Skip to main content

Harper's on de Blasio's housing plan: "a target of his own ambitious gamble"

From a thoughtful profile in the April issue of Harper's magazine, headlined Defender of the Community: Bill de Blasio gambles on doing the right thing, from Alan Feuer:
Casting himself as a kind of urban Robin Hood, the mayor gave his listeners a choice. He could, of course, sit back and do nothing as the market did to them what it had already done to hyper-gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg, in Brooklyn: bury them in glass condominiums and artisanal pizzerias. Or he could use his right hand to welcome builders to the area while employing his left to pick their pockets of apartments people could afford. “I have a huge critique of the free-enterprise system, but it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “There’s plenty of places in the city where someone can build a building in any way they want. That’s the reality of a capitalist system. My vision is that the government intervenes to the maximum extent possible to create balance.”
But what if that balance is out of whack, as in "100% affordable" buildings that aren't that affordable, as I wrote? Yes, that's only a fraction of the mayor's housing plan, but it's still glaring.

Feuer writes:
Much of the bad feeling has fed into a belief in many New York neighborhoods that de Blasio hasn’t done much to change Bloomberg’s laissez-faire model of development. Although this belief is widespread and entrenched, it happens to run counter to the facts — in 2016 alone, the city built or preserved almost 22,000 units of affordable housing (as the mayor proudly announced in January), the most in a single calendar year since the Koch Administration. But even this achievement hasn’t quelled suspicions about his housing plan. It’s the deer syndrome again: having made a series of tough, well-meaning decisions, de Blasio has yet to reap their political reward.
Whether they are all "tough, well-meaning decisions" is debatable.

Affordable for whom?

Indeed, Feuer hits the problem:
The question is: Will the gambit work? Although the total number of affordable housing starts announced this year has put de Blasio ahead of schedule in meeting his ambitious goal of 200,000 units, the income distribution of those units doesn’t really fit the city’s needs...
Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, de Blasio’s former deputy mayor for health and human services, said the plan doesn’t reach the neediest people. In 2015, Barrios-Paoli left City Hall after fighting with the mayor over how to handle the city’s rising homeless population, which has reached historic highs during his tenure. “It’s about affordability that isn’t actually affordable. Their solution isn’t congruent with the problem.”
That's a burn, especially from a former insider.

The big picture

Feuer writes:
The sense I got from City Hall was that none of it was ideal; it was simply the best possible option in the constrained climate of twenty-first-century liberalism.
Fair enough, but shouldn't de Blasio be a little less enthusiastic about some of the compromises Feuer concludes: 
...At its heart, our city is like many a republic of small provincial villages, and for several months and throughout those different villages, I heard versions of the same complaint. Everyone agreed that the republic was in crisis, that affordable housing was essential, but many people for their own parochial reasons were skeptical about the ways in which de Blasio was building such housing. He was building it either for those who didn’t need it, they said, or without sufficiently consulting local residents, or in a manner that threatened to destroy established neighborhoods. Whether they are right or not remains to be seen: de Blasio’s plan is at base a Hobson’s choice, a risky bet that doing something is better than doing nothing. His bet has not been called yet, but for a mayor who has spent more energy making it than any other in recent memory this was a strange place to find himself: as a target of his own ambitious gamble.
Yes, doing something is better than doing nothing. But some of the episodes chronicled, especially involving de Blasio flip-flops (LICH, Brooklyn Heights library), suggest that the mayor is not just a pragmatist but not as principled as he once professed.

The same argument might be made regarding Atlantic Yards, about which de Blasio once said would provide "3,000 units of low-income housing," which was never true. (He also said the buildings were too big, but he backed off that posture.)

And even the 900 units of low-income housing promised are in question. More recently, de Blasio reportedly said regarding affordability, "I will take what I can get." That seems more on point.

Comments