Affordable Housing Quandary. SIDEBAR: Getting Answers

Newsday, June 15, 1997
Albany - Weeks ago, form letters with one request were sent to state lawmakers by improbable partners including the Off-Track Betting Corp., the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and North Fork Bank.

"Please know that the State's affordable housing programs make a tangible difference in the lives of real people," they wrote, beseeching the state to double annual subsidies for affordable single-family homes to $50 million.

But with attention fixed on the midnight expiration of rent regulations, little notice has been given to the root of the problem - the scant housing for middle- and lower-income families.

"It's a political flashpoint," said Jim Morgo, head of the Long Island Housing Partnership, which requests subsidies to build affordable housing. "Like in any situation, you look for the quick, easy solution rather than the long-term solution."

The housing quandary has existed off and on since the 1800s. Government subsidies have dwindled or remained the same in recent years despite inflation. Construction costs have skyrocketed. New York City is dense, crowded and difficult to build in. The state lacks a clear housing policy. And some say nimbyism (not in my backyard) has derailed some affordable housing plans.

"That combination of factors created a situation that no matter how much the city and state put into housing, we've never caught up," said Kathryn Wylde, who headed the nonprofit New York City Housing Partnership during the infancy of government-funded affordable housing programs. "The only builders that could keep going were the builders building luxury housing."

Faced with a severe housing crunch when veterans returned after World War II, the state devised a system of laws aimed at keeping rents down. Because demand still far outstrips supply, preserving those rent regulations is at the heart of today's vicious battle in the Capitol.

"It's a very, very difficult and expensive problem," said Helen Dunlap, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington. "We're dealing in an environment where public commitment to providing not just housing, but food and public transportation, is evaporating."

From 1993 to 1996 about 9,000 new units were constructed in New York City, according to the city's 1996 Housing and Vacancy Survey, and it's unclear how many of those were deemed affordable. Each year about 11,000 units are renovated as residential housing. But during 1991-93, the last years for which figures were available, an average of 19,000 units annually fell out of the market for reasons such as abandonment or combination into another unit.

New York State and the city have spent billions of dollars in the past 15 years to rehabilitate housing and put up new units. But while more than half of the city's residents are paying more than the recommended one-third of earnings for shelter, state funding for affordable housing has remained at the same level for years. Housing programs have been victimized by inflation, the budget crisis and a lack of strong support. The federal government's public housing for low-income families is eating up the shrinking Housing and Urban Development budget and elbowing out programs such as affordable housing. The programs are generally available to people earning below 80 percent of an area's median income.

"Without some kind of government subsidies, you can't build housing that's affordable for most people," said Michael McKee, campaign manager for the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, which is trying to keep rent regulations alive. "You'd have to rent that apartment for $2,000 a month just to break even."

During the mid-1980s, publicity and a desire to help the homeless and poor infused $5 billion in public funds into housing programs in New York State and prompted the state in 1985 to set up its two main affordable housing funds, one for apartments and another for homeowners.

Each of those programs has gotten $25 million annually, and combined with local dollars, these subsidies cover about 25 percent of the cost of building new homes. Buyers and renters chip in the rest. Half the state dollars usually go to the city, pumped into almost 9,000 homes since 1985. On Long Island the money has been invested in 1,600 homes, mostly in Suffolk. Tens of thousands of rental units in the metropolitan region have also been constructed.

But now it's hard to find a strong constituency for affordable housing, builders and housing experts say. The problem stems from the diversity of housing interests - rentals, apartments, condos, single-family homes - and questions about the political might of the affordable housing constituency, including the tenants in the rent-regulation battle, they said.

After three years heading the Senate Housing Committee, Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) was organizing a housing hearing in 1994 when he realized he had no idea what the state's housing policy was.

Donald Halperin, then the state housing commissioner, provided a long answer about New York having "two co-equal primary priorities," including beefing up the affordable housing supply, and "four co-equal secondary priorities."

"He really tried to touch all bases," Hannon said, "and it was a reflection that . . . we had a series of housing policies. I think that so many goals allowed us not to focus on a few, and therefore the targets became pretty muddy."

Builders and housing advocates complain that bureaucratic delays in the city add to construction costs. Builders had to get approvals from several different departments, until the Buildings Department instituted one-stop shopping in October.

"Before the days of microfilm, we were literally in the Queens Buildings Department and had to go across the street to the basement of the courthouse building and literally had to roam through corridors of documents," said Jeff Levine, a Jericho resident who is president of Levine Builders in Douglaston.

New York City and builders there must cope with a complex infrastructure, watching out for subway lines and other concerns. "It's a very dense city, it's a very mature city that has a lot of old buildings, and many things can go wrong," said Gaston Silva, buildings commissioner. The department is trying to streamline the process.

Developers and housing advocates say they must also fight nimbyism - fears of change by current residents. One Long Island developer has stopped saying "affordable" when speaking to communities.

"People build a home," housing advocate Morgo said, "and then they want to build a drawbridge so that no one else can come into the community."

Getting Answers

If an agreement in the battle over the state's rent laws is not reached by midnight, rent laws affecting more than 1 million apartments in the metropolitan area will expire. Here's a guide for concerned renters.

Rent Stabilization

- Rent-stabilized apartments are governed by the Emergency Tenants Protection Act of 1974, which is set to lapse at midnight. However, tenants are protected until their leases expire.

- The law requires that renewals be offered to Nassau tenants whose leases expire before Sept. 13. If a landlord has refused to offer a lease renewal, tenants may call the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court at 212-982-5512 or Nassau / Suffolk Law Services at 516-292-8100.

All Tenants

- If the laws expire, the Legislature could reinstitute the protections retroactively.

- The state Division of Housing and Community Renewal has set up a 24-hour, toll-free hotline to address tenant complaints, 888-736-8457. The division will also staff a line during working hours at 718-739-6400.


- The Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlord group in the state, has asked building owners not to raise rents or evict anyone until the matter is resolved by lawmakers. The group has issued guidelines for building owners in the event of expiration. Landlords can call 800-924-3933.

Compiled by Lynn Brezosky.