Evaluating Ed Koch’s Affordable Housing Legacy

Photo by: New York Daily News
Photo by: New York Daily News

On Friday, former Mayor Edward Koch died at the age of 88. To some, he embodied the city of New York — vivacious, tenacious, and fearless.  To others, especially those in the LGBTQ and Black communities, he was aggressive, alienating, and insensitive.

When Koch was elected, New York City was experiencing an unprecedented urban crisis marked by violence, poverty, and a notorious fire during the 1977 Baseball World Series. During the game, nearby apartments caught fire, which destroyed much of the housing stock in the South Bronx — nearly 80% of some blocks. The blaze, now an iconic symbol of the state of housing in New York City in the late 1970s, was started by tenants trying to heat their buildings themselves. Many buildings in the South Bronx had been abandoned by their landlord due to insurance payoffs or defaulted mortgages. While the city took ownership of many of these buildings, they did not have the capacity to properly manage the spaces.

In 1985, Koch entered his third term with a new housing initiative. He pledged to rebuild the South Bronx by making a 10 year and $5.1 billion commitment to constructing or repairing 252,000 housing units.  Koch’s plan successfully rebuilt many Bronx buildings, empowered tenants, and expanded affordable housing. While he receives much credit for this plan, it is necessary to remember that his policies were only in response to the industrious resident organizing that turned numerous abandoned buildings into livable squats long before  Hizzoner ever set foot in the Bronx.

In the wake of the 1970s housing crisis, tenants took charge. They formed local organizations and used federal dollars to pay the staff.  Many of the tenants also decided to own their buildings by turning them into cooperatives.  UHAB was instrumental in supporting tenants reclaim and reconstruct their homes. In doing so, they pressured the Koch administration to allocate more money into these endeavors and trust that tenants have the capacities to manage their buildings. Tenant associations and local community groups saw value in buildings that Ed Koch desperately did not want NYC to own. His housing policy was a response to sustained community organizing, and this is what needs to be celebrated.

Ed Koch’s plan laid the groundwork for his successors. It is possible to see Ed Koch in Mayor Bloomberg’s 10 year Housing Marketplace to create and preserve 165,000 affordable housing units by 2014.  Like Koch, Bloomberg does not think the city should manage buildings, but is using the economic power of the city government to incentivize private developers to create affordable housing. Using practices that harken back to Ed Koch, Bloomberg has prioritized development in New York City and wooed major landlords. But New York doesn’t have a development problem anymore, it has an affordability problem.  Many of the housing developments that the Bloomberg administration has partially enabled (Domino Sugar, Atlantic Yards, Willets Point) are controversial projects with questionable affordability measures. Bloomberg is mayor of a different New York, and with ubiquitous speculation and soaring rents, the Koch framework  leads to city-sanctioned gentrification.

As housing advocates and tenant organizers, it is nearly impossible to imagine what we would be doing today if it weren’t for Ed Koch, as the Hizzoner certainly changed the face of affordable housing development in the city. Nevertheless, we think it is important to question the assumptions that New York City political leaders make about their proper role in housing today. By the end of this year, we will have a new mayor.  With that, we wonder: How will the new mayor’s housing policy reflect Koch’s legacy? And, What will we think of the housing marketplace, once Bloomberg’s pro-business attitude is less palpable and his critics have shifted their focus to Gracie Mansion’s new resident?  Only time will tell…

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