Wednesday, November 08, 2006

After Spitzer's election: Day One, everything changes?

A reader asked me what voters could do to send an Atlantic Yards message yesterday. The answer: not all that much. NoLandGrab compiled a list of candidates (independent, Green, WFP, Libertarian, write-in) who oppose the Atlantic Yards project, but only incumbent State Senator Velmanette Montgomery was elected.

The more interesting question involves our new governor, Eliot Spitzer, whose campaign slogan is "Day One: Everything Changes." He's pledged a program of reforms, and some of them are promising.

Will he get there? Former state Senator Seymour Lachman, speaking last week on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, was both encouraging and cautious: “I know this man. He is a reformer. And I also feel it’s going to be very difficult. Eliot Spitzer cannot accomplish this in six months, or a year... or eight years.”

Then again, Lachman, in his book Three Men in a Room, coauthored by Robert Polner, suggests that only a constitutional convention can truly reform our dysfunctional state government.

And Spitzer, despite his undeniable reform credentials as Attorney General, isn't so pure as to follow his own prescriptions before the playing field is leveled. He wants to make it illegal "for those who do business with the state... to donate to candidates for state office."

However, as the New York Times reported Sunday, in an article headlined Many Former Pataki Donors Gave to Spitzer This Time:
Many of those lining up behind Mr. Spitzer are wealthy individuals or institutional givers with interests in Albany — political action committees, lobbying firms, labor unions and the like — who tend to gravitate to a perceived winner, regardless of political affiliation.

Governmental reform

Among Spitzer's pledges:
Accountability. In a democracy, elections are supposed to keep elected officials accountable to the people. In our state, however, incumbents are often isolated from the will of the people because of the influence of money in politics and the way election districts are drawn. Government has lost touch with the people it is meant to represent.

We need to end the pay-to-play culture in Albany by making it against the law for those who do business with the state to give gifts to state employees or to donate to candidates for state office. And to level the playing field in our election process, we must adopt robust campaign finance reforms, including public financing for campaigns and independent, non-partisan redistricting reform.

Efficiency. We must reform the way state government works so it comes into line with basic principles of good management. We must improve the governance of our public authorities. We must also enact debt reform that covers all state-supported debt.


The implication: old ways of doing business will change, and the state's many public authorities, including enormous ones like the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), will face new oversight and perhaps consolidation.

But will Spitzer heed Ron Shiffman's call, repeated yesterday, for a time-out on major development projects like Atlantic Yards and Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion?

Spitzer on AY

Spitzer's campaign told The Real Deal that Spitzer seeks more transparency for the Atlantic Yards project, which is proceeding under the auspices of the ESDC. What that would mean exactly is unclear.

Note that Spitzer recently declared that the most recent eight percent cut in the Atlantic Yards project was "appropriate" and sufficient. It seemed clear he had little idea that the project would be as large as initially proposed.

Support for housing

Spitzer's housing policy suggests new roles for the state, which has lagged behind New York City in supporting affordable housing. Advocates want the state to commit much more.

Some excerpts:
We must increase the supply of affordable homes by using three tools that New York State has: land, capital and increased densities where appropriate. First, we must increase the amount of land available for affordable housing. To increase supply, we should take inventory of all public land to determine where building affordable housing might be appropriate, revise the state's Brownfields laws to make it easier to build housing and create a "New York Affordable Housing Land Trust Program"...

Second, we must improve access to capital for homeowners and builders. We need to better leverage current state and federal housing resources and permit the state's housing agencies to use more of their resources for the development of affordable homes. We should also work with the State Comptroller's Office to expand its existing efforts to use a small portion of New York State's pension funds as a source of capital for affordable homes...

Finally, we should partner with local communities to encourage reform of zoning laws and permitting and approval processes to allow for higher densities of residential housing and make it easier for sites to become buildable.

Preserve existing affordable housing stock. New York State's affordable housing stock is a precious resource, yet we continue to lose affordable units for a variety of reasons. We must review rent regulations, when appropriate, encourage owners to rehabilitate and maintain our existing affordable housing and develop a strategy of how best to preserve the affordability of housing built under subsidy programs that are soon to expire.

Better administration, better planning and better leadership. Achieving the efficient production of affordable homes requires consolidating the state's housing efforts to eliminate administrative bureaucracy and inefficient regulations, appointing effective leaders to head our housing agencies and engaging in planning that integrates all levels of government more than simply the housing agencies and their programs.


A few billion dollars here, a few billion dollars there. That could add up to some significant changes, and remind people that the Atlantic Yards project would hardly be the only source for affordable housing.

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