News 2021

Does New York Need a New La Guardia?

Memo to mayoral candidates: Start thinking big about low- and middle-income housing


On the afternoon of October 2, 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a silver-plated shovel in hand, dug into the Midwood soil. He had some difficulty with the task, barely getting the shovel into the topsoil as police fought to keep excited students at bay. 

In just a short amount of time, the students of Brooklyn College would have their own campus to rival the gems of the Ivy League. Situated on a leafy stretch of land that had, at various times, been home to a golf course, a farm, a football field, and a staging area for the Barnum & Bailey circus, the $5.5 million project was one of the most expensive of any — education-related at least — attempted in the United States at the time. “Whenever there is a new government construction,” La Guardia said that day, “there is always opposition to the site. You cannot have two sites for one public building, but the real estate people have not learned this yet.” 

It was a remarkable expansion of a system that would come to be called the City University of New York, each school tuition-free. A year later, President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in a motorcade to lay the cornerstone for Brooklyn College’s gymnasium. The accomplishment belonged to both men: city and federal funds had built the college, with its landmark clocktower, state-of-the-art laboratories, and bucolic quadrangle

Though the Great Depression had brought the nation to the brink of economic collapse, it also represented the birth of a social democracy that remains with us to this day. Social security, unemployment insurance, and a wide array of public works came to be. 

New York City was no exception: It was here many dreams of the New Deal were at least partially realized, where new libraries, parks, hospitals, colleges, and hundreds of thousands of units of public housing burst from the ground in the 1930s and 1940s. 

“New York had an unusually expansive conception of the role of the state — in this case the municipal government, in some ways, fulfilled the promises and vision of FDR late in his life that on the federal level never got fulfilled,” says Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

The boom continued after World War II, with new funding for public hospitals, public schools, and public and subsidized housing. Welfare benefits increased under the liberal Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960s, as did job protections for the newly organized public sector unions. Though the banking and real estate titans of the era retained substantial clout, they could not curtail the generous social spending that had become, for New Yorkers, routine. But by the mid-1970s, fiscal mismanagement and a collapsing manufacturing base — the garment industry and others fled to cheaper, non-union states and eventually overseas — drove the city to near-insolvency, opening the door for new theories to dominate the old. 

Neoliberalism — prioritizing lower taxes, reduced spending on the poor, and subsidies for large businesses — came into vogue, and never really left, as New York City mayors, Republican and Democratic alike, strove to ensure that real estate developers and financiers would find the city attractive for investment and profit. Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the world, called New York a “luxury product.” Bill de Blasio, a self-identified progressive who backed Bernie Sanders for president, spent the end of his first term and the beginning of his second fighting to bring a taxpayer-subsidized Amazon headquarters to Queens. One of the most dominant companies on Earth was slated to receive several billion in tax breaks, though Amazon was worth as much as a trillion dollars. A broad coalition of local opposition sank the deal.

This year’s mayoral race, which will be effectively decided in the June 22nd Democratic primary, may represent the first opportunity in a half-century to change course. The city’s Democratic electorate is more liberal than it has ever been, and groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America are ascendant in Brooklyn and Queens. Weary from the coronavirus pandemic, voters appear ready for change, sending a host of left-wing lawmakers to Albany and Washington last June.

The top candidates, in some sense, speak the new language. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, promised that his mayoralty would “end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction, and displacement — no more giving away the store to developers.” Andrew Yang wants to be the “anti-poverty” mayor, pitching a public bank and a cash-transfer program for some of the city’s poorest residents. Maya Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel, has said she’d spend $10 billion to put 100,000 New Yorkers back to work. And others are pitching innovative answers, like former Obama and Bloomberg cabinet official Shaun Donovan’s plan to give every New Yorker a $1,000 “equity bond” at birth that could be worth $50,000, and accessed, upon high school graduation. 

Yet the horizons, overall, remain somewhat diminished. Most debate continues to hover around returning New York to whatever pre-pandemic glory it enjoyed in 2019 — not radically advancing it in new directions. 

Few candidates have proposed a policy as singularly compelling and feasible as what de Blasio touted when he first ran for mayor: a universal prekindergarten program, to be paid for by a tax on the rich. Though Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked the tax hike, de Blasio won state funding for the initiative, and by most metrics, it has been a lasting success: at least 70,000 students are enrolled in pre-K, up from 9,000 in 2013, Bloomberg’s final year. The program has become a national model, offering quality education and saving working-class families tens of thousands of dollars annually. 

Pre-K was also the first major expansion of the city’s social state since the 1970s, argues Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City, one of the definitive accounts of the fiscal crisis. “Much of what we value in New York is the result of public spending,” she says.

The great challenge NYC mayors have faced in modern times is how much their enormous city’s destiny is charted by the state and federal governments. State law forbids the city from raising its own income taxes without the legislature and the governor’s approval. Federal money, for decades now, has been relatively scarce, nothing like the largesse La Guardia enjoyed under Roosevelt. 

Out of that period came the New York City Housing Authority — underfunded, mismanaged, and maligned today, but still a striking achievement. While most of the nation has razed its public housing, 400,000 poor and working-class New Yorkers still live there, safeguarded from unsustainable rent hikes. 

Almost all of the mayoral candidates have promised to win more money for NYCHA, which has capital needs in the tens of billions, but they have been vague about their plans. There has been little talk of demanding that Joe Biden fund another New Deal for New York City, like La Guardia once did of the patrician Roosevelt, who initially had no inclination to create a public housing program for the five boroughs. No one has articulated a coherent strategy for whipping the votes of the city’s large House delegation and forcing them to make the implicit pro-city arguments that draw far fewer retweets than do broadsides against Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene

Healthcare is a federal issue, but no mayoral candidate has spoken extensively about creating a single-payer municipal healthcare system, or even the universal access to healthcare that uninsured people in San Francisco enjoy. Corey Johnson, the city council speaker, briefly floated the idea in 2018, but he is not running for mayor. In the depths of the Great Depression, La Guardia created a city-run health insurance plan for its own workers, one that still exists today as part of Emblem Health. 

La Guardia’s blind spot was race: NYCHA was segregated in its early years, and the Little Flower viciously targeted Japanese-Americans during World War II. Subsequent mayors were less retrograde, culminating with Lindsay, who had a large following in Black neighborhoods and, under pressure from gay activists, banned city agencies from discriminating against job candidates based on sexual orientation. 

“If progressivism is a moving target, real leaders move the target,” says Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College and the author of books on de Blasio and Lindsay

On housing, the most progressive policy minds are still unconvinced that the mayoral candidates are campaigning effectively on solving the most fundamental problem: how to make the city affordable for renters and homebuyers, as it used to be for many decades of the 20th century. 

A dramatic expansion of NYCHA occurred in tandem with major housing developments under the auspices of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, then a mutual nonprofit, which in the 1930s and 1940s built Parkchester in the Bronx and Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan. At first segregated — virulent racism undercut New York’s social democratic golden period — Parkchester was forced to open its doors after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and remains a racially diverse haven for the middle class to this day. (Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were initially segregated as well.)

The Mitchell-Lama program, created in 1955, allowed low and middle-income New Yorkers to own their apartments, offering artificially low prices after state-subsidized developers seized land through eminent domain. Unions built affordable, attractive social housing for their members, including the famed co-ops in the Bronx and Electchester in Queens. Meanwhile, the rent-control and rent-stabilization programs expanded, capping annual increases on the rents of millions of apartments. 

“The housing movement has grown strong enough to get city politicians to say what we want them to say, but not strong enough to get them to do what we want them to do,” says Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and the author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. “There is a real lack of middle-level analysis [from the candidates]: there’s very little idea how to get from here to there.”

On the surface, none of the mayoral candidates lack ambition when it comes to housing. In all new developments with ten or more units, Stringer would require a quarter to be permanently “low-income affordable” housing, and has advanced plans for building units on vacant city-owned land. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, another front-runner, has said the city must “rapidly build new affordable housing.” Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has cultivated a following among progressives, is calling for a universal rent-stabilization program and the expansion of community land trusts and banks. 

But none have campaigned on reimagining programs like Mitchell-Lama on a far larger scale, so New Yorkers don’t have to sit on decades-long waiting lists to buy an apartment. Stein believes that the mayoral candidates need to start “thinking about housing not just as a market function the city is there to fix when there’s a market failure, but as a core part of what city government is there to do.”

The big opportunity the next mayor might have is to start buying out large, overleveraged landlords who have taken on too much debt and are no longer seeing a rapid escalation of their property values due to the pandemic. Tenant and nonprofit community groups, with the city and state’s help, could buy the properties and convert them into low-income social housing. 

The City Council and State Legislature can pass laws that give tenants and community-based organizations a first opportunity at buying buildings when they’re put up for sale. When banks are ready to put an apartment building into foreclosure, they could first offer the debt in question to nonprofits at a discount. What’s still being determined is how many of these buildings are overleveraged—numbers are still being crunched—but housing analysts believe there are enough for a wide-scale conversion from predatory, for-profit housing into what many New Yorkers enjoyed at midcentury. 

In addition, the next mayor could do a far better job of enlisting nonprofit developers to build housing affordable to the working class and poor, instead of chasing set targets that simply lead to the creation of more luxury housing, argues Ismene Speliotis, executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York. “You have to remove or diminish the profit motivator.” 

Other than Morales, who is still a long-shot to win, all of the candidates have shied away from criticizing Cuomo, the Democratic governor who is probably the single biggest impediment to far-reaching social housing policy in New York. Cuomo, who has raised more than $12 million from the real estate industry since taking office, has opposed or been indifferent to strengthening tenant protections in the past, and has refused to consider canceling rent or bailing out tenants during the pandemic. He has opposed tax hikes on the wealthy that could raise revenue for city services.

New York City requires an activist, incredibly aggressive state government to build on the social democracy it once had. The state barely contributes to the upkeep of NYCHA and does not offer funding commensurate with the tax revenue the city generates. Additionally, the Big Apple has sent nearly $27 billion more in taxes annually to the federal government than it has gotten back in federal spending; independent analyses have found that the city is a healthy net contributor to the state’s finances as well. New York City is not merely a cultural crown jewel; it is the beating heart of a state that could not exist without it. “Whatever Washington does, it will not be adequate,” Viteritti says. “Albany cannot allow this period to pass without increasing taxes on people who can well afford it.”  ❖

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