Monday, April 14, 2008

Housing Policy: Politics As Usual

Housing Policy: Politics As Usual
By Tom Kappner

My immediate reaction to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s selection of Maxine Griffith to head up an affordable housing task force was “politics as usual,” one which I am sure mirrors that of most of us who have been involved over the years in the struggle to keep decent, affordable housing available to the vast majority of New Yorkers. Ms. Griffith is a former assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and she is currently Columbia’s executive vice president for government and community affairs dealing with the Manhattanville expansion. Given the inadequacy of HUD’s programs and Columbia’s pathetic response to the housing crisis created by its past and future expansions, we can be sure of more of the same: cosmetic measures so as to avoid real solutions.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Columbia acquired over 168 residential buildings—more than half of the residential real estate in the area between 110th and 125th Streets. Of the over 6000 housing units in those buildings, less than 600 long-term residents remain in the rent-regulated apartments that Columbia has been deregulating. The Manhattanville expansion threatens to repeat the pattern of creating an exclusive institutional enclave surrounded by upscale condos, co-ops, and luxury rentals by displacing tens of thousands of primarily Latino and African American working-class residents in the low-income housing that currently exists between 133rd and 155th Streets.

Despite insistent urging from the community through the 197-a plan and community board resolutions that prevention is the answer to the housing crisis we face—and that mitigation is merely a means for avoiding the causes of the continual erosion of our housing stock—our elected officials and Columbia’s administrators consistently avoid the former strategy and favor the latter. As a result, instead of setting aside for the community the less than 10 percent of the housing units that Columbia owns and has not yet deregulated, which would at least end the policy responsible for the critical shortage of affordable housing in this area, we get the paltry sum of 20 million mentioned in the Memorandum of Understanding with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, which is sufficient for less than 100 units of housing and does not even replace those that would be lost in the expansion zone.

The Spectator article on Maxine Griffith’s appointment (“Council Leader Highlights Housing Crunch,” March 4) quotes Christine Quinn praising Mayor Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan. By its most optimistic projections, which are extremely unlikely to be realized, the plan would not even replace by 2013 the number of rent-regulated units that have already been lost as a result of loopholes introduced into the law since 1993. The mayor was urged to actively lobby in Albany against this gutting of the city’s largest supply of affordable housing. He never did, and didn’t even bother to support the eviscerated versions beyond token ambiguous statements.

Quinn’s statement appointing Griffith to her “high level task force” mentions that the task force is to focus on Mitchell-Lama housing, a good program, and to come up with a blueprint “with detailed and doable recommendations on how best to deal with this complex challenge.” Here we have code language for no more than cosmetic, after the fact, mitigation. “Complex”? Yes, if you proceed from the premise that making money for owners is the priority. “Doable”? That means accepting the constraints already in place and thus avoiding taking on the causes of the problem.

Mitigation instead of prevention, dealing with symptoms rather than causes, is a reflection of the dramatic shift in policy-making that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. In Columbia College, I studied what used to be called “government.” It was about the use of state power to achieve given ends. It became “political science” by the time I was in graduate school, and it was about government being a passive reflection of pluralistic forces. Politics, we were told, was “the art of the possible.” In other words, you could only operate within the framework of the established, powerful interests.

In practice, that meant the sudden proliferation of homelessness, acceptance of increasingly higher rates of unemployment, universal government-paid health care as unrealistic, and so forth. The point, as far as housing is concerned, is that “gentrification,” or the restriction of the availability of housing so that it is accessible to ever higher income groups, is only “inevitable” because policy makers choose to make it so. Instead of subsidizing wealthy developers, we could build public housing. Instead of providing “tax breaks” for affordable housing that is only affordable at higher and higher incomes, as the Mayor’s “New” Housing “Marketplace” Plan does, we could strengthen existing rent regulations and preserve many times more units of housing and at dramatically lower costs.

I sincerely hope I am wrong, but I am not holding my breath to see the recommendations Maxine Griffith comes up with.

The author is a member of the Columbia College class of 1966. He is a founding member of the Coalition to Preserve Community.

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