Housing Is the Key to Unlocking Andrew Cuomo's Political Ego

Graphic: Splinter (photo via Getty)

In March, Governor Andrew Cuomo stood in front of a public housing building for the first time in recent memory and told reporters that “the residents’ rights have been abused, period.” On the request of the tenants themselves, he had just toured one of the decaying apartments in the Bronx in a building managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), an institution that has been plagued with budget shortfalls and mismanagement for years. “The unit is crumbling around them, and it is disgusting,” Cuomo said. “It’s uninhabitable and it is just shocking.”

A week later the governor visited another public housing complex in East Harlem, and announced that he would pledge $250 million to the authority (the state has pledged a total of $550 million since 2015, much of which has yet to be released). In what seemed to be a pointed jab towards his public nemesis New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo said, “You’re hypocrites if that’s what you call progressive” and emphasized that “there is no one who will see what I saw, and allow it to continue.” Within a month he had declared a state of emergency to take more control of the housing authority and appointed an independent monitor to allocate the $250 million.


On the surface, Cuomo’s proclamations are a win for housing advocates. After all, investing in a program that serves some of New York’s poorest residents is a good use of the state’s muscle.

But NYCHA, the largest public housing authority left standing in the country, was in a state of disrepair long before Cuomo decided to swing by. Home to 400,000 New Yorkers (a population roughly the size of Miami’s), the authority is one of the last survivors of the era of big public housing. Now, years after the Reagan administration began the trend of federal disinvestment, and after former Governor George Pataki ended operating subsidies to state-financed public housing in 1998, NYCHA faces an estimated $25 billion in capital needs.

In real terms, that has meant a “winter of hell” for residents who went without heat and hot water during some of the coldest days. It means systemic leaks, mold, and broken elevators. “Every year that I can remember,” Afua Atta-Mensah, executive director of the advocacy organization Community Voices Heard, told Splinter, “at least one building doesn’t have gas during Thanksgiving.”

Cuomo has painted himself as the authority’s savior, congratulating himself time and time again on the fact that, though the state has “no legal obligation to fund NYCHA,” nor a “role in the ownership or the management,” he is putting money towards it anyway. When it came to securing the money in the state budget, which was passed at the end of March, the governor melodramatically stated that “this hand will not sign the state budget unless there is a real remedy that is going to make the repairs at NYCHA.”


It’s not hard to see how Cuomo’s sudden interest in the authority could be used as a cudgel against de Blasio, who is facing heat for mismanaging NYCHA, and who Cuomo insiders reportedly blame for the emergence of a progressive, high-profile candidate in this year’s gubernatorial election: actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. Nixon also recently toured a NYCHA unit and hammered both the governor and the mayor: “Every branch of government has been failing. This shouldn’t be happening in 2018.”

Governor Cuomo’s office declined to comment on the record for this story.

While re-election is Cuomo’s most imminent objective, it’s likely that he has his eye on something bigger. Although he consistently denies it, Cuomo has been regularly floated by the national press as a contender to take on Donald Trump in 2020. Last year, he made noise when he hired two fundraisers from Florida, a move widely considered a first step toward a presidential bid.


But since Trump’s election, Cuomo—who pitches himself as the type of progressive who gets things done—has faced increasing skepticism and anger from the left. His grandstanding on NYCHA is perhaps one of the purest distillations of his brand of politics, in which he moves progressive policy forward at his own pace, usually when it best serves his interests. It’s a political identity that has long frustrated Democrats, especially when it comes to Cuomo’s role propping up the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight breakaway New York State Senate Democrats who caucus with the Republicans, effectively giving them the majority. (Last week, Cuomo finally unified the warring factions—another sign he is on edge about Nixon’s challenge—despite having previously stated that he had no ability to do so.)


The NYCHA move was particularly egregious given that housing advocacy is where Cuomo made his name (that is, aside from his father). There is perhaps no issue that Cuomo knows best—or in which to better understand Cuomo-the-politician—than housing policy itself. Yet he is positioning himself more like a person who just assumed office and inherited these housing problems, rather than a governor who is running for his third term.

“I can’t believe he was genuinely surprised at what he found or was disgusted for that matter,” Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at Community Service Society told Splinter, pointing out Cuomo’s history as HUD secretary and that housing advocates have pressed the state for more NYCHA funding for years.


Not that the city is off the hook for NYCHA’s state of disrepair. Many see the onus to fix the authority as falling on the mayor, who oversees the management of NYCHA. Politico is among the news outlets that have framed the issue as de Blasio’s equivalent to Cuomo’s mismanagement of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. There have been clear failures on the mayor’s part, the most recent example being when NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye lied in her testimony about lead paint inspections and de Blasio continued to back her up afterwards. (Olatoye finally resigned last week.)

Nicholas Bloom, associate professor at New York Institute of Technology and author of the book Public Housing That Worked, told Splinter that de Blasio should be the only one who “has the political will and funding to turn housing authority around.” Bloom noted that because public housing is primarily a New York City program, there’s no statewide “political benefit” for Cuomo “to fight this fight.”


For his own part, de Blasio has committed $100 million every year over the next ten years as well as relieved the authority of $100 million per year in property taxes and police service bills, which still falls far short of the $1 billion annually that advocates are pushing for. But as Bach told me, compared to the mayor, Cuomo “certainly doesn’t compare well when it comes to generosity for NYC’s public housing.” Even when the governor freed up $100 million for the authority in the 2016 budget, he directed it to state Assembly members who spent the money not toward roof repairs, but to less urgent projects like landscaping and playgrounds. “You can’t do a ribbon-cutting on roofs,” one New York Democratic strategist dryly noted to Splinter.

Still, focusing on the squabbles between the two entities would miss the big picture. NYCHA, which relies largely on a persistently dwindling amount of federal dollars, has already seen its funding cut under Donald Trump and Ben Carson’s HUD, and it’s likely only going to get worse. Despite the hand-wringing over city mismanagement and how the state doesn’t have any legal responsibility for NYCHA, the fact is that the authority needs money and people have been suffering without it. A change in management without long-term investment would only set up the authority for failure again. Yet instead of consistently leading on the issue, Cuomo has left NYCHA in a state of disrepair for seven years, seemingly waiting until it has become most politically salient to step up and chip in.


“To say that the state doesn’t have a role to play is not fully intellectually honest,” Atta-Mensah said. “It should shock the conscience. There’s no argument that they’re not New Yorkers.” She pointed out an illustrative parallel: “Right after Hurricane Sandy, Cuomo wasn’t like, ‘Eh, that’s not my call.’”

When it comes to housing, Cuomo’s proclivity for political theater and exaggerated accomplishments stretches back decades. In the late 1980s, Cuomo started a nonprofit to combat homelessness in New York, which helped bolster his credentials on housing, eventually launching him first to assistant secretary, then full secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton in 1997. At the time Cuomo assumed the position, HUD was an embattled agency, often hoisted up as an example of bureaucratic government waste by Republicans who wanted to eliminate it completely.

Photo: AP

During his four-year tenure, Cuomo proudly touted the fact that he cut HUD’s workforce and whipped the agency into shape. He also liked to boast that under his leadership, the department was removed from the General Accounting Office’s list of “high-risk” agencies. (This was a Cuomo-ian white lie: Only two HUD programs were actually taken off the list.) It was the same “fix the dysfunction” attitude he would bring to Albany as governor.


When it came to the meat of his housing policy, Cuomo’s record was mixed. Many have commended him for cracking down on predatory landlords and his deal-making wizardry in obtaining approval for 50,000 new Section 8 housing vouchers at a time that Republicans controlling Congress were reluctant to fund any new vouchers at all (despite vouchers, as opposed to fully public housing, being originally a Republican idea).

Under the larger Bill Clinton project to “infuse market discipline” into public housing, Cuomo continued the work of demolishing major housing complexes and replacing them with smaller mixed-income units and said vouchers. While many of these public housing units were highly segregated and in dangerous states of disrepair, thousands of units ended up never being replaced after they were torn down. (Recently, the New York Times Magazine published a deep dive into the results of the demolition of one such housing development, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, and found that most of the poor, mainly black residents who were displaced are still struggling.)


And then there is the question of whether Cuomo, who in 1999 pushed for an increase in home ownership for people of color and the working class, had a hand in the explosion of subprime mortgages that eventually led to the housing crisis. While an evaluation by the New York Times pointed out that it would be unfair to criticize him for lacking foresight that virtually no one had at the time, Cuomo still neglected regulations against predatory lending, allowed the Federal Housing Administration to give out larger loans with less money down and issued the rule that allowed the spread of “yield-spread premiums,” which led some home-buyers into high-interest loans and funneled fees to unscrupulous brokers.

Much like his current policy-by-photo-op approach to issues like NYCHA, Cuomo never kept his eye off the prize: bolstering his own image. In what would become a pattern any observant New Yorker could recognize, a number of Cuomo’s signature programs had more flash than substance. Take, for example, his “HUD NextDoor” program, started in 1998, which installed more than 100 kiosks that were supposed to serve as “ATM-like” machines to bring housing services directly to people. According to Michael Shnayerson’s 2015 unauthorized biography, The Contender, Cuomo and his aides spent weeks deciding on the color to paint the awning of the storefronts that would house the kiosk, eventually settling on “duck canvas navy blue.” One housing specialist told the Times that he never once saw the kiosk across the street from where he worked being used: “It just shows the disconnect between Washington and what goes on in the real world.”


Another example of Cuomo’s tendency to chase progressive goals but botch the execution could be seen in one of his smaller programs focusing on an unusual group of potential federal housing benefits recipients: police officers. Called “Officer Next Door,” the program, which was started in 1997, offered police officers 50 percent discounts to buy foreclosed homes in economically distressed neighborhoods. The idea was that police, who were required to live in the houses for three years, would act as “positive role models.” But the program had to be shut down for a few months when it was discovered that a number of officers were living elsewhere and renting out the houses for profit instead.

It was no secret that Cuomo saw his time at HUD as a launching pad for his future career. As Denise B. Muha, executive director of the National Leased Housing Association, put it to the New York Times two years after Cuomo left HUD, “His goal was to improve the department because housing was the business he was in prior to coming to HUD. But his goal also was to run for office in New York. There was no one who didn’t know that.” In his last year as HUD chief, Cuomo visited New York 25 times, which, the New York Post pointed out, was 21 more times than any other state.


Perhaps the most visual representation of this was in the last year of his tenure, when Cuomo commissioned 30,000 copies of a 150-page report about his accomplishments as HUD secretary titled, “A Vision for Change: The Story of HUD’s Transformation.” The report cost $688,000 and was accompanied by a narrated CD. It was filled with pictures of Cuomo himself, including a photo captioned, “Secretary Cuomo, Bob Vila, and Sarah Jessica Parker ‘Raise the Roof’” depicting the three showbiz legends attending, with hammers, to a decidedly un-raised roof.


Cuomo would rely on his careful self-branding as a “can-do Democrat,” as seen in HUD reports, in his future gubernatorial campaigns. But little could he have predicted the political winds that would eventually lead Parker to endorse her Sex and the City co-star in her race against him.

The political dynamics of Washington in the late 1990s, when Gingrich Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, were clearly different than those of New York State in 2018. That Cuomo concentrated more on saving the agency from extinction than pushing it to fulfill its original mission should be seen in the context of a country that had long abandoned the idea of housing as a human right.


But the country has shifted in the last two decades, and as his handling of housing in New York has shown, even today, as governor of one of the country’s bluest states, Cuomo still remains skittish of robust government intervention. Just recently, when he signed the NYCHA emergency declaration, he said, “Government does not build well. It’s not what we do. Get a private sector contractor to do it, give them the money and get out of the way. That’s the best thing the government can do.”


NYCHA advocates have good reason to be wary of Cuomo’s big housing proclamations. In 2016, Cuomo announced a “major initiative” to return 50,000 apartments in the city to rent stabilization. But an analysis by ProPublica found that a year later, he had only fulfilled less than half of his goal, at 22,500 apartments. The same year, he made a commitment to a five-year, $20 billion plan to develop or preserve 100,000 affordable housing units, as well as a 15-year commitment to build 20,000 supportive housing units. But advocates have complained that he has been slow to actually follow through with the money.

In the meantime, a record number of some 89,000 people are homeless in the state, an issue which Cuomo has called a “human problem” rather than an “economic problem.” It’s also a Cuomo problem—between 2007 and 2017, New York saw the biggest increase of homelessness in the entire country. In his first year in office, the governor ended state funding to a two-year rental assistance program for homeless families in the city called Advantage (which was not without its own issues), which resulted in then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg shutting the program down entirely. Since then, the number of homeless people in shelters in New York City has risen rapidly.


Among the myriad issues limiting New York’s affordable housing stock are the rent regulation loopholes like the “vacancy bonus” that lets landlords bump the rent up by 20 percent if a tenant leaves and the “vacancy decontrol” that allows apartments to become deregulated after the rent reaches a specific threshold. As Michael Greenberg pointed out in his extensive 2017 piece on New York City’s housing crisis, since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. While Greenberg outlined numerous problems with de Blasio’s affordable housing policies, he noted that the “most crucial” reform would be to get rid of vacancy decontrol altogether.

In 2015, when expiring rent laws last came up in the state legislature, Cuomo railed in a New York Daily News op-ed that stronger tenant protections were “non-negotiable.” But the governor, whose campaigns have always been largely underwritten by real estate donors, ended up infuriating progressives when he negotiated a deal with the state legislature to extend the existing laws, leaving those loopholes in place, including only a modest bump of the vacancy decontrol threshold from $2,500 to $2,700. Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group that has been long been pushing the governor on these issues, told me that Cuomo often “takes a position where he’s in favor of something, but nothing actually comes through.” The group recently endorsed Nixon.


Whether he’s printing out thousands of laudatory reports or affixing thousands of LED lights to perfectly fine bridges, Cuomo believes the most effective governance is that of one’s brand, no matter how often it results in half-baked policies, even in areas where he has the most expertise. But as he scrambles to shore up his liberal bonafides in the face of Nixon’s primary challenge (and keeps his eye on a potential presidential run in 2020), his biggest political weaknesses could end up being precisely the careful calculations that led him to shy away from full-throated progressivism. Nixon, after all, has six long months to continue to dog the governor on issues like New York’s decrepit public housing.

Cuomo has worked hard over his entire political career to sell what the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin has termed a “Mr. Fixit image.” But with continued federal disinvestment in housing, the draining of rent-stabilized units, NYCHA crumbling, and homelessness at record levels across the state, it’s unclear what, exactly, Cuomo can claim he has fixed.

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About the author

Clio Chang

Clio Chang is a staff writer at Splinter.