Making Housing Plans About More Than Just Counting Units

In 2014, shortly after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the city released a housing plan that set a goal of building and preserving at least 200,000 units of housing over the next ten years. At the time, Jessica Katz was working as an assistant commissioner in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which is in charge of making and implementing New York’s housing plans. The department “had a kind of clarity of purpose and ability to execute that government is not often known for,” Katz says. The numerical goals had a way of focusing people’s attention. So when she left city government, right around the time the city released “Housing New York 2.0,” increasing the preservation and development goal to 300,000 units, she had a strong sense of what that energy could accomplish.

“I just want to figure out,” Katz says, “how to bottle that towards other things than just counting units.”

Today, Katz is executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC), an 80-year-old nonprofit that focuses on housing and planning policy in New York. Last fall, CHPC launched a research initiative called A New Lens for NYC’s Housing Plan, and this month, the group has started issuing a series of policy briefs, exploring how the city’s housing plans might change if they were pointed at achieving different social goals. “What if the goal of the next housing plan was to improve the health of New Yorkers?” one asks. “How would we measure our success if the next housing plan was feminist?” says another. Two additional briefs are focused on advancing racial equity, and meeting the needs of the city’s immigrants.

The briefs are meant to generate creative thinking about how the production and preservation of affordable housing can meet other needs. The “Feminist Housing Plan” brief, for example, notes that women earn 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn, that three quarters of families in New York’s public housing units are headed by women, that 41 percent of households in homeless shelters are there because of domestic violence, and that 86 percent of single parents, for whom paying the bills is a particular struggle, are women. “Including a gender equity lens in the next housing plan could create a lasting, positive impact on how and where women and their families live,” the brief concludes.

“I want to get people’s minds working about the idea that you need to start with what your goals are and then work toward the metric and the tactics after that,” Katz says. “One of the things that I think counting units doesn’t do is answer the question of why or for whom, and those are questions that were hotly debated as these plans came out.”

Housing plans in other cities are released according to various legal and political protocols, Katz says. In New York, a new housing plan is typically released earlier in a new mayor’s term. De Blasio’s second and final term as mayor will conclude at the end of 2021. So housing advocates in New York are expecting a new housing plan shortly after that. And Katz and others say now is the time to think about what the plan could and should achieve.

The Citizens Housing and Planning Council is joining a host of other housing groups as part of a campaign called “United for Housing,” which will push 2021 mayoral candidates (former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and retired Army brigadier general Loree Sutton have both formally announced their candidacies) to make certain commitments as part of their housing plans. The campaign is being convened by the New York Housing Conference, a nonprofit advocacy group and coalition of “nonprofit and private developers, owners, managers, professionals, and funders of affordable housing.” Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, says that the “big tent” coalition will inevitably need to find an advocacy position that all of its members can endorse. But there is room to think about what goals the housing plan might pursue beyond a number of units.