United for Homes: A New Path to Preserve Affordable Housing

Check out today’s guest post from our friends at New York State Tenants & Neighbors about the United For Homes campaign. The Surreal Estate is always looking for contributions from allies in the fight for affordable housing. If you’d like to see your perspective represented here, email UHAB Organizer at Cea Weaver at weaver@uhab.org. 

Tenant Meeting at Essex Terrace, an East New York Mitchell Lama.

Tenants & Neighbors joined the United for Homes campaign, spearheaded by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in July 2013. Tenants & Neighbors is a grassroots organization that helps tenants build and effectively wield their power to preserve at-risk affordable housing and strengthen tenants’ rights in New York. We work closely with low- to moderate- income regulated and subsidized tenants, who are increasingly burdened by New York’s housing affordability crisis.  Tenants & Neighbors – and our tenant constituents – are involved with the United for Homes campaign because of its potential for preserving housing at risk of losing its affordability.

With shelter stays at an all-time high and 61% of the city’s low-income households paying at least half of their income in rent (according to Good Place To Work, Hard Place To Live, a recent report by the Community Service Society), it is not surprising that New York City’s housing affordability crisis has taken center stage during the election season.

A major challenge for our next administration will be not only to finance the production of deeply affordable units, but to preserve existing housing stock at risk of losing its affordability. The city has lost almost as many affordable units as it has produced in the past ten years.

The affordable housing shortage is acutely felt by low and moderate income tenants. As Vanessa Trahan, a HUD subsidized tenant involved with the Tenants & Neighbors HUD leadership committee put it, “we need more affordable and permanent housing in New York City.”

The last major wave of federally-subsidized property opt-outs ended in 2007.  However, the underlying need for protection of existing affordable units remains. According to the Community Service Society, “as long as the city retains a growing economy, the real estate market will exert a strong pressure toward … the removal of subsidized housing from the at-risk affordable stock.” Further, despite the temporary lull in New York City opt-outs, Tenants & Neighbors is currently working – through the Tenant Resource Network program – with two federally-subsidized properties right outside the city that are in danger of losing their affordability. Homestead Village is located in Suffolk Country and Waverly Arms is located in Yonkers. In the case of Homestead Village in particular, an opt-out would result in a loss of 431 units in a community with minimal affordable rental housing.

Federally-subsidized properties become vulnerable to affordability loss when there is not enough federal funding to incentivize the owners to keep the property in a HUD program. Even before the sequester, HUD experienced a series of repeated budget cuts that will likely continue in the near future. At the same time, New York City will see another round of opt-outs in the next few years, as HUD contracts expire.

Given the current political environment, it is unlikely that there will be a major increase in funding for preservation of existing subsidized properties within the parameters of the HUD budget. In March 2013, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) launched the United for Homes campaign, an innovative proposal that, if enacted, will radically reshape federal housing policy.

The campaign proposes to modify the current mortgage interest deduction by reducing the size of a mortgage eligible for a tax break from $1 million to $500K and converting the deduction to a 15% credit. These changes would raise $196 billion in revenue over ten years. United for Homes proposes to use this revenue to fund the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF).

The NHTF was designed as a permanent federal program that would not be subject to the annual Congressional appropriations process. As a result, it would be under less risk for defunding and would not directly compete with other programs in the HUD budget. If funded, the NHTF would be the first federal program in forty years created for the benefit of low-income renters.

United for Homes is an innovative solution to our most pressing housing problems. With NHTF funding New York can prevent the exacerbation of the housing crisis by preserving existing subsidized housing.  As Emanuel Hickson, a member of the Tenants & Neighbors HUD leadership committee and the Vice President of the Board of Directors, puts it, NHTF revenue should also be used to “build solid, long lasting housing affordable to low income households.”  To get involved in the campaign, please contact Oksana Mironova at omironova@tandn.org.


Friday News Round Up!

ImageLike last Friday, we’re bringing your articles from the web that we found interesting or relevant to the work that we do. 

  1. The Community Service Society released a report on the cost burden on rent for low income New Yorkers. The most commonly accepted definition of affordability is that housing costs do not exceed 30% of total household income. That’s why Section 8 recipients pay 30% of their income on rent, and their voucher covers the remaining cost. (Curious about why 30%? Learn more here.) According to the Community Service Society, though, low-income New York City tenants pay nearly 49% of their income to landlords, up from 45% six years ago.
  2. The Martin Prosperity Institute released a graphic map (shown above) that demonstrates the number of newly naturalized American citizens per large metropolitan center; Richard Florida at The Atlantic Cities commented on this at The Atlantic Cities in an article, Melting Pot Cities. New York City tops the list in sheer numbers: of all new citizens, nearly 15% live in New York City. (Miami, however, has a highest amount per capita number of new citizens at 998 per 100,000 people.) New York City lags, however, when it comes to opportunities for immigrants. Boston, D.C., and San Francisco show the highest number of immigrants working in high skilled labor. We need to continually work on developing opportunities for life-sustaining employment for New York’s immigrants! (Read more: Florida has long argued that our immigration policies are much too strict; that our tight controls on immigration hold society back.)
  3. It’s been HOT. City Room at the NY Times tells us just how hot. Thursday’s record breaking temperatures reached 97 degrees. Heat waves in cities are dangerous; the Center for Disease Control estimates that nearly 700 people die each year from heat related illness, but in a terrifying statistic they also estimate that by the year 2050 that number will have jumped to between 2,000 and 5,000 due to climate change. In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, sociologist Eric Klinenberg described how social forces determined fatal outcomes in Chicago’s 1995 heat wave. (We really recommend it.) It’s no surprise that low income residents, isolated in run-down buildings in high poverty neighborhoods are at a much greater risk for heat-related death. His book also reminds us of the value of a tenants association, in providing strong support networks that can help in times of crisis!  
  4. Despite support from Mayor Bloomberg and widespread support from law enforcement, Governor Cuomo’s attempt to decriminalize marijuana has been struck down by Republican state senators. WNYC reports that the lack of support was likely due to political pressure from the State Conservative Party, who vowed not to support any Republicans in upcoming races who voted for the bill. The bill would take a tremendous burden off law enforcement, and combat the disproportionate number of arrests in the Black and Latino community due to Stop-and-Frisk policies. Governor Cuomo has indicated that he is not looking for partial reform; bill supporters remain committed to passing the legislation this year.

That’s all for today! Have a great weekend and we’ll be back on Monday!

REAL Rent Reform Fights to Protect Affordable Housing

UHAB is one of several groups fighting the affordable housing fight across New York City. Several of our allies, including NYS Tenants and Neighbors and the Community Service Society, have been particularly involved in the Real Rent Reform (R3) campaign that is taking the New York housing world by storm. Here is a recap of what they are doing, and why their cause is so important:

Everybody knows New York City is an expensive place to live. Rents are high. Thankfully, since the end of the World War II, there have been significant rent regulations in place to protect long time, low income tenants from the monumental rent hikes and rise in cost of living that New York City residents are all-too familiar with. Rent control and rent stabilization are bastions in the fight to preserve New York affordable housing. Thanks to the Urstadt Law, they are state-mandated programs. But on June 15, 2011, they are set to expire. Governor Cuomo has not moved to include them in the New York State 2011 budget.

The Real Rent Reform coalition is fighting not only to get these laws renewed, but to strengthen them. They had a relatively eventful week last week, holding a Unity Rally at New York City Hall, marching on the Real Estate Board of New York, and finally holding a protest in Albany in solitary with those most affected by budget cuts. Read more about their cause, which fights for tenant protections, economically diverse and viable neighborhoods, and stable rent increases. Join them in their struggle to keep New York City affordable!

Learn more about rent control and rent stabilization via the Metropolitan Council on Housing’s fact sheets.

The Housing Rights Movement: A Conversation at the “Left Forum”

Last weekend, the annual  “Left Forum” at Pace University in Manhattan gathered together a motley crew of academics, professionals, activists, organizers, and visionaries to exchange knowledge and strategies with one another through participation in panel discussions covering a variety of “hot button” topics.

I attended the forum eager to learn about new issues, as well as to deepen my analysis of the issue that I agonize over daily: how to build a thriving, progressive housing movement.  The distinguished Peter Marcuse moderated of panel of representatives from the National Association of HUD Tenants (NAHT), Take Back the Land-Madison, Community Voices Heard (CVH), National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), Picture the Homeless (PTH), Public Housing Tenants Association, and the Community Service Society (CSS).The discussion between these groups centered on several questions which have been critical considerations in my time as an organizer with UHAB.

Spatial Issues

The first question focused on spatial issues of organizing: when people affected are not physically together at one place and time. As a city-wide (rather than community-based) organization, UHAB confronts this challenge regularly. Although we generally focus our organizing efforts on specific building campaigns, we recognize that the issues in affordable housing units are systematic.  The same issues that plague low-income tenants across New York City also face the country at large.  Sometimes we organize campaigns around a portfolio of buildings that might be scattered in location, but connected by a common mortgage holder and/or owner. Other times we partner with community-based groups to form larger tenant/organizer/advocate coalitions that mobilize around collective issues that most affect members of these groups.  One such coalition that UHAB participates in is the Partnership to Preserve Affordable Housing (PPAH). In this way, UHAB takes a very multifaceted approach to organizing across space.

Questions of Scale
Some of the groups on the panel, such as Take Back the Land and CVH,  rooted their work exclusively on a building, neighborhood, or community level, focusing energy on creating inviting spaces that mediate inner-group tension, or engaging in localized direct action. Other groups, such as NAHT and CSS, fight their battles on the policy level, carting groups of tenants off to lobby in Washington D.C or other state capitals, or convene for a press conference on the steps of City Hall (as UHAB has done many times).  But one thing that all groups had in common was a desire to move the conversation from individual issues to one about the bigger issue of threats to affordable housing. This essential big-picture component of tenant organizing is what unites and enhances housing struggles everywhere, regardless of their spatial orientation.

Compromise vs. Negotiating
Another question which elicited strong reactions from some panelist asked about compromise and negotiating. Who decides what to ask for, what is feasible, and what constitutes a successful outcome? Interestingly, groups such as Take Back the Land, CVH, PTH, Public Housing tenants, and NESRI (all of which are led directly by the constituents they represent) spoke of compromise as a “curse word.” It was, however, agreed that negotiating and collective bargaining are not forms of compromise.  While recognizing the importance of strategic partnerships with groups that will sit down with public officials to discuss often “watered down versions” of their demands, the aforementioned groups preferred to stand their ground “…all day until you get what you want.”

As the 2-hour time slot allotted for the panel drew to a close, the panelists continued to raise questions about the relationship between organizing and negotiating, the differences between coalitions and alliances, and the complicated task of establishing solidarity and networks of mutual support despite differences in mission and strategy.

Although no definitive conclusions were made about best practices, one panelist left the audience with an intriguing challenge: “Say No, and…” In other words, housing organizers and advocates need to be able to think creatively and concretely about the solutions that they want to see and in doing so build a strong movement of people who can face the powers that be and say “No. And this is what we need.”