Alton Yee at Forum on NYC Affordable Housing

Alton Yee, Director of Fundraising for the Manhattan Libertarian Party recently attended a forum at the New School entitled “Landlords & Tenants: Preserving Affordable Housing in NYC,” presented by The Center for New York City Affairs.

The following is e-correspondence, from Alton himself, regarding the experience.  Minute changes have been made for the purpose of delivery as a blog post instead of an email.

“You won’t be surprised to know that the panelists, which included Bill de Blasio, the NYC Public Advocate and Douglas Apple, First Deputy Commissioner, NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, all felt that government solutions are the best way to preserve “affordable housing.”

But there was a glimmer of reality when it was pointed out that HUD’s mishandling of Section 8 vouchers often delay rent payments to housing providers; (isn’t housing provider better than “landlord”? do you call your grocer a “food lord”?).  Housing providers must wait upwards of three months until HUD makes final inspections to the apartments before Section 8 tenants are allowed to move in, during which time, no rent is paid or collected.

In that light, it was understandable that housing providers might refuse Section 8 tenants. The proposed solution? enact a law to forbid housing providers from discriminating against these tenants.

There were complaints and ‘harrowing stories’ about “bad landlords” who weren’t treating their tenants “decently” and letting their buildings go without needed repairs. Each of the panelists told of their “heroic” efforts to rescue these tenants by shaming landlords with “worst landlord lists.”  They spoke of acting on behalf of tenants and forcing landlords to make repairs, or face fines, if they resisted.

When a panelist complained about too many people buying buildings who were unfit to be “good” landlords, the solution proposed was to license people before they could become landlords. You heard me right. If they had their way, you’d have to get permission from the government to provide housing by showing how “qualified” you are by taking a test.

Joseph Strasberg from the Rent Stabilization Association protested to this licensing scheme by saying it would not solve the problem, but it would only be a new source of revenue for the City. Unfortunately, he didn’t point out that licensing will benefit current property owners by preventing new entrants into the housing market, thus preventing competition and certainly decreasing the supply of “affordable housing.”

During the Q&A, two employees of the Center went around with a microphone and chose people in the audience to ask questions. I wasn’t chosen. At the event’s end, however, I did speak with Harold Shultz, Senior Fellow, Citizens Housing & Planning Council. Harold complained about how banks “profiteered” by giving cheap loans to entities to buy up affordable housing with the idea of throwing out the current rent stabilized tenants, and turning the buildings into “market rate” housing. But, when housing values fell, problems were created for the buyers, which affected tenants. He cited Stuyvesant Town as an example. He also complained about banks “forcing” people to get sub prime mortgages they can’t afford.

I told him it was the government that thought it was a good idea for people to have their own homes. And through the Federal Reserve, it forced banks to provide mortgages with low interest rates to pursue this policy and also to “stimulate the economy.”  I also told Harold that the money the Fed gave to the banks came out of thin air and helped create the housing bubble and subsequent inflation. Harold wouldn’t have anything of these facts. After all, to him the government is our savior and it couldn’t possibly partake in any such malfeasance.

Harold also complained about the 2.9% vacancy rate. When I suggested to him that if the housing supply were greatly increased, we could have a vacancy rate of 10, 15 even 20%. “That would be bad,” he protested. He wouldn’t tell me why and when I asked him what he thought would be a “good” vacancy rate, he wouldn’t tell me either. I then explained to him that by vastly increasing the supply of housing, we could have housing at various price points from cheap, low cost “affordable” to expensive luxury housing.

With this ample supply, all those tenants in those ‘harrowing stories’ about their plights with “bad landlords” could just easily move to better abodes and tell their landlords to shove it. Harold would have nothing of this. Dina Levy, Director of Organizing and Policy, Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, who cited many such harrowing tales and had proposed the licensing of prospective housing providers, sat beside Harold and listened to our exchange. When I asked her what she thought about how tenant’s plights would be remedied with a greater supply of housing, she didn’t reply, but she looked at me as if I were crazy.

Actually, it would be she, Harold and the other panelists who would be “crazy” if they accepted the scenario I proposed. For then, the government would have a greatly reduced role in providing and preserving “affordable housing” and tenants could better help themselves resolve conflicts with their landlords. And then all those panelists would be out of their jobs. (Who says Adam Smith’s bakers are the only ones who act on their self interests?)”

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