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The Housing First! Challenge: Pro
By Patrick Markee

By any standard, New York City has an acute and growing housing crisis. Every night, 27,000 homeless children and adults crowd municipal shelters, the largest homeless-shelter population since the 1980s. For the New Yorkers who make the city thrive--the teachers, firefighters, senior citizens, municipal employees, office workers, and thousands of others--the steep cost of decent housing overwhelms household budgets, causes many to consider leaving the city, and leads to illegal and unsafe overcrowding in too many buildings and neighborhoods.

Despite the severity of the current housing crisis, New York City has a long tradition of successful public investment in its housing infrastructure. In the three decades following World War II, the Mitchell-Lama program produced more than 125,000 housing units for city’s rapidly growing population. Smart housing investments helped the city fight its way out of the devastating period of property abandonment and arson fires during the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, forward-thinking investments in affordable and supportive housing actually reduced homelessness in New York City at the onset of the 1990s. However, dramatic cutbacks in housing investments by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration over the past several years have resulted in rising homelessness--particularly among children and families--and a growing shortage of affordable apartments.

Simply put, the production of decent affordable housing is not keeping pace with New York City’s growth. As Coalition for the Homeless documented in its July 2000 report, "Housing a Growing City: New York’s Bust in Boom Times," the city faces a widening affordable-housing gap. Consider the following facts:

With the city’s government due to change dramatically over the next year--term limits are driving elections for a new mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and at least 35 of the 51 members of the City Council--a new campaign has emerged to promote an ambitious plan to address the city’s housing crisis.

Housing First! is an unprecedented alliance of more than 150 organizations, including civic groups, advocacy organizations, religious clergy, housing advocates, major financial institutions, not-for-profit organizations, real-estate groups, business leaders, and organized labor. Committed to having a voice well past the elections, Housing First! has proposed a 10-year, $10 billion investment plan that would:

The Housing First! plan--developed in collaboration with housing advocates and many of the city’s leading experts in housing and finance--challenges New York City to make affordable housing a priority. It promotes a range of successful housing initiatives, including multifamily rental housing, homeownership, and supportive housing for homeless families and individuals with special needs.

Most important, the plan addresses critical housing needs at many income levels. Over 10 years, it would build or rehabilitate 104,200 housing units (56% of the total) for low-income households (i.e., those earning under $33,000 per year), including 25,000 new rental apartments and 52,700 rehabilitated apartments for low-income households; 16,000 new supportive housing units for homeless people living with mental illness or HIV/AIDS; and 2,500 units of assisted-living housing for seniors. It would also address the housing needs of moderate- and middle-income households with an additional 81,500 housing units, including new rental housing and homeownership opportunities.

The Housing First! plan details an ambitious but achievable program for financing new production on this scale, relying on city capital funding and untapped or underutilized sources, such as the surplus revenues generated by the Battery Park City Authority and new tax revenues derived from the lease of the World Trade Center. The city’s extensive infrastructure of housing developers, both nonprofit and for-profit, offers a significant advantage in addressing the housing crisis. So do the city’s major banks, many of which have endorsed Housing First! and are poised with additional resources which can be leveraged by public investment.

But the key ingredient is expanded public investment. By any measure, the Giuliani Administration has slashed city capital investments in affordable housing, from around $1 billion annually (adjusted for inflation) a decade ago to less than $300 million in recent years. In contrast, the Koch Administration’s "Housing New York" 10-year capital investment plan built or rehabilitated more than 150,000 housing units, the majority for low-income households. Housing First! seeks to revive the New York City tradition of successful, forward-thinking investments in affordable housing and the city’s housing infrastructure -- a tradition dating back to the first public-housing units from the 1930s and Mitchell-Lama.

There is no question that there are many other housing issues that need to be addressed, including tenant protections, code enforcement, construction costs, zoning issues, remediation of polluted "brownfields," and rent regulation. Housing First! has chosen to focus on the production issue, and seeks to maintain as broad a coalition as possible to ensure that the need for new affordable housing remains high on the public agenda this year and next. However, many of the groups that have endorsed Housing

First!--including Coalition for the Homeless, ACORN, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, and other community-based and progressive organizations--continue to organize and advocate around a range of other housing issues, particularly those affecting low-income and homeless New Yorkers.

All New Yorkers, including tenants and tenant organizations, have a unique opportunity this year to press for a sustained, multiyear commitment to provide affordable housing for all city residents. Our elected officials and candidates need to hear from concerned citizens that affordable housing is one of the highest priorities on the public agenda. You can get involved with Housing First! in the following ways:

For more information about Housing First!, including fact sheets, flyers, updates on events, the endorsement form, a list of supporters, and a detailed policy paper, please visit, the campaign’s Website.

Patrick Markee is senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless.

The Housing First! Plan
Over ten years the Housing First! plan would: