De Blasio Housing Plan—Opportunity or Illusion?


Mayor Bill de Blasio recently released an ambitious multibillion-dollar affordable housing plan and the resulting attention and criticism was quick but predictable. The shortage of housing that is affordable to people who give New York City its life (i.e., police, firefighters, teachers and artists) threatens the livability of the city. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has characterized the statewide shortage as a crisis and has vowed to commit billions of dollars to and soon will release his own plan. Shouldn’t this be a time for celebration by neighborhoods and the real estate industry?

But Mr. de Blasio’s efforts have encountered strong resistance, often from the people and communities these initiatives are intended to benefit. Labor unions have demanded union wages in developments that receive tax abatements. Public housing residents oppose losing parking and green space. And community boards oppose changes to the zoning ordinance.

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Protesters’ chants at a mayor’s forum on his housing plans summarize the concern of the general public: “De Blasio’s plan ain’t affordable to me!” The plan has been criticized by editorials, advocates, politicians and members of the public for being too ambitious, too complicated, a giveaway to developers, a gentrification plan and not enough to make a difference. The list goes on.

Do these criticisms mean the mayor’s plan is a waste of time or a false promise? Hardly. These criticisms demonstrate that the mayor has taken on a crisis that touches nearly every resident of New York City.

The mayor’s plan, if taken out of context, contains a myriad of proposals that look like a fast lane to developing new denser market rate housing throughout the city without creating many new affordable housing units. A closer look reveals not a single plan for the entire city but a wealth of options.

The mayor’s plan reflects the current practice and theory of urban planning—public-private partnerships to finance and develop housing units that build on neighborhood strength and, most importantly, are guided by neighborhood plans developed with citizen participation. It recognizes that affordable housing development is most impactful when it includes economic development in the form of new jobs, new businesses, economic diversity and opportunity. In order to achieve that success, there must be a neighborhood plan that considers public safety, infrastructure, green space, schools and adult educational opportunities.

Historically, affordable housing does not have a positive public image. Ask a person on the street to define affordable housing, and they will likely invoke the image of failed “public housing projects” with all the problems that occur when poor people are warehoused in large projects isolated from the community without opportunity to advance and participate in the local economy.

Although not the case in New York City, other cities have been left with no choice but to tear down the failed projects and start over. The success of those efforts is particularly evident in New Orleans where thousands of units of public housing, decrepit and distressed before Hurricane Katrina, were rendered uninhabitable and left 80 percent of the city underwater for nearly a month.

With substantial assistance from the federal government, New Orleans successfully rebuilt its public housing developments, using a similar comprehensive neighborhood planning approach proposed in Mr. de Blasio’s plan. After significant public input—which started as wide-ranging opposition, demonstrations and protests—these developments were rebuilt in a manner that reflected and incorporated the surrounding neighborhood, provided opportunity for long-term residents to remain, included substantial private investment, brought market rate and public housing tenants together, generated construction and long-term jobs and improved the surrounding neighborhood. Although there are legitimate criticisms, the model has produced similar positive results throughout the country.

Mr. de Blasio’s plan is a framework for a mind-boggling $41.4 billion of investment in neighborhoods to finance the development and preservation of new housing for all income strata—middle-income families, seniors, homeless. However, the mayor’s plan is not self-executing. It requires the participation of government, community-based organizations, lenders and developers to collaboratively develop and invest in plans that would result in the creation of new assets for communities. The mayor’s challenge is to convince the neighborhood residents that his housing plan is an opportunity—not an illusion—to participate in a process that will bring positive change to their neighborhood.

Brian E. Lawlor, special counsel at Jones Walker LLP is the former housing commissioner for the State of New York and for New Orleans. He can be reached at