Bold Solutions to Housing Affordability in NYC

From left to right: Patricia Swann of The New York Community Trust; WNYC Radio Host, Brian Lehrer; Public Agenda President, Will Friedman; NYC Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development, Vicki Been; and New York University’s Steven Pedigo.

Public Agenda is kicking off new work to elevate the public’s voice in housing policy

If you live in New York, it’s easy to believe the sky is falling when it comes to housing costs. You’re not alone: 80 percent of New Yorkers say the high cost of housing is a serious problem in the region.

Still, cities across the world look to New York as they struggle with their own housing needs. As the city’s Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been noted this week, she’s received “many requests” for information about Mayor de Blasio’s ten-year affordable housing plan from cities looking to meet their affordable housing challenges.

Been spoke at a panel discussion Monday evening on solutions to housing affordability in New York, hosted by Public Agenda and moderated by Brian Lehrer. The panel also included New York Community Trust’s Patricia Swann and New York University’s Steven Pedigo.

While other cities may look to Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan for inspiration, Been noted that New York is falling far behind on its housing supply compared to cities of similar density. This shortage, together with other variables that increase housing costs in the city, threatens to erode what the panelists agreed makes New York so great: its intermingling of different types of people. “Economically diverse neighborhoods are healthier neighborhoods,” said Been.

Pedigo noted that both affordable housing and diverse neighborhoods boost upward mobility. Communities with a mix of different types of people are shown to have increased economic prospects for all, he said. If we lose that, we lose the competitive advantage of our city.

Panelists discussed a number of strategies for countering the forces that threaten to make New York out of reach for many. Swann spoke of the ways in which philanthropy has historically financed both experimentation and advocacy by nonprofits, which has led to real change.

For example, she pointed to mandatory inclusionary zoning: rules requiring developers to set aside a certain percentage of new developments for low-income tenants. Now a core tenet of the mayor’s housing plan, mandatory inclusionary zoning was considered off limits even just a few years ago. Nonprofit advocates helped push government to consider the approach.

Panelists also spoke of the need to embrace a regional understanding of housing affordability in New York, with Pedigo noting the need to look outside of the city for solutions. Creating new public transit hubs within the region can boost housing stock and benefit economically distressed communities, he said, pointing to Jersey City and Yonkers as recent examples.

With many residents and public officials resistant to or misunderstanding of density, Swann noted that framing housing affordability as a regional issue may affect public opinion. She pointed to the Port Authority, which oversees transit between New York and New Jersey. “Where is the regional authorizing body for housing?” she asked.

Participants also pointed to the many ways that New York is a unique city when it comes to housing affordability: It doesn’t follow the traditional rules of supply and demand. It’s unlike any other city in the country due to global investment. We no longer have, or are unwilling to convert, large tracts of land for new housing. These factors further complicate an already complex issue.

The discussion also turned to the presidential campaign, which, as Lehrer noted, has failed to address housing so far. Many of the highly-lauded affordable housing developments of the past — Co-op City, Stuyvesant Town — were largely funded by state and federal dollars.

What are the top three policies the panelists would like from the federal government? Been said the three were ranked equally on her list: more money, especially for senior housing; more flexibility, as it pertains to income ranges for low- and middle-income housing; and more vouchers for residents with the lowest income.

Monday’s panel discussion kicked off an effort from Public Agenda to elevate the public’s voice in policy conversations on housing affordability. While the issue affects all of us, too often the conversation is dominated by developers, policy wonks and the elite.

Over the next year, we will conduct research to understand where the public stands in the search for bold solutions to housing affordability in New York. We will share these findings with policy and decision makers so they make choices grounded in and informed by the will of the public.

Help us push this project forward! Support Public Agenda’s work and elevate your voice by donating today.

This post was originally published on the Public Agenda blog. To receive invitations to future Public Agenda events, sign up for our newsletter.