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Cuomo's Urban Agenda: vague regarding housing and transportation, but rhetoric about community development promises local consultation

New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo has an Urban Agenda (details in PDF), which sounds good in places, but is also vague and cautious. He was been criticized for issuing it too late and not grappling with big challenges like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to affordable housing, Cuomo says nothing about mega-projects and suggests, with perhaps more hope than anything else, that the federal government could play a much bigger role.

While the little press coverage focused on the politics of the agenda (e.g., outreach to the black community), the MTA, and housing, the document contains some impressive boilerplate in the direction of good planning.

Should such rhetoric be followed and Community Development Blueprints be created, projects like Atlantic Yards would be much more difficult to achieve, given the rhetorical importance given to community consultation.

But that's not necessarily how development gets done, especially when developers like Bruce Ratner have given campaign contributions and have the governor's ear.

The agenda also promises that affordable housing should be a key consideration in the disposition of excess state-owned property. While Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan promises affordable housing, the arena comes first.

The blueprints

The excerpt:
Create Community Development Blueprints, Stating [sic] with an Inventory of Assets by Region

The starting point for the development of a community development plan will be the creation of community development blueprints, a process that should begin with a comprehensive inventory of the State's economic, infrastructure and community assets on a regional basis. This asset mapping process will enable an informed assessment of those communities and neighborhoods throughout the State in which targeted and coordinated investments in housing and revitalization will have the greatest potential for positive impacts in terms of their ability to capitalize on regional job centers and pre-existing local infrastructure. Consultation with both community-based and external stakeholders is critical to the process of developing a comprehensive plan, or Blueprint. The stakeholders include, in addition to neighborhood residents, financial institutions, the business community, educators, local planning, transportation and infrastructure experts, and community groups to ensure a comprehensive planning and implementation process.

...Through the ongoing collaboration with the Regional Councils, the State will ensure that community development efforts are focused on the communities and neighborhoods with the best long-term potential for economic stabilization and revitalization.
Criticizing his transit plan

Streetsblog was tough on Cuomo's brief analysis of the MTA, writing:
After avoiding taking any stands while outlining his infrastructure plan, Cuomo happily joined in the gubernatorial debate’s MTA-bashfest, trotting out the old and discredited “two sets of books” line. Yesterday, the former HUD Secretary released his “urban agenda,” in which the only item on transit calls, banally, for limiting service cuts if possible.
The Observer noted that Cuomo didn't want to touch congestion pricing:
"I understand the concept," he said of congestion pricing, but skirted the chance to offer his own opinion, saying it had been defeated by the Legislature and was unlikely to pass in the future.

"I believe the governor should be accountable for the MTA. These authorities that are often nameless and faceless—I understand the theory behind an authority. I also understand the theory behind accountability," Cuomo said. "In a situation like the MTA, I think that people have the right to know who's in charge, who's responsible and I think it should be the governor of the state."
Delayed release
According to Capital NY, the urban agenda was a response to a certain constituency, but it took a long while to emerge:
Cuomo began developing the "urban" treatise in question—202 pages about programs for job training, increasing contracts to women and minority-owned businesses, providing incentives for the construction of affordable housing—in June, after grumbling by some black elected officials who met in Mt. Vernon and leaked notice that they weren’t pleased with Cuomo’s then all-white campaign team or his fiscally conservative, soccer-mom-focused New Democratic agenda.

...On Aug. 6, Cuomo promised that the Urban Agenda was forthcoming. Elinor Tatum, publisher of the Harlem-based Amsterdam News, printed an open letter on Sept. 24 charging that Cuomo had been absent: “Where have you been? Where have you been these last four years? Your ads say that you have been there for New York, but for which New York?”
Looking at the housing plan

In an 11/1/10 analysis, headlined Cuomo Housing Plan Praised, Parsed, City Limits gave the agenda some very mixed reviews:
But while there are plenty of worthwhile initiatives in the former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary's plans, advocates say, there are few bold ideas. And what is left out is as revealing as what is included. Cuomo talks about expanding and reinvigorating various financing schemes for building affordable housing and avoiding foreclosures and the blight that can be their aftermath, but he doesn't say a word about holding on to the state's existing stock of affordable housing.

...Over twenty pages in his Urban Agenda document, Cuomo articulates what he says will be priorities if he becomes governor. He'll push to make the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program more attractive to investors. The tax credit program has been a bedrock of financing the development of affordable housing since it was introduced in 1986, but in the economic decline of the past two years, investment banks that usually purchase the credits slowed down their investment, particularly in upstate projects, Cuomo said. "LIHTC investments dramatically declined upstate, creating gaps in financing," Cuomo said in his blueprint. He says he'll work with Congress to reformat the program so investors start buying again and cash is once again flowing to affordable housing developers. But he doesn't get into details.
What other tactics does he favor? Cuomo will scrutinize mortgage servicers, establish land trusts to manage vacant land, and use the state mortgage insurance fund and other entities to pressure lender where unrealistic prices and jacked-up mortgages threaten affordable housing.

City Limits warns that Cuomo's plan ignores the 15,000 units of public housing the state controls outside the five boroughs.A few excerpts from the plan

On leveraging federal funding:
New York needs to take full advantage of the wide array of federal and State resources to spur private sector investments in affordable housing and community development... A recent study of affordable housing developments in New York City described how rental savings of approximately $500 per month triggered a "dramatic boost to scarce household discretionary incomes," improving purchasing power for health care, child care, transportation and enabling savings.

Most of the financial resources for affordable housing and community development are provided by the federal government, including through competitive grant programs. Particularly during these times when the State is under financial stress, it is essential that the State maximize the use of these federal programs.

The federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program ("LIHTC") is the single most effective tool in the State's arsenal for promoting investments in affordable housing rehabilitation and development.

Unfortunately, the financial crisis created significant obstacles to the utilization of LIHTCs. This is because the financial institutions that historically have purchase these credits from developers incurred enormous losses in the financial crisis and no longer need the tax credits to shelter their income.
On the state's role:
New York has been a leader among the states in creating affordable housing, with direct capital funding that averages more than $100 million annually, through State LIHTCs [Low Income Housing Tax Credits] and by providing insurance for affordable housing [sic] the State's Mortgage Insurance Fund. Nevertheless, both State and federal funding available to support housing is typically over-subscribed at a rate of up to 5-to-1.

...However, as a stop-gap measure to close this year's budget gap, the State took the extraordinary measure of deferring the payments of tax credits to a wide range of businesses that had made decisions in reliance on receiving these credits, including those issued under the SLIHTC... The State must take steps to assure the businesses that this deferral will not be extended again into the future... Only in this way will NY be taken seriously when it offers to use tax incentives as an incentive for the development of affordable housing.
On merging agencies:
Align the Efforts of Balkanized State Agencies and Programs to Maximize the Impact of Investments in Housing and Community Development

Numerous State agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Department of State, ESDC and the State's two principal housing agencies are responsible for securing and administering multiple sources of funding and managing the implementation of programs that support affordable housing and community development. In many places around the State, the biggest revitalization impacts have been achieved through the relatively smaller, but wholly coordinated, investments in areas such as main street redevelopment, waterfront renewal, demolition of vacant and abandoned property, and transportation and other community development planning. The State brings both federal resources (such as CDBG) and State resources (such as Main Street and RESTORE, among others) to bear on the needs of local communities in support of these efforts, but often does so in an uncoordinated, unfocused manner. The impact that can be had one [sic] the efforts of multiple agencies and funding streams are coordinated can be seen in the experience of Plattsburgh.... The State should take a number of steps to ensure that the type of coordination that occurred in Plattsburgh is the rule and not the exception...

The Spending and Government Efficiency ("SAGE") commission that Andrew Cuomo has announced he will form to evaluate the potential restructuring of all State agencies should explore whether there are advantages in completing a formal merger of the State's multiple housing agencies and authorities.


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