As city and state leaders admirably redouble their efforts to produce many more homes for New Yorkers present and future, Mayor Adams and his Law Department were right to settle a nagging federal lawsuit that badly distorted city affordable housing lotteries.
A community preference rule that has long set aside 50% of the units in a given development for residents in the surrounding neighborhood is finally on its way out, to be replaced by a new rule that carves out just 20% of units for that population, to fall to 15% in five years. Consider that progress.
Plaintiffs, led by Craig Gurian’s Anti-Discrimination Center, had sued in Manhattan federal court in 2015 challenging the old set-aside on the ground that reserving so many new apartments for hyperlocal New Yorkers had badly discriminatory effects, making it virtually impossible, say, for someone from central Brooklyn to qualify for an affordable housing unit on the Upper East Side, or even in nearby Park Slope or Gowanus.
Those living amidst a building boom would have a relative inside track to landing an affordable unit. But if you happen to live in a community district that’s expert at resisting new construction — perhaps because a City Council member is opposed to it? You’re utterly out of luck, which is terribly unfair.
Under the local preference rule, a predominantly Black or Hispanic or white or Chinese neighborhood was likelier to stay that way next year and the following, because people in search of affordable housing would essentially be locked out of lotteries in the rest of the city. That means if you need a new apartment, your choices can pretty quickly shrink to two: stay put or leave the city entirely.
Rather than negotiating with those who exposed these and other ill effects, the city under Mayor Bill de Blasio wouldn’t budge. An administration that purported to deva deeply about mixing kids of different backgrounds in its public schools went to the mattresses legally to defend a practice that effectively cemented patterns of housing discrimination. That was hypocritical and shortsighted and just plain wrong. So the lawsuit was filed.
We understand why many politicians liked the hefty community preference, first pushed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration, when the city upped the percentage reserved for neighborhood residents from 30% to 50%.
Amidst rough debates about building in people’s backyards, the rule gave local leaders another way to answer stubborn charges that a new development would wind up inflating rents and forcing old-timers out of the neighborhood. Relax, they could counter, we’re setting aside lots of reasonably priced units just for you. You’ve got a puncher’s chance of landing one. In many cases, that couldn’t overcome deeply ingrained NIMBYism, but it might take the edge off.
The new rules say something important to New Yorkers no matter where they live: We’re one city. Whether a development happens in the next neighborhood over or even two boroughs over, you have a decent shot at qualifying for an affordable unit.
Sure, people on neighboring blocks will still have a better shot, but preferential treatment won’t be so overwhelming that it shrinks the chances of every other New Yorker to those of buying a winning lottery ticket. That’s a little closer to an elusive idea called fairness.