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February 16, 1994
Housing forum preaches affordability

by Lois Weiss
Affordable housing advocates gathered at the City Club last month to hear a panel of experts discuss problems and solutions for this segment of the marketplace.

The program was moderated by Joseph Rose, head of the Citizen's Housing and Planning Council, who was appointed New York City Commissioner of Planning by Mayor Rudolf Giuliani the next day.

The panel featured Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) Commissioner, State Housing Director and former State Senator, Donald Halperin; the new Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) Commissioner, Deborah Wright; Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the New York City Housing Partnership; and George McDonald, president of The Doe Fund, Inc., a non-profit housing and work service provider.

They were unanimous in recognizing the over-regulation of issues affecting affordable housing, citing constraints in grant money and government mandates that stretch scarce housing dollars. Additionally, they all recognized that the homeless need social service help and support along with a roof over their heads.

Halperin expressed frustration at the number of uncoordinated State and local agencies that have control over the use of property for affordable housing. "The current land use process defeats the purpose," he said.

Hearings will be held around the state this year, he said, in order to whittle down proposals for revamping the system.

Commenting on the anxiety and anger that rental administration produces in both tenants and owners, Halperin said he expects to review and update existing rent regulations, wrap operational bulletins into the regulations and come up with a legislative package by the beginning of next year. Informational public meetings will be held this spring, prior to the formal process.

Wright said the cuts in the budgets are causing the agency to make hard choices. She is trying to protect the production of housing and the city's commitment to dealing with the in rem stock, but at the same time, expects to spend time reevaluating the role of HPD.

"Some businesses we're in we absolutely shouldn't be in," she stressed. Wright said she read ten studies that concluded HPD was not doing a great job dealing with in rem buildings. "This is one segment that can be owned by not-for-profits," she said.

One challenge for the agency will be how to put money to an appropriate us and protect the housing stock.

Wright is also concerned with pressures from regulatory and health issues such as lead paint abatement. "Agencies are falling all over themselves with regulations and constraints," she said.

"There is a widespread feeling that we [at HPD] need a change of attitude, Wright concluded. "We need to come together and present a positive agency."

McDonald was vituperative in his comments about the enormous loss of single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing. One hundred thousand rooms are gone, he said, predicting the city will be coping with homelessness into the next century until that housing is replaced. A bill before the City Council would permit the creation of SRO's, he said, "but they accuse us of wanting to build the slums of the future."

McDonald said developers need tax breaks and abatements and need to be able to build more modular housing. "It can be done, we have to do it, and we won't come out of this crisis until we do it," he said.

One program The Doe Fund runs, called "Ready, Willing and Able," brings in single, homeless men from the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. They are housed in a service supported environment and trained to renovate city-owned apartments for homeless families. Funds for their salaries are obtained from the city renovation contract and provides 70 percent of the program's operating budget, as well.

Housing cannot be treated in isolation, agreed Wylde. She said the cities are stretched to capacity providing social services, handicapped access, clean water and other costs mandated by Federal and state agencies.

But she was excited about the possibilities of tapping into a Federal tax credit program for historic restoration that used to have onerous requirements. Previously, this tax credit could not be given for properties that were gut-rehabilitated because the interior was supposed to be historically restored. Now, she said, the looser requirements will provide a 20 percent windfall that had been virtually inaccessible to low and moderate income housing providers. "This will be a way of reclaiming whole sections of this city," she said.

Additionally, Wylde said the Federal government is discussing ways to open up Superfund money, which was set aside for toxic cleanups, to help reclaim urban land. This land has been undevelopable because the rules were unclear as to when the sites were clean.

She also called for mortgage underwriters such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to continue to invest in urban areas and noted that more capital investment has to come from the city and state.

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