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NYC mayoral wannabes sorely lack imagination when it comes to city housing

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Andrew Yang, the apparent frontrunner in the New York mayoral race, likes to cast himself as someone whose lack of government experience will allow him to be an imaginative leader. But his pricey new proposal on one of the city’s biggest issues — post-pandemic housing — shows him to be an unimaginative follower.

Yang joins Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Scott Stringer and others in accepting the idea that the city must help finance “affordable housing.” In a Bill de Blasio redux scheme, Yang this week proposed spending $32 billion for 250,000 subsidized apartments, part of his vision to make New York the “anti-poverty city.” Eric Adams is no less grandiose, promising “affordable housing for all who need it.”

Yang and the others have simply not noticed that the city already has more public and subsidized housing than any other US city — and what’s more, the post-pandemic housing market has changed dramatically.

Not only have some 300,000 New Yorkers left the city — meaning less demand — but the most recent data show that such change has mattered. The well-regarded Corcoran Report for the first quarter of 2021 shows Manhattan rents sharply down: 18 percent for studios, 14 percent for one-bedrooms, 11 percent for two-bedrooms and 18 percent for three-bedrooms.

Rents are becoming more affordable on their own: They’re down a whopping 27 percent in both Soho and Murray Hill, for instance. And a key measure of vacancies, the so-called “visible vacancy” rate, reached nearly 5 percent last year and still stands at 3.85 percent (and it’s probably an underestimate).

Nonetheless, Scott Stringer has declared his campaign to be all about defeating the “gentrification-industrial complex.” Huh? Doesn’t he realize rents are down and vacancies up?

Failing to acknowledge the changed city puts mayoral candidates in de Blasio-style groupthink. The outgoing mayor, in his newly announced spending plan, would devote $1.45 billion to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s capital budget.

Yet New York already has more public housing and rent-regulated units than anywhere else. We’ve got more housing-voucher-backed homes than anywhere else, as well.

Indeed, more of our housing is non-market than any other city, both in total and as a percentage. All in all, some 1.3 million units — 61 percent of occupied New York rentals or 42 percent of all New York homes — are price-regulated in one way or another, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. In that respect, New York differs radically from most American cities, where public-housing programs are small, subsidized construction limited and rent regulation nonexistent.

An imaginative mayoral candidate would connect the dots to help voters understand that there’s a connection between all that affordable housing and the city’s perennial housing crisis. Our housing-turnover rates have been among the lowest of big cities. Now that we’re seeing a COVID exodus, that’s finally changing — and thus rents are falling.

Andrew Yang is among the mayoral candidates that need to rethink how they approach affordable housing.
Andrew Yang is among the mayoral candidates that need to rethink how they approach affordable housing.
Matthew McDermott

An imaginative candidate would speed up the conversion of illegal basement-apartment units in Queens and the Rockaways to safe and formal housing — helping low-income minority owners increase their wealth. An imaginative candidate would look to the sale of high-value public-housing projects — and use the funds realized to compensate tenants so they can move up and out. An imaginative candidate would discuss how to phase out public housing, not trap its residents in long-term poverty.

An imaginative candidate would hold his fire on housing policy until the completion of this year’s census report on the city’s housing market — which could show the vacancy rate has topped the 5 percent threshold required by the rent-stabilization law to do away with rent caps. Indeed, an imaginative candidate would raise the question of whether rent stabilization makes sense in a city that has hemorrhaged residents.

What poor New Yorkers — like all New Yorkers — can least “afford” is a city whose mayor fails to provide effective basic services: public safety, sanitation, education, parks and recreation, treatment for mentally ill street people (a k a the “homeless”). Budgets imply choices. Financing more and more subsidized housing inevitably means less and less for core services.

This, in other words, is the worst time to divert public spending to build more subsidized housing — when the market itself is adjusting downward and basic needs are going unmet.

Howard Husock is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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