An Online Debate About Housing

On Thursday, October 10, Gotham Gazette held an online debate with Ron Shiffman of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development and Frank Braconi, executive director of the non-profit research organization Citizens Housing and Planning Council. Find out what they said during the debate as they answered questions about what kind of housing should be built after September 11.

Gotham Gazette: Today, rebuilding officials are reportedly giving instructions to the new design teams about what should go on the World Trade Center site. They do NOT include any plans for housing, and one official said housing is "incompatible with a memorial." What is your reaction?

Frank Braconi: I think "incompatible" is a little extreme-- nobody really knows how the market will respond to new commercial or residential space offered on the site-- it was, after all, the site of a tragic and sad event. However, we do believe that the site should be used primarily for commercial purposes-- in addition to a memorial, of course. That would not preempt housing downtown, becuse it would free up older office space for conversion to residential use.

GG: Mr. Shiffman? Do you agree that housing doesn't have to go at the site of the World Trade Center itself?

Ron Shiffman: No, but I'd like to comment on the officials' statement first. The word incompatible is theirs, not ours so that they will need to explain what they mean. I agree with Frank's response in part. However, I believe that residential is far more compatible than retail, yet they are still requiring 600,000 square feet of retail space. Furthermore, when we talk of housing in lower Manhattan we mean more than the 16 acre site we mean the area known as lower Manhattan. As the Mayor stated on July 19th "they gave their lives so that we can live, let's live want a mixture of housing" Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development agrees with the mayor's proposal that the rebuilding of lower Manhattan provide the opportunity for all income groups to be able to reside in lower Manhattan and to benefit from the rebuilding efforts.

GG: But you don't think that housing has to go at the site of the World Trade Center itself?

Shiffman: Yes and no it depends on the overall concept that is developed. I would not preclude it.

GG: Both of you just said that you think we should put housing in the financial district. Much of the talk is specifically about affordable housing. Why should we put affordable housing in the financial district? Many say it makes more sense to build commercial buildings at the site, which would in turn make money that could be spent to build housing in areas where it makes the most sense.

Braconi: There is a long-standing city policy to encourage a more diverse, mixed-use environment downtown. Housing would contribute to that type of environment, whether it's affordable or market rate. But it does not necessarily have to be developed on the site itself. The transportation infrastructure that will exist on the World Trade Center site argues that it should be leveraged to contribute to the city's economic vitality and job creation-- which means commercial uses.

Shiffman: My position is that if housing is built in lower Manhattan it should include very low, low and moderate income housing--housing for all. The decision on whether to build housing or office space is and should be based on a different set of considerations. What type of community do we want to see developed there? Frank's point about infrastructure is a very important one but equally important is the kind of place we want to create and the values we want to convey --it is what many refer to as the memorialization process. Obviously we want to help revive the city's economy, but we can do that in a variety of ways and places. The events of 9/11 obligate us to think about things differently and more creatively.

GG: You talked about wanting to help revive the economy. So why focus on affordable and "very low income" housing now, when the city’s economy is in dire straits? Shouldn’t we be encouraging construction and other economic activity that will help fill the city’s coffers?

Shiffman: How do we know that building more commercial space will fill the city's coffers and will not burden our economy the way the construction of the World Trade Center did when it was first built? We have short memories. The World Trade Center was built to revive lower Manhattan yet was a financial burden for many years and contibuted to the fiscal crisis of the 70's.

Braconi: Certainly new construction and economic activity would be a boost to the city's economy. But there's also a case to be made for social diversity. Often, social and economic diversity contributes to an environment of innovation and creativity, which is also good for the economy.

Shiffman: Furthermore, we are taking the money coming to rebuild New York and in many ways giving it away rather than investing in our economy for the future.

GG: Mr. Shiffman and Mr. Braconi, do either of you have questions for each other?

Shiffman: Mike Wallace's new book a New Deal for New York advocates a look back as a model for rebuilding our economy. Frank, what do you think about that approach?

Braconi: Ron, I'm a firm believer in the value of a city, or society, understanding its roots but it's sometimes difficult to know how far back to look. Do we look back 100 years, to when New York had a heavily industrialized economy, or 200 years, when we had primarily a commercial and financial one?

Shiffman: Mike Wallace suggests that we think in the box and borrow from the success of the past and invest infrastructure such as transit, education and housing. He sees housing as an infrastructure investment.

Braconi: Both of our organizations have released studies on downtown housing options. I have only had a brief opportunity to review Ron's. But I'm curious what total dollar subsidy would be required to implement its recommendations-- in addition to the use of Liberty Bonds.

Shiffman: We based it on a number of other sources of revenue as well. I would propose that we take at least a billion of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and/or Community Development Block Grants and invest them in affordable housing. I would also establish inclusionary requirements in all private development with about a 10 percent set aside for very low and low income families in return for any tax break or bonus.

Braconi: Our proposal, which differs from Ron's mostly in degree, suggests using about $128 million of the special Community Development Block Grant allocation to make downtown housing more affordable. Obviously, there's a big difference between $128 million and $1 billion. I don't know how much of the resources the city has received, or will receive, from the Federal Government have been programmed for specific uses already, although I do think that if we're talking $1 billion for affordable housing downtown, we will need to take a very careful look at the competing uses-- commercial, recreational, cultural, etc.

Shiffman: We propose that 25 percent of the housing units generated be built in places other than lower Manhattan as well. I am a bit concerned about our mindset about low income housing. When it comes to open space we do not ask where the money is coming from, we propose it. When it comes to a new transit hub, we do not ask if it is competing with offices construction, we see it as needed infrastructure. When it comes to housing and particularly low and moderate income housing, we ask where the money will come from and will it compete with other uses. This is a double standard.

Braconi: Well, I agree with Ron that housing is a fundamental part of the city's infrastructure-- but at Citizens Housing and Planning Council we worry about where the money is coming from, whether we're proposing transit improvemnets, open space creation, or housing development.

Shiffman: Let's remember that police, firefighters', and teachers' salaries are all low and moderate income salaries particularly their starting salaries.

GG: You mentioned housing for "very low incomes." There are some people who would never say this, but are certainly thinking: why should we create housing that attracts more poor people who we have to pay for?

Shiffman: My point is that we seem to worry more if the beneficiary is a low income person than if it is a wealthy suburbanite. Very little question has arisen whether to spend $4.5 billion on the transit hub or incentives to American Express and others to stay.

GG: Some would argue that the reason is a wealthy suburbanite and a wealthy corporation can contribute taxes that the city desperately needs. A poor person can not.

Shiffman: I am speechless. Have you seen a profile of who lives in New York City? The median houshold income for existing New Yorkers is $41,000. They are our teachers, firefighters, police, sanitation, emergency workers. They need housing too. The fact is that the wealthy surburbanite is probably being subsidized through a variety of ways to a greater degree than the low and moderate income person. If we eliminate the regressive home owner deductions that benfit the wealthy more than the working and middle class we would have the money to invest in education, health care, and housing.

Rebecca: I have a question. I write about housing for the Gotham Gazette. Some programs that have made housing affordable for many New Yorkers in the past are now endangered: things like Mitchell-Lama and even rent regulation. Do you think that the available funding should be used to bolster these programs 'of the past'? Or are there other, better, modern ways to make housing more affordable?

Braconi: Unfortunately, you cannot recreate the Mitchell-Lama program exactly as it was before--circumstances change, laws change, etc. But an essential part of Citizen Housing and Planning Council's recommendations for downtown housing are intended to address deficiencies we see in the city's current alignment of housing programs. Under the 80/20 formula for building housing with tax-exempt bond financing and local property tax exemptions, we tend to build housing only for the very rich and the very poor-- especially in Manhattan.

Shiffman: If I may interject, these programs still house many families. They need to be protected and we need to bring everyone to the table and preserve this needed housing supply.

Braconi: Most of the city's families, who are neither rich nor poor, are left out of the equation entirely. We see the Liberty Bonds and other federal aid to downtown as a rare opportunity to devise a new model that actually produces housing in Manhattan for middle-income families.

Shiffman: I agree with Frank we need to find ways to build housing for all income groups in all areas of the city. I hope that in wake of 9/11, with the world looking at what we do, that we do not embark on a road that leads to a city that is a market driven form of apartheid, one where the very rich live in a limited number of areas and the poor are relegated to the outlying sections of the city.

erik: Regarding the comment by the GG moderator about "poor people" -- to those who would even think this way, I would have to say that those same "poor people" have a vital role in the downtown economy as service workers, construction workers, hospitality workers, etc. To say that it would be a burden to house poor people is a big mistake. Creating mixed income / mixed use communities recognizes the benefits of aggregating people together, for the sake of a healthier community and economy. Also -- subsidizing low-income housing is no different than giving massive tax breaks to luxury-housing developers. It's all subsidies, regardless of targeted income-types.

Shiffman: Hurray for Erik.

Braconi: There's no question the city needs to provide more housing for low- and very-low income households. But we also need to provide more modern, competitive middle-income housing as well, or else the middle-class backbone of the city will go find it elsewhere-- and the city's economic and cultural vitality will be gradually dissipated.

Shiffman: We agree. We need to invest in our citizens so that we create the next generation of middle income families we can't always depend on importing them. NY's strength is and should be to help create the next generation. Remember we are a city of immigrants and the poor that have been turned into the next generation of leaders.

GG: We've come to the end of our chat. Thanks everyone for participating.

Braconi: It was a pleasure.

Shiffman: It was a pleasure and time goes too quickly.

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