Without a Democratic Primary, Where Will the Housing Ideas Come From?

In the world of low- and moderate-income housing, the last two mayoral campaigns were fruitful ones.

Particularly in the competitive Democratic primaries, two fields of candidates launched arms races of sorts on housing, ultimately presenting plans that called for huge infusions of new money and an array of new policies long pushed by advocates. The Bloomberg campaign countered with similar plans of its own, particularly in 2005; now many of the campaign ideas are city policy.

So as the 2009 mayoral election nears with only one well-financed candidate actively seeking the Democratic nomination—Comptroller Bill Thompson—could a noncompetitive mayoral primary take a toll on the innovation and idea-borrowing that traditionally occurs in such campaigns on housing policy?

The spring and summer of election years, after all, are when housing advocates tend to push policy papers on campaigns and hold candidate forums. But now, numerous advocates say, their plans have been altered by the noncompetitive field. No longer will they be able to play Democrats off each other with various plans, as they had hoped, and at least one group has dropped plans for a candidate forum as a result of the small field, according to its director.

“A lack of having a competitive Democratic primary has not brought the traditional issues, such as housing, to the forefront,” said Assemblyman Vito Lopez, chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee. “If that changes, and there is a very competitive primary, I believe that you will see each of the candidates talk on the issue of affordability and housing.”

Should housing ideas, and ultimately policies, indeed fail to emerge with the same vigor as in elections past, it would represent an unintended side effect of Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to extend term limits.

That decision has kept one, and likely two, onetime mayoral hopefuls—Council Speaker Christine Quinn and U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner—on the sidelines. Both have advocated a need for greater attention to the city’s housing policy, and surely would have focused on new issues. Ms. Quinn, who is pursuing another term as speaker, has pushed for permanent affordable housing. Mr. Weiner, who has suspended campaigning but has left the door open to a return to the race, has urged a focus on housing for “middle-income families.”

While campaigns are not generally known as great incubators of cutting-edge policy, housing issues have done quite well, at least from the viewpoint point of subsidized-housing advocates.

“In both ’01 and ’05, the fact of competition in the Democratic primary led to a proliferation of a lot of ideas around affordable housing,” said Brad Lander, the former director of the Pratt Center for community development (and now a City Council candidate). “That did come to encourage significant steps forward in affordable-housing policy.

Issues such as a housing trust fund, inclusionary zoning, a popular housing tax break reform and billions of dollars in capital spending all made their way into multiple candidates’ plans as they sought to match each other to demonstrate greater commitment to housing. The policies first appeared in the Democratic primary, then were carried into the general election, and many are now part of city policy.

In 2005, facing an incumbent Mayor Bloomberg, who already had a strong record on affordability issues, the Democratic candidates each came up with their own decade-long housing plans calling for billions in spending. When Fernando Ferrer, with his $8.5 billion plan, made it to the general election, Mr. Bloomberg countered with his own $7.5 billion commitment to below-market-rate housing, which is now a priority of his administration.

Given that Mr. Bloomberg’s approach to housing generally wins much praise from advocates, there is, of course, less room to criticize or to trump, at least in terms of spending. Still, in coming months, multiple groups say they are likely to push issues such as a need for far more permanent affordable housing (many affordability requirements currently expire after a set of years), and new attention to apartment buildings that were purchased by highly leveraged buyers who now risk default.

“The fact that there is a less intense election now is harder for us to play candidates against each other or get candidates to up the ante,” said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the policy-focused group Association for Neighborhood Housing Development. That said, Mr. Dulchin added that he believes the changing economy and strains on housing production will allow advocates’ priorities, such as permanent affordability, to get a hearing with or without a competitive election season.

A Bloomberg administration spokesman, Andrew Brent, contested the notion that there was any dearth of ideas in the city’s housing policy. “The Bloomberg administration is implementing the largest housing program in the nation,” Mr. Brent said in a statement. “To achieve it, we’re constantly developing new, innovative financing tools that help us create housing even during an economic downturn.”

All that is not to say that Mr. Thompson will be without ideas on housing policy, and indeed many affordability advocates view him warmly (though to date, he has not laid out specifics on this or other campaign issues).

A campaign spokesman for Mr. Thompson, Anne Fenton, said a noncompetitive primary would not hurt housing efforts. Instead, she said in a statement that the prospect of a third Bloomberg term is “standing in the way of more affordable housing” due to what she characterized as the mayor’s “inaction” on the issue.

Without a Democratic Primary, Where Will the Housing Ideas Come From?