By Emma Whitford
Back in February, before housing policy fizzled out of state budget negotiations, the New York City Council held a hearing on bills aimed at boosting the supply of homes accessible to, and controlled by, low-income New Yorkers.
Albany’s inaction has made it even more urgent for Council Speaker Adrienne Adams to help shepherd through votes this year for some of these bills, packaged as the Community Land Act, supporters said. Parts of the act have gotten a frosty reception from Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, as well as for-profit developers.
More than 110 groups, including community land trusts and nonprofit developers led by the NYC Community Land Initiative, sent a letter to the speaker Tuesday urging her to pass the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, or COPA, as well as a bill requiring the city to prioritize nonprofits and land trusts when it disposes of public land.
The Community Land Act also backs a state bill to assist tenants in purchasing their buildings, and yet-to-be-introduced bills to replace the city’s controversial sale of tax and water debt to private investors, which expired last year. All while the number of apartments available for low- and middle-income New Yorkers wallows at a 30-year low.
“Following a state budget that failed to meaningfully address the housing crisis, New York City must take bold and immediate action to reverse the tide of displacement in Black and Brown communities and ensure affordable, dignified housing for all New Yorkers,” Tuesday’s letter, which is also addressed to Mayor Adams, states.
Signees see the bills as furthering “social housing,” a loosely defined term for programs that center housing as a public good, with an emphasis on deeply affordable rents and opportunities for community ownership.
In a statement, a council spokesperson said the body is committed to increasing housing for New Yorkers “most impacted by a lack of affordability,” and noted that bills in the package received a hearing and are moving through the legislative process.
“We appreciate the advocacy of all stakeholders and are reviewing the letter,” they said.
A critic of the expired tax lien sale, the speaker is also among the 32 co-sponsors of COPA, which would give nonprofits a chance to purchase residential buildings with at least three units at list price, before they hit the market. To qualify, purchasers would have to show they have relationships with tenant groups as well as adequate financing.
Speaker Adams has not signed on to Brooklyn Council Member Lincoln Restler’s Public Land for Public Good bill on land disposition, which has 33 cosponsors. Thirty-four sponsors constitute a supermajority.
Just 18 council members have signed on to a resolution put forward by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams backing the state-level Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, which is similar to COPA but has yet to gain broad traction in Albany. The bill would require multifamily owners to make an initial offer to tenants when they sell.
Both COPA, sponsored by Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, and Restler’s bill on land disposition have been met with pushback from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which says the legislation could complicate and slow down public and private transactions.
Speaker Adams has the power to bring legislation up for a vote before the full City Council, after negotiations with council staff, advocates and impacted city agencies. Primary bill sponsors and committee chairs can also influence a bill’s fate.
Speaking to City Limits Wednesday, Restler said he believes both COPA and his bill are “close to the finish line.” He praised the speaker for her commitment to affordable housing—her fair housing plan unveiled this month aims to identify neighborhoods that need to step up development—and said the council has proven it has a backbone.
“I know we at City Council are not afraid to stand up to Mayor Adams and stand up to the real estate community when necessary,” he said.
Bronx Council Member Pierina Sanchez, who chairs the Housing and Buildings Committee, said her team has been discussing Restler and Rivera’s bills in recent weeks and is making progress, while also juggling city budget negotiations.
“I just want to emphasize that the commitment is there from me as Housing Chair to push these bills and arrive at the strongest possible package,” she said.
Sanchez also praised the speaker for approving the social housing hearing back in February, calling that a “major indicator of support for this package.” By contrast, she’s facing negotiations with a skeptical administration.
“If we pass the bills and there’s no real commitment to the implementation of them, that’s going to be an uphill battle,” she said.
Meanwhile, advocates’ answer to the tax lien sale is much less fleshed out. It will soon take the form of five bills, according to Hannah Anousheh, campaigns director for the East New York Community Land Trust.
The policy that expired last year—in which the city annually sold homeowners’ tax and water debts to a third party, which could then enforce judgements against the property—was long criticized for disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income homeowners of color.
New legislation would make property debt collection the city’s purview once more, and there would be some level of debt forgiveness for properties willing to enter a land trust model, according to Anousheh.
“We want to help as many people get out of debt as possible before the city has to start using other enforcement mechanisms for foreclosure,” she added.
A Department of Finance spokesperson did not offer specifics but said that the office is “working to overhaul property tax enforcement to protect vulnerable homeowners and communities while ensuring that everyone fulfills their legal obligation.”
And, that DOF looks “forward to working with the City Council and all stakeholders to pass legislation this year which will achieve these goals.”
Edward Garcia is co-organizing director with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which launched the Bronx Community Land Trust in 2020 but has yet to acquire any land or property.
He told City Limits that while access to the financing necessary to purchase buildings would still be a challenge, COPA could help disrupt a frustrating cycle he’s observed while organizing tenants over the years as they try to compel their landlords to make needed repairs.
“We’ve seen organizing campaigns that have led to sales because the property owner prefers to sell rather than resolve demands,” he said. “And we’ve never had a viable tool in which the tenants could pressure the property owner… [and] acquire the property instead of another owner looking to maximize profit.”
Yet COPA has its critics, among property owners and trade organizations in addition to City Hall. Testifying before the council in February, HPD officials said COPA could slow building sales, to the detriment of small property owners.
Daniel Bernstein, who leads the tax incentives and affordable housing department at the law firm Rosenberg and Estis PC, said COPA would be a burden for HPD to administer. He doubted that nonprofits would have the necessary financing.
“If not-for-profits were able to compete economically, there is a perfectly good method for them to compete through the marketplace which exists now,” he told City Limits.
HPD also criticized Restler’s bill this winter, saying it would limit the city’s “range of available tools” to construct affordable housing as quickly as possible. An HPD spokesperson deferred to hearing testimony when reached for comment this week.
Under current city rules, at least 25 percent of a development team picked for a project on public land must be a nonprofit or minority and women-owned business.
The New York State Association for Affordable Housing, an industry trade group, has criticized Restler’s bill, calling it discriminatory against minority and women-owned businesses. These “are inherently for-profit companies, and this legislation would disallow them from applying for these… sites,” the group testified in February.
Under the legislation, for-profit entities could still acquire public land if a nonprofit or land trust didn’t come forward and meet qualifications.* Both Sanchez and Restler said they are in talks with minority-owned developers to address their concerns.
As of November, HPD said it had 810 vacant tax lots, about two-thirds of which were in the early process of development planning in February. Garcia of the Bronx Community Land Trust said his group has eyed several lots, only to learn that they’re accounted for.
Sam Stein, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society of New York, said Restler’s bill is better late than never. (The Community Service Society is a City Limits funder.) His organization signed on to Tuesday’s letter.
“It would have been great if this bill was there when there was more public land,” Stein said. “The way I think of it is we should have done this 20 years ago, but 20 years from now we would say the same thing.”