Vicki L. Been.Boxer Family Professor of Law on Leave.Director, Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. ()
Although New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted his new housing commissioner, Vicki Been, as a progressive tenants’ advocate, landlord and tenant attorneys said they aren’t expecting radical changes from the agency.
Before being tapped to lead the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) on Feb. 8, Been had been the director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a group that has a reputation among lawyers for both landlords and tenants for focusing on data and analysis rather than ideology.
Her background as a professor at New York University’s School of Law and as the head of a respected research center has led housing attorneys to jointly welcome her leadership.
“Been has been immersed in housing issues for many years,” said Scott Mollen, a partner at Herrick, Feinstein who represents real estate owners. “In addition to having a background dealing with real estate issues, she’s a highly respected NYU law professor who happens to have great familiarity with the kind of issues HPD must deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Adam Leitman Bailey, head of a real estate boutique that represents landlords and mostly high-income tenants and co-op and condo owners, said Been brings a “big picture real estate view that can be very useful,” and her appointment appeared to be a sign of moderation from the new mayor, who has appointed a number of progressive leaders to key administrative posts.
“He’s not picking a regular from Legal Aid or Legal Services [NYC] who’s a big enforcer of tenants’ rights,” Bailey said. “It’s not a pro-tenant pick.”
On the tenant side, attorneys are hoping that HPD will shift its emphasis toward the needs of poor New Yorkers and ramp up housing code enforcement, but they aren’t expecting the department to expand its role into new areas such as enforcing rent laws.
“They have a lot to do, and they don’t have that many resources,” said Judith Goldiner, an attorney at Legal Aid who handles housing issues.
Been was appointed to her post as part of a housing team that included Shola Olatoye as chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority, and Gary Rodney as president of the Housing Development Corporation, an agency that finances affordable housing developments for the city. Olatoye had been vice president at New York Market Leader for Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit that works to develop and preserve affordable housing, while Rodney was previously a vice president at Omni New York, an affordable housing developer.
De Blasio said in a statement last month that his housing team would usher in a “new approach” to the “crisis” of providing housing for working- and middle-class New Yorkers. “[E]very decision we make will focus on maximizing the affordability of our neighborhood,” he said.
Of the new housing team, Been’s influence reaches the furthest. HPD, the country’s largest municipal housing agency, has myriad functions, many involving preserving or creating affordable housing. It does this, in part, by funding new mixed-income developments, administering subsidy programs like Section 8 and selling city-owned property at affordable prices.
At the same time, it is responsible for enforcing the city’s housing code.
De Blasio has made both new affordable housing and stricter code enforcement centerpieces of his campaign. He pledged to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, a more ambitious target than the 165,000 Mayor Michael Michael Bloomberg set with his own affordable housing plan announced in his first term. De Blasio also vowed to protect the rights of low-income tenants and aggressively go after building code violations.
In practice, HPD will be tasked with carrying out much of this agenda.
When she was director of the Furman Center, Been approached housing issues from an academic point of view, in large measure because the Furman Center is oriented more toward research than overt political advocacy.
The center has produced papers on zoning, income and racial segregation and property taxes, drawing on experts in law and economics. It has studied how the city serves its lowest-income residents, tracking foreclosures by neighborhood, collecting demographic information on tenants who receive housing subsidies and maintaining an extensive database of information about city’s subsidized housing units.
The conclusions of the center’s reports are often more descriptive than prescriptive; a recent look at the state of subsidized housing, for example, concluded simply that while such housing is more common in New York than nationwide, it is “threatened by strong market forces.”
The center also has not shied away from the idea of new private development. One of its recent reports concluded that allowing property owners to transfer air rights between them more freely could lead to a construction boom and, ultimately, bring down housing costs.
Matthew Brett, a partner at Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman who represents landlords, said Been’s experience running the Furman Center made her “an interesting choice” as city housing commissioner.
“This individual is more of an academic than an administrator, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “She comes from a well-respected background. The Furman Institute is a well-respected organization.”
Brett said that some of his clients were worried—during de Blasio’s campaign and after his election—that the new administration would see them as enemies. He characterized the mood among owners and developers as “cautiously optimistic” about Been’s appointment.
“The owners’ concern during the election was that the owners weren’t going to be given a seat at the table during this new administration,” he said. “The administration promised 200,000 new units, and that, we believe, would require some compromise, some discussion with owners, and it wasn’t clear that that was going to happen.”
Christopher Schwartz, a supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services who oversees the organization’s neighborhood preservation and single-room occupancy projects, was more optimistic for tenants. In particular, he said, Been’s HPD is more likely to pay attention to the needs of very low-income New Yorkers.
“Everyone is looking for affordable housing, everyone is looking for a place to stay, but very low -income New Yorkers are the first to suffer,” he said.
While much of the affordable housing created under Bloomberg was aimed at middle-income people, Schwartz said, Been’s appointment could signal “more of a focus on all of the parts of New York, the kind of forgotten constituents who also need a place to live in the city.”
He noted, for example, that the Furman Center has tracked the disappearance of single-room occupancy housing from the city and noted its effect on affordability. SRO housing typically serves the very lowest-income tenants. Previous administrations have not tried to preserve or create SRO housing.
Legal Aid’s Goldiner, similarly, said she anticipated more a focus on poor New Yorkers.
She said she expected to see HPD “focusing their production [of housing] more on people who live at less than 30 percent median income,” and possibly devoting more resources to administering the city’s Section 8 housing subsidy program,
Schwartz also said that Been’s HPD might make active enforcement of the housing code more of a priority, and “not always have the burden be on the tenants to bring cases to housing court or withhold their rent and risk their tenancies.”
“We want to see HPD go after landlords who are not just the worst violators in the city, but who don’t live up to the obligation to keep up the land,” he said.
Bailey, however, said he doubted enforcement of the housing code would go up significantly.
“I don’t think she has any knowledge of housing code violations and he didn’t pick her to do that,” he said. “If he wanted to do that he would have picked an insider”—that is, someone who already worked for a city housing agency.
All the attorneys agreed that Been was unlikely to tackle one of the biggest issues in New York housing—rent regulation, which is primarily controlled by the state Legislature. Doing so would involve an uphill battle in Albany to bring that control back to the city government.
Goldiner noted that it is theoretically possible for HPD to be proactive in enforcing rent laws.
“They can’t change the laws, but they could do more to enforce, and they could do more to work the tenant protection unit at HCR and maybe the attorney general’s office,” she said.
Nonetheless, she and Schwartz said they didn’t expect that to happen because of the agency’s limited resources.
“It’s on my wish list, but I don’t know that I see it on anyone’s agenda,” Schwartz said.