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!

  1. Federal sequestration has taken an excruciating toll on the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). According to Crains’ New York Business, the cuts will impact 650,000 New Yorkers that utilize the agency’s apartments and Section 8 vouchers. NYCHA will reduce payments for its 95,000 recipients, leading to less rental subsidies and, in turn, higher rents for low-income tenants. And, (featured in another Crain’s New York Business article), of the 6,000 new Section 8 vouchers that the city intended to distribute this year, zero will be given out. Additionally  the cuts will severely impact NYCHA’s workforce, resulting in a hiring freeze, furloughs, and possible layoffs. We hope that the city finds some way to turn this unfortunate reality around…
  2. At the 13th Annual New York State Supportive Housing Conference, Mayor Bloomberg announced his new commitment to supportive housing as part of his new Housing Marketplace Program. Crain’s New York Business reported that he would seek to prequalify developers to build supportive housing on city-owned land. This initiative would aim to double the development of supporting housing, building 1,000 units of supportive housing per year. And, this new strategy would require developers to pay rent to NYCHA , which will offer the agency needed support given the reality of the sequester. While Bloomberg’s housing plan has both created and preserved 15,000 units of affordable housing, more creative ideas, such as these, must be implemented to ensure that every New Yorker has a place to call home.
  3. In an effort to prevent yet another disaster, like Superstorm Sandy, from reeking havoc on our city, Mayor Bloomberg has devised an unprecedented plan to build numerous levees, flood walls, and bulkheads along the coasts. According to the NYTimes, the plan will cover 250 miles of coast and initially cost $20 billion.  To cover the costs of this endeavor, the city will utilize both federal and city funds. While this plan is incredibly ambitious in terms of time, money and labor, it will hopefully prevent another disaster from impacting the city in such a catastrophic manner.
  4. This week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Urban Institute released a report entitled, 2012 Housing Discrimination Study: Housing Discrimination Against Ethnic and Racial Minorities. The work elucidates an unfortunate truth: housing discrimination against people of color is alive and well. Unlike previous forms of discrimination, the report illustrates that these practices exists in more subtle manifestations. For instance, real-estate agents show fewer housing options to people of color than equally qualified white folks. We hope this report will make discriminatory housing practices more visible and, in turn, reduce their frequency.

Have a great weekend!

The Fight Between HUD and Westchester County Continues!


Westchester County and HUD continue their 3 year fight over the terms of a 2009 Fair Housing settlement.  As we wrote last year, the settlement mandates that Westchester County build 750 new units of affordable housing, analyze exclusionary zoning as well as other obstacles to fair housing, and work on how to rid themselves of those obstacles. In addition, the county was required to promote a law that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants who use government vouchers (this law exists in NYC).

I wish I could offer some good news, like Westchester has turned around, decided to go above and beyond HUD’s requirements, and that Westchester is now a booming, economically and racially diverse place to live.  But, alas, the fight continues.

HUD had previously promised the county $7.4 million in grants for housing, parks, playgrounds, and other government services. But, as a result of the lawsuit and failure to comply, this money is frozen and may be lost altogether if Westchester continues to sidestep HUD’s criteria. On Monday, the government of Westchester County indicated that they plan to ask the State to administer the money, rather than the county.

Who is behind all this controversy?  His name is Rob Astorino and he is the County Executive (pictured above). Mr. Astorino believes he is in full compliance with the settlement, and is requesting a hearing with HUD before the county officially loses control of the money.

While we understand that politics can certainly play into this lawsuit, we believe that throwing such a fight against Fair Housing as well as racial and economic integration can only be a bad thing.

How Mr. Astorino and Westchester County have not complied with the settlement (according to HUD):

  • The law the government was supposed to promote – landlords can’t discriminate against tenants with subsidies- passed! But then Mr. Astorino vetoed it! How could he simultaneously promote the law while vetoing it? He can’t. The county, according to HUD, still needs to deal with housing discrimination before it can access the money.
  • The county has still not submitted an adequate report that explains obstacles to Fair Housing in the county, particularly a racial analysis.
  • The already developed 300 new units of affordable housing are tucked “into the county’s nooks and crannies” (according to an opinion piece in the NYTimes). This placement of new affordable housing is, of course, problematic, particularly when trying to dispute that the planning is not exclusionary zoning. 

To be fair, one unfortunate circumstance of the monetary freeze is that towns who have no involvement in the court order and (supposedly) have made long-term efforts to promote affordable housing are negatively impacted. These towns, like Mamaroneck, “are faced with losing money for a wrong that for many years we have been proactively seeking to address.”

Stay tuned for more deets on this highly contentious debate!

A Tale of Two Buildings: Why the Council Should Ask for More in South Lake Union

As New York City scrambles to elect a new mayor, we are thinking more and more about what it would take to end the housing crisis we face in this city.  Each candidate has proposed their individual housing plan and has taken a stance on hot topics such as mandatory exclusionary zoning and NYCHA’s luxury developments.
It is important to remember, though, that the issue of affordable housing exists in all cities throughout the country.  Today’s blog post was submitted by Eliana Horn, a tenant organizer working at The Tenants Union in Seattle.  The article was published today in the Seattle Met.
A Tale of Two Buildings: Why the Council Should Ask for More in South Lake Union

The Downtowner, née the New Richmond Hotel. Image via Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation


The City Council must enact a strong incentive zoning policy for South Lake Union to counter the hemorrhaging of affordable housing in downtown Seattle.

Today the Seattle City Council, meeting as the South Lake Union committee, will vote on a new zoning policy to create affordable housing in the profitable area of South Lake Union.

Currently, almost all of the proposals the council is considering fail to produce the affordable housing South Lake Union needs: They propose to create hundreds of units, when the need is in the thousands. In most of the proposals, the units would only be affordable for renters earning up to 80% of the Area Median Income—meaning a single tenant, for example, might earn $45,100 a year.

Most of the proposals do not create housing affordable for the low-income families and low-wage workers, many of them people of color, who are now increasingly squeezed out of Seattle. In the last two years, at least two buildings with hundreds of housing units for low-income tenants in the downtown Seattle area have been sold to for-profit developers. Low-income renters have been forced to relocate far from the public transit, medical care, and social services they depend on.

The Downtowner, a 240-unit building in the International District with a HUD rent subsidy, was once filled with very low-income tenants who earn below 30% of the area median, primarily seniors, people with disabilities, and immigrants.

For Solomon Berhane, an interpreter, having an apartment in the downtown area was crucial for finding employment. Berhane says, “The Downtowner Apartments were a suitable place for me because I could move around with ease of transportation, and it gave me a chance to reach the jobs when they are available.”

When the building was bought by Goodman Real Estate in 2011, and redubbed the “Addison on Fourth” it was converted to a subsidy that, like the majority of city council members’ South Lake Union proposals, targets renters earning less than 80 percent of median income. The rents went up to from $740 to $940 a month for a renovated studio and from $790 to $990 for a one-bedroom apartment, and the cost of parking in the building’s lot went up from $40 to $193 a month. The new rent went beyond the payment standard for any tenant with a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.

As a result, nearly all of the tenants in the building have been displaced or are looking for housing elsewhere, including Berhane. Moving out will have far-reaching effects on other areas of his life. Berhane says, “I have been searching for apartments in the South Jackson area but the rents are more than $1000 a month. Finally, I applied for housing in Senior Housing Assistance Group, and I have located one in South Seattle, but…if I have to reach a job within half an hour, I won’t be able to make it. So that’s a loss of job opportunity.”

Another renter, who preferred to be referred to only as John, lived in transitional housing before he found permanent housing at the Adams Apartments, a 32-unit building in Belltown that was subsidized through the Seattle Office of Housing. When Ethos Property Group bought the building in late 2012, they allowed the rent restriction to expire, providing no protections from rent hikes to the low-income tenants living there. The result: after living there six years, John’s rent was doubled from $736 to $1450 per month.

John was hoping to find another place in Seattle, but he moved out of the city after finding something affordable in his rural hometown near his elderly parents. In John’s experience, “all of the affordable housing for people in the buildings [with rent restrictions] are getting sold and turned over into for-profit buildings, and out goes the affordable housing and we’re made homeless. I got lucky.”

Another Adams resident, Tupelo Bahir, has lived in the building for 10 years and loves her home. Formerly homeless, Bahir relies on the resources for homeless and formerly homeless women nearby and on being within walking distance of her doctor, her sister, free Internet access and food banks. Bahir’s rent was also increased from $735 to $1400.

Bahir says the prospect of moving “has been very traumatic. … I’m looking [for housing] in the downtown and Belltown areas, but I haven’t got anything confirmed yet. It’s been very difficult to find anything that would fit my Section 8 limit, but I have a disability and my doctor has written a note saying that I need to be within walking distance of my resources. The lowest-rent place I could find anywhere near downtown was a smaller unit at $1150 per month.” Several of John and Bahir’s former neighbors are currently homeless and unable to find housing affordable at their income and close to the transit they rely on for work.

Meanwhile, the development of South Lake Union will bring 100,000 new jobs to the greater downtown area over the next two decades. One in four of these jobs will pay wages too low for workers to live in market-rate housing near those jobs. The city’s own Office of Housing estimates that 5,500 units of affordable housing are needed in South Lake Union to accommodate the work force alone.

As the main land owner and developer in South Lake Union, Vulcan, Inc. is in a position to make immense profits from its developments in the area, while Seattle continues to lose more affordable housing each year. It is commendable that the city has recognized this problem and has pledged to address it by creating affordable units through incentive zoning, but almost all of the current proposals seem to ignore the city’s own estimates of the current need for housing and come nowhere near meeting that need. Only council member Nick Licata’s proposal actually begins to address the problem the city is facing, proposing the construction of 2,800 affordable housing units by 2031, half for renters earning below 60 percent of area median and half below 80 percent of AMI

With its vote this afternoon, the council will take on a simple question: Are we a city that values diversity, low-wage workers and low income families living within proximity to their jobs and public transit, and will council members take the action that’s needed to reach their own affordable housing goals? Seattle tenants are holding our breath.

The Tenants Union is a membership-based non-profit that provides tenant rights counseling and advocates for fair public policy that respects Washington’s tenants and the dignity of low income communities and communities of color. Reach us at http://www.tenantsunion.org.

Friday News Round-up!

It’s Friday! Here is some of the most relevant housing news from this week:

  1. On Wednesday, Brian Lehrer moderated a mayoral forum on housing policy at NYU’s Furman Center. The forum gave candidates a chance to comment on the city’s current housing policies, as well as offer suggestions for the future. All of the candidates agreed that New York City’s affordable housing stock is inadequate.  In an effort to change this reality, Speaker Quinn wants to create a fund to purchase distressed  foreclosed properties in bulk, while Advocate Bill de Blasio and Bill Thompson want to leverage pension funds and other city capital to create more affordable housing.  And, Comptroller John Liu wants to utilize his “Capital Acceleration Plan,” which would identify excess budgeting in long term plans, eliminate it, and use the surplus to create more affordable housing. To listen to the full forum, check out the audio here
  2. This week, President Obama released his budget proposal for 2014. According to the Washington Post, the President allocated $47.6B to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is a 6 percent increase from 2013. Of those funds, $37.4 will provide rental assistance to 4.7M low-income families and $2.4 will provide 10,000 new vouchers for veterans. While the increased budget will subsidize many housing costs, Secretary Sean Donovan fears that the allotted funding will not cover the administrative costs of public housing authorities. With insufficient funding, we look to local government to think creatively about recuperating these costs. As we know, NYCHA controversially plans to solve this problem through land leasing their parking lots to luxury developers.
  3. Today, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) released a report entitled, “Modernizing the Fair Housing Act for the 21st Century.” Currently, the Fair Housing Act protects against discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, family status, and religion. However, there are some glaring loopholes — the law does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, income status or martial status (as relating to queer partners).  The NFHA report makes visible the inadequate protections in the Fair Housing Act and advocates that lawmakers revise the law to reflect the current needs of its citizens.
  4. On Monday, the City Planning Commission (CPC) approved the Bloomberg administration’s microunit proposal: aDAPT NYC. The plan details the building of micro-units, or tiny apartments, as a means of expanding the affordable housing stock. However, the program requires rezoning in order to be built, and rezoning requires public approval. In the coming weeks there will be a public referendum on the plan. If given the go-ahead from the community as well as the city council, this program would set the precedent for building tiny apartments in NYC. Stay tuned as this story unfolds!
  5. Okay, so forgive us, this happened a few weeks ago. But its a great report and we want to give it the thumbs up it deserves: CASA members and the Urban Justice Center partnered to conduct a survey on the tenant experience in Bronx Housing Court. Their startling results, along with several solid policy recommendations, are available here.

Have a great weekend and stay dry!

Friday News Round-up!

As we culminate yet another week, we welcome the start of spring (even though it doesn’t really feel like it )! Here are a few new stories that caught our attention this week!

  1. The Daily News reported that Workforce Housing Advisers (WFHA) cut the ribbon on 935 Kelly Street — a property that was considered one of the most dilapidated multifamily buildings in the Bronx. Within the past few years, WFHA bought the mortgage, foreclosed on the property, and renovated the building (along with four other properties on the same block). Also, having organized with tenants in other WFHA buildings,  Kerri White, the Co-Director of Organizing at UHAB, understands the challenges involved in sealing the foreclosure. In the same Daily News article, she comments, “Workforce Housing is a responsible developer… We see them trying to do their best, but that can’t happen until they own the property and put in more money.” We congratulate the tenants as well as WFHA for sealing the foreclosure and commend the collaborative efforts in the building.
  2. New York City proposed a bill that would create an Office of the Inspector General for the Police Department. This bill is response to the recent opposition to the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk Program, which predominately targets African American and Latino folks. Such tactics prove that this program perpetuates racism. Speaker Christine Quinn has vehemently supported the bill, asserting that the NYPD needs more independent oversight.  However, Mayor Bloomberg has threatened to veto the bill, claiming that such legislation would undermine the police commissioner’s authority . Regardless, we hope that enacting such a bill would improve accountability and transparency in our police system.
  3. In Albany, elected officials are solidifying a plan to increase New York state’s minimum wage over the next three years. Currently, the state’s minimum wage sits at a low $7.25/hr., but, by late 2015, the new agreement would increase the minimum wage to $9/hr. According to the New York Daily News, lawmakers could reach a decision as early as Tuesday of next week.  While increasing the minimum wage would make many folks’ lives easier, United NY claims that the bill has many loopholes, including the exclusion of tipped workers and tax breaks for employers under 20 years old (which would favor the hiring of younger employers). The agreement is tentative, and we will keep you updated as the story unfold next week…
  4. At a National Community Reinvestment Coalition conference, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced additional cuts to the Housing Choice Voucher program. According to Donovan, these cuts would affect 125,000 families and individuals that receive permanent housing vouchers, and 100,o00 families and individuals that live in the shelter system. While the intention of these cuts is to boost our national economy, Donovan anticipates that the aftereffects will further cripple our housing market.
  5. The housing market is making a comeback, and fast! According to the NY Times, the current national demand for housing is outweighing the supply, which had led to bidding wars and significant price increases. Many developers have been taken by surprise and, as a result, are scrambling to create more housing stock. The Wall Street Journal reported that February of 2007, new-home construction rose by 28 percent. While the market is booming again, we worry that the mortgage crisis of 2007 will resurrect itself. Stay tuned for further developments…

Have a great weekend, and we will return next weekend with more news!

Lending Practices Perpetuate Gender Discrimination

According to investigations by HUD and the NY Times, accessing a mortgage is more arudous if you are a pregnant mother. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports regular complaints that banks and brokers deny women loans based on pregnancy or maternity leave.  Some lenders (including PNC Bank) single pregnant women out for different treatment and offer them different, less desirable mortgage products (when they do not deny them outright.) The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against a renter or a homeowner based on sex or familial status, and this gender-based discrimination in lending practices is illegal. Ciswomen, transwomen, and allies, spread the word — gender discrimination is influencing lending practices!

Many lenders refute allegations about gender discrimination by pointing to new, more conservative practices in general following the mortgage crisis. However, this claim is based on outdated and incorrect assumptions about women’s real experiences, including job loss or unwillingness to return to paid employment. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act guarantees women job security while on maternity leave — it is illegal for an employer to replace an employee due to pregnancy. And now, more than ever, women are returning to work after pregnancy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 50 percent of women return to work after childbirth.

As the current housing crisis has shown us, Discriminatory practices in mortgage lending has horrific ramifications. Today, the foreclosure crisis is felt most acutely by Black and Hispanic home-buyers, who were deemed “too risky” for traditional mortgage instruments. Minority and low-income homeowners were manipulated by lenders into costly, sub-prime mortgages, many of which came with unaffordable, balloon payments and quickly fell into foreclosure. (Read this op-ed on the 80/20 mortgage problem for more information.) If lenders (illegally) refuse pregnant women traditional mortgages, they re-open the door to non-bank and high-cost mortgages that very obviously hurt families.

MomsRising, a group of women and allies organize around the most critical issues faced by women, are taking a stand. The organizers at UHAB stand in solidarity with MomsRising and all those that are unfairly denied mortgages. But correcting practices within banks is not enough. The United States is one of eight countries without paid maternity leave. Of these eight, the United States is the only country with a stable economy and supported infrastructure. If we had paid maternity leave, discriminatory practices in the mortgage market may become inexistant. In addition to holding banks accountable, we need to hold our elected officials accountable for stronger policies that protect working, pregnant women.

If you are experiencing gender discrimination when seeking a mortgage, call HUD at 800-669-9777.