Symposium Museum City of New York-compressed Photo: Brent Lomas

On Thursday, September 17th, a group of influential voices in New York City’s affordable housing movement gathered at the Museum of the City of New York.

The “Affordable Housing: What about the future?” symposium was aimed at fostering debate among powerful voices in NYC housing and development, from President of the Real Estate Board of New York John Banks to Rafael E. Cestero, the CEO of The Community Preservation Corporation.

The symposium also served as an opening of sorts for the museum’s upcoming exhibition Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy.

BuzzBuzzHome was on the scene and gathered some highlights from the compelling discussion below.

NYC’s groundbreaking history of affordable housing initiatives

The symposium opened with remarks by Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York, who noted that the exhibit was long overdue. “The historical record of New Yorkers working together to provide decent below-market housing was a quintessentially New York story — one in fact that has no rival in any other American city,” she said.

Jones pointed out that the average New Yorker is in the dark about the long and complicated history of affordable housing in the city. This started with income inequality very early in the city’s history, which developed in tandem with the new waves of immigrants to the city. A lower class was pushed into substandard housing.

The symposium revealed that preserving and building affordable housing is at the intersection of private and public sectors on the city, state and federal levels.

As such, it made perfect sense that NYC Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen made introductory remarks and former Democratic congressman Barney Frank made the opening keynote speech.

The Mayor’s Office sees affordable housing as a city mandate

Glen was quick to tout Mayor de Blasio’s initiatives to create 200,000 affordable apartments by 2025. She also noted NYC’s high cost of living means that more than half of renters in NYC are considered rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing.

She said that NYC has been a pioneer in housing issues, and sees city government action in housing as part of a mandate. NYC passed the first tenement laws, built the first housing projects, piloted the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and created “Universal Right to Shelter” for homeless New Yorkers.

“Housing production and preservation, specifically of affordable housing, is not only in the domain of city government now, of what had been in the federal mandate if you will, but it’s become an obligation… It’s just like education. It’s just like safety. It’s just like picking up the trash,” Glen said.

Barney Frank calls lack of affordable housing the “failure” of his political career

In his keynote speech, Barney Frank said that the biggest frustration of his political career had been “the failure to include affordable housing for low income people in the list of important liberal goals.” He said that decent housing is a pivotal ingredient to achieving equality in our society. “When you talk about the defects in education… the absence of a decent place to sleep and study and eat is clearly a factor… and we are asking teachers to overcome housing deficiencies.”

The panelists all echoed this sentiment, though each offered different pathways toward providing more low-income housing, as well as different outlooks on the possibility of ever solving the issue.

NYC is losing units faster than they’re being built

Following Frank’s remarks, Moderator Sam Roberts, New York Times Urban Affairs Correspondent, opened with a provocative statistic. He noted that the latest American Community Survey says that in just the last year, New York City’s population grew by 100,000. Could the mayor’s plan even “make a dent?”

“More units are being lost — being converted — to market rate which are subsidized than anything that any program at the moment can meet… I haven’t heard any legislation or anything trying to stop this bleeding,” said Saky Yakas, AIA, Partner of SLCE Architects, echoing Roberts’ concern.

Rafael E. Cestero, formerly of the Bloomberg administration and currently CEO of The Community Preservation Corporation pointed out that the loss of units Yakas was referring to was the loss of rent-regulated units. He confirmed that this was indeed occurring, but there is an important difference between rent-regulated units and subsidized units — which are the mechanism of the mayor’s 2025 plan.

He said that the loss of rent-regulated units is not happening faster than the development of new rent-regulated units. He added perspective to the goal of making the city “more affordable” by pointing out various “market forces” that make such things unpredictable, as well as NYC’s status as a land-locked city, where space is at a premium.

Ron Moelis, CEO and Chairman of L+M Development Partners Inc, develops affordable housing properties in New York. He applauded the mayor’s plan, stating that the administration also cares about “the ancillary aspects that come with affordable housing,” meaning parks, education, health care, health food, good retail use, infrastructure — all of the factors which affect the neighborhoods developers are working in.

No panelist thought affordable housing possible without government intervention

Despite that vote of confidence, no panelist believed that affordable housing would ever occur without the current system of city and federal subsidies and regulations. In fact, when the question was posed by Roberts, there was an uncomfortable pause on the part of the panelists, followed by nervous giggles from the audience. “Isn’t there a way to make affordable housing profitable?” pressed Roberts.

Although two panelists worked extensively in developing affordable housing (Ismene Speliotis and Ron Moelis), no one could point out innovations to alleviate the need for government intervention. Moelis pointed out that affordable housing “is a business that does run as a business,” but the industry is not possible when just treated as market-rate housing. The high cost of land and construction as well as the city’s bureaucracy mean that it is “probably impossible to do any affordable housing. Even the housing which we call affordable which has tremendous government subsidies… people might say isn’t that affordable.” He suggested creating more housing in neighborhoods that aren’t as expensive — creating new neighborhoods and revitalizing old ones.

Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy at the Museum of the City of New York is currently open and runs through February 2016. The museum invites the public to weigh in on Twitter with #AffordableNY.

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