Commentary: Muted Voice in Affordable Housing Outcry

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When Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were sold to the highest bidder this week, there was a loud outcry from those concerned with our area’s affordable housing shortage. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says one notable voice was a little more muted.

LEHRER: First, a little history. Stuy Town and Cooper Village were created to provide middle class housing on the Lower East Side after World War Two – more than a hundred buildings, more than 11-thousand rent stabilized apartments.

In 1994 and again in ’97, the rent laws were weakened by the city and state under pressure from the real estate industry. The new law allowed landlords to convert apartments to market rents if the tenant moved out, and the stabilized rent hit two thousand dollars.

Since the law allows rent hikes for renovations, it’s fairly easy for a vacant apartment in many neighborhoods to be improved to the 2000 dollar level. And at that point, it is lost to rent stabilization forever. But as government struggles to create NEW affordable housing, it’s just plain weird in my opinion to have a law that is systematically abolishing it.

Few places have felt the impact of the weakened law as much as Stuyvesant Town and Cooper Village. Thousands of apartments there have now been de-stabilized, virtually every apartment from which someone has moved out in the last five years.

That’s the root of the outcry over the sale. Since the Tishman Speyer company paid top dollar for the complex, tenants fear they will push hard to get people to move out, so they can renovate and begin charging market rents.

After the sale was announced on Tuesday, Democratic Party politicians began lining up to speak out on the tenants’ behalf. Senator Clinton issued a statement calling on the new owners to “honor the history of the neighborhood” with a commitment to affordable housing there.

But on my weekday call-in show Wednesday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer expressed nothing but faith in the new owners’ good will.

SPITZER: I know that the Tishman Speyer company is a great tenant in the nys real estate community… They are very interested in the long term economic success of nyc which means they have a long term interest in keeping the middle class here so I am confident they will handle the situation with great sensitivity

LEHRER: why think that? wouldn’t they have an incentive to maximize profits?

SPITZER: … they understand Stuy Town and Peter Cooper are middle class enclaves… but I don’t think they will do anything untoward or try to force people out. That is simply not the nature of Jerry Speyer who is a very fine upstanding individual.

LEHRER: Spitzer has a reputation for fiery advocacy of causes he believes in. But in this case, rather than come off as an angry fighter for middle class tenants, Spitzer positioned himself as a defender of the honor of a major landlord.

A check of the campaign finance record shows that Tishman-Speyer has given Spitzer’s campaigns $21,000 in the last five years. It would be unfair to suggest that’s WHY he took his position regarding Stuy-Town, but it should be noticed who is donating and what their interests are.

More important that any of this is Spitzer’s position on the law. He has proposed a constructive change: indexing rent decontrol for inflation.

SPITZER: The element of that law that needs to be examined is the 2000 dollar threshold… 2000 dollars at that time was considered to be a luxury rent…so what I have said is that there should be thought given to a COLA cost of living indexing concept…

LEHRER: what would be the right number for today?

SPITZER: I’m not going to throw out a number. The concept is what we should begin to discuss.

LEHRER: What IS the right number? According to government figures, the median gross rent in New York City has gone up 67 percent since the 1994 law was passed. That would mean keeping apartments stabilized in NY unless their rents hit 3300 a month. If Eliot Spitzer is elected, it’ll be interesting to see how close his proposal comes to that figure… and whether the upstanding Mr. Speyer supports it. Better yet, why not repeal any law that throws affordable housing away?