Examining Jumaane Williams's Progressive Housing Agenda

By Pete Harrison (@PeteHarrisonNYC)

In 2018, the affordable housing crisis finally began to reshape politics in New York, which has created unprecedented momentum for progressive candidates and causes. It played an underappreciated role in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Joseph Crowley. It fueled a spirited primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon that has pushed Governor Cuomo to the left. And, most importantly, it created a landslide Democratic majority in the State Senate that included many pro-tenant progressives.

That trend will likely continue in 2019 with the upcoming special election for New York City’s Public Advocate, vacated by Letitia James who won the election for NY Attorney General. The race is crowded (to say the least) and many in the field have carved out reputations as stanch progressive housing activists. This gives progressives a unique opportunity to flesh out a broader housing agenda and test messaging both for the universal rent control fight in Albany later in the year and in the lead up to 2020.

Of that group, Council Member Jumaane Williams is one of the more prominent progressive candidates given his recent run for Lt. Governor as part of Cynthia Nixon’s insurgent primary race against Governor Cuomo and already has several progressive groups lined up in support.

Today, Williams announced a housing justice platform that among other points touches on three key progressive policy areas that we think should define the rest of the race:

  • supporting universal rent control,

  • halting the sale of public land to private developers,

  • and opposing the privatization of NYCHA (the New York City Housing Authority).

Before I jump in, it’s important to stress that the power of the Public Advocate office comes almost exclusively from the bully pulpit and a source of litigation, so policy platforms from any candidate should be viewed in that context. In this regard, Williams’s track record as an activist is partly why many progressive groups are enthusiastic about his candidacy. Having a uniquely outspoken elected official in this role is an opportunity to alter the conversation on housing (and other progressive policies) in New York City.

Supporting Universal Rent Control

Half of all renters in New York City are considered rent burdened, including 80% of extremely-low income renters. Over 60,000 New Yorkers are homeless. On top of this, current rent control laws, which protect nearly one million apartments in the city, are set to expire in June 2019.

However, given the results of the 2018 election, there is a good chance that the state Assembly and Senate will pass some or all of the eight tenants’ rights bills collectively known as “universal rent control.” (See our explainer). It is quite possible that New York will see the strongest expansion of rent protections in generations.

Williams, alongside Nixon, spent the summer campaigning across the state for universal rent control and can reasonably claim some credit for this turn of events. Williams also has a particularly strong background on rent issues given his previous life as a tenant organizer.

To be sure, almost all of the progressive candidates in the race publicly support URC, but Williams is unique here in highlighting the good cause eviction bill, which will expand protections to renters in small non-owner occupied buildings with fewer than six units for the first time. These types of buildings are common in communities like East New York and East Harlem that are facing extreme displacement pressure due to recent upzoning (more on that later.)

Much of the focus around universal rent control is rightfully centered on how it will eliminate the litany of loopholes that undermine current rent control laws and how it will expand protections to all parts of the state. But it is just as critical to protect market rate tenants in previously unregulated buildings in the city. Making the case to market rate tenants, especially in small buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods, is a critical component of making sure URC gets passed next year.

Blocking Private Developers From Dictating Land Use

It’s an old truism that real estate developers hold the real power in New York City. Some of that is via Albany through quirks of history and naked corruption, but a lot of it happens at the city level.

One prominent method of exerting power is rezoning - seen recently in upzoning plans neighborhoods for Inwood and East New York. This trend rose dramatically under Mayor Bloomberg (though many neighborhoods were actually downzoned, blocking more density and development) and has continued under Mayor de Blasio in only a slightly different appearance, with the support of many members of the Council. This is almost always done despite neighborhood opposition and strong evidence that upzoning causes large scale displacement for existing residents.

Another method is more subtle, but equally scandalous - giving public land away to private developers (596 acres has some great maps showing how much land has been handed out). The city consistently gives away public land at almost no cost to private developers who in turn promise to set aside a percentage of units through various affordable housing programs. Certainly some of these deals produce some level of affordable housing, but just how much has come under growing scrutiny. These deals rarely gets public attention and criticism from other officials is largely ignored.

Williams has joined others like Comptroller Stringer in criticizing the levels of affordability in the Mayor’s housing plan and calling for an end to the selling of public land to private developers. Williams has gone a step further by demanding a moratorium on all rezoning plans until URC is passed at the state level. He has stated his support instead for providing land to community land trusts, non-profits, and other groups committed to building deeply affordable housing.  

Most progressive accept that the city needs more housing, but rezoning efforts have often been a binary choice between no growth or displacement, with communities losing in either case. Presenting the progressive movement with a viable option to promote equitable, community-controlled development is a welcome nuance that could expand the overall affordable housing coalition while restoring democratic control of land use.

Opposing the Privatization of NYCHA

There are over 400,000 New Yorkers living in 176,000 publicly-owned homes in New York City. NYCHA is the largest and oldest public housing authority in the country and almost half of the 325 developments are at least 50 years old. It has been in a death spiral from a combination of devastating federal funding cuts and poor management over the last two decades. It currently faces $32 billion in capital funding gaps and is locked in a legal battle over a potential federal receivership caused in no small part because of endangering children.

Last week, in an attempt to block the federal takeover, Mayor de Blasio announced an updated version of his 2014 NextGen NYCHA plan that calls for a dramatic escalation in current policies that include selling air rights, allowing private development on NYCHA property, and most radical of all, the transfer of nearly ⅓ of NYCHA homes into private management through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.

Williams has staked out a firmly pro-public housing position and calls for the complete funding of NYCHA (while demanding more accountability from management). Most importantly, he has called RAD out for what it is - privatization of public housing. RAD is a controversial program, but many liberals have argued that it is the only option going forward for public housing. Conceding this means nothing less than the eventual disappearance of one of the most successful deeply affordable housing programs the city has ever had.

It is critical that more progressive candidates take an unapologetically pro-public housing position and fight back against the defeatism inherent in liberal support of RAD. Public housing works, despite NYCHA’s dismal recent record, and should be expanded in the face of the affordable housing crisis. That will take require massive federal intervention, which is clearly above a Public Advocate’s mandate. However, challenging the accepted narrative of public housing and reframing its value should be a critical housing goal of for the progressive movement. At the very least, Williams’ plan contests the narrative that NYCHA’s future is doomed and creates space to defend public housing and its value to working class New Yorkers.

A Progressive Vision for Housing

Overall, this plan demonstrates that Council Member Jumaane Williams is staking out an unapologetically progressive housing agenda that should set the tone for other progressives in the race given his prominence. He has introduced some intriguing new ideas along with solidly endorsing existing ones. Working out policy details and messaging in a highly competitive (and highly condensed) race for Public Advocate will only help the progressive housing cause grow as larger fights loom ahead.

Pete Harrison (@PeteHarrisonNYC) is a co-founder of homeBody and a senior adviser to Data for Progress.

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