The Works

Shades of Bloomberg in New York’s Next Housing Czar

Bill de Blasio ran on an anti-Bloomberg platform, but when it comes to his affordable housing policies it looks more like a continuation than a clean break.

Soon-to-be NYC housing czar. Credit: Goldman Sachs

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It’s a viewpoint that’s become common to the point of cliché: While New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio campaigned on a platform vocal in its criticism of three-term current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the new mayor has more in common with the old one than either would like to admit. After de Blasio emerged as the frontrunner but before he had finished his coast to victory, New York Times columnist Michael Powell summed up what is now a common sentiment among New York’s political commentators:

Mr. de Blasio has taken great pains to frame himself as the anti-Bloomberg.

But facts intrude. Mayor Bloomberg’s legacy is far more progressive than Mr. de Blasio and his supporters let on. And the mayor might one day find himself nodding in grudging admiration as a de Blasio administration works to deepen and extend some of his policies.

From affordable housing to public health to child welfare to the creation of park land to reworking the city’s streetscape, Mr. Bloomberg has an impressive progressive policy legacy.

De Blasio’s pick for police commissioner, Bill Bratton, disappointed some who thought the new administration would make a radical break on public safety issues. Bratton has said he will continue controversial stop-and-frisk tactics — whose numbers have fallen off a cliff in Bloomberg’s twilight years — with some modifications.

And so it goes with Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s latest hire, as deputy mayor for housing and economic development. After 12 years heading up Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group, Glen will become de Blasio’s housing czar, charged with making good on his promise to build 50,000 new units of subsidized housing and preserve another 150,000 units of existing affordable housing over his hoped-for eight years as mayor.

The details of how de Blasio plans to do this haven’t yet been fleshed out — most of what we have to work with was formulated during the campaign, when even his staff probably didn’t think he had a shot at becoming mayor — but his pick of Alicia Glen gives us some hints.

First and foremost, the new mayor has picked a teammate who knows her way around a public-private partnership. While at Goldman Sachs, Glen raised $42 million for Citi Bike and worked with city and Bloomberg Philanthropies to issue the country’s first social impact bond, intended to reduce rates of recidivism among adolescent offenders at the Rikers Island correctional facility. She also made it her mission to invest in underserved areas, including central Brooklyn, where her investment group financed the redevelopment of Loews King Theatre on Flatbush Avenue.

“We can do so much more to lift people up by investing in our neighborhoods,” Glen said in a statement, “especially in the outer boroughs.” She also said she would “not just [focus] on the large-scale projects that have been front and center over the past decade, but focusing on a comprehensive approach to neighborhood revitalization.”

The media played this up as some sort of rebuke to Bloomberg — who, of course, was an important partner for Glen’s work with Goldman — but it’s largely a continuation of his administration’s affordable housing strategy. Of the 160,000 housing units “created or preserved” through his New Housing Marketplace plan, only about 51,000 were located in Manhattan, with more than 100,000 spread throughout the five boroughs, overwhelmingly in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

And while “large-scale projects” like Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards made the most headlines, they were a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of units built on city-owned land in places like Morrisania in the Bronx or Brownsville in Brooklyn. The last major affordable housing project of the Bloomberg administration — a completely subsidized, 985-unit, five-building, mixed-income complex in the Melrose section of the South Bronx – is more representative of Bloomberg’s approach to affordable housing than the megaprojects Glen seems to be subtly dissing.

Then there’s her own portfolio. The Kalahari condominium on East 116th Street, in gentrifying East Harlem, is a Goldman-backed project that Glen has touted as one of her proudest achievements. The 249-unit building, hard to miss with its zigzagging brickwork, includes 120 subsidized units eligible for moderate to upper middle-class families earning up to 185 percent of the median income for the New York region, topping out at $131,000 for a family of four or $90,000 for a single person.

“It was the first time we combined different income levels, not just in rentals but in home ownership,” Glen told City and State. “That was really groundbreaking, because nobody before has thought that somebody would spend $1 million to buy an apartment in a building [where] other people could buy [one] for $200,000.”

When I wrote a feature for the New York Observer on affordable housing projects catering to middle and upper middle-class New Yorkers, de Blasio’s spokesperson was the only campaign flack to respond. He sent a statement criticizing the middle-income housing programs, albeit with wildly exaggerated income numbers, perhaps to give his boss some wiggle room.

Glen has also already signaled a commitment to place-based approaches popular with de Blasio’s progressive base. “When you are looking at what the opportunities are, have you done everything possible, have you used every tool in your toolbox, to make sure that, for example, disconnected youth in the Bronx are going to be the first people to get quality jobs,” she told Capital New York

But whatever you take “place-based approach” to mean, New York has been there and done that, whether it’s the decades-old break from the towers-in-a-park modernist approach to planning and public housing, or new affordable housing projects like Via Verde in the Bronx, hailed by Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman as “as good an argument as any new building in the city for the cultural and civic value of architecture.” Kimmelman concluded, “With the economy struggling and poverty rising, the project points architecture, and the architectural conversation, in the right direction.”

Already, the promises Glen will have to carry out bear a striking similarity to Bloomberg’s “New Housing Marketplace” plan, which the mayor just announced will just about make good on his pledge to build or preserve 165,000 affordable housing units. (He’ll reach 160,000, but the total number of units built anew is a hair over the 50,000 promised by de Blasio.)

During his campaign, De Blasio vowed to mandate that developers provide below-market-rate units in return for city benefits such as tax incentives and density upgrades via an inclusionary zoning provision. He later clarified in a debate that he would only require them for new rezonings — essentially continuing the policy of Bloomberg’s later rezonings in, for example, Hudson Yards and West Chelsea, where inclusionary zoning was “effectively, if not technically, mandatory.”

From where we stand, it increasingly looks like the choir was right — de Blasio’s move to City Hall will be less of a revolution and more of a prolongment of the status quo.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

Tags: new york cityaffordable housingmayorsinclusionary zoningpolicethe worksmichael bloombergbill de blasio2013 mayoral races

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