July 12, 2006

Eliot On Affordable Housing

It's a crisis the State of New York has failed to address "with sincerity" for the last 15 years. If elected, he'll make it a priority. That was the message Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic front-runner in the race for governor, offered last week. Last Thursday, he presented the housing plank in his platform at a roundtable dialogue hosted by the Long Island Housing Partnership in Hauppauge.

Speaking before the LIHP board of directors and a contingent of housing advocates, county and town officials, Spitzer laid out three aspects of the issue he hopes to target. They relate to finding land, finding money and working with local zoning.

When it comes to locating available land, Spitzer said he believes New York is sitting on a wealth of property. It is, he said, "an asset that isn't utilized." If he makes it to the state's top spot, he'll call for a survey of all property under state control, with an eye toward using those that are appropriate for affordable housing developments.

Additionally, the candidate opined the state's brownfields law, which provides funding for the reclamation of polluted properties, "hasn't worked." Improving the regulations could result in land cleaned to the highest standards that might one day yield hundreds of units of affordable housing.

As far as funding, Spitzer said he doesn't believe New York has been using state subsidy programs "terribly well."

"We can aspire to do better," he added.

Reconfiguring how some funds, such as the state mortgage assistance program, are managed could create a dedicated stream of upwards of $100 million a year. That could translate into 4000 housing units annually.

Additionally, Spitzer is examining the notion of using some of the state pension fund to invest in affordable housing developments, a strategy currently employed in California. Just one percent of the state pension fund could provide a billion dollars in capital. Finally, on the money front, Spitzer favors tax benefits for employers who give their employees down payment or mortgage incentives as a recruitment perk.

Zoning, the Democrat said, "is a tough nut." Local municipalities control zoning regulations across the state. "The best we can do is provide incentives," Spitzer said, continuing, "We need to encourage municipalities to approve higher densities . . . and embrace the notion of inclusionary zoning." (Inclusionary zoning means building a percentage of affordable homes within high-end developments.)

"We simply have to move in that direction," he emphasized. Spitzer acknowledged the state has "had problems" persuading municipalities to take excess state land and use it for affordable housing. Often local politicians run into opposition to affordable housing from neighbors who proclaim "Not In My Back Yard." Spitzer espoused a willingness to "suffer the slings and arrows of NIMBYs" if elected.

Summing up, the candidate said, "Housing has to be part of the discussion from the get-go." He sees it as infrastructure, as worthy of investing in as transportation and energy.

Planned as a dialogue between those in the affordable housing community and the candidate, the event allowed time for questions. Speaking to a local project, The Courtyards at Southampton on Majors Path, LIHP President and CEO Peter Elkowitz noted that money from the town and the federal government has come through, but "we're still waiting to hear back from the state."

Courtyards contractor Charlie Mancini pointed out the project was fast tracked by the town, the county and the attorney general's own office. However, when it comes to response from officials at the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation Fund, he said, "I get the impression people in the state either don't care or they haven't got a clue."

"It's important for me to hear this and we've got to change it," Spitzer responded. He promised to re-engineer the state decision making process and "put people in place who understand the cost of not making a decision."

As the confab drew to a close, Matt Crosson of the Long Island Association, an island-wide business advocacy group, extolled Spitzer's housing plan as "the most encouraging thing I've heard in 10 years." For Crosson's money, the candidate offered "very comprehensive, very insightful and very practical solutions to the housing problem in this area."

LIHP is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing housing assistance across the island. Since it was first formed in 1988, it's built over 1000 affordable abodes in Suffolk County alone.

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