Rafael Cestero took over HPD at about the worst time imaginable.
He was appointed commissioner in the winter of 2009, the low-point (God willing) of the housing collapse, and not only was he faced with dwindling financing for affordable housing, but also a dwindling city budget. And yet over the past two years he has managed to keep the city investing in and maintaining its affordable housing stock, often at a time when little else was getting built. The commissioner was fond of pointing out that nearly half of all permits for new construction issued in the past two years were for affordable housing.
“So another housing commissioner escapes with his life,” Jerilyn Perine told The Observer. The head of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and a former HPD commissioner under both mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg said she was not surprised to hear Cestero would be leaving his grueling job and returning to the non-profit sector. “That’s how long I lasted,” she quipped. She said his greatest attributes were adaptability and leadership.
“I think his legacy is not a project or a building but his willingness to rethink the priorities of the housing plan and the economic challenges we faced,” she said. “The plan wasn’t meant to be followed slavishly. It’s called the New Housing Marketplace because it follows the market, and Rafael realized that and adjusted accordingly.”
The big shift was away from new construction, which comprised about half the original plan to create 165,000 affordable housing units, and a greater emphasis on the other half of the plan, preservation. With prices down, it was easier and more affordable to find existing units and keep them affordable.
“He cares deeply about affordable housing, about New York, about tenants and has worked extremely hard on focusing the city’s affordable housing efforts around preserving the affordable housing we have now in a down market,” City Councilman Brad Lander said. “We’ll miss him tremendously.”
This is not to say Cestero did not keep the department building, working on projects both big and small, from the huge middle-income development at Hunter’s Point South to single developments in Bed-Stuy supported by the likes of Lloyd Blankfein.
Cestero is also credited with updating and streamlining a housing beaucracy that had remained essentially unchanged since it was created during the Koch administration. Back then, the department primarily owned and operated a huge portion of its housing stock, but now much of that has been sold off. Cestero created the Office of Asset and Property Management last year to better oversee HPD’s housing portfolio while also saving operating funds in the process.
Perine said Cestero’s efforts will be felt well outside the apartment buildings and offices he oversaw. “The housing plan got steered in the right direction not only to help the housing market but the city’s entire economy,” she said. “It’s hard to see that now, but people will see it down the road. He was unebelievably creative, and the city is all the better for it.”