(Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series that will explore questions and answers of City-wide significance raised at Senator Daniel Squadron’s recent Community Town Hall meeting. This installment focuses on the issue of housing affordability.)
At the November 15 Community Town Hall meeting hosted by State Senator Daniel Squadron, a surprising number of questions from constituents concerned City- or State-wide, rather than local, problems. One question, about housing affordability, may have been prompted by the results of November’s presidential election, which was won by a man notoriously hostile to any legal restrictions on what landlords may charge.
“My husband and I both work in education,” began Gabrielle Sasson. We’re middle class. We live and work in Tribeca. But we’re being forced out of our home. We’re going to have to leave Tribeca for financial reasons. We can’t afford to live here anymore.”
“I get a lot of emails about affordable housing for low-income people, but we’re not in that bracket at all,” she continued. “Is there a plan for more affordable housing for people like us, who teach in Tribeca, work in Tribeca, and support the community. How can we stay here, participate, and still be part of the community?”
Senator Squadron began with an overview. “Affordability, transit, schools, public safety, and public space are the pillars of the City. When any one of them falls apart, the others start to fall apart and the City starts to fall apart. The irony is that a number of them start to fall apart when the City is popular. Affordability demands goes up, affordability disappears, transit gets more than it can handle, schools get overcrowded, and the burden on the police force increases as you have more development. And, of course, with development pressures in a popular city, public space inevitably gets squeezed out of the picture.”
“We need to deal with each of these,” he continued. “The truth is that affordability is linked to some of the others, like all of these issues.” As an example, he cited, “the better and more extensive your transit system is, the more places are actually affordable to make a life, have a reasonable commute, be part of and connected to your City.”
“If you have children, as I do,” he added, “the ability to choose what neighborhood you live in, and what schools they will attend, is definitional in ways that have driven many other problems.”
Senator Squadron then turned specifically to housing affordability. “The number one affordability program continues to be, in New York, rent regulation.” At this point, he was interrupted by applause from the audience. “The fact that it is not means tested is sometimes used as a criticism, but it’s actually one of the program’s great strengths.”
He continued, “the fact is that in 1997, the Republican Senate and the Republican governor worked together to undermine the fundamental rent regulation, by creating a process to deregulate units, based essentially on destabilizing people’s homes with churn. The more people a landlord could get out, the quicker that landlord could get to a bonanza and a windfall.”
The Senator noted that the anticipated weakening of rent stabilization touched off a speculative frenzy. “Then you had landlords with huge amount of debt based on the windfall they were desperate to get to. A bunch of them, the immoral ones, would do anything to get people out of their homes, out of a combination of greed and having got into an immoral deal upfront, because of this State law.”
Reflecting upon the changes wrought by this law, Senator Squadron observed, “when I first took office, in 2009, I would ask folks, ‘how many people in this room have ever lived in a rent-regulated or subsidized apartment?’ Eight years ago, among people over age 40 or 45, seventy percent would raise their hands. For people under 45, around 15 percent would raise their hands. Now, I don’t even ask the question any more.”
“It used to be,” he noted, “that if you stayed in the City long enough and you moved around apartments long enough, you could eventually find a home where you were paying a rent that wasn’t necessarily low, but it was stable. You could make a life, raise a family, and get older in the City in a rental. And that is not true now, because as rentals became available, they were no longer regulated.”
While acknowledging that, “the City and the de Blasio administration are pushing for affordable housing and middle-income housing,” he added that, “it’s too small a pie,” and said that the problem had to be solved where it started, in Albany, rather than City Hall.
“We’ve got to change that State law, which Senate Republicans have blocked,” he said. “The big market factor that we had, a categorical regulation of housing, has now disappeared. And that has to change.”