De Blasio warns of ‘bad landlords,’ admits affordable housing plan ‘is not enough’

Mayor proposes dedicating more homes to lowest-income New Yorkers

After several setbacks to his signature affordable housing program, Mayor Bill de Blasio is pivoting to other strategies, including setting aside more apartments for lower-income tenants.

During his seventh State of the City address, the theme of which was “Save Our City,” the mayor acknowledged repeated criticism that his 10-year affordable housing plan needed to target the lowest-income New Yorkers. He pledged to set aside half of new city-financed homes for families making less than $50,000 a year — and half of those for households bringing in less than $30,000.

As part of his revised plan, dubbed Your Home New York, the mayor proposed converting basements into as many as 10,000 more affordable homes for New Yorkers within the next decade. He also voiced support for state-level proposals that would limit rent increases on non-regulated apartments and encourage lease renewal.

He acknowledged that his Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, Right to Counsel Law (which guarantees attorneys to all low-income tenants facing eviction) and other policies were “not enough.” He characterized the city’s affordability crisis as “one of the diseases that doesn’t respond to antibiotics.” He said that unlike the 1970s, people don’t want to leave the city, they are being forced out. The mayor said the central challenge was “not crime” but “greed.”

“Our challenge, our enemy in this struggle is an economic one,” he said. “It’s not that we have to fear street thugs but fear bad landlords.”

(According to the New York City Police Department, crime last month was 16.9 percent higher than in January 2019.)

The mayor’s proposal to legalize basement apartments comes as an effort to do exactly that slowly makes progress in Brooklyn. In February 2019, the city launched a three-year pilot program to convert and legalize basement apartments in East New York, providing financing for the construction of 40 homes. An estimated 114,000 people live in basement apartments, according to the Pratt Center for Community Development.

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The announcement follows a period of heightened enforcement against landlords with tenants living in illegal basement apartments.

The Department of Buildings issued 5,151 violations against landlords for illegal apartment conversions last year, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, The City news site reported. That was 10 percent more than the 4,665 in 2018.

Noting that there are 12,000 vacant storefronts throughout the city, de Blasio called for a vacancy landlord tax, a penalty for owners who keep their storefronts vacant. He previously vowed to lobby Albany on this issue in 2018 and again in 2019. He announced Thursday that he would form a commission to study whether there’s a legal avenue to commercial rent control, which he has long said appears to be unconstitutional.

“As appealing as the idea is, I couldn’t find one that was legal,” said the mayor.

Though he laid out additions to his affordable housing plan, the mayor didn’t touch on how his MIH program will move forward. He has less than two years before he must leave office to rezone nine of the 15 neighborhoods his administration has targeted. At least two are stalled and another, in Inwood, was recently annulled by a state court.

He called on Albany to pass additional tenant protections, which he referred to as Universal Renter Protection, to guard tenants from steep rent increases. Housing advocates have pushed for the revival of “good cause” eviction legislation this session, which would effectively limit rent increases on non-regulated units. Landlords regard that bill, which failed in Albany last year, as universal rent control.

Write to Kathryn Brenzel at