AN ANTIDOTE TO NYC'S AFFORDABLE HOUSING SHORTAGE:

EMPOWER NONPROFITS AS DEVELOPERS AND OPERATORS

In the struggle to determine whether New York City will remain home to a mixed population and not continue the trend toward accommodating the affluent in favor of low-and middle-income people, the dearth of affordable housing looms as a crucial and defining issue.

For so long the City was a magnet for people of high aspirations from all backgrounds.  Immigrants, students, artists and entrepreneurs arrived here with confidence that they could secure a decent and affordable dwelling and that opportunity to gain social and financial capital lay ahead.  And they contributed to the City an unmistakable creative and contagious energy.

But the price of market-rate housing in the large majority of Manhattan has become prohibitive for all but the highest wage-earners and a rapid wave of gentrification continues to sweep neighborhoods in other boroughs -- both deterring newcomers without financial wherewithal and threatening to displace long-time lower-income locals.

Policy-makers consistently recognize the dilemma and pledge to rectify it, and the current and most recent former Mayor put forth what they characterized as comprehensive affordable housing plans. 

But the shortage persists and it appears to be worsening:  an estimated 54% of City residents are rent-burdened, meaning 30% or more of their income is expended on rent; and there has been a 45% increase in homelessness since 2012, not even including the increasing number of those residing on the streets and not in homeless shelters.

So what is awry with the City’s affordable housing programs?

In too many cases, these projects include a large portion of market rate housing, and those units termed affordable are, actually, unaffordable for low-income New Yorkers. 

This is occurring because government engages with for-profit developers to lead the majority of projects, and increasing the number of affordable units and lowering rents would mean relinquishing profits.

A prime such situation is currently at question in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Jabari Brisport, a Green Party candidate for the 35thh City Council District, is seeking a solution that upholds the interests of the community.

City government identified public land called the Bedford Union Armory as a site for affordable housing development and selected the for-profit development firm BFC Partners to orchestrate the project.  The 138,000-square-foot facility is slated to be converted into 330 rentals, 60 condos, and a recreation center -- but only half the rentals and 20% of the condos are designated for below market rates.

In response to a recent press conference at which advocates and elected officials expressed resistance to the arrangement, the developer released a statement indicating that“…the economic realities of cross-subsidizing a new rec center and the lack of housing subsidies mean that 50 percent affordability is the only option currently available at the Armory.”

But Brisport and community activists counter that there is indeed another option:  instead of engaging a for-profit developer, the City should place the site into a Community Land Trust, through which local residents and housing experts would form a community-controlled, publicly-funded nonprofit that would steward the site.  Without the need to generate profit, Brisport says the housing could be made entirely and genuinely affordable, and that this model should be spread across the City.

In fact, there are numerous nonprofits with the ability and desire to develop and operate housing for low-income people, but since public systems are not sufficiently disposed to supporting them, playing this role requires of nonprofits a mammoth and highly complex effort. 

City government contracts with nonprofits in the amount of approximately $5 billion annually to provide a range of services intended to achieve social and economic equity – among them child care, afterschool programs, employment training, English classes for immigrants, mental health services and foster care. 

So why, in the case of so-called affordable housing, are for-profit developers so frequently entrusted by City government?  Of course this relates to the fact that many developers are politically connected and contribute generously to the campaign funds of politicians.

But we cannot permit an over-zealous capitalism and a politics infected by money to dictate housing policy, and to allow for the suffering of so many of our neighbors, and for the character of our City to be stripped.  

Private developers are generating handsome profits from market-rate projects. 

Let us empower nonprofits to manage affordable housing.