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Whose Housing Plan Is More Audacious: Bill de Blasio's or Ed Lee's?

Randy Shaw | May 9, 2014 | Story Politics

Reprinted with permission from Beyond Chron.

The NY Times lead editorial of May 6 described NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build or renovate 200,000 new housing units over the next decade as a “moon shot.” But San Francisco Mayor Lee’s less heralded plan to create 30,000 new units in the next six years in a city with less than one-tenth of NYC’s population may be even more ambitious.

I wrote last December that Lee has a progressive record that de Blasio “would be fortunate to match.” We saw a good example of this when the new mayor of New York announced a housing plan this week that, while a great step forward for his city, actually falls behind what Lee is working toward in San Francisco. De Blasio wants to spend $41 billion to build or preserve 200,000 affordable units over 10 years—120,000 apartments preserved and 80,000 newly built. Bay Area activists may be surprised to learn that NYC has no mandatory inclusionary housing requirements, a situation de Blasio plans to change.

Central to de Blasio’s strategy is a plan to increase height and density, particularly for new housing outside Manhattan. The idea is to allow larger buildings in exchange for increasing the number of affordable units. But those San Francisco progressives who idealize de Blasio while bashing Lee should take note: “Despite Mr. de Blasio’s pledge to ‘drive a hard bargain’ with developers, his plan contained few ideas that would rattle the real-estate industry.

In other words, de Blasio is following a very Lee-like model of working with those who build housing to increase production and affordability. In fact, if you look closely at de Blasio’s housing campaign platform, you'll find that it is remarkably similar to what our mayor is already implementing.

Lee’s 30K Strategy

Much of the media and many activists act like 30,000 new units in five years is no big deal, based on criteria for success that no housing policy can meet. But building and renovating 30,000 units in a 46-square mile city of 800,000 people is significantly more challenging than creating 200,000 in NYC’s 468 square miles. And it's not just because we have a lot less space to work with. For one thing, San Francisco voters can use ballot measures to stop housing projects, while NYC residents cannot. For another, NYC has a pro-development culture going back decades, while San Francisco has always had a significant and politically strong anti-growth political base.

Lee also faces a greater challenge in building new units due to the very troubled state of the city’s public housing. While New York City has also suffered from federal cuts that have damaged public housing nationally, its public housing supply has long been among the nation’s best while San Francisco’s is long troubled. This requires San Francisco to spend significant dollars on costly public housing renovations that deplete scarce housing funds.

Lee's plan isn't just a moon shot, it's a “Neptune Shot”—and it is off to a good start. According to the city’s 2013 Housing Inventory, 2,499 new housing units were constructed in 2013, a three-fold increase from 2012. What's more 712 of the new units were affordable. The Mayor’s website has a Housing Meter where the public can check on the number of units completed every quarter. De Blasio should consider installing a similar meter, which puts pressure on all involved to keep new housing construction on track.

A final similarity between the new mayors: Both are moving forward on their plans despite a lack of federal and state funding for affordable housing construction. And that may be the most impressive thing of all.

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