City Council Holds Oversight Hearing on Mayor’s Affordable Housing Plan

City Planning Chairman Carl Weisbrod and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been are sworn in before the Council's oversight hearing. Image credit: William Alatriste, New York City Council

City Planning Chairman Carl Weisbrod & HPD Commissioner Vicki Been are sworn in before the Council’s oversight hearing. Image credit: William Alatriste, NYC Council

HPD, City Planning, NYCHA among those who answered questions on the results and direction of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan.  On November 17, 2014, the City Council Committee on Housing and Buildings, joined by the Committee on Land Use and Committee on Community Development, held an oversight hearing on Housing New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. The Council heard testimony over the course of seven hours from Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, City Planning Commission Chairman Carl Weisbrod, along with representatives from the New York City Housing Authority, the Housing Development Corporation, labor unions, tenant advocacy groups, and other stakeholders.

Commissioner Been testified on HPD’s housing plan efforts.  The commissioner testified the city has closed deals for 10,846 units of affordable housing to date, 33 percent of which are newly-built units.  The commissioner projected to have closed deals for 16,000 affordable housing units by year’s end, divided between 60 percent preserved units and 40 percent new construction.  Of the total 16,000 units, Commissioner Been stated a goal of reserving 20 percent for people of very low incomes, or earning 50 percent and less of the Area Median Income.  The commissioner highlighted reorganizations and other neighborhood-focused initiatives recently taken by HPD.

Chairman Weisbrod announced a new City neighborhood study was beginning in western Flushing, Queens to determine its mixed-income residential potential, the third study to be conducted by City Planning after Cromwell-Jerome in the Bronx and East New York in Brooklyn.  Chairman Weisbrod also spoke on the mandatory inclusionary zoning’s role in the plan, testifying it will allow affordable-housing developers to create economically viable housing in strong housing markets and complement existing HPD programs in communities where the housing market is weaker.  The chairman also addressed the recent Council vote on Astoria Cove, referring to its mandatory inclusionary zoning as an “interim” form of the program, and called the process as a model for executive and legislative cooperation.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito praised HPD and City Planning’s focus on neighborhoods as a whole, saying the previous administration appeared to just focus on building units “with no rhyme or reason”, causing local tension.  The Speaker then focused on housing preservation efforts with NYCHA, calling NYCHA units a cornerstone of affordable housing in the city, and asked for more detail on their role in the housing plan.  Bill Crawley, Vice-President of Development testified that NYCHA is evaluating the properties with the highest capital needs and engaging with those residents to best meet those needs while keeping any development affordable to those residents.

Housing and Buildings Chair Council Member Jumaane D. Williams followed by asking for details about a Housing Plan Implementation Advisory Board outlined in the plan.  Commissioner Been testified the board has been convened, and consists of approximately fifty members from tenant protection groups, affordable housing developers, nonprofit housing developers, lawyers involved in affordable housing deals, and assorted other experts.  The membership was chosen through the Mayor’s office in consultation with agency heads.  Council Member Williams took issue with the lack of Council involvement in assembling the board, arguing council members’ contacts with tenant advocacy and related groups would be a valuable asset.  The Council Member then asked for specific numbers on how many units would be preserved throughout the various programs, saying the numbers were needed to judge the plan’s progress.  Commissioner Been testified many of the programs aimed at preservation were new and any numbers she could give would be soft projections at best.  The commissioner added it has never been HPD’s practice to release numbers for each program, arguing “If I give numbers for each and every program, they become leverage points [in negotiations with developers.]”  After the hearing, Council Member Mark S. Weprin told CityLand  “While we are committed to building affordable housing, I feel we have to make sure that we don’t hamstring development by placing too many roadblocks along the way.”

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito questions HPD Commissioner Vicki Been during the Council oversight hearing. Image credit: William Alatriste

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (center, middle row) questions HPD Commissioner Vicki Been during the Council oversight hearing. Image credit: William Alatriste, NYC Council

Land Use Chair Council Member David G. Greenfield echoed Council Member Williams’ comments about specifics, arguing a month-by-month breakdown wasn’t necessary, but rather an idea of where the plan should be at certain milestones.  Council Member Greenfield asked Chairman Weisbrod for details on City Planning’s work in East New York, Cromwell-Jerome, and Flushing West.  The chairman testified a concrete proposal on East New York is expected in the next several months, while Cromwell-Jerome was only in the initial stages and Flushing West was just announced that day.  The chairman testified they like to have a proposal within two to three years of beginning work, but “we don’t go into one of these and say ‘We’re announcing Community X tomorrow and we expect to have a zoning proposal in two years and thirty days.’”

Council Member Mark Levine asked about rent regulation and the city’s policy towards housing court evictions, arguing rent-regulation was the best affordable housing program in the city, and an increasing amount of evictions were of regulated tenants.  Commissioner Been testified HPD works to prevent landlords from harassing tenants out of their apartments through eviction actions, but avoiding evictions do not count as preserving units under the housing plan.  The Council Member endorsed the idea of the city funding attorneys for accused tenants, stating only 10 percent of tenants in housing court have attorneys, which speeds the pace of evictions.

After the hearing, Council Member Greenfield said “While we learned a lot about the newest aspects of the plan, Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan is simply too big of a topic, and too important to only discuss in one day.  I look forward to continuing the conversations we started today with Housing Chair Williams, Community Development Chair [Maria Del Carmen] Arroyo, HPD, DCP, NYCHA and housing advocates over the next few months. We certainly made some good headway and I intend to continue our partnership and oversight role as we tackle New York’s affordable housing crisis.”

During the hearing, other testimony was delivered by Catholic Community Relations Council, Habitat for Humanity New York City, Plumbers Local 1, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. Legal Services, The Pratt Center for Community Development, Coalition for the Homeless, Urban Justice Center, AIDS Center Queens County, American Institute of Architects, Housing Court Answers, Local Union No. 3, and others.

City Council, Public Hearing (Nov. 17, 2014).

By:  Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2014.)

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