other than it is while excusing the immorality of those who benefit from it.

If the right won’t promote Christian values, then I think it is high time for the left to do so. More accurately, it is high time for the left to remind the rest of the country who those Christian values come from originally. Only then can we start to articulate a vision of the future of America that I want and I think most Americans want — one where kids don’t suffer because housing (among other things) is a right. 

It is not just the homeless children in NYC who are suffering from this, but today, that’s who I think of as it snows outside. To help them, I am all for laws and policies that reflect the mission of Jesus. It is a universal, inclusive mission that calls for us to love, to serve, and to protect others as we love, serve, and protect ourselves. It also sounds profoundly American to me.

Hey, America: Big Tech Isn't Your Friend

 Which way is Amazon taking us? (homebodynetwork)

Which way is Amazon taking us? (homebodynetwork)

In the hysteria surrounding Amazon’s RFP for a second headquarters, a lot of people have had fun mocking cities or states that have submitted bids with no realistic shot (I’m looking at you Danbury, CT.) Aside from the surprising comfort Americans seem to have with treating cities like American Idol contestants and the unsurprising willingness of many elected officials to submit to such indignity, this hasn’t raised many serious questions as a country.

But it should. How did a company get this powerful? How healthy is it that one company is retroactively creating a company town in the 21st century? What precedent is this setting for other big tech companies?

That could change with the revelation that Chicago is effectively endorsing massive wage theft as part of their proposal. That the 3rd biggest American city — which, along with the state it is in, isn’t doing so well financially — felt compelled to offer up billions in public money to Amazon should terrify all of us. But I’m skeptical that it will.

That’s because we, along with our civic institutions, have already surrendered to Big Tech. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple dominate our economy and society like no other companies in the history of the US. Not even during the height of the Gilded Age did Standard Oil or US Steel come close to dominating so many aspects of daily life.

Those companies were eventually broken up because they were seen as too powerful and too dominating. Rightfully so. They were killing the country. Capitalism is supposed to work for democracy, not the other way around.

In the Gilded Age, millions of Americans suffered because our country forgot that. Eventually, the sustained efforts of muckraking journalists, progressive politicians, and radicalized citizens ultimately led to the realignment — however imperfect — of American society that reached its high water mark during the New Deal.

However, today, we have forgotten the lesson of the Gilded Age entirely and those three groups are failing to make the same efforts to fight back. Our country’s peace and prosperity can’t last if they/we continue to acquiesce.

Tech journalism is for stenographers

We’ve seen a steady erosion of trust in media and certainly big tech has played a role consciously and subconsciously. That’s a well-travelled story. How terrible tech-related press has always been is not.

Part of this history stems from the tech industry coming of age outside of the media capitals of LA and NYC. There just weren’t that many people writing about tech in the early years, so few people understood it at a structural level (or at a technical level). The culture has simply never had a skeptical media auditing its evolution, which allowed it to develop some toxic habits.

When the media did start to question tech, albeit in a flawed manner like Valley Wag, the industry stood by as Peter Thiel crushed it — stomping on the very rhetoric of transparency and competition that supposedly defined tech culture.

What we are left with is a fawning tech press that chases each new trend, product, or founder with minimal skepticism and maximal deference. Rarely does tech press report on the racism, sexism, classism, and outright fraud that define much of the culture.

When journalists in tech are seen as “influencers” and “trend-forecasters” rather than truth-sayers and bullshit filters, we all suffer for the lack of transparency and accountability. Brave individuals like Susan Fowler have no one to turn to. Someone outside of the valley exposed Theranos. It took way too long for Juicero to look as stupid as it clearly was.

Terrible tech press is a big problem for all of us. Tech companies have a lot to answer for, but outside a small circle of investors and board members, they rarely have to.

Elected officials are clueless or too clued-in

Who elected Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg? We live in a democracy. That means we elect people to represent the will of the people. The fact that you’re rolling your eyes right now shows how far from that we’ve strayed. Yes, it’s flawed, but someone has to decide how to organize our society, and we have wisely tried to create a system where legitimacy rests with the people through our elected leaders.

It’s sad that so many mayors and governors have embarrassed themselves both on camera and on paper for Amazon, but the only outlier with Amazon is the sheer scale of its 2nd headquarters. This subjugation of the public good to private interest is the norm and has been for decades in one form or another.

Our elected leaders, particularly in the federal government have internalized private interest over the public good in breathtaking fashion. The tax bill and the repeal of net neutrality are just the logical conclusions of this trend. Most Americans are opposed to both, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The donor class gets what it wants.

If elected officials aren’t cynical or opportunistic, they are clueless about how the tech economy works and how tech companies think. They try to incorporate ride-sharing apps into transit planning instead of charging them for using our roads. They team up with Google to install fiber networks without treating them like public utilities. They hand out massive subsidies for company relocations instead of investing in long-term infrastructure to entirely create new ecosystems.

These companies want more customers, market share, and protection from competition.  They don't want to help cities in any meaningful or lasting way with their services. Relying on them as strategic partners is a colossal mistake. Too many officials seem oblivious to that.

There is little incentive for an elected official to worry about the future beyond immediate media and election cycles. There is little belief in the power of good governance and strong government in general at most levels. That leaves us with a vacuum in leadership and vision that tech companies are all too happy to fill to serve their own ends.

We are lazy shitheads

Before you think I’m casting stones, I’m part of the problem too: I have Apple products, I have Amazon Prime, I have Facebook, and I use Google all the time. Why wouldn’t I? They do things we want, really well. No one is at fault for using products that are useful. The power of social networks coupled with convenience has made these companies wildly successful for good reason.

However useful these products are to us as consumers, we are guilty of letting convenience and low cost cloud our judgment as citizens. We are just as indifferent about the labor practices of Apple with workers in China as we are to the last mile Amazon delivery people in America. We are as indifferent about the lack of privacy we have on Facebook as we are with the amount of information we freely give to Google.

I sincerely believe that we do this to some degree because many people assume there are safeguards on these companies. Somebody somewhere is watching to make sure they do the right thing, right? We have agencies that do that. We have courts that do that. We have competitors that keep companies honest. But that isn’t true.

So much of our political discourse talks about how government is inefficient and that we should trust the market to solve our problems. We have let this mindset seep into all corners of our society and undermine all of our public institutions, including our role as active citizens. As a result, the market has seeped into all corners of our government, blurring the distinction between corporate will and government will.

We’ve consistently undermined labor laws that people died for not 100 years ago. We’ve consistently sold off public assets to short term private gains at the expense of long-term investment. We’ve consistently surrendered our agency to stand up to corporations in court. Big tech came around after these trends started certainly, but it has been the biggest beneficiary.

For what it’s worth, I have been guessing that Amazon picks Washington, DC (or close by) just for that reason. Particularly in light of the 2016 election, people are starting to notice and to question the power of Big Tech. These companies are increasingly concerned that their unparalleled power could be in danger and are responding with spending millions in political lobbying. Given this emerging paradigm, it’s logical for Amazon to set up camp closer to the center of government to influence policy at a deeper level.

Alternatively, I can envision Big Tech actually splitting up elements of their operations to dispense across more regions in the country. Just as military contractors spread their operations across as many Congressional districts as possible, it’s easy to see the advantage of Big Tech following suite for the same reason. The military-industrial complex serves as a useful model to the technology-industrial complex. Both are too powerful and too destructive to our civic health.

In either case, unless we collectively stand up to Big Tech, we can expect a lot more embarrassing and shameful pitches from mayors and governors. And we will have many cool, convenient ways to watch them do so.

Is Your Building On the 100 Worst Landlords List?

 Top 10 Worst Landlords in NYC 2017 (officeofthepublicadvocate)

Top 10 Worst Landlords in NYC 2017 (officeofthepublicadvocate)

Last week, Letitia James, the recently re-elected Public Advocate for NYC, released her office's annual Worst 100 Landlords in NYC List.  This always get a little buzz in the NYC real estate world, but generally doesn't get on the radar of too many people (especially now that Gothamist and DNAinfo were murdered.)

That's a shame because the list is an opportunity for all renters and landlords to assess their buildings and to see what is working and what isn't.  Some of the landlords on this list are notorious in the housing world.  Others come and go, but more on that later. Either way, understanding how the list works will help landlords (and renters) make sure their building stays far away from it. Here are some key points about the list that every New Yorker should know.

 

1. Tenant complaints are the only way the city can issue violations

This might seem obvious, but unless a tenant makes a complaint to the city - which is as simple as calling 311 in many cases - the Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) department won't initiate an inspection. If HPD inspect's a complaint and confirms it, they issue a violation. Those data points are the basis for the scoring on the Worst Landlords List.

For tenants, this means if you see a serious problem in your building and your landlord isn't fixing it, you better call the city.  There are lots of bad landlords that don't make it on this list because tenants don't speak up.

For landlords, this means you can avoid being on this list by being responsive to your tenants - before they have to call 311.  They are your first line of defense against problems in your building.  Work with them. 

As you'd expect, the most insecure tenants need the most help with speaking up.  There are many organizations like Met Council, CASA Bronx, Legal Aid Society, and Tenants & Neighbors (among many others) that can help.

 

2. As a landlord, you've got to be pretty bad to get on this list

A building's score is based on a very straight forward formula: 

1. Violations are given weighted scores:

  • B Class "Hazadrous" = 1. (ex: Inadequate lighting in public spaces, lack of fire detectors, unlawful barriers to fire escapes) 30 days to fix, $25-$100 fine, plus $10/day
  • C Class "Immediate Hazadrous" = 1.5 (ex. rodents, inadequate heat/water, broken or defective plumbing fixtures, peeling lead paint) 24 hours to fix, $50-$1000 fine 

2. Violations are counted up over a 12 month period, divided by 12, then again divided by the number of units in the building.  So if the same violation is unresolved over 12 months, that counts as 12 violations. 

3. The score then has to meet a baseline threshold:

  • Buildings under 35 units need a score greater than 3
  • Buildings over 35 units need a score greater than 2

The simple metrics listed here shows that this list isn't designed to be "anti-landlord." You have to have a lot of violations over a long period of time to get on this list.  And these aren't wishy-washy violations.  Class B and Class C violations are things that can put people in danger.  You deserve to be on this list if you're on it.  

If you're still unclear about how the list works as a landlord, check out more info on methodology and also learn more about HPD and what you need to do to stay off the list.

 

3. Not much happens to landlords on this list and that's the bigger problem

Sure, it's embarrassing to be on the 100 Worst Landlords list. It certainly means that you have incurred a fair amount of expensive fines. And it likely means you've spent some time or will spend some time in housing court. However, there isn't much this list can do to you if you're on it.

I don't want to sound like I'm against this list. I support it.  There are very few widely-available resources for tenants to find out about landlords.  The worst actors in the market should be held accountable. This list is a fair attempt to do so.

But looking at last year's list, the names at the top are very familiar.  That's true every year.  The sad reality is, there are very few mechanisms to punish these bad actors in today's market.  Many bake in fines and court appearances and obviously don't care about the optics of being on this list. They bought their buildings and are waiting out tenants as property values continue to rapidly increase.  It's part of the model.

Our elected officials can genuinely oppose this and put out lists to shine a light on it, but real estate - and the uniquely speculative nature of it in NYC - is too powerful a force to allow this list to have teeth.  Attaching further fines, criminal prosecution, or even property forfeitures would be impossible politically, even if they would change the stakes practically. I suspect the rather benign metrics for the current list were an acknowledgement of this reality.

It's easy to pick on the worst, most flagrant actors in the NYC real estate market. They don't care. But it is much harder to acknowledge the deeper challenges presented by relying on real estate to drive so much of the city's economic and political engine.  It's also harder to tap the vastly under-organized power of tenants. Uniting them would change this dynamic overnight.  Many tenants across all pockets of the city will continue to struggle as long as that isn't the case.

 

homeBody is the free communication tool for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

We believe housing is a right and so should you. 

Demand Housing as a Right, then Fight the Tax Plan

 
 Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

 

As the details emerge from the Congressional Republican tax cut plan, housing is one area where there appears to be considerable bi-partisan anger.  The home construction industry and affordable housing advocates both adamantly oppose to the plan, but for wildly different reasons. However, the former is vastly more powerful than the later and has much more of a chance to extract compromises from the final tax plan, which it surly will.

This is because the affordable housing community continues to accept the broken premise that the market is the best way to supply affordable housing.  It isn’t.  Until housing advocates rally around housing as a right as an organizing principle, tax plan after tax plan will chip away at even the limited market-based programs mildly supporting ‘affordable housing’ - and Democrats will keep allowing it.  Only by changing the debate can we change the underlying fundamentals causing the affordable housing ever-crisis.

 

Housers are stuck defending an already failed market-based policy

I don’t make a lot of friends shitting on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The truth is, it’s just not a great policy and allows Congress to gaslight Americans on the affordable housing crisis.  Formed after the last big tax policy change in 1986, the LIHTC works by giving tax credits to developers who build a certain percentage of affordable housing units  (which is a dubious term to begin with) who then pass them on to investors (mainly banks) who fund the projects.

The program has maintained popularity with both parties because Republicans see it as a market-based solution (it isn’t) and Democrats see it as an affordable housing solution (it isn’t).  Defenders of the program on either side of the aisle will point to the 3 million units created under the program (which represent 90% of all affordable housing units built in the US over the last 30 years) as a point of success.  Some will cite the number of jobs supported in the construction industry or the estimated $100 billion injected into the economy through the program.  On the face of it, these are entirely fair points to make.

But none of these arguments hold up to the other glaring numbers to consider:

  • In 99.9% of US counties, someone making minimum wage can’t afford the cost of a 1-bedroom house. 
  • 75% of American households who qualify for housing assistance don’t get any
  • 11.2 million Americans are severely rent burdened
  • We are missing 7.4 million needed affordable housing units

Many thoughtful housers with good intentions will argue that LIHTC and associated private activity bonds are good programs and shouldn’t be blamed for these complex issues. They are all working very hard at protecting LIHTC, which is under threat if corporate tax rates go down (offsetting the incentives for the program.) The feeling is, “this is the best we’ve got, we must protect it.”  I get it.

But when you only have one program designated to create affordable housing and the country is mired in a devastating affordable housing crisis, how can you not question LIHTC? How can you not question the underlying premise that allows LIHTC to retain bi-partisan support in the first place? Who actually cares about actual affordable housing in Congress? What the hell did $100 billion over 30 years actually get us?

 

Even the one potentially cool, progressive change in this tax plan suuuuux

Many housing advocates and conservatives agree that the mortgage interest deduction (MID) is a terrible policy that unfairly favors wealthy homeowners.  They are right. 

  • Through MID, the American people spend $134 billion a year (remember, LIHTC did less than that in 30 years) on subsidizing middle class and upper middle class homes
  •  60% of all federal dollars spent on housing policies goes to homeowners making over $100,000.
  • 7 million American households that make over $200,000 receive more federal funding for housing than the 50 million who make less than $50,000

Getting rid of the MID would undoubtedly correct a lot of injustice in the tax system (and in our disastrous support of a homeownership society).  But that’s not why Republicans are limiting the deduction from $1m to $500k.  They are doing it to offset lower corporate and estate taxes.

That’s right. This plan takes money from wealthy homeowners and gives it to even wealthier corporations and rich heirs. The only way something as egregious as the MID was even on the table was because Republicans want to give tax cuts to wealthier, more powerful donors.  When confronted with this giveaway, few Americans seem to support this plan, but Democrats are fighting it because its Trump - not because they have ever supported transferring MID revenue to affordable housing.

 

Reject the premise, change the debate, and make housing a right

I would also argue that few Americans would support the MID in the first place, since it effects so few of us (which is one of the defenses given by Republicans for the plan.) This goes to show how warped the conversation on housing is in this country.  We have been fine subsidizing wealthy housing for generations, but refuse to assist the poor and working class secure affordable housing.

Much of that blame lies with housers letting the Democratic Party off the hook. By accepting the premise that market-based programs are the only viable solutions at the federal level (this in the face of a massive effort to subsidize the top end anyway), they have surrendered the intellectual and moral weight that would otherwise frame the debate on housing as a basic human right.

It must also be said that the Democratic Party implicitly fake-fights the far-reaching racism that has underpinned this “market approach” for 80 years.  When public housing and vouchers became synonymous with urban poor brown and black people, the party abandoned the solid and still-relevant arguments for public housing and housing assistance that defined the New Deal and Great Society eras. 

Rather than fight for these ideas because they are right, because they work, and because they breakdown racial injustice, the party focused on homeownership.  The fear of alienating white homeowners was too strong to fight for principles that would still ultimately benefit them too. Housers have nowhere to go, but haven’t kept Dems honest.

It’s not radical to question the virtue of giving away $135 billion a year on wealthy homes when so many Americans are suffering to afford one (whether they own or rent).  It’s not radical to question the virtue of LIHTC when nearly all of the country is mired in a never-ending affordability crisis.  It’s not radical to question why 75% of Americans who need help affording basic shelter aren’t getting anything.

There is enough wealth and there are enough good ideas to guarantee affordable shelter for every American in this country if we want it.  There are enough Americans from every age, race, and region who are suffering and will continue to suffer to change the political landscape if we want to do it.  And there are enough good people in housing who have the knowledge and passion to lead the way if they want to. Frankly, we need them to.

 

homeBody is the free communication tool for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

We believe housing is a right and so should you. 

The Coming Budget Will be a Disaster for Housing, but Housers Are Part of the Problem

 "The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

"The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

Republican-controlled Congress passed a major hurdle in their plan to radically reshape the nation’s tax code last week by narrowly passing a budget for 2018 in a close 216-212 vote.  The narrow spread included 20 Republican defections, which is a clear signal of the considerable challenges that lay ahead.  Regardless, this process will be a disaster for housing policy – affordable housing or otherwise.  The fact that this process is proceeding in rapid, secretive, and reckless fashion barely registers anymore shows how far our legislative process has come apart. It also shows how little the housing community can do to prevent this damage and how little it understands the changing landscape of national politics.

I have written extensively about three major threads since the beginning of the Trump Era (although they originate well before) that continue to dominate housing policy discussions. This budget (which is not law yet and is still largely unknown as policy) reflects these trends. The response the housing community has to each also shows how much it needs to change its approach and fight for a simple, clear cause: housing as a right.

1. Down with Public Housing

First, President Trump, despite his incoherencies, has been steadfast in his utter indifference to affordable housing, especially public housing. Given other mounting evidence, it seems more likely that he holds the people (or those people, more aptly) that rely on it in contempt. 

Appointing Secretary Carson has worked out exactly as the President had hoped and as housing advocates had feared.  HUD will face devastating cuts whether the Secretary understands them or not. The 13% across-the-board cuts long-promised by the administration are starting to take form and no one suffers more than the poor Americans who rely on housing vouchers, community block grants, and of course, public housing. 

Public housing authorities across the country will be further starved of funding and will likely turn increasingly to measures such as the Obama-era program Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) that provides upfront funding by turning public housing into privately-leased Section 8 units.  Seen as a necessity, or even as a progressive fail-safe by many housers, this program will only weaken cash-strapped public housing authorities and undermine their broader mission. Housers who support RAD will live to regret those decisions instead of rallying around a robust defense of public housing on its merits.

Saying Secretary Carson is unqualified or simply dumb doesn't change the narrative on public housing.  Saying the President doesn't support or respect poor Americans' struggles won't change the support most Americans have for public housing.  Making the case that public housing - and greater federal involvement in affordable rental housing - is good for the country and good for everyone - city or suburb - is the only way to effectively fight the Trump administration.  Right now, the playbook is wracking up losses. It's time to change it.

2. Up With LIHTC

Second, Congress continues to gaslight the housing community about the effectiveness of the main national affordable housing policy – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).  Enacted after the last major tax overall in 1986, it has created over 3 million housing units representing 90% of all affordable units built during the period.

That’s seen as a success by many well-meaning actors in housing despite the fact that it is has demonstrably failed to provide the volume of units our country needs.  99% of US counties are in an affordable housing crisis. When the only policy explicitly designed to address affordable housing is failing that broadly, it is irresponsible to defend the status quo. But that is largely what is happening at the moment.

The legitimate fear from this proposed tax cut plan - I won't pretend it's some nebulous "tax reform" - is that lower corporate rates will dramatically weaken the incentive to partake in the LIHTC program. What will be left unsaid is that relying on the private sector to build affordable housing through tax incentives is inherently and obviously flawed.

Instead of arguing for a larger policy shift, many housers will try to defend LIHTC and, by extension, the status quo of federal housing priorities. When, inevitably, both parties do offer some type of carve out for LIHTC to remain attractive, this will be hailed as a victory. We should know better by now. We should be arguing for more policies like community land trusts that offer the same type of decentralized, local control that many communities want, while rejecting the speculative component that largely dictates development today.

3. Upside Down on Homeownership

Third, we have learned nothing from the 2008 mortgage crisis.  Not only have we failed to address the dangers of increased financialization of the housing market, or the more fundamental challenges of slow wage-growth, rising debt, and geographic inequality that is crushing the housing market, but we have never rectified that promoting homeownership for 80 years has been a disaster for our country.

Homeownership has undoubtedly pushed millions of Americans into the middle class but it has also prevented millions more from doing so.  Wealth inequality across racial lines has increased in recent decades.  Racial segregation has increased in recent decades.  The environmental and social costs of single-family suburban sprawl will only get worse as a generation of baby boomers age and realize no one is coming to buy their homes at what they think they are worth.  Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Schiller has long debunked that houses automatically appreciate in the US. In fact, on average, they haven't at all since the 1940s. That's only going to get worse in many parts of the country.

The only minutely (unintentionally) progressive element of the tax cut plan currently under consideration is reducing the mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits wealthier Americans. This is being met with fierce resistance by the housing industry. It's not hard to see why homeowners and housing developers wouldn't want to support massive tax cuts for corporations and the top percent of earners.  Reducing the MID to pay for tax cuts isn't what many housing reformers had in mind, but it shows how hard it will be to try such a thing under any circumstances.

This is because treating housing as a tool of wealth creation as opposed to one for shelter provision is the definitive policy choice of 20th century America.  We have built a nation on this principle (along with car ownership, which of course is directly tied to housing.)  There are many ills facing our society today and our housing policy explains a lot of them.

To truly change this, we must first accept a blatantly obvious reality: treating housing like an asset has failed.  We have commodified it, securitized it, and speculated on it like it’s something less important than a basic human right.  Many elements of our country have profited handsomely from this.  Indeed, go to any real estate conference now and there will be a technocratic consensus that “the market is doing well” while ignoring the larger truth: our society is not doing well.

Housers must recognize the opportunity that we have to dramatically change the discussion on housing by rejecting the 20th century concept of housing.  Millions of Americans are hurting and are angry.  Ideas that might have once been considered 'radical' by some people - even many housing advocates - are now entering the conversation and public policy. Most Americans recognize that the old way we constructed our politics isn't working. 

We must extend that realization to the built environment and offer a positive, actionable vision for a better future.  Housers have to stop accepting a failed premise and fight to establish a new one. It starts with saying simply, proudly, and forcefully that housing is a right. 

5 Biggest Beefs Tenants Have in NYC (1 is surprising and kind of sweet)

 
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If you're a tenant in NYC, chances are you've had beef with somebody in your building.  At homeBody, we come across a lot of challenging situations that people go through living together. We thought we'd share the top 5 that come up a lot and pass along some general suggestions about how to address them. (There's a common theme that you will surly pick up on.)

1. Absent landlord

"I lived in this place in Astoria where the landlord lived upstairs, I saw him in the hallway everyday, he said hi and was friendly, but he never got back to me when I had a problem. It was like he didn't know I lived there when I needed the toilet fixed." - Erik, N. 

This is number 1 for a reason. In a perfect world, your landlord would be as responsive as a 5-star resort. The truth is, some just want to do the minimum to keep their investment income coming in. Some property management companies are awesome, some landlords are awesome, but a lot are absent, surly, or slow moving. 

Suggestion: The more you work with your neighbors to communicate as a group, the more likely you'll get a better response from your landlord. Good old-fashioned organizing is the best way to change the status quo in your building if you're unhappy with it.

2. Heat and hot water

"My wife and I are basically boiling in our apartment cuz we're on the first floor. The neighbor at the top of the building is this old guy who always complains that it's too cold." - Zach G.

We were somewhat surprised that this was as high in our poll, but the above quote sheds some light as to why.  Providing heat and hot water is a major legal requirement for landlords, and we really don't see too many people complain that either is missing entirely. But we do see people complain that either there isn't enough or there's too much.

Suggestion: If you're not getting heat or hot water call your landlord or call 311. That's unacceptable. But if you're getting 'too much', finding out if your neighbors are having the same problem is the surest way to get action taken by your landlord. Chances are, you're not alone, so band together.

3. Neighbors are noisy

"I lived below these guys who were bartenders, young guys. They came home at crazy hours, had people over at crazy times. We kept telling them to get carpeting and take their shoes off, but it didn't stop until they moved." - Rachel F.

This is the classic case of neighbor-on-neighbor beef.  The truth is there aren't too many simple answers here because a lot of these things are subjective. Landlords don't have the time or interest (or responsibility) to intervene against/between people and it seems particularly hard to enforce leases for small things like carpeting. Not too mention a lot of NYC buildings (old or new) were simply not built with the tenant's peace-of-mind in mind.

Suggestion: Building a relationship with your neighbors ahead of the 3AM broom pounding is really the only way to avoid many of these conflicts. It won't always prevent them, but it can create a common dialogue that establishes trust and respect. That makes legitimate complaints easier to address and to resolve when they come up.

4. Packages clutter the hallway or get lost

"I've gone door to door asking neighbors if they have seen my package. We've all had meetings asking the property management company to install cameras so things don't disappear but nothing happens. I have to get things delivered to the office." - Steph R.K.

With Amazon and Jet fundamentally changing shopping, this problem is getting worse each year. Packages pile up and it's easy for things to get lost (or stolen in extreme cases.)

It's difficult to reverse engineer a more lasting solution, particularly in older buildings with narrow hallways and no lobbies. Landlords don't want to be responsible for packages and don't want to allow easy access for delivery guys for understandable security reasons.

Suggestion: Establishing a simple line of communication between neighbors could go a long way of fostering a more communal approach to package delivery. Finding out if a neighbor is home at a certain time to buzz in a package or to sign for something can save a lot of time and lost stuff, especially if there's an easy way to track the conversation.

5. Not knowing neighbors

So this is the one that was sweet and actuallynot that surprising to me (sorry for the clickbait title). As much as NYC gets the rep for being a keep-to-yourself town, the reality is that people want to know who they live with. 

We found out that there is a genuine interest, especially among tenants who have been in their apartments for a few years to form meaningful relationships with their neighbors. The problem is how weird it is to try to introduce yourself when you've missed that initial window of moving in.

This isn't a homeBody anecdote, but a personal one. Living in Stuytown during Superstorm Sandy, we lost power for 9 days. There are a lot of older residents in the complex and it was pretty cold that week.  The Tenants Association and Councilmen Dan Garodnick organized a door-to-door neighbor-to-neighbor reach out to make sure we got to all 11,400 apartments. It was one of the most inspiring things that I've ever been a part of, honestly. It also brought my closer to a lot of neighbors that I'm still in touch with.

Suggestion: You don't need (or want) something like Sandy to bring you and your neighbors together, but you should make the effort all the same. You're already sharing a physical place, making that extra connection means turning a place into a home.  All of the problems our members run into really are easier to solve when you know the people who you live with a little better.

 

homeBody is the free communication app for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

Find out how we can improve the quality of life in your building

The Manhattan Institute, NYCHA, and "Tank Think"

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Last week, the Manhattan Institute, a right leaning (or right-wing, in some circles) think tank published its nearly annual attack on NYCHA.  Under the guise of objective data analysis and policy proposals, it once again attempts to undermine the very idea of public housing based on ‘free-market’ principles that are better understood as anti-public ideology.  As is the case with many similar right-leaning arguments (funded through think tanks by mega-donors) the MI’s argument against NYHCA collapses on basic review. Let’s look at three core points the report makes and see why they are disingenuous at best.

1.     NYCHA Doesn’t Serve Enough Minority Groups

One of the core problems with MI’s positions in general is its disregard for historical context.  At best it ignores racial discrimination in US policy and society; at worst, it attempts to warp it into a friendly argument. 

The report claims that NYCHA is failing to properly represent the full cross-section of "new" poor residents in the city.  It accurately shows that black households (26% of poor NYC households and 45% of NYCHA households) and Hispanic households (34% and 45%) are over represented in NYCHA housing compared to white households (27% and 4%) and Asian households (11% and 5%).

What it fails to mention is the larger economic and social forces that created those initial discrepancies in the first place.  As white America was subsidized into the suburbs in the post-war era, black and Hispanic families were prevented from doing so while in many cases also being forced out of thriving neighbors for highway construction. Their only option for good housing for most of the middle of the 20th century was public housing (and it was considered good housing for the first several decades.)

(The report has a final, condescending mention of how few black Americans own homes insinuating, against all historical evidence and contemporary data, that public housing somehow prevents black families from purchasing homes.)

To claim that NYCHA should have a proportional quota of NYC poverty might have merit if there wasn’t 70 years of racial discrimination forcing certain groups in and out of certain types of housing in and outside of the city.  It’s brazenly disingenuous to try to use the lack of contemporary “diversity” in NYCHA as a knock against its current management.

2.     NYCHA Should Put a Limit on Residency

Another key component of MI’s rhetorical strategy is to make false comparisons and misrepresent arguments altogether.  The report claims that NYCHA does a poor job of rotating residents through their units compared to other public housing authorities. NYCHA’s average residency is 18 years while the US average residency is 10 years. It also makes similar claims about how recently units were received/exchanged in the last year (3% NYCHA vs. 13% US) and how long the wait list is (7.5 years to 2 years.)

These data comparisons are an attempt to show that NYCHA is an outlier in terms of turnover compared to the rest of US public housing.  Of course that is true. NYCHA is the largest and oldest system in the country, in a city with the deepest political commitment to public housing. 

Not only did few cities construct the number of units built in NYC, but also many that did have already destroyed them.  Many cities have limited the goals and scope of their public housing authorities and many states have severely limited their funding (on top of the larger federal retreat over the last 30 years.)

The obvious point here is that comparing NYCHA to other public housing authorities is ridiculous and a comically inept attempt to make it look bad. When compared to other public housing authorities, if anything, it shows that a bigger commitment to public housing can make a significant difference to every city.

The more insidious point is that the report attempts to assert the premise that the core metric of success should be tenant turnover. That is not the core metric.  The core metric is how affordable a unit is compared to private housing. 

For all of its problems (some self-inflicted, many imposed on it) NYCHA provides affordable housing with flying colors.   As of Jan 2017, the average NYCHA rent is $509 and the average in NYC rent was $3000.

One final point here is what is left unsaid.  Many NYCHA residents are older and poorer than the average city resident.  Many developers are designated for senior housing or or naturally-occurring retirement communities (NORCs).  This explains the longer dwell times and lower turnover of course.  But if NYCHA were to institute some draconian kick-out dates, MI comes up short on what would happen to these people.

3.     NYCHA Has Too Many Non-Poor Residents

This claim represents the core dog whistle argument that the right relies on with anything to do with public institutions – there are too many "takers".  Ignoring the racial overtones of such claims, let’s look at their data. 

The report claims that 10% of NYCHA households have an income above the NYC average median income of $53,000.  Out of 178,000 apartments, this percentage is somehow to be understood as way too big and a failure of NYCHA to offer housing to poorer residents.  Sure, in any large system, there are bound to be some people that abuse it.

However, this percentage does not provide further context, especially considering the cost of living differences between say Manhattan (AMI: $67,000: NYCHA units in borough: 53,000) and the Bronx ($35,000; NYCHA units: 44,000).  It is simply unlikely that these 10% of residents are living well above the means of their neighbors in and around their complexes.  Not accounting for the vast differences in boroughs and the vast differences in the location of NYCHA development reduces the impact of this data point to next to nothing.

Furthermore, though the report mentions “overhousing” as a problem in terms of resource allocation, this actually ignores the larger problem MI appears unconcerned with: NYCHA likely drastically undercounts the number of residents.  Some estimates place the true number of residents at closer to 600,000.

Many families don’t want to register family members because they have a criminal record, or because they would have too many occupants.  This speaks to a harsh truth (unacknowledged by the report) that NYCHA does have strict residency rules and many residents fear being evicted for violating them.  It’s impossible to tell, but still highly likely that these higher incomes support larger families than are being reported.

The larger truth is that NYCHA residents, despite representing a significant portion of NYC’s poor households, are predominantly working poor. Only 13% of NYCHA families receive public support.  Far from being “takers” these residents are providers both to their complexes, their neighborhoods, and their city.

Every year or so the Manhattan Institute attacks NYCHA, but never head on.  It is always through arguments like the ones presented in this year’s report – disingenuous attempts to frame aspects of NYCHA’s mission or management as failures.  (Last year it was crime and under investment.)

No doubt there are real and pressing problems for the day-to-day lives of NYCHA residents and the larger health of the system.  But don’t be lulled into thinking that the Manhattan Institute is concerned with these.  MI doesn’t believe in public housing and it doesn’t want NYCHA to succeed or for its residents to actually get the help they need. 

That would require the MI to acknowledge that despite decades of neglect, NYCHA has actually been a success story - that for all of its flaws, it is doing what it was set out to do.  It would require MI to accept that the very idea of public investment, ownership, and interest is worthy of our support and worthy of federal support.  Their wealthy donors don’t want to hear that.