An evening grappling with New York City’s maddening housing laws may not sound like the sort of thing to get millennials’ hearts racing. Yet dozens joined the Manhattan Young Democrats’ Affordable Living Task Force (ALTF) in Midtown on April 5 for a “learning lab” designed to get young people engaged in housing policy.
The event, wryly titled “Housing of Cards”, took attendees on a whistle-stop tour of the programs and political actors affecting housing in the city. Founding members of the task force, which was inaugurated in November last year, presented alongside guest speaker Harvey Epstein, project director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group for New York’s most vulnerable residents.
“Realizing that housing is complicated, the ALTF organized a learning lab to demystify issues stemming from cuts to HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development], the renewal of New York State’s 421-a tax exemption program, and tenant harassment, while providing their own ideas and further brainstorming how to solve them,” says Elliot Friar, 22, a co-founder of the taskforce.
A byzantine policy-making process acts as a barrier to entry for young people wanting to get involved, he adds, which is why bringing transparency, through interactive workshops, is a key objective of the taskforce.
“Housing of Cards” explored initiatives underway at the federal, state, and city level. At the federal level, the Trump administration is threatening vulnerable New Yorkers’ access to public housing through a planned $7.7 million cut to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which provides housing for 400,000 people across 328 developments. Draining its budget would increase homelessness and reduce the number of essential maintenance staff available to assist residents, said Epstein.
At the state level, lobbying efforts have focused on the 421-a exemption, a tax break recently renewed in the state budget to encourage developers to build more affordable housing units. The ATLF highlighted several issues with this handout: the most grievous being that the Department of Finance and Department of Preservation and Development were found in 2015 to have doled out the tax breaks to developers whose buildings failed to meet the required affordability standards. The taskforce underlined the absurdity of running the tax exemption without a system for registering 421-a units, and pledged to hold developers accountable in its absence.
Finally, at the city level, the group addressed the plague of tenant harassment in rent stabilized buildings, whereby unscrupulous landlords look to push tenants out so that they can charge the replacement tenants more in rent. This loophole, known as the vacancy allowance, permits landlords to increase the asking rent by up to 20% if a rent stabilized unit becomes available.
Typically this harassment takes place under the guise of what the landlord terms essential construction and building repair work. Recorded examples of this predatory practice include removing staircases, changing locks without notice, digging holes within the building, and starting construction work late at night.
The ATLF discussed working with the Stand For Tenant Safety Coalition to advocate for tenant’s rights and lobbying against the vacancy allowance. On the latter, Epstein explained that the current rule acts as an alluring incentive to landlords looking to increase their revenues and must be tackled.
It’s clear that the ATLF will have its work cut out fighting for affordable housing and tenant’s rights on so many fronts. Yet the task force can take heart from the number of enthused young people their workshop attracted, and the partnership of committed advocacy groups such as the Urban Justice Center. And the taskforce is no stranger to success – earlier this year, they were instrumental in lobbying City Hall to commit to a ‘Right to Counsel’ in housing court, an initiative embraced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in his ‘State of the City’ speech.
This is a little task force that has already shown it can deliver big victories.