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Progressive Posturing

Bill de Blasio’s housing failures demonstrate the limit of his political vision

In late August 2017, Bill de Blasio sat down for two conversations with New York magazine’s Chris Smith. The famously tall, “progressive” mayor of New York City, whose goofy, block-like head would be easy to Muppetize, was running for reelection. Over the course of the published interview, de Blasio made comments that lit the right-wing media landscape on fire. When asked what stood in the way of his previous campaign’s promise to reduce income inequality, he said:

What’s been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there’s a socialistic impulse . . . that [citizens] would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too.

Taken out of context, de Blasio sounds like he could have been fondling a Kalashnikov offscreen, readying for the people’s revolution. But peppered in this incendiary screed were hedges that would make any consensus-minded individual’s heart sing: “Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that’s the reality that calls the tune on a lot of development.” And when asked if his decision to reject multiple invitations to visit JP Morgan should strike fear into the heart of the over-compensated business community? Of course not! “I’ve had plenty of meetings with business leaders,” he clarified. “I’ve often given an opportunity to business leaders to participate more deeply in addressing income inequality and affordable housing.” The mayor finished by saying that a New Deal-style government intervention in the housing market wasn’t “reachable right now.” What a relief! Fox News and the National Review could safely slide the couch away from the front door and stow their riot gear.

Today, Bill de Blasio is campaigning again; this time in an ill-advised presidential bid, possibly undertaken out of boredom. His platform rests in large part on his defense of working people. De Blasio brought up housing in that 2017 interview because he knows it’s ground-zero for income inequality; it’s been demonstrated that housing inequality is one of the primary drivers of economic inequality overall. And it’s a national issue: affordable rental housing is scarce for working people across the country, from Kittery, Maine, to Long Beach, California. But as the mayor of New York City, which has a population larger than thirty-eight states, his passive embrace of ineffective market mechanisms has left the city’s most unwieldy problem unsolved. While de Blasio’s presidential campaign is widely seen as a farce, it has much to tell us about the political imagination of candidates like him.

New York City’s housing crisis is what Michael Greenberg classified, in a report for the New York Review of Books, as a humanitarian emergency. This is not Bill de Blasio’s fault. His predecessor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, purposefully remade the city into an unaffordable luxury playground in hopes of enticing a portion of the blowing sands of global capital to settle there. If Rudy Giuliani was violently single-minded about reducing crime, Bloomberg would focus on pumping up the prices of New York City’s most valuable commodity: real estate. He achieved this, in part, by rezoning more than eleven thousand blocks of the city. As Samuel Stein explains in his book Capital City, “Bloomberg’s rezonings, though vast in scale, cannot be mistaken for a comprehensive plan; they were in fact more of an abdication of planning to the market.” These rezonings were a mix of upzonings and downzonings—in which Bloomberg would choose, as Stein writes, “some parts of the neighborhood to defend and others to destroy.” Downzoning often reduces or constrains density, which can be good for homeowners who hope to preserve their neighborhood as is, while upzoning is great mostly for developers, who are able to build bigger, with many more rent-generating units.

Bloomberg’s upzonings occurred primarily in poor communities, where many argued that upzoning would be beneficial for residents because a new flood of housing would dampen prices. But even Bloomberg’s former Planning Commissioner, Amanda Burden, later admitted that this simple, elegant logic failed in practice. She had thought that if the city “kept increasing our housing supply . . . that prices would go down.” However, “the price of housing didn’t go down at all.” That’s because upzoning may create more housing, but it does so at no certain price. As in previous administrations, Bloomberg used something called the Inclusionary Housing program to smooth over objections to upzoning, which encouraged developers to include affordable housing in their new luxury buildings in exchange for additional zoning density. Similarly, there was also 421-a (now known as the Affordable New York Housing program), which rewarded participating developers with lavish tax breaks.

While de Blasio’s presidential campaign is widely seen as a farce, it has much to tell us about the political imagination of candidates like him.

In addition to relying on the good faith efforts of developers, these programs were riddled with loopholes and had numerous problems. For one, developers were often allowed to build their affordable housing units off-site in a different neighborhood, or simply to pay into a fund. More significantly, Inclusionary Housing’s definition of “affordable” was based on something called the Area Median Income (AMI), which in New York City is heavily skewed upwards because it includes the wealthy Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties. Under Inclusionary Housing, the affordable designation was calculated for a household making 80 percent AMI; in 2017, this figure came to about $68,720 a year— $22,000 higher than the household median income of the city alone. Further, upzoning frequently occurs in neighborhoods with even lower median incomes, meaning that this definitional massaging has flooded poor neighborhoods with upwardly mobile middle-class housing and very little for working people making $20,000 to $40,000 a year. Even if the definition of affordable weren’t rigged, the luxury housing that is built often drives up prices in these neighborhoods, exacerbating gentrification. Rumors of rezoning alone can cause a speculative frenzy, raising prices before anything is actually built. And until 2015, residents of affordable units were often segregated from residents paying full market price—excluded from accessing courtyards, or, in the case of the tony Manhattan building that installed a separate “poor door” for its affordable housing residents, excluded even from walking through the front entrance.

De Blasio rode into office in 2013 on a wave of resentment against the policies of the Bloomberg era. And in a plan released a few months after he was inaugurated, he promised to devote $41 billion to create or retain two hundred thousand units of affordable housing. As Stein writes in Capital City, the most important facet of his plan was something called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). This was a compulsory form of Inclusionary Housing, one that would force developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units in their new buildings—though only on land that was already being upzoned. While the new program gave developers the option of building a smaller percentage of units at a much lower AMI (40 percent), it also allowed them, in some cases, to meet the requirement by building units for households making 115 percent AMI. Like Inclusionary Housing before it, MIH also allowed for some of the affordable housing to be built off-site. Thus, de Blasio’s main tool to address the housing crisis was more or less a continuation of Bloomberg’s market-happy legacy. The city would continue to encourage developers to plop ugly, out-of-context luxury buildings into poor neighborhoods, in exchange for including units that were affordable in name only.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that while de Blasio postured as a progressive firebrand, he hired a brain trust of super business geniuses to his cabinet—like former deputy mayor for housing and economic development Alicia Glen, a Goldman Sachs alum. When asked by Vice about the rising populist anger directed at relentless rezoning in 2015, she argued that “the reason why so many people are pissed is that they have been conditioned to the fear of change. I don’t like it when my dry cleaner changes ownership. It pisses me off because I’ve known those people for years. It stresses me out. I don’t like change. But change is inevitable and so how you shape the future is incredibly important as opposed to letting it wash over you. Because it’s coming.” Hey, you sentimental goofballs, you’ve been brainwashed into wanting your neighborhood to remain affordable. Get with the program! Glen’s statement was soaked in the same prostrate yet scolding acquiescence to the inevitable power of global capital that characterized much of Bill Clinton’s administration.

Worse, at the end of last year, de Blasio announced NYCHA 2.0, a new public housing plan to make up for a massive budgetary shortfall. He plans to privatize many elements of New York city’s public housing system, surrendering much of it to the market. De Blasio is responding to a real crisis; public housing across the country, including NYCHA, is crumbling because it has been starved of funding by the federal government for at least forty years. But his administration has demonstrated little reluctance to abandon NYCHA. His first NYCHA chair, Shola Olatoye, once went so far as to ask reporters, “Can we use the . . . bias of [the Trump] administration towards the private sector, towards deregulation, to help us [build more housing]? Absolutely, we should.” She was openly advocating for the deregulation of public housing. Was an embrace of disaster capitalism part of de Blasio’s plan all along?

Either way, the housing crisis is most clearly expressed in New York’s exploding homeless population, one that now exceeds sixty-three thousand people—many of whom, as de Blasio himself volunteered in that New York magazine interview, are working people and families. Now, 76 percent of New Yorkers don’t want de Blasio to run for president. But rather than trying to solve the intractable problems of working people in the city, he’s traipsing across Iowa.

De Blasio has failed to stop the tide of gentrification that drowns communities and erodes the livelihoods of the very people he promised to bolster. A significant part of that failure has to do with political constraints he doesn’t have control over. But he’s also a landlord twice-over who receives campaign donations from real estate lobbying groups and who once claimed to be a “progressive activist, fiscal conservative.” No doubt this would indicate that he is not totally honest about his animating principles. Even if de Blasio weren’t lying about his intentions, he has certainly misconstrued his capabilities. He could have at least upzoned a few wealthy neighborhoods—like his favored Park Slope, say—to more equitably spread out the effects of development, or levied congestion pricing to pay for public housing, or lobbied the federal government to cancel the mortgage interest deduction, the tax credit that continues to inflame economic inequality by unnecessarily subsidizing home ownership. But his political imagination diminishes even further in the face of crisis.

Corporate interests have had a stranglehold on American politics for so long that the asphyxiation has lead to blindness.

More than that, he seems too out of touch to realize it. In 2017, when Chris Smith asked why he didn’t have a higher approval rating, de Blasio was miffed. “When I think about how crime’s gone down for four years, graduation rates up, test scores are up, more jobs than ever in our history—I think, Wow, just that quick profile, any candidate anywhere would want it,” he said. “You’d assume they’d be having parades out in the streets.” So why haven’t the people risen up to declare de Blasio day? Well, he was reelected in 2017 with a historically low voter turnout (only 8.5 percent of the population voted for him). Given how testy and combative he is in interviews, de Blasio comes across like a single guy who insistently “says what’s on his mind” and then wonders why he can’t get past the first date.

When a homeless rights advocate recently tried to confront de Blasio during one of his daily workouts at the Park Slope YMCA, he told her he wasn’t going to talk to her at the gym: for this twenty-fist century professional-class politician, light stretching and cardio apparently outweigh talking with constituents in public. But had de Blasio bothered to interface with this homeless-rights advocate he––like many of the Democrats he’s now running alongside––would have had very little to offer her. De Blasio’s housing failure is a parable and, ultimately, a warning: be wary of those who pronounce they are ready to take on the wealthy and fight for working people if their policy “solutions” hinge on mechanisms that only further enrich private industry with dubious incentives. Corporate interests have had a stranglehold on American politics for so long that the asphyxiation has lead to blindness. Market mechanisms, privatization, and deregulation are not the only solutions we have; there are way more (and better) tools in the toolbox. Sadly, politicians like Bill de Blasio just can’t seem to find them. That’s because de Blasio was never a bomb-throwing progressive revolutionary; he just does a good impression of one.