Originally published in Gothamist.
As city comptroller, Scott Stringer frequently delivered harsh condemnations of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing policies. He has accused de Blasio of deepening the affordable housing crisis by failing to create sufficient units for very low-income New Yorkers, labeled his rezonings as developer giveaways, and blamed him for mismanaging the public housing system.
Now, as one of the top mayoral candidates, Stringer has laid out a detailed 27-point compendium of progressive housing goals that amount to a rebuttal of the former administration’s approach.
Set to be released Thursday, the plan titled “Housing is a Right, Not a Privilege” focuses on providing deeper affordability to the most vulnerable, broadening and increasing requirements for developers, and ushering in a wave of “social housing,” permanently affordable housing developed and owned by either the city or nonprofit entities.
Similar to his transportation plan, Stringer provides a lengthy assessment of the city’s housing challenges, from the looming threat of evictions amid the pandemic to more longstanding problems like homelessness and the $45 billion backlog of capital repairs identified by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
In a sign of the changing view of the city’s affordable housing crisis, many of the mayoral candidates, including Stringer, have focused their discussion of housing on very low-income New Yorkers. Under his tenure, New York City has built or preserved affordable housing at a record pace for a total of 167,300 affordable apartments. But some have pointed out that not enough of those units went to the poorest residents.
The candidates have also linked homelessness and the deteriorating conditions at NYCHA to the city’s housing crisis. De Blasio had been criticized for addressing those issues separately.
In an interview with Gothamist, Stringer said he wanted to present a “holistic plan” that addresses the urgency of the city’s affordable housing crisis.
His mayoral agenda, he said, is designed “to fundamentally change our approach to housing because the status quo isn’t working.”
He added: “In fact, I think it’s making the crisis worse.”
The centerpiece of the plan rests on a concept called universal affordable housing, which Stringer first rolled out in January under the aegis of the Comptroller’s office.
The program would require developers building any as-of-right development with 10 or more units to set aside 25% toward affordable housing. The units will target an average of 60% of area median income, or $58,000 for a family of three. Deeper affordability could be achieved through city subsidies or tax exemptions, according to the proposal.
Several housing experts have said that Stringer’s affordable housing requirement would most certainly face a court challenge from property owners. But Stringer has cited San Jose and Portland, two cities that have passed broad affordable housing mandates, as having survived challenges that went up all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Why not lead in this space and fundamentally change the trajectory of affordable housing?” he told Gothamist. “The next mayor cannot be an incrementalist, we have to change this slow drawn-out land use process that is not building the housing we need.”
His developer mandate seeks to replace de Blasio’s signature housing policy known as mandatory inclusionary housing, which allows developers in newly rezoned neighborhoods to build more density in exchange for a percentage of affordable units. According to Stringer, the program’s reliance on rezonings limited the production of affordable housing.
He is also pledging to put an end to 421a, a controversial state program that offers developers a city tax break in exchange for building below-market-rate rental units. He and other critics have said that 421a was an overly generous benefit that was used to build mostly luxury housing.
Instead, he plans to apply tax breaks on a more discretionary basis and require that the units be permanently affordable.
Stringer has also identified roughly 3,000 vacant city-owned parcels that he said could be turned into 40,000 affordable units. The idea is not new. City officials, including Stringer himself, have floated such plans for years. Experts have said that many of the lots are too small or oddly-shaped to be developed into housing.
But he said he believed he could execute such an initiative. To help finance the program, he is proposing to increase capital funding to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development by an additional 60%, or roughly $370 million per year. On top of that, the city would add $125 million a year in a new operating subsidy to maintain the buildings.
The units, he said, would represent the first step in a larger effort to build more social housing in New York City, a progressive idea that has gained momentum across the country in recent years. Dianne Morales, the most prominent left-leaning mayoral candidate in the field, has also championed social housing.
The Stringer plan addresses homelessness with more familiar-sounding remedies that he and several of his rivals have talked about during mayoral forums. They include increasing the number of supportive housing units and so-called “safe haven” shelters, which have fewer restrictions and offer social services; expanding and raising the value of housing vouchers, and converting unused office and hotel spaces into shelters and affordable housing.
His proposed solution for NYCHA is mainly focused on securing more federal funding, although he has suggested using a $45 million a year surplus from the Battery Park City Authority to jumpstart some of the repairs. He has been critical of de Blasio’s efforts to generate revenue, namely, allowing private developers to manage public housing under a federal program known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, selling unused air rights, and building infill developments on empty or underutilized NYCHA land.
Stringer, like most of the candidates, has been vague when it comes to rezonings. Many housing experts have argued that the city needs to allow more density in many neighborhoods, particularly those with good access to transit. To spur the creation of affordable housing, the de Blasio administration targeted 15 neighborhoods for large-scale rezonings. But only six rezonings have been completed to date. Housing activists called de Blasio’s housing policy discriminatory because the rezonings have largely been in low-income neighborhoods made up of mostly Black and Hispanic residents.
Stringer’s proposal states that the city should “pursue upzonings in a responsible manner.” It adds that the rezonings should also “integrate wealthier, high-opportunity neighborhoods.”
Overall, the plan bolsters Stringer’s reputation as an experienced elected official who has a firm grasp of policy and understands the mechanisms of city government. His campaign slogan promises that he will “manage the hell out of this city.”
And with only four months to go until the mayoral primary, many of the candidates are yet to offer detailed housing plans.
But Nicholas Dagen Bloom, an urban planning professor at Hunter College, said that while Stringer’s plan demonstrated a thorough knowledge of housing issues, he was uncertain if it would resonate with the larger public.
“There’s a difference between an analytical, rigorous assessment of agency performance and saying what kind of housing people will live in and what their life will look like,” he said. “The elevator pitch is missing.”
He added: “He’s saying, ‘We’ll do everything right that the other guy did wrong.’ Maybe that works?”