How Jessica Katz’s job became untenable
Series of unfortunate events pushes housing chief out the door
In my days as a political reporter, when an administration official quit, my job was to find out why.
This was not always easy, but one explanation I could always rule out was the official one.
That hasn’t changed. The latest example was Jessica Katz’s rationale this week for why she will step down in July as the city’s first-ever chief housing officer.
“These jobs are a real sprint,” Katz said. “I kind of made a list for myself of what I wanted to do when I started this, and I’ve been working my way down that list, so I think now’s the right time.”
It was a masterful exit statement: entirely truthful, but revealing nothing about her actual reasons for leaving.
Katz, like all high-level government appointees, knew when she took the job that it would be a grind. These are high-stress positions with long hours, unexpected obstacles, capricious bosses and difficult politics.
Still, the expectation is for appointees to serve for at least the first term — four years. Those who are truly devoted, gluttons for punishment, or both, stay for eight. (Readers can decide which category applies to Steve Banks.)
When someone leaves a few months into the second year, something has gone wrong. In Katz’s case, some things are obvious, starting with policy disagreements with the mayor.
Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who now heads homeless services provider WIN, put one out in the open by publicly thanking Katz for supporting an end to the rule requiring people to stay in the shelter system for 90 days to qualify for a city rental voucher.
Mayor Eric Adams was at that very moment dispatching senior aides to oppose City Council bills revoking the rule and expanding income eligibility for vouchers (both passed yesterday). Katz clearly did not want to follow those marching orders. That alone means she had to go; the mayor’s people all have to row in the same direction.
On top of that, Adams was asking the courts to relax the city’s decades-old right-to-shelter rule. Katz had not signed up for that, nor could she have anticipated the migrant crisis that prompted the mayor’s request.
But there were other issues, including one insiders flagged from the outset: Katz was in a newly created role, and thus was tasked with carving out her own authority. That was never going to be easy for a rookie government official under a mayor not known for administrative skills, and became harder after his first deputy mayor and chief of staff departed one year into their gigs.
Losing social services commissioner Gary Jenkins in February was addition by subtraction, but his tenure exemplified the chaos that plagued the administration on homeless and housing issues and made Katz’s job untenable.
As for the list of priorities that Katz was working her way through, she had already reached a point of diminishing returns, which did not bode well for the next two and a half years. The state legislature has ignored the city’s housing-supply agenda, including replacing 421a — seen as essential to developing mixed-income rental housing — and extending the construction deadline for projects that pre-qualified for the expired tax break.
Those failures threaten to erase the city’s housing victories, namely rezonings to allow for major developments in Astoria and Throggs Neck. Without 421a, planned rezonings of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue and around forthcoming Metro-North stations in the Bronx won’t produce many apartments either.
Heck, the city couldn’t even get the state to pass bills for office conversions and basement apartment legalization, let alone to lift the cap on residential floor-area ratio.
The short term wasn’t looking any rosier for Katz, with Council Speaker Adrienne Adams pushing through the voucher bills despite desperate lobbying by the administration. A veto-override drama looms for the first time in memory.
This was not a viable environment for a fledgling housing chief who didn’t buy into the mayor’s positions. Like the fast-increasing number of New Yorkers and migrants in the city’s shelter system, Katz simply had nowhere to go. Nowhere to go but out.