Housing and land use issues often arise during election campaigns for local office in New York City. In 2017, just as the redevelopment of an armory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was the focus of a Democratic primary for City Council, the incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio, less than a month before the general election, touted the achievements of his administration and boosted its goals in the area of building and preserving rent-targeted apartments.
Forty years prior, New York City faced a much different set of problems. Financial decline and a shrinking population put the municipal government under severe stress. The administration of Abe Beame, who took office in 1974, was at the center of the City’s fiscal crisis. When Beame faced re-election in 1977, six challengers entered the Democratic primary, which Ed Koch won in a runoff against Mario Cuomo. Koch, of course, then defeated Cuomo and a host of less prominent candidates in the general election.
CHPC surveyed the candidates in August of that year, ahead of the primary elections, on “ten major housing and planning issues” ranging from rent control to building a new convention center to the Westway project to using zoning to curb pornography. All of the candidates except for Bella Abzug mailed in a completed questionnaire, and significant differences emerged in their answers.
The manner of responses varied extensively. For example, the Beame campaign wrote paragraph-length answers to half of the questions and enclosed his answers in a flowery cover letter. Ed Koch, on the other hand, returned a hand-written set of responses that offer a window into his policy expertise. An enclosed “housing plan” from the Abzug campaign boasted a goal of 20,500 units annually in new and renovated housing.
On rent control, there was a range of opinion. CHPC’s report said, “Two of them, Mr. Farber and Mr. Harnett, would phase out all controls and re-establish vacancy decontrol. They would, however, continue controls where tenants demonstrate economic need.” On the other hand, the report noted, “The remainder of the candidates who answered the questionnaire did not suggest what CHPC regards as major rent regulation changes.”
The leading issue in CHPC’s report was the Westway, a redevelopment proposal for the West Side Highway that had been floating around for several years. The report noted that the candidates “would favor a ‘scaled down’ Westway with the bulk of the interstate money to be ‘traded in’ for mass transit improvements.”
The building of a new convention center was widely welcomed by the candidates, though they disagreed “on how and where it should be financed and built.” The main disagreement stemmed from how much money the City itself should contribute. Koch favored building on a “44th Street site with City capital budget funds,” whereas Cuomo offered his support but said that it should “rely on federal and state funds.”
One piece of the questionnaire touched on federal echoed a topic on the minds of the housing industry today: Community Development Block Grant funds. Of the nine candidates, only one supported the idea that CDBG funding be administered by an autonomous City agency.
Other questions on the survey touched on housing finance—the effectiveness of the J-51 tax abatement, state mortgage insurance, and shortfalls in Mitchell-Lama housing. To have a look at the full questions and responses, see here.