The Urgency of State Legislation on Housing

1938 nyc street scene
The East Side of Manhattan in 1938, just as housing was under the microscope of the state legislature. /Image: CHPC archives

As the current legislative session wraps up in Albany this week, the expiration of important housing laws looms large on the horizon. The laws governing both the 421-a tax exemption for housing development and the New York City’s rent stabilization will sunset. Public debate has simmered over and now seems to have quieted down, though Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will call the legislature back into session if nothing is done and Mayor Bill de Blasio has raised the alarm. Of course, there is a flurry of other legislative activity in the Capitol, such as the reform of laws about bringing dogs into restaurants.

The amazing CHPC archives, of course, tell us that this is not the first time that housing advocates have pressed the state legislature for urgent action.

In 1938, a Constitutional Convention met to discuss reform of the state’s framing document. A new constitution was approved by popular vote in November of that year. But one month earlier, CHPC—just one year old at the time—released a memorandum urging public approval of Amendment #4 for that constitution, the Housing Amendment. “The Citizens’ Housing Council of New York [as CHPC was then known], together with many other organizations throughout the State, strongly supports the Housing Amendment. The Amendment includes three points which the Council considers essential for a statewide housing program of benefit not only to the cities, but the state in general, including its towns, villages, and open country.”

This memo laid out CHPC’s case: “Every civilized nation has had to exercise the powers included in this amendment before it could deal adequately with the problem of slum reclamation and the proper housing of its low-income families. It is generally believed that government should aid and participate in a comprehensive housing program.” And recognizing that this was the state’s chance to establish a solid foundation for housing policy, it continued: “The immediate task is to forge the legal instruments with which a housing program can be started. The existing imperfections may be cured by future constitutional amendments.”

Five months later, on March 5, 1939, the Chair of the New York City Housing Authority, Alfred Rheinstein, spoke to a “Committee on Affairs of Cities of the New York State Legislature.” His remarks were published by NYCHA that same year, entitled Principles for Sound Housing Legislation.

“The workability of the housing program will depend on the new housing law,” Rheinstein’s statement begins. His framing comments stress the need for an “economy” in the market of government built housing: “Competition with private enterprise must be avoided.”

One of the important obstacles of the time was, in Rheinstein’s eyes, the way housing was viewed as a component of urban life. “It is impossible to isolate housing from any other phase of community activity. Naturally, schools, parks, playgrounds, police and fire protection, sanitation and health facilities should be an integral part of any residential area.” But because these neighborhood ingredients are not specific to individual housing units, he argues, “The law should, therefore, restrict the use of housing funds to housing purposes.”

Of particular interest is his discussion of “loan, subsidy, and tax exemption.” Rheinstein proposed some radical-sounding policies for the time, based partially on his belief that government should be involved in housing development, as well as the belief that the housing being built at the time had a life of only 60 years. “I know that under its Constitution the State may not lend for more than 50 years. But it should be possible for the local housing authority to supplement the loan from the state with a loan from other sources…Thus the amortization of the whole project can be extended to 60 years if the legislation permits the periodic subsidy to be paid for 60 years.”

Finally, in a prelude to current state housing subsidy programs, Rheinstein argued, “The law should permit a maximum subsidy for a project sufficient to cover its entire amortization and interest requirements and thus make possible rentals within the means of the very low income groups.”

You can read the 1938 memo—and the Housing Amendment to the proposed constitution—here, and the NYCHA chair’s statement here.

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