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Can Andrew Cuomo Really Deliver On His Housing Promises?

An advocacy group estimates that frozen funding has resulted in the lost production of 1,000 affordable housing units per month since April 2016.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a visit to Medgar Evers College, where he announced a $1.4 billion plan to "transform" central Brooklyn, March 9, 2017. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

With their state mired in a historic homeless crisis and budget negotiations underway in Albany, low-income New Yorkers and housing advocates are urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to back up various press releases, State of the State addresses and previous budget proposals by finally funding long-term affordable housing development.

The housing community contends that Cuomo—a former Housing and Urban Development secretary—has unduly shifted the cost burden to cities, obstructed the allocation of housing funds earmarked in last year’s budget and done little to assist the state’s 88,000 homeless residents—including roughly 60,000 in New York City’s municipal shelter system—as well as an estimated 1.5 million rent-burdened New Yorkers at risk of becoming homeless.

“One of the biggest problems that New York City is facing is record homelessness. The governor claims to be an expert on the issue and has publicly exhibited support for solutions, but the follow-through isn’t there,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, which gave the State a ‘D’ grade for its lack of housing placements in their 2017 State of the Homeless report.

A year ago, affordable housing seemed within reach after Cuomo announced a 5-year plan to develop or preserve 100,000 affordable housing units and a concurrent 15-year commitment to build 20,000 units of supportive housing— permanent, affordable apartments with on-site social services for formerly homeless individuals. Advocates hailed the pledge as a serious, long-term commitment beyond individual legislative sessions and executive terms and approved when state lawmakers included about $2 billion for the first five-year phase in the April budget.

Those initial hopes dimmed at the end of budget wrangling in June when lawmakers agreed to allocate just $150 million—less than 8 percent of the initial allotment. The rest of the money remained locked behind a memorandum of understanding that would require signatures from Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate President John Flanagan.

“Governor Cuomo, whose promises to the homeless have as much credence as a degree from Trump University, needs to show that he understands that promises mean nothing if you can’t keep your word,” Coalition for the Homeless Deputy Director for Policy Shelly Nortz said in a statement condemning the MOU, an opaque process that also delayed affordable housing funds the State obtained in a 2014 settlement with JP Morgan over mortgage bond sales.

In September, after months of pressure from housing advocates, Cuomo proffered his version of the agreement, which Flanagan derided as “a one-way MOU” and refused to sign.

Echoing last year’s proposal, Cuomo’s latest Executive Budget would devote $2.5 billion over five years for the construction of affordable and supportive housing and has faced increasing pressure from the housing community— including 21 people arrested during protests at the Capitol this week.

Meanwhile, advocates, nonprofit staff and formerly homeless individuals have assembled outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office every Wednesday morning to raise awareness about the governor’s unfulfilled commitment.

On the morning after Valentine’s Day—their 28th appearance—demonstrators from the Campaign 4 NY/NY Housing, held signs that read “Don’t be heartless to the homeless.” The campaign calls for a joint state and city agreement to develop 35,000 units of supportive housing based on earlier pledges by Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and told CityLab that the political machinations obstructing the funds have a real impact on the state’s homeless residents.

“I know what happens in shelters. There was abuse, people don’t get medical treatment, you have to stay out all day even if you need help, you have to sign for a bed,” says William Stanford, 46, who says he was homeless for more than two years before he secured an apartment in a Bronx supportive housing site. “Supportive housing gave me a chance to be who I wanted to be. To be successful.”

Political maneuvering prevents social service organizations from fulfilling their missions and harms homeless and low-income New Yorkers, says Supportive Housing Network of New York executive director Laura Mascuch.

“A nonprofit is not going to get its board to purchase a site and then be unsure that the capital is there to actually get it done,” Mascuch says. “It’s imperative that we get this done because every day is a day that we’re not building this housing.”

A multi-year plan would inspire confidence among investors and developers because new buildings go through a long pre-development phase and require zoning and other approvals before construction even begins, says Judi Kende, vice president and New York market leader at Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that finances affordable housing development.

“It’s critical to have not only a commitment, but a long-term commitment—not just one or two years—because the development timeline is very long,” Kende says. “Developers need to have the visibility a few years out when they’re contemplating a project to make sure that the resources to pay for the project are going to be there when they need it.”

The debate over 421a, a tax break for developers who maintained a certain percentage of affordable apartments in large-scale buildings, has also ensnared the affordable housing funding, says Queens Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi.

“Nobody is philosophically opposed to releasing that money—not Republicans or Democrats,” says Hevesi, a proponent of supportive housing development and a sponsor of the Home Stability Support bill to increase the housing subsidy for families and individuals receiving public assistance. “The hold-up is the 421a tax abatement because that hasn’t been done. The MOU was tied to it for political reasons; when that gets done the supportive housing money will just flow.”

The 421a tax break expired more than a year ago when developers and unions disagreed on wage requirements. The previous version mandated that units remain affordable based on a percentage of area median income for 25 years but priced out most low-income New Yorkers and cost the city billions in lost property taxes.

In mid-January, after the Real Estate Board of New York and buildings and trades unions reached a tentative deal on 421a—rebranded as Affordable New York—Governor Cuomo’s office issued another statement to announce his commitment to affordable and supportive housing development.

“This is a major step forward in our efforts to provide affordable housing in New York City and ensuring benefits and fair wages are paid to hardworking men and women,” Cuomo said. “I’m urging the Legislature to pass the Affordable New York bill and release the $2 billion housing fund.”

While nearly 75 percent of state lawmakers have pledged their support for the release of housing funds in the past year, the Republican-controlled Senate’s 2017 budget resolution explicitly links affordable housing development with a new 421a program in a “housing policy package.”

New York Housing Conference Executive Director Rachel Fee says Cuomo and the Senate have unnecessarily linked 421a, which incentivizes the construction of market-rate rental housing, with the funding locked in the MOU, which would generate housing for New Yorkers with incomes well below the area median income.

“We’re not opposed to incentives for the construction of rental housing and we’ve supported 421A in the past, but in Albany, tying these things together makes it very difficult to make progress on affordable housing,” Fee says. “At this time of federal uncertainty we need local progress and local investment so we’re relying on the state to come through and deliver this funding.”

NYFC, an affordable housing advocacy group, estimates that the lack of funding has resulted in the lost production of 1,000 affordable housing units per month since April 2016.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but last year told the New York Daily News that the governor has succeeded in releasing the first $150 million in affordable and supportive housing funds, overseeing 421a negotiations and doing his part in signing the MOU.

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