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How Bill de Blasio’s housing record stacks up to his ‘working people’ platform

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Housing issues have dogged New York City’s mayor since day one of his administration

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his presidential aspirations Thursday.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

After months of waffling, New York City’s mayor has thrown his hat into the 2020 presidential race. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his foray into the crowded field of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination Thursday morning with a three-minute video positioning himself as the candidate who will put “working people first.”

“I will not rest until this government serves working people; as mayor of the largest city in America, I’ve done just that,” de Blasio says in the video.

Paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage, and universal pre-K were rattled off as wins for his administration, but conspicuously absent from the campaign launch were mentions of affordable housing, homelessness, or public housing—topics that are core to working families nationwide, and all issues that have dogged de Blasio’s mayoral administration.

Here’s a look at his record on those issues and what you need to know about how they’ve shaped the lives of New Yorkers.

Tackling New York’s affordable housing crisis

In 2014, de Blasio unveiled a massive housing plan to create or preserve 200,000 below-market-rate units in 10 years. That pledge was expanded in 2017 to 300,000 by 2026, and his administration says it’s on track to meet, and possibly exceed, that goal. Just shy of 40,000 new apartments are currently under construction, and more than 83,000 rent regulated homes have been secured, according to city data.

But the mayor’s housing plan has taken heat for building or preserving apartments that are mostly affordable to households with incomes at or above the average for a given neighborhood. One Bushwick building, for instance, last year offered “affordable” apartments for those making between $60,309 and $146,510 annually; the median household income for the neighborhood, in contrast, was $51,622 in 2017, according to the NYU Furman Center. Housing advocates have criticized the plan, and say there is a dearth of newly built units that serve the city’s poor. Last year, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report scrutinizing the plan, saying it “does not direct resources to address the actual housing need.”

Harlem, Manhattan
Max Touhey

Indeed, only 17 percent of the housing built or preserved thus far has been for those with extremely low incomes—a single person who make less than $22,410. The biggest share of units is geared toward individuals earning $59,760, or $76,880 for a family of three.

One key way de Blasio has gone about creating new affordable housing is through rezonings. His administration vowed to rezone 15 neighborhoods and has already followed through on five (including East New York and Inwood), with three more in the pipeline and several more on the horizon. To ensure that affordable housing wasn’t left out of the mix, the City Council in 2016 approved what is known as mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH), a rule that forces developers building in rezoned areas to set aside apartments for low-income renters.

But those rezonings have ignited a firestorm of debate about whether they truly create affordable housing or actually drive gentrification, and have drawn ire from community groups who say they’ve ratcheted up displacement in communities of color.

City planning officials use rezonings to reshape communities. It’s a major land use action that can create thousands of new apartments, but can also have massive implications for transportation infrastructure, school district overcrowding, and secondary displacement for existing residents. But the city’s environmental review process for rezonings can produce wildly inaccurate results that leave communities to shoulder the burden as the city scrambles to make accommodations. Officials with the de Blasio administration recently revealed that process isn’t held accountable for ensuring those predictions are actually accurate.

Combating historic levels of homelessness

The city’s affordable housing crisis is in many ways responsible for New York’s historic levels of homelessness. Last year, a staggering 133,284 homeless New Yorkers slept in city shelters, according to city data. And in January, the city hit a new, bleak record, with nearly 64,000 men, women, and children sleeping in shelters each night. Advocates expect that figure to rise by 5,000 people come 2022—7,500 more than the de Blasio administration projected in 2017.

In a scathing report released earlier this spring, the Coalition for the Homeless claimed the mayor has “floundered” in his efforts to address the homelessness crisis. Even under an ambitious, five-year “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan unveiled in 2017 that seeks to overhaul the way the shelter system operates. Under the plan, the city aims to end its use of commercial hotels for shelter, shutter all privately-owned city shelter units—often referred to as cluster sites—and replace those with 90 new shelters outfitted with supportive services. The ultimate goal of the plan is to reduce the homeless population by 2,500, or four percent of the then-60,000 disenfranchised New Yorkers.

De Blasio argued that the plan would replace the city’s ad-hoc system of shelters for a network of facilities more equitably distributed throughout the boroughs. In theory, it is a practical approach; in practice, it’s faced an uphill battle from communities railing against shelters opening on their doorsteps. Plans for one such shelter at the former Park Savoy Hotel in Midtown has faced fierce pushback and legal challenges that have stymied the process. But those both for and against Turning the Tide recognize that it is not a true solution to the force behind the homeless crisis: a lack of low-income housing.

A woman walks past a homeless person sleeping on the street in Midtown, Manhattan.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

In a viral moment last October, a homeless woman confronted de Blasio about his commitment to the disenfranchised—of the 300,000 affordable apartments set to be built or preserved, 5 percent are earmarked for the homeless—as he was in midst of his habitual exercise routine at the Park Slope Y. The mayor dodged her questions and promptly fled the gym. “I’m doing my workout,” video shows de Blasio telling the 72-year-old woman before standing to walk away. “I can’t do this now.” The incident was an embarrassing one for the mayor, fueling irate headlines and op-eds for his unwillingness to have a civil discussion with advocates at the gym where he says he goes to “stay connected to where I come from and not be in the bubble,” he told MSNBC.

The City Council is now considering legislation that would bump the amount of units set aside in de Blasio’s housing plan up to 15 percent—or 15,000 apartments—for the homeless.

Additionally, de Blasio’s relationships with developers have again come under scrutiny in regards to Turning the Tide. This spring, the city finalized a deal with Stuart and Jay Podolsky, landlords who have repeatedly violated tenants’ rights, to buy cluster site buildings they own for $173 million. It was later revealed that a lawyer representing the landlords, Frank Carone, had not only donated to de Blasio’s Fairness PAC, but had also helped the mayor solicit donations.

A crumbling legacy of public housing

In January, U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson appointed a federal monitor for the embattled New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), in a deal aimed at shaking up management and imposing strict federal oversight of the agency’s massive to-do list. The housing authority anticipates needing $32 billion for repairs over the next five years (but faces an eye-popping $25 billion deficit), according to city data.

Just this week, though, de Blasio announced that the city and HUD had extended the deadline to select a NYCHA CEO, one of the conditions stipulated in the agreement with the federal government. They now have 45 days to select a CEO—a period in which de Blasio will be spending much of his time campaigning for president.

The Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing complex run by NYCHA, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

NYCHA, which is home to some 400,000 New Yorkers, is no stranger to scandal. Most notably, in 2017, the city’s Department of Investigation revealed that NYCHA officials had falsely certified lead-paint inspections, which de Blasio downplayed at the time, claiming “that when you dig into the facts, thank God there is less here than appears.” In 2018, federal prosecutors brought a bombshell lawsuit against City Hall, alleging that for years NYCHA officials lied about conducting required lead tests in units, and that they conspired to hide poor conditions from federal inspectors. The U.S. Attorney’s office dropped the lawsuit in January after de Blasio agreed to a settlement that appointed the federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, who was initially tasked with ensuring an exhaustive evaluation of NYCHA’s management structure took place within 60 days of his February 28 appointment. That has yet to happen—the deadline was May 1.

De Blasio’s own actions in the scandal have come under heavy fire after leaked emails showed that he significantly underplayed the number of children living in NYCHA units who tested for elevated blood lead levels. The mayor announced that only four children tested for abnormally high levels of the metal in their blood, when he was privately briefed that the number was actually 202.

As a form of damage control, the city performed rigorous inspections on 175,000 public housing units and is spending $88 million on mobile X-ray gear to detect the metal through multiple layers of paint at 135,000 public housing apartments by 2020. NYCHA has even threatened to evict tenants if they do not comply with the city’s efforts to remediate potentially lead-tainted paint from apartment walls.

If you were to point to one particular issue that might harm de Blasio’s campaign the most, it would be this one—and members of President Donald Trump’s administration, including HUD official Lynne Patton (who oversees the region in which NYCHA is located), have hammered him for the city’s failings. De Blasio can likely expect more of that in the months to come.