Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Delivers Keynote Speech at New York State Association for Affordable Housing's (Nysafah) 15th Annual NYC Housing Conference

May 14, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Thank you, everyone. Well, first I want to Jolie for her introduction, and more importantly for her leadership of this organization. I was impressed by that bio, and she's done a lot along the way that gives her the ability to serve in a powerful leadership role here, and it's going to be a role we call upon many times as we move forward with our affordable housing plan. So let's give Jolie a round of applause, and thank her for her leadership. 

[Applause]

I want to thank Don Capoccia, for the leadership he's provided as the board chair. I really want to thank him personally for the important role that he played, and everyone at NYSAFAH played, after the tragedy in East Harlem. That was an example of New York City at its finest – people rising to the occasion, and NYSAFAH was front and center in making sure that people who were displaced knew immediately that they would have a place to live. So, let's thank Don for all he has done.

[Applause]

And someone I have known a long time, your vice chair, soon to be chair, Lisa Gomez, who I have turned to for advice and insight for many years. She's a good friend. I think anyone who's worked with Lisa knows that she does not have trouble sharing her opinions. They are strong. They are intense. But they are well-founded. So let's thank Lisa for all she has done.

[Applause]

And to all of the leaders of our administration who are participating today, who have really done extraordinary things already in the first few months to prepare our affordable housing plan, and to make it take life – literally immediately, in some cases, with some key development sites around the city. I'll name them all, of course – the leader of the pack, and she's done an amazing job, she is focused, she is aggressive, she is creative – our Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen.

[Applause]

And the team she has assembled, I could not be more proud of – our HPD commissioner Vicki Been, our NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye, and our president of EDC, Gary Rodney. All of them participating today, all doing a great job. And I know you've heard from – or are going to hear from – a great partner of ours at the state level, Commissioner Darryl Towns, who's been a real partner in all we do, and we thank him for that. 

So I have to tell you, I have immense appreciation for what NYSAFAH – and what you do, and I've watched over years, going back to my years at HUD, in the middle and late 90s, extraordinary work that members of this organization do, so I have a real personal sense of connection and appreciation, and a sense of how central your work is to this city, and I guarantee you, it's about to become a lot more central. Because we have obviously laid out an extraordinarily ambitious plan, but one that we believe in, and one that we believe has to be ambitious to move us all to the highest level of action. 

I must admit, that being said, that when it became clear that I would be coming here today to give this speech, I informed my wife Chirlane – and I don't know if you know, but today is our 20th wedding anniversary –

[Applause]

And – I said, honey, come with me to NYSAFAH and we can celebrate our wedding anniversary. And somehow that didn't seem romantic to her. I don't understand it. But we will celebrate later on. And she was very willing to have me take part of the day to be with you. So, it's great to be here. 

And look, the plan we put forward – again, we made it ambitious on purpose. There's not anything about this plan that we didn't think through and accept unto ourselves as a challenge. And when I started talking to Alicia and all of her team, you know, everyone – everyone understood how difficult this path would be. Everyone understood that we were setting this intense goal for ourselves, but everyone equally understood that the affordable housing crisis in this city has grown so deeply over years and decades, that it requires solutions such as we haven't seen before. And we actually see it as a privilege to take on this mission. We know it will not always be easy. We know we're going to need intense partnership, particularly from all of you. But it is absolutely the right thing to do, and the necessary thing to do, and I think so much of the history of this city has been determined by leaders, and organizations, and government agencies that said – we're going to do something that hasn't been seen before. If we look back over to the history of this city, so much of what we depend on today happened because of that boldness, and that understanding, that we don't do things the way they're done in a lot of other places. We don't do incrementalism. We don't take on small and easy plans. We challenge ourselves on purpose. And that undoubtedly has been a part of what has made New York City great, and it's more necessary now than ever, when you combine the inequality crisis, and the affordability crisis on the one hand, which are really pulling at the core of who we are as New Yorkers, and what has made us great historically, and potentially undermining that greatness, and that, in and of itself has to be addressed; and at the same time, the prospect of having the greatest population we've ever had. We've passed 8.4 million, we're already at the all-time high, but now looking squarely at 9 million up ahead. Those twin realities – the affordability crisis, and the growth of population – demand a very different approach, and a much more ambitious approach. 

And that is precisely what we intend to do – 200,000 units, enough to house half a million people. I'd like to quote it, just to give us all both a sense of inspiration, and a sense of realism, about just how big the task is. And this is over 10 years, over one decade, creating enough housing for people, who in total, half a million people – more than the population of Miami, more than the population of Kansas City, more than the population of Atlanta. We are, in effect, attempting to build a whole new city within a city. And it's necessary, and we have the ability to do it. And I'm going to outline some of the changes that we're going to make that will open up the energies of so many people in this room, and support the vision a lot of you have had for a long time, but have needed more partnership on the city's side to achieve. We believe that when all the public investment is accounted for, when all the change of strategy and approach is put into the mix, we believe this will unleash a grand total of $41 billion dollars in investment over the next 10 years. That's the scale that we need to make this kind of change. And I'd like to quote a great city planner, he helped to design the master plans for Chicago and Washington DC, and one of New York City's most beautiful landmarks, the Flatiron Building – Daniel Burnham – and he offered this advice to anyone thinking about how to make big changes, he said "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work." Well, yes, we want to stir men's blood, we want to stir women's blood, we want to stir everyone's blood. But the core point is, it's not just about the emotion we feel. It's about challenging us – all of us – to see how far we can go. And believing, if we set the goal, that we will find a way, in partnership, to get there. 

Now, the backdrop – I'm going to preach to the converted a few times today, and here's one of those examples – the backdrop we face, this affordability crisis, is so numerically clear, that I actually think it would be malpractice to not address it on a grand scale. Between 2005 and 2012, rents in New York City rose on average by 11 percent, and incomes for most New Yorkers stagnated. So, you can see before your very eyes, the equation getting out of whack, and galloping to a place that will not be sustainable for the long term. Again, we need to be a city for everyone. We need to be a city of economic diversity. We need to be a city that remembers the formula that has always worked. I always say, all the creativity, all the entrepreneurship, all the energy of this place, was explicitly because, for decades – in fact, for centuries – it was an open place, an inclusive place, a place of possibility and opportunity – inherently. That has started to change as these affordability dynamics have changed. I don't think we should mess with the formula. I think we need to preserve a formula that's been inherent to what has worked about New York City, and all of you in this room are part of this army that will achieve this goal of righting the ship, and allowing us to maintain affordability and economic diversity in this city.

Literally, we are fighting for the soul of New York City. We are literally fighting to make sure that all that is great about this place can continue to be great. It is about our economic sustainability. It's about everything we need for the future, and again, that is why we aim high. You know what people in this city think is normal. You know that a huge percentage of our people spend more than half of their income on rent. You know that we have the highest number of people in shelter in our entire history. You know that people are doubled up and tripled up with friends and family, and have become way to used to that reality. And it's stymying their hopes and their possibilities.

And if you want to fight income inequality – and since I made this such a core theme of everything I talked about last year – I have to tell you how many people in this city, of all backgrounds, constantly say to me that they believe this is supposed to be a place synonymous with equality, and supposed to be a place that addresses these inherent challenges, and the fact that we have the greatest income inequality since the Great Depression, and growing – again, that doesn't conform with what has made New York great. If we're going to fight income inequality, there's lots of things that we have to do in this administration, far beyond this affordable housing plan – a lot to do to raise wages and benefits and create more jobs and more opportunity. But we also know that the biggest expense in people's lives is housing. We can lower that expense for a huge number of New Yorkers. That's a very tangible and immediate way to create opportunity, and to address inequality.

Now, we talked to a lot of you in the creation of this plan. I want to give Alicia and her whole team great credit. They had strong ideas, they had opinions, but they made an intense effort to reach out to others, and really understand what would work. We don't like pretty ideas, we like things that will work. We like things that are practical. And we heard so much from people in this room about how to make this plan better. And we're going to continue to need your input to make it work, day by day. 

Let me talk about four objectives that really were fundamental to the approach we put together.

First, we felt fundamentally there was a lot of opportunity for the right kind of development that was going underutilized, or unutilized. And we knew that if we could unlock those opportunities, it would be one of the foundations of this plan. It begins with smart rezoning. We know there are still major parts of this city that deserve a rezoning to open up these possibilities. We know we, in many cases, can do better even within the zoning we have. But we've got to get on the ground with communities and talk about the crucial need for affordable housing, and look for every opportunity – either within existing zoning, or where we need a rezoning – to open up every possibility. We literally look at it as finding every available plot of land that we can act on. That's the urgency we feel at City Hall. And we believe that it's – of course – natural, that some members in each community will be concerned about the level of development. And we're going to work with them to address those concerns. But we also believe that a constant dialogue with community members will get you quickly to the fact that the number one concern on the minds of so many New Yorkers is affordable housing – people so desperately concerned about being priced out of the neighborhoods looking for a solution. So we're going to show them, neighborhood by neighborhood, how we create that solution. We're going to unlock a lot of opportunity that's gone wasted up to now. And we're going to appeal to local elected officials and community leaders to show us literally every place, every underutilized plot of land, every vacant building – every place that they believe is right for development. We have our own approach but we know sometimes the fastest and best way to find the next great opportunity is by talking to community residents and talking to so many people in this room.

So picture a map of New York City and think of us at City Hall literally looking neighborhood-by-neighborhood, street-by-street for the next opportunity. That is the approach we will take.

We know – we know that there are vacant sites. We know there are under-developed sites. We are doing a census of those sites so that we have a strategic framework to work from. We know there are smaller lots in neighborhoods – and I have the blessing of having been a city council member and being able to see from the neighborhood perspective. We know there are those smaller lots that could be knitted together into a coherent development scheme. And those lots that just went vacant for so long can be made an important part of this equation if we work with folks at the local level.

We know we have the opportunity to create mixed-use and mixed-income projects. Look, so many people have said to me – how do address the underlying dynamics that we have to address as a society? How do you address inequality? How do you address segregation? It keeps coming back to lightening people’s burdens, to creating affordable housing, to create mixed-income communities. There’s so much that will happen as a result of this larger plan that will also get at some of the core challenges we face.

And a great example is the Livonia Commons project in East New York. I had the honor of being out there a few weeks ago and here is an example of a clever approach to a variety of sites that needed to be knitted together. A dozen formerly vacant lots being transformed into almost 800 affordable new homes. It will include, also, retail space and community use. So it’s a total package and that’s part of why there’s been such energy at the community level in support of this plan. And by the way, I want to thank Martin Dunne, who I believe is with us today for this development and for including community residents in the people he’s hiring for this plan. That is another reason why there’s such appreciation and support for the plan. Let’s give Martin a round of applause.

[Applause]

I’m going – you’re going to hear this from me throughout the trajectory of this plan. One of the things that’s very very clear at this moment in history after the economic crisis, after all the stresses it created for federal, state, and local government, everything we do has to achieve more. And when I look at a major development project like Livonia Commons, of course I see it in terms of affordable housing per se. But I think of it also an extraordinary employment opportunity. I think of it as an opportunity to reach a lot of people who’ve been left out of the economy and ,because of the public sector’s involvement, an opportunity to make sure that we think about all of the good, all of the positive things we can do simultaneously to maximize them. And I think Martin’s shown us a great example of that in East New York.

The second key pillar I want to discuss is our efforts to deal with some of the regulatory reality that obviously drive up development costs in ways that we think, bluntly, are unnecessary. Again, the vision has to be inherently idealistic, but it only works if the implementation is practical. And we understand that a lot of the history, a lot of the regulatory history of this city, a lot of the way government approached development was bluntly slow and cumbersome and more difficult than it had to be – and that does not allow us to create the right kind of development. It doesn’t allow us to create jobs, it doesn’t allow us to create both affordable and market housing, it doesn’t allow us to increase our tax revenues when projects sit stalled, in many cases simply because of the actions in government.

So I’m a progressive. You know me, I believe in the role of government but I also believe government has to be smart enough to figure out how to unleash energies that will fit with our larger strategy. Too many times your work has been hampered by rules that, although they were well-intended – and I hasten to add that – in many cases quite well intended – but they didn’t work in real life. And they needed to be amended, they needed to be streamlined. You have to be able to get the kind of approvals you need. And you how much I believe in inclusionary zoning – we want the approval process around the inclusionary units to be greatly streamlined, because we want to make it work for people, we want people to feel it’s the right way to go because it is practical and it works. We want to reduce some of the parking requirements that have often stood in the way of smart development. We want to offer developers more flexibility on how much housing can actually be put in a building. So that means amending floor-area-ratio caps. It means providing flexibility on floor-to-floor height rules. These are common sense actions – not always easy, not always simple, but common sense actions that we think will unleash a lot of energy and investment. And this plan demands that kind of constancy and so we have to make these reforms.

A third pillar is to cut down the time it takes to receive permits and approvals. Now, the people of this city have waited for a long time for more affordable housing. And they demand that we find a solution. They’re not interested in the way things have been done in the past, or the bureaucracy that stood in the way. They demand all of us find a better solution. And we believe that one of the most obvious things to do is to reduce the precertification timeline. It’s one of those New York City traditions that never made a lot of sense and needed to be reformed. And, again, perhaps the urgency of our plan is exactly the framework in which this reform can best happen. We want to reduce those timelines by 25 to 50 percent so people who are ready to build can start building – for the good of all of us. And we want to create a more efficient environmental review process. We know that there are jurisdictions around this country that are enlightened, that are progressive, that are deeply concerned about sustainability, but have better and faster ways of doing environmental review. And we want to emulate them.

Finally, fourth objective. We want to engage you and we want to engage the broader real estate industry to be our partner. And we say that with a full understanding that the only way this is going to get done is in partnership with you. And we also say it with a clear statement of our obligation in everything we do to drive a hard bargain for the public. I don’t think it’s a state secret that I have said in many times in the past – I don’t think that hard bargain was driven. I don’t think we got enough back for the public in some of the opportunities that were unleashed for the real estate industry. I think we’ve already set the example with some of the initial work we’ve done that we mean business about getting every last unit we can, getting every community benefit we can, and asking people to be creative. I understand that in many cases the decision around local hiring has to be one that the developer makes themselves. And I want to encourage them to do that, for the good of all. We’re going to drive a hard bargain. In exchange, we’re going to be a partner you can rely on to move things quickly and effectively.

The city has to unlock all of the capacity out there. We know that. We don’t take it lightly. It’s not abstract to us. It’s literally – again – neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, lot by lot. That’s how we see it. You need to have that sense of partnership that if you have a good idea it’s going to be jumped on. You also need to expect that we have to advocate for our people and drive the hardest bargain possible.

We saw this in the case of the Domino Sugar site. I think this is a great win-win example. We pushed for more affordable housing than was originally planned. And we ended up with more units for low and moderate income residents. And the developer gained the opportunity to build higher. It was a fair deal that benefited the people of this city. And it took a re-imagination of what that deal could be. And it worked. And that’s going to be an example for us going forward of the approach we’ll take.

We also recognize – I’ve mentioned local hiring, which is a passion of mine – we know in all contexts that this kind of massive investment has huge employment ramifications. Our estimate is about 194,000 construction jobs created in the course of these ten years; 7,200 permanent jobs minimum. This is the kind of economic change that affects real families in a profound way. And that’s something we’re going to work with you on to maximize.

Now, before I conclude, I just want to make clear – this partnership – it’s critical to us. I’m here out of appreciation for all you do and I’m here to make clear that we need this partnership. I think I’ve put together as a good a team as could be imagined for you to work with. And I think people who understand and deeply appreciate everyone in this room can appreciate what work you could do if you got a little more facilitation and help from the government side.

But let’s be clear about what’s being required of all of us. This plan requires – just in the new building category – it requires about 8,000 units of new housing per year, separate from all that we have to preserve. We need you. And we need you to do things faster and more intensely even than you’ve done them in the past. You’re going to have a willing partner, you’re going to have facilitators, you’re going to have creativity, you’re going to have red tape cut, and then you’re going to feel us pushing every day to go farther, to go faster.

We are trying to put our money where our mouth is. Anyone standing here, issuing this call to arms, better be backing it up with everything we got. I can safely assure you, we are backing it up with all we got. We doubled the HPD capital budget, have added almost $1.2 billion over the next four years, plus an addition $375 million for infrastructure needed to open up new areas of housing. And we’re going to be adamant about that too. We know that infrastructure is stressed in so many areas of this city. We need to get the infrastructure considerations at the front end of the process – and we’re putting our money where our mouth is in that vein as well.

We’re setting up an implementation advisory board that many of you will be a part of and will help us in the process of guiding these efforts. Deputy Mayor Glen and Commissioner Been and their staffs and all the other officials of this administration will have an open door, because we need your ideas, we need your creativity, we need your critique. We need to hear what’s working and what’s not working. When you set a goal like this, your best friends become the people who tell you what’s actually working and what’s not working and how to fix what’s broken.

We absolutely need your help in Albany and in Washington, fighting for our fair share. This plan is very much about what we can generate here in New York City, but by definition we can’t do it without our state and federal partners. We need you to be in the front line of convincing them that it’s time to invest in New York City and allow us to make the changes we need.

Finally, we’re asking you to do something historic. We’re asking you to help us reshape this city. If you want to know what helps all of us at City Hall and the agencies get up in the morning, it’s because we feel this is an urgent time in history. We feel that it is our obligation to make these changes. We feel that urgency daily. We cannot fail. And we need you to be partners in that same spirit. This will change the shape of New York City for the future. And my view is, this will preserve all that’s good about New York City. It’s that moment in history, it’s that tipping point, where we either address these issues head on or it’s not the same city we love. I know people in this room are devoted to fighting inequality, are devoted to economic diversity, are devoted to the vibrancy of this place.

Well, now is your time to stand and be counted. And together I know we will achieve this mission. Thank you.

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