De Blasio Talks Affordable Housing and Legacy

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Mayor de Blasio has been preaching about his affordable housing plan at town hall meetings, like this one in Washington Heights in Oct. 2015.

The city is poised to take a major step forward on the de Blasio administration's affordable housing plan with a full council vote slated for Tuesday. The mayor sat down one-on-one with WNYC's City Hall and politics reporter Brigid Bergin on Friday at the Brooklyn Public Library to talk about what this moment means for the city, its changing neighborhoods and his legacy. Here are excerpts from that interview.

BERGIN: Mr. Mayor, you have made really clear that the city's neighborhoods are changing whether or not the city does something about this. Now that the rezonings appear set for passage do you see the neighborhoods changing?

De BLASIO: You know, 20 years ago or 30 years ago, there were affordable options and we didn't even think about the question of whether there was someplace, somewhere to live in this city. And over the last particularly 15-20 years, gentrification has had just a rampant impact and it’s changed the nature of the city. But guess what? The city government didn't respond. There was no policy. There wasn't even a serious discussion in this city. It was a mistake and I think probably it was partly because of the dynamics around the Bloomberg administration. I think there was a lack of public debate. Our plan mandates the creation of affordable housing. It's what so powerful about it. It literally says wherever we do a rezoning, whether it's for a whole neighborhood or whether it's for an individual building, we require the creation of affordable housing in the process. That's literally guaranteeing that everyday New Yorkers can remain in that neighborhood.

BERGIN: Many poor and working class folks, particularly black and brown, have told WNYC that they feel betrayed by a real estate market that's sort of heartless, and has just made huge swaths of the city unaffordable. You're sensitive to those constituencies. What would you say to them?

De BLASIO: I think their concerns are accurate and right. I think those frustrations are real and well-founded. Free markets don't take care of human needs in a consistent way. They just don't. This is why government is here. But government has to be aggressive and when we have to intervene, we can't hesitate. But on top of that we're strengthening and protecting public housing. That’s another 400,000 people and we’re going to make sure it’s never privatized. We’re reaching over two million New Yorkers who live in rent stabilized apartments. And we’re reaching thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who have been threatened with eviction, many times illegally. We’re now providing free legal services for them. All they have to do is call 311, and if they are threatened with illegal eviction, they can get a free lawyer from the city. So we have to do all of the above. People's frustrations are real. It's the number one issue New Yorkers talk to me about and this is going to be the most aggressive affordable housing policy of any city in the country, and I would say the most progressive as well because it's going to mandate that developers create affordable housing.

BERGIN: I think the crisis of affordability is something people talk about throughout the city and yet throughout this process you did face a lot of opposition from community boards, from the borough boards. Why do you think there was so much opposition? And looking back do you think there were any mistakes made in the process to getting to where we are now?

De BLASIO: Sure. I think if I could do it over again, we should have started deeper conversations with the people of this city earlier to explain the vision and answer people's real concerns. Now that did happen in the process overall because as this legislation moved forward, crucial organizations, like AARP, got involved and they spoke powerfully to seniors about why this would help create more senior housing. That brought in a lot of support. A lot of the biggest labor unions in the city got involved and their members are going to be greatly affected and need new affordable housing. Between those organizations, you are talking millions of New Yorkers who were reached. The community boards have always had a tendency to be negative about new development and I understand why. The City Council had a lot of tough questions but they increasingly came to the realization that the only way to protect affordability in New York City was also to create a lot more affordable housing. That’s what was done in the past for example when the Housing Authority was created.

BERGIN: You and the governor, and the city and state, naturally have that tension. But I think it does raise the question, how much can the city get done without the state, particularly without something like 421a?

De BLASIO: On 421a, I’m disappointed that what was a very powerful reform proposal, I think that plan should have gone through and the Assembly and the Senate agreed. Obviously the governor and I disagreed. I think there’s a lot of people now who believe we have to go back to the drawing board and fix it and get it done, because if we don’t have an effective tax incentive program, we won’t have the affordable housing we need. But it has to be a lot better, a lot different than it was in the past. In the past it was just a giveaway to developers. This plan has to be one that’s rigorous and gets a lot back for the taxpayers.

BERGIN: If affordable housing gets built here in the city, whether it’s state-funded or city-funded, does it matter who gets credit for it?

De BLASIO: No. I have long felt that achievement speaks for itself. We are on target to achieve our goal: 200,000 apartments preserved or created and reaching half a million people. That’s all I care about is the product.

BERGIN: Affordable housing is something that is so central to the legacy of Mayor Ed Koch. What will be your legacy?

De BLASIO:  Well I will say, I want to put things in quick historical perspective. The person who deserves the most credit in the history of the city is my idol Fiorello LaGuardia who started the Housing Authority and did so much to improve the safety conditions in housing conditions in the city. Absolutely Ed Koch, tremendous credit to Ed Koch for coming up with a very aggressive, innovative affordable housing plan, and helping to bring back the Bronx in particular. Look, we are in a different reality. Our plan is, in many ways, even bigger and faster. But it’s a different set of challenges. I hope the legacy on affordable housing will be that we change the rules of the game, that instead of allowing the private sector to make the decisions, as was the dominant reality in this town, that we said actually the people's needs have to come first and from now on affordable housing will be required as a condition for development whenever there is a rezoning. And if we get it right, we can really keep this a city for everyone. And I hope that the ultimate legacy when it comes to fighting income inequality is that people can look back decades from now and say the New York we believed in, the New York that was really for everyone still exists and didn’t slip through our fingers.