De Blasio's Next Big Push: Affordable Housing

De Blasio's road ahead, confirmed by the mayor and his senior aides, is an attempt to tighten the focus around his campaign theme of combatting income inequality

Now that state lawmakers have closed a budget deal to fund prekindergarten in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ready to turn to the next items on his sweeping liberal agenda: massively expanding affordable housing, increasing wages for the working class and overhauling the city's recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

De Blasio's road ahead, confirmed by the mayor and his senior aides, is an attempt to tighten the focus around his campaign theme of combatting income inequality and to steady an administration that has seen its poll numbers shrink in the first 100 days, thanks to a series of unforced errors and grueling battles with Albany.

"We've got a very full plate," the Democratic mayor said this past week. "All of it comes back to the core emotion of helping people in need, of trying to help people get back on their feet and trying to address the inequalities of the city."

De Blasio can claim only partial victory on prekindergarten after his signature pledge to tax the city's rich to pay for it was thwarted by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who made state funds available instead and seemed to make a sport of one-upping the mayor.

But advisers to de Blasio believe that the skirmishes will be forgotten once pre-K starts in the fall and that voters will be happy with the program and will have forgotten about the failed tax by the time he faces re-election in 2017. Moreover, the mayor's allies believe he has a growing sense of momentum on the heels of other successes, including expanding the city's paid sick law and ending litigation around stop and frisk.

Next up is de Blasio's attempt to push back on the soaring rents that are increasingly making New York City out of reach to all but the very wealthy. His goal, oft-repeated in the mayoral campaign, is to build or preserve 200,000 affordable units of housing over the next 10 years for lower-income New Yorkers, a staggering number that would house a population bigger than cities such as Atlanta or Minneapolis. The lofty goal would also exceed the output of a pair of New York mayors who served three terms: Ed Koch produced 190,000 units over 13 years while de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, created or saved 165,000 units over 12 years.

De Blasio's approach, which is expected to be fully unveiled in May, will be multi-faceted, according to his advisers. He has no plans to build stand-alone structures like public housing developments, but wants to find ways to cram more affordable housing units inside existing private buildings or ones that are on the drawing board.

He has no objection to super-sized developments, a concept that seemingly flies in the face of his image as a leftist who hails from a Brooklyn neighborhood known for low-rise buildings and liberal politics.

"I hope people hear me loud and clear that the only way I can achieve my goals is if we are building and building aggressively," de Blasio said last month, saying he possessed a "willingness to use height and density to the maximum feasible extent."

De Blasio has vowed to pursue a policy of largely mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to set aside a portion of a building's units for poor and middle-class New Yorkers in exchange for authorization to build bigger and taller structures. Bloomberg only encouraged, and did not require, such measures.

De Blasio's also revisited some existing deals and has asked developers to add more housing. City officials point to the recent $1.5 billion waterfront redevelopment of the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as a model of de Blasio's approach.

Originally, only 660 of the 2,300 units slated to be built would be affordable apartments, but in a deal struck this month, that number was increased to 700, with more of those being configured in two- or three-bedroom layouts, which are more conducive to families. In exchange, the towers will be allowed to grow by 20 stories.

The real estate industry, perhaps the most potent in the city, largely did not support de Blasio's campaign for fear his tax-the-rich mantra would hurt their bottom line. Developers have not rushed to support him since taking office but have signaled some willingness to compromise.

"He won't be their friend like Bloomberg," said Health Brown, politics professor at Seton Hall University, "but you can't be mayor without working with developers and they'll need him, too."

The administration also wants to legalize some illegal basement apartments, change zoning rules in increasingly mixed-use neighborhoods, fight Albany for more rent-controlled apartments and direct $1 billion of city pension funds to the construction of lower-rent units.

"This whole housing agenda is really an economic machine," said Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen. "We need to house not just our most vulnerable citizens, and we have a moral obligation to do that, but we also have to housing for the people who ... make up the fundamental backbone of our own workforce and the workforce we need to continue to attract."

Alex Schwartz, an urban policy professor at The New School, said de Blasio's push was "less of a plan and more of an assemblage of projects," which is typical of the approaches of big-city mayors contending with limited legal and financial resources. He added that de Blasio's proposals were "not particularly new" but ambitions in total and "not impossible" to accomplish.

While the housing push will be the mayor's most ambitious goal, he hopes to unveil some other political wins even as the administration begins implementing the pre-K plan all while trying to negotiate with the 150 labor unions working without a contract.

De Blasio has signaled that he wants to move aggressively to improve wages for working-class New Yorkers. He's asked Albany for the authority to raise the minimum wage within the five boroughs and has ordered the city's legal team to drop the Bloomberg-era appeals of bills that would guarantee higher pay for workers on projects where the city is a tenant or provides subsidies.

And de Blasio just unveiled his Sandy recovery team, headlined by Amy Peterson, who spent a decade in city government before working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to focus on Ground Zero rebuilding. They will soon roll out a series of new policies aimed at speeding up the city's slugging rebuilding process.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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