NYC Housing Commissioner Vicki Been Discusses Affordable Housing Initiative at Urban Policy Forum

Vicki Been returned to NYU Wagner to discuss her role at the helm the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the ambitious city program to build and preserve 200,000 affordable apartment units in a decade’s time.

The eagerly-anticipated 2015 Henry Hart Rice Urban Policy Forum drew a capacity crowd of more than 150 students, researchers, policy makers, advocates, and developers on April 7. Commissioner Been was familiar to many in the audience as Professor of Law at the NYU School of Law and Associated Professor of Public Policy at NYU Wagner. She was interviewed by Ingrid Gould Ellen, Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at NYU Wagner. Until Been's appointment approximately a year ago, she had collaborated closely with Professor Ellen at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a joint endeavor of the Law School and Wagner.

As the evening discussions began, Mitchell Moss, the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Wagner, welcomed Commissioner Been, noting her shift from academia to what another New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt, once described as the “arena” of policy making. “She is the woman in the arena,” he said.

The arena, and the goal of the five-borough "Housing New York" program that she is stewarding, can only be described as challenging, if not daunting. In New York, according to data from the Furman Center, 54 percent of renter households devote at least 30 percent of their income to rent currently, compared to 42 percent of renter households in 2000. In addition to Housing New York's preservation aspects, the program calls for the building of 80,000 new units for low- and moderate-income households within 10 years. That's double the average rate of new construction of the past 20 years, and must be accomplished in a city where publicly owned property and vacant lots are scarce and building-related costs have skyrocketed.

“It’s an enormous scope,” Commissioner Been explained in reference to the new initiative, “not because we wanted it to be ‘big and bold,’ but because that’s what is required to meet the affordable housing crisis of the city.”

Among the policymaking approaches she touched upon are HPD's use of comprehensive planning across city agencies to address open-space, mobility, recreation, and education needs in the neighborhoods where affordable-housing preservation and development are planned; strategic efforts to prevent displacement; drawing direction from neighborhood-based data and community interaction; helping owners of small buildings to navigate red tape and obtain financial help; and encouraging developers to include within their market-rate developments the affordable-rate units required for tax subsidies.

“It costs more to build [the affordable units] on site. On the other hand, the point of Mayor de Blasio’s administration is to reduce income inequality,” the Commissioner said.