Volume 22, Number 26 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 6 - 12, 2009
Battery Park City, built on city public land more than 30 years ago — actually on landfill from the original Twin Towers construction — was always supposed to bring more affordable places to live in New York City. Originally, two-thirds of the apartments were going to be for middle- and low-income people, but the commitment was changed 20 years ago when the state and city promised to use money from neighborhood ground rents to build affordable housing around the city instead.
It didn’t work out that way. Mayors more often than not used an “emergency” loophole and diverted the money to the general revenue stream. Although this was wrong, at least the city money was used to help pay for essential city services and presumably staved off painful cuts, such as teacher or police layoffs.
But a few weeks ago, Governor David Paterson proposed an unprecedented state raid on the housing fund to secure $300 million to help fill a $3 billion budget deficit. Fifty million dollars would be a direct raid, and $250 million would be from bonds issued by the Battery Park City Authority, which would then be unable to pay as much into the fund with a higher debt service.
The authority, whose board is made up of gubernatorial appointees, shares control of the fund with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Comptroller Bill Thompson. The two mayoral candidates did not agree on much this campaign, but the pair teamed up four years ago to once again use the money for affordable housing, directing $130 million to build and preserve below-market apartments. They have indicated resistance to the state request, but they may compromise with Paterson, particularly since the governor should be able to pressure the authority to sit on the money.
The fund is expected to reach $400 million by the spring. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Daniel Squadron, whose districts include B.P.C., are willing to accept using the money for the state deficit, although they also hope for a long-term housing commitment. Given that Albany funding is often seen in terms of Upstate-Downstate tradeoffs, it is a little disheartening that these two Downtowners are so ready to accept a raid on the city funds. The state is in dire shape, and it may be the least bad option to send some of this money to Albany. However, if it must be done, the state’s debt to the city should not be ignored, and there must be a real, permanent commitment to keeping more housing affordable.
State Sen. Liz Krueger last week suggested a compromise of a one-time split of the money in exchange for an automatic funding of affordable housing in future years. The state would use $200 million for the budget gap, and the city would take $100 million for its own budget and invest $100 million on housing. This type of compromise, which has been embraced in general terms by Silver and Squadron, would be an improvement since it would presumably make it harder to divert money in the future and there would be no added debt.
Silver said Wednesday that he has gotten the governor to agree not to add to the debt load and we hear from sources that Paterson has dropped the raid by a third so it is “down” to $200 million.
This particularly harsh recession calls for tough budget choices and may be good enough reason to suspend the B.P.C. promise, as long as it is done temporarily and it doesn’t become a habit again. It’s expensive enough to live in the city without politicians conspiring to make it harder.