Building on the Best of New York’s Social Housing Policy – Jacobin magazine

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Building on the Best of New York’s Social Housing Policy

The New York state legislature is calling for the revival of Mitchell-Lama, a program that built over 160,000 affordable housing units in the mid-20th century. It’s a welcome proposal — but we need bigger ambitions for social housing policy today.

A Mitchell-Lama apartment house under construction, November 22, 1972. (Jim Romano / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

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This year’s budget season in New York State, running through and likely past the coming April 1 deadline, is taking on a familiar contour to years’ past: a devastating housing crisis rages, certain promising legislative proposals are put forward to address it, and prospects for their passage appear murky. Some if not all are likely to be shot down by the governor and real-estate money.

Among the refrains coming out of the legislature this year is the annual call for a “Mitchell-Lama 2.0,” a revival of the revered state and city program that funded the creation of an impressive number of middle-income rentals and co-ops across New York from the 1950s up until the fiscal crisis of the late ’70s. This is good news: Mitchell-Lama is one of the most successful social housing programs in US history, and its still-robust ranks of apartments in New York City and beyond are vital bulwarks against the ongoing decimation of affordable homes for regular people.

Mitchell-Lama originally set out to fill a gap in the state’s housing supply. Households faced a dearth of homes postwar, and many working- and middle-class people were too well-off to qualify for public housing or too cash-strapped to afford market-rate homes. To address this, the program offered developers low-interest-rate mortgages covering up to 95 percent of project costs, ongoing property tax breaks to reduce operating costs, and occasionally a ready-made site prepared with federal urban renewal funds — in exchange for what was supposed to be permanently affordable housing and a cap on developers’ profits.

This program funded the creation of 420 projects with over 165,000 apartments across the state, 140,000 of those in New York City. About half of those city homes took the form of a limited-equity co-op: apartment complexes owned collectively by their residents and kept out of the speculative real-estate market by strict formulae that limited resale value and sought to maintain the homes’ affordability for future generations.

Today, the state senate has proposed $250 million for the creation of a New York Housing Opportunity Corporation to finance a similar mix of new affordable rentals and co-ops on state-owned land. Meanwhile, the state assembly has earmarked $500 million for Foundations for Futures, a plan to finance Mitchell-Lama-like limited-equity co-ops.

Learning From Mitchell-Lama

Details of these proposals are, for now, sparse. But as we know, that’s where the devil resides. It is not enough to simply evoke Mitchell-Lama; these proposals must learn from it. The most crucial lesson is to ensure that housing built under these proposals is kept affordable to low- and middle-income people in perpetuity.

Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who as chair of the state senate’s housing committee is one of the plan’s main backers, went on record to affirm that this was the intention — but it was also the intention with the original Mitchell-Lama. A controversial change to the law in 1959, designed to spur the construction of more rental units, ended up introducing the possibility of “privatization” for buildings in the program that has since led to a massive loss of affordable rental units and an existential threat to co-ops, as some residents look to cash in on their publicly subsidized home for whatever a Zillow-scrolling buyer will pay.

Commitments like Kavanagh’s can be bargained away in the budget process, and laws can change. The promise of true social housing needs not only to be built into the law, a financial term sheet, or a property’s deed, but woven into the fabric of governance — at the state and city levels and within the housing communities themselves.

As a housing practitioner and researcher, I’ve spent the last ten years following privatization fights within Mitchell-Lama co-ops. I’ve observed that keeping such decommodified housing — that which is valued as a home and not as an asset to be flipped for the most cash — out of the market is as much a social challenge as a financial one. The state and city have recently made admirable strides in making privatization more difficult and making more funding available for physical maintenance at Mitchell-Lamas, the latter in exchange for remaining in the program for another fifteen to thirty years. This takes privatization off the table temporarily and ensures that Mitchell-Lama’s income, rent, and sales restrictions keep these homes accessible to working-class New Yorkers for the time being.

These efforts, however, cannot fully extinguish the lure of profit that threatens such affordable housing: the fact that someone who may have bought into a co-op for as little as $3,000 in the 1970s could, if their co-op were privatized, sell their share for over $1 million today. Countering this requires a different kind of support. We need political education to instill a culture of cooperative living, social housing, and stewardship of public goods among the resident-owners of co-ops.

To preserve the co-ops, we also need broader social programs to support residents in realizing the great benefits of a safe, stable, affordable home so that they buy in to its long-term preservation — among them high-quality, affordable eldercare that can keep older co-operators in their homes, while protecting those homes from the impulse to pilfer a public good to pay for a basic social need. And we need a political movement at the city and state levels that is fiercely committed to the principles of decommodified housing and willing to fight the inevitable pushes for privatization. Without these, the prevailing winds of commodification are strong enough to seep into even the best-built structures.

Social Housing Policy for the Twenty-First Century

Mitchell-Lama 2.0 and other programs to boost housing supply cannot alone solve our larger housing crises. We need to preserve the affordable housing we already have, existing Mitchell-Lamas among them, as they face threats from investors, residents, and even the housing agencies charged with protecting them. We need to pass “good cause” legislation to ensure tenants aren’t arbitrarily evicted from their homes. And we need stronger rent laws to end legalized price gouging. We need, in short, to return homes to their true purpose as places for living, not assets for profit.

The proposal to bring back Mitchell-Lama is welcome. But the state would do well to take further inspiration from the scale and principles of more ambitious social–housing initiatives recently proposed and supported by its progressive lawmakers: for instance, socialist state assemblymember Emily Gallagher’s bill to create a Social Housing Development Authority with deeper pockets and a broader remit than just funding housing on state-owned land. Lawmakers can also look to the Community Land Act package put before the New York City Council last year, which would, among other things, give tenants and certain community groups a leg up in purchasing their buildings, or those in their neighborhood, when they go up for sale.

The realization of these ideas is possible in the not-to-distant future. In the near term, the state must focus on breaking its cycle of inaction on providing affordable, high-quality housing for working-class New Yorkers. Mitchell Lama 2.0, if the lessons of 1.0 are properly heeded, is a start — or, rather, a continuation of the best of New York housing policy. A return to this tradition of wide-scale social housing couldn’t be more critical.

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