The Future of Affordable Housing Development In New York City

By Harold DeRienzo

At the recent Conference sponsored by the Association of Housing and Neighborhood Development, I spoke on a panel with other housing professionals and government officials.  My prepared remarks are below. I approach this topic from the perspective of a Community Development Corporation, or CDC. 

Affordable housing means different things to different people.  We live in a global city and our neighborhoods are subject to constant change driven by local, regional, national and international forces.  Our job as CDCs is to ensure that our residents – old and new – have an effective voice and meaningful role in all those things that impact their lives.  CDCs are the institutional mechanisms through which disparate needs – housing, education, employment, support services, and more – find a unified voice.  For the past 30 years (at least) community development efforts have centered around housing preservation and production.  That central role is now being challenged.  Some of the challenges come from within our sector, and we have to do a better job of self-policing.  Other challenges come from the natural attrition of leadership and talent.  But most of the challenges we face come from the fact that there is now substantial profit to be made from so-called affordable housing development.

Why is CDC development preferable?  Just to cite a few ways:

  • CDC housing development is affordable to a broader range of low income households and more likely to remain affordable in the long term
  • CDC housing development is supplemented by support services, including eviction prevention
  • CDC housing development is focused on people first and foremost
  • CDC developers promote resident involvement, building civic infrastructure leading to collective action, mutual aid, and cooperation
  • CDC housing developers help smooth the way for changing demographics in neighborhoods
  • CDC housing developers are the early warning systems for impending crises, the first responders to natural disasters, and the entities that stay the course over the long run, well  after the headlines have disappeared

So where do we go from here?

Currently there are discussions within the CDC sector that have promise.  We are talking about standards for CDCs so that we can root out bad players.  We are talking about promoting CDC housing development as a preferred model due to the unique benefits we bring to the effort.  We are talking about combining resources within the CDC sector so that we have better bargaining power and more capacity to compete for a larger share of development deals.

All of these efforts are worthwhile and we support them wholeheartedly, but in the long term more needs to be done.  Let’s be realistic:  To the extent that CDCs are being marginalized, the problem goes beyond money, balance sheets, and the capacity to secure bonds or provide adequate loan guarantees.  When all is said and done, CDCs only matter as much as our people matter.  And until our people have political relevance, we will continue to struggle to maintain our viability within the affordable housing sector.

Working towards a goal of increasing the political relevance of our people, we need to go beyond neighborhood development and work to promote community development.  I make this distinction between neighborhood and community because to have a neighborhood, what is needed is a solid infrastructure, housing built at sufficient density to support an array of services, and the ability to gain access within and outside the area in order to facilitate commerce, access to employment, and recreation.

Developing neighborhoods may take intelligent planning, but neighborhoods are not communities.  To have a community, people must have some sense of share destiny; people necessarily depend on one another; if one person suffers, all suffer, but the gain of one is the gain of all.  Finally, communities have political significance, which allows for collective capacity.  As community development corporations, it is our responsibility not only to build affordable housing, but also to build community.   And to do so, we must focus on several areas concurrently:

  1. Economic Development – there is no community without local economy, and we must start by looking within ourselves, to our internal demand, our purchasing power, and do all we can to promote local preferences in hiring and contracting.  We need to do this in collaboration with others within our sector and extend local procurement and hiring practices to other local institutions.  We need to review how we do our business, and change wherever possible to promote these goals.  One example would be to look to construction management models to replace the current dominance of the general contractor model to better accommodate local hiring.
  2. Institutional integration – CDCs started out as resident controlled institutions.  But for many of us, including Banana Kelly, we have become professionalized, distant from our residents, treating them as clients as opposed to members.  We need to re-integrate our residents into our organizations, including inclusion in governance.
  3. Organizing – the CDC movement did not develop in a vacuum.   The CDC sector is a legacy, even if a threatened one, but a legacy nonetheless of the civil rights movement.  We need to encourage organizing both within and without our organizations, even when it leads to discomfort.  Not so long ago, one of our organizers asked me if it would be a conflict to organize our residents to push the Rent Guidelines Board to institute a rent freeze, since Banana Kelly is basically a landlord.  My response was that we need to support our residents in all of their efforts to advocate for their mutual self-interest.  And it is our goal that, through resident training for governance of, and inclusion on, the boards of directors of our numerous affiliated housing companies, eventually self-interest, manifested through mutual interest and collective action, will include the interest of our housing projects.  In this way, when a tenant is abused by the system, organized residents will collectively come to that tenant’s defense.   But when a tenant is abusing the system, organized residents will view this as little more than stealing services from that tenant’s neighbors, and come to the collective defense of the owning entity – an extension of the residents themselves.
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