New York City’s most consequential mayors were all builders. Fiorello La Guardia presided over a massive build-out of the city’s infrastructure, paid for by federal New Deal dollars. Robert Wagner developed a huge amount of public housing. Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg nurtured private construction while engineering the creation of tens of thousands of units of subsidized housing. Each of these mayors served three terms, the only people in city history to do so; together, they ran the city for 48 of the last 84 years. Three of those men are dead, but daily life in the city still occurs in and on their physical legacies.
Bill de Blasio is a builder, too. Early in his 2013 run for mayor, when he was a distant third in the polls, he unveiled a plan to build 100,000 units of subsidized housing and preserve affordable rents for 90,000 existing homes. After taking office he enlarged the target, revising the construction goal down to 80,000, but boosting the preservation side to 120,000. “This plan thinks big—because it has to,” de Blasio said on a brilliant May morning in 2014, when he unveiled his Housing New York initiative with a Brooklyn construction site as the backdrop. “The changes we are setting in motion today will reach a half-million New Yorkers, in every community, and from every walk of life. They will make our families and our city stronger.”
Three and a half years into that plan, 77,651 units of subsidized housing have been created or preserved. De Blasio also engineered a record-low 1 percent increase in the rents on the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in 2014, followed by two years in which rents weren’t increased at all. He launched a plan to bolster the cash-strapped public housing authority (NYCHA) and save New York’s 176,000 public-housing apartments. The mayor also spent record sums to fund legal services for tenants facing eviction and then agreed to create a right to counsel for low-income people facing eviction in housing court. He created a suite of new voucher programs targeted toward people in homeless shelters, moving 60,000 into permanent housing. And, for the first time in city history, he imposed a “mandatory inclusionary housing” requirement, forcing developers who take advantage of zoning changes to devote a portion of their buildings for specific income groups.
But the city’s housing crisis continues. More than 60,000 people, including 23,000 children, slept in city homeless shelters this week. Half of renter households pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, the threshold of affordability; more than 28 percent of renters pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent, making them “extremely rent burdened.” Rates of housing code violations and severe overcrowding have ticked up.
That helps explain why, two days after de Blasio swept to victory in the Democratic primary last month, advocates were in front of City Hall alleging that the progressive mayor’s affordable-housing plan is neither progressive nor affordable. “Despite the constant self-congratulatory press conferences announcing progress toward the 200,000 goal his plan does not include nearly enough apartments at the lower income tiers—where the affordability crisis is most acute and most painful,” read a September 14 report by Real Affordability for All, a coalition of advocacy and tenant groups.