I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to keeping New York City housing accessible to his lower and middle-income constituents. The way he is going about this is by giving select developers big incentives, including tax breaks, on construction projects when they agree to reserve a small percentage of new units for people who may not otherwise be able to afford living in these units once they’re built.
Sounds like a reasonable approach, right? Not to mention that it makes for great headlines, as politicians approach elections.
Here’s my story, which serves as an example of why this approach to affordable housing requires some serious reconsideration.
A few years ago, I got divorced and moved in with my elderly mother, whose health was deteriorating. She lived in a Mitchell-Lama rental unit. For those not familiar with the program, it is basically the 1960s equivalent of what de Blasio is doing now.
In keeping with the program’s regulations, I added myself to the annual income affidavit from the time I moved in. Three years after caring for my mother, she unfortunately passed away. I applied to succeed her in the rental agreement. What should have been a fairly straightforward process turned out to be an education in the realities of affordable housing in New York City.
Our building was under new ownership and management. Instead of properly processing tenant succession requests, the owner’s focus appeared to be on quickly emptying out as much of the building as possible with the ultimate goal of exiting the Mitchell-Lama program. In doing this, any empty units would be automatically converted to market-rate apartments. Occupied apartments would convert from Mitchell-Lama to standard Rent Stabilized apartments; this is not a good thing if you purchased a building for the sole purpose of getting everyone out and making a quick buck.
Instead of working with NYC’s Department of Preservation and Development (HPD) to judiciously process succession applications, the building’s owner and management company contracted a law firm to litigate and contest every single legitimate application that was submitted, including mine.
They questioned the amount of time that I lived with my mother. After I proved that I was within the guidelines, they questioned the information that I provided on the Income Affidavits. I provided copies of my tax returns showing that my income was in line with what I had reported. They then questioned some of the information on my mother’s Death Certificate. When that was resolved, a few months passed and they then came back questioning the nature of my relationship with my mother. I had kept my married name and, for whatever reason, this suddenly became an issue over a year after I had submitted the original application.
I quickly realized that I was involved in a kangaroo court administrative hearing led by an unsuspecting HPD Hearing Officer, who was allowing the management company and the owner’s attorneys to continuously derail and complicate the succession application review process. Unlike the building owner, I was not able to afford an attorney to represent me. I was also unable to secure a pro-bono Legal Aid attorney.
Long story short, a year and a half after submitting my succession application, I was evicted and found myself living on random sofas and eventually in a homeless shelter in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, the building filed to exit the Mitchell-Lama program. Not coincidentally, more than half of the apartments happened to be vacant at the time.
If you think my experience was an unfortunate one-off, consider that The Furman Center at NYU recently estimated that within the next decade, 58,288 units of subsidized rental housing in NYC will become eligible to opt out of affordability restrictions. With that will come the legal gamesmanship to strong-arm poor tenants out of their apartments just before applying to opt out of the programs.
Mr. Mayor, wouldn’t it be easier to take steps to protect the affordable housing that we currently have rather than waste time and city resources entering into more suspect future development deals?