On June 15th 2017, UNHP hosted an affordable housing forum based on our #ViewsNWBX blog series and shared a presentation as well as a printed series summary. While the blog series and our affordable housing forum concluded on June 15th, they informed and fueled a re-dedication of our effort to bring Bronx issues to the forefront of discussions about affordable housing creation and preservation.
UNHP staff members Catherine Clarke and VaNessa LaNier made our presentation recapping the blog series while making a compelling case for the need for:
- greater community participation in determining community development plans for neighborhoods
- transparency from city agencies
- aggressive enforcement of housing violations by city agencies and rent laws by state agencies
- strong underwriting by lenders
- coordination and transparency around new affordable, supportive and shelter housing development
UNHP Board member Roger Hayes moderated our four-person panel. Carmen Vega-Rivera, a community activist involved with CASA and the Right to Counsel Campaign, kicked off the morning discussion. The night before our meeting, Carmen and the tenant association in her building had discovered that their building had been sold. Carmen described the battle that her association had been fighting for years to improve conditions in their building. She described herself as a potential target of displacement based on predatory real estate practices. Subsequent to the meeting, the Real Deal published an article about her building’s sale. As per the article the price exceeded $300,000 per apartment, almost double the average purchase price of Bronx apartment buildings in the second half of 2016. Carmen talked about the importance of strong tenant protection laws including the Right to Counsel and a more robust tenant anti-harassment policy by the City. She further noted that all of these concerns were the reason that people were concerned about displacement that could be caused by the Jerome Avenue Re-zoning.
Joseph Zitolo, a principal in Lemle & Wolff, a real estate owner, manager and developer in New York City, followed Carmen to the microphone. Joe talked about the difficulties of responsible long term owners and managers in a volatile real estate market. He pointed out that Lemle & Wolff owns and manages thousands of affordable, rent stabilized units. He has used available city loan programs, but in the rapidly rising Bronx market, finding the right tools to preserve and develop affordable housing is difficult. At these prices, “responsible owners find it very difficult to buy buildings.” The asking prices on Bronx multifamily buildings had risen well over $200,000 in the first few months of 2017. He was positive that the community and responsible private owners could work more effectively together to preserve affordable housing.
John Reilly, the Executive Director of Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, spoke next and described the contradiction between government concern about the geographic concentration of poverty and policies that actually encourage that very same concentration in certain communities. John commented on the UNHP presentation which showed the large percentage of cluster site apartments in the Bronx, the significant number of supportive housing buildings under construction in the Bronx and the amount of city funded new construction and renovation which will include some percentage of homeless units.
The final speaker was Leila Bozorg, who was recently named HPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies. Leila noted that her office had only been created a couple of years ago and has worked on neighborhood plans in a couple of NYC neighborhoods. She talked about HPD’s efforts to be responsive to neighborhood concerns, specifically citing the recent revision of HPD’s loan term sheets, which specifically broadened the income targeting of the program to include lower income bands.
The discussion that ensued made clear that the issues that have been raised in our #ViewsNWBX series and at the forum were of major concern to Bronx residents. Carmen made clear that the organizations working on the Jerome Avenue Rezoning did not feel that the revised term sheets met the needs of the community and did not address the group’s other concerns including jobs and assurances of non-harassment of current tenants in the rezoning area. Community leaders in the Bedford Park section, in the midst of a fight to downzone, expressed concern about the impact of the amount of building taking place in their neighborhood. A Community Board 7 member asked Leila Bozorg to meet to discuss ways in which the Office of Neighborhood Strategies could work with their neighborhood. Another private owner at the forum affirmed Joe Zitolo’s point that long-term, responsible private owners are also interested in improving their buildings and neighborhood without displacing people.
The forum concluded with UNHP stating its commitment to keep gathering the research, analyzing and sharing the information and seeking to ensure that the concerns of the neighborhoods are heard.
UNHP came away from the series and forum with several takeaways.
The temptation to try to follow up on every issue that was raised during the past few months is tempered by the constraints of time. Several items clearly will be priorities for UNHP in the coming months.
- Greater transparency on government plans for our neighborhoods and emphasis on making sure that community input is considered as plans develop. We want to see coordination of state and city funded affordable and supportive building. Clarification of the City’s revised homeless plans including shelter locations, the future of cluster site buildings, the impact on rent stabilized apartments in those cluster buildings, and the monitoring procedures established by the City.
- Rising Rents and Code Enforcement: Our blog helped many of us to get a better understanding of the scope of the preferential rent issue. Our data suggests a connection between preferential rents, displacement and the rising prices. Legislative and regulatory action at a state level is necessary to resolve the issue of rising rents that may not be legally justifiable. Code enforcement above and beyond the tenant-initiated housing complaints in targeted areas could be helpful in slowing the real estate speculation occurring in the Bronx.
- Identifying the cause and impact of soaring real estate prices in the Bronx. A coordinated legislative and regulatory strategy at a state level could have a significant impact on the preferential rent issue. Private lending and investment practices need to be scrutinized to make sure that current practices are not encouraging illegally raising rents and basing prices and mortgages on inaccurate rent rolls.
- Anticipating the impact on our neighborhoods if threatened federal cuts are implemented. Two examples, 41% or almost 50,000 households benefited from Housing Vouchers in 2014. Proposed cuts to rental subsidies will negatively affect many Bronx people. Many of the City’s HPD staff, including code enforcement inspectors, are paid with federal community development money; the proposed budget would eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program.