The NYC Mayor’s Race Is Avoiding the City’s Most Important Issue: Housing

The one major issue that the progressives in New York City's mayoral contest have failed to address with any degree of radicalism is also one of the city's most important problems: the lack of affordable housing.

The first NYC mayoral debate in the Democratic primary. (Spectrum News NY1 & the NYC Campaign Finance Board)

Ideas that would have been radical or verboten in prior election cycles are now commonplace in the race for mayor of New York City.

No candidate in modern times ever campaigned on dramatically slashing the NYPD’s budget. Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has attracted serious attention and endorsements as she runs in the Democratic primary, has made it the centerpiece of her platform. Other more moderate candidates are lining up behind reforms that past mayors rarely suggested, like forcing all cops to live in the city or dispatching mental health professionals to respond to certainne calls that usually result in armed police showing up.

Just about every Democrat running in the June primary wants to make the city more pedestrian-friendly and less car-centric; gone are the days when top-tier candidates like Anthony Weiner would brag about ripping out bike lanes. While the two front-runners, Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, put out militant statements in support of Israel as civilians in Gaza were slaughtered, others were more balanced or even refused to speak out in defense of Israel, a significant departure from the old status quo.

Although the moderate candidates — Yang and Adams — lead in the polls, the overall positioning of the candidates is to the left of that of the last open primary. Many of the Democrats want to build housing for the homeless, offer free childcare, and even create cash-transfer programs without means-testing.

But none of the candidates, Morales included, are centering transformational housing solutions in their platforms. The moderates believe simply building more units of ill-defined affordable housing will be enough to rectify the crisis in New York City, where the poor and middle class alike can seldom afford to own homes or even comfortably rent. The left candidates talk about more ambitious goals, like building housing based on the median income of those nearby and instituting a version of the social housing found in places like Vienna, but don’t go far enough.

For reasons unclear, none of the Democrats have spoken enough about a radical but feasible solution for the city’s housing woes: tenants taking over their own buildings and converting them into cheap, permanently affordable units. The next mayor can start buying out large, over-leveraged landlords who have taken on too much debt and are no longer seeing a rapid escalation of their property values due to the pandemic.

Tenant and nonprofit community groups, with the city and state’s help, can buy the properties and convert them into low-income social housing. The city council and state legislature can pass laws that give tenants and community-based organizations the first opportunity to buy buildings when they’re for sale. Once banks are ready to put an apartment building into foreclosure, they could first offer the property in question to nonprofits at a discount.

What’s still unknown is how many of these buildings are over-leveraged — housing analysts are still determining the overall figure. But most believe there are enough for a mass conversion from predatory, for-profit housing into something far more stabilized.

The candidates — leftists included — should also recognize that guaranteeing an affordable future in New York does mean building a lot. NIMBYism must be shunted to the side if the “out of character” project is producing housing for the working class and poor. The public and subsidized housing built in the early and mid-twentieth century was not always aesthetically well integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods, but housed generations of New Yorkers who otherwise could not have afforded to stay. 

The mayoral candidates should be proposing housing projects on the kind of mass scale that used to be common in the New Deal and postwar eras. Instead of promising merely to build on vacant lots — there really aren’t enough of them, and many are oddly shaped — they should be exploring how to build the next Stuyvesant Town or the next Parkchester. Sunnyside Yard, in Queens, is a start. A real leftist mayor should be trying to find ways to help unions build housing for their own members, like the garment and electrical workers did for their own in the Bronx and Queens.

Much of New York City’s fate, thanks to laws that have been in place for decades, is tied to decisions made in the state legislature and the governor’s office. A radical demand for housing would start with promising to build a coalition that could force the hand of Andrew Cuomo to funnel billions in state aid to the city’s beleaguered public-housing stock. The federal government will never come up with the tens of billions needed for sufficient capital repairs. Getting significant aid out of Albany, with higher taxes to pay for it, will have to be the answer.

Ultimately, the left flank of the party must apply the radicalism of defund or abolish the police — a demand that has faced great pushback in New York — to housing, mainstreaming the idea of a true housing guarantee. Every New Yorker should have a right to a safe, clean apartment that does not eat up more than 30 percent of household income. This is the next fight for the Left and one that must be won.