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NYS Senate Democrats take the initiative on trying to solve the state's housing crisis

Two houses in a Syracuse neighborhood sit next to each other.
Brad Spelich
Homes in a Syracuse neighborhood.

Democrats in the New York State Senate are releasing a comprehensive plan to increase the number of affordable housing units. The Senate’s Housing Committee chair says the plan revives a mid 20th century affordable housing initiative and provides tax breaks for developers and some tenant protections.

The housing initiative is part of the Senate’s one-house budget proposal, released three weeks before the state spending plan is due.

Senator Brian Kavanagh is Housing Committee Chair.

“The Senate is proposing a very broad package of solutions to our statewide housing crisis,” said Kavanagh, who represents Lower Manhattan.

The initiative comes one year after Governor Kathy Hochul’s comprehensive housing plan failed to win backing in the Legislature.

It would revive a successful 70-year-old affordable housing building program known as Mitchell-Lama, named after two lawmakers who helped create it.

Under the program, developers were given long-term tax breaks and low mortgage rates to build affordable housing on abandoned properties. But after 20 years, owners of the properties could opt out of the system, and in some cases, eventually charge market rates. As a result, the original Mitchell-Lama units have declined significantly in recent decades.

Kavanagh says the Senate program — dubbed Mitchell-Lama 2.0 — would be permanent.

“One of the defects of many of our proposals, many of our approaches to housing in the past, is that we made them temporary,” he said. “When we put those programs in place, we would say there's 30 years of financing and 30 years of affordability. And then that affordability would expire. And so, we lose those units.”

He says the expiration date, combined with laws passed in 2011 that deregulated rent stabilization programs, have contributed to the current housing affordability crisis.

The Senate budget includes $250 million for the program and sets aside $50 million to help people who are behind in their rent stay in their apartments.

Kavanagh says it also would expand to the rest of the state a program in New York City that pays back rent for people who are about to be evicted from their homes, to give them a chance to start over.

“When people are evicted, it's because they owe back rent,” said Kavanagh.

He says the proposal “would pay those arrears and bring the person up to date and prevent them from getting evicted.”

But Kavanagh says the proposal stops short of including all the provisions of legislation known as the Good Cause Eviction Act, a measure long sought by tenants’ rights groups. He says Democrats are not backing any specific bill at this time.

Finally, the Senate plan includes a revival of a tax break known as 421-a, given to developers who include affordable housing in their projects. Kavanagh says the renewal would be less generous to developers than previous iterations, and he says the idea is similar to one proposed by Governor Hochul.

Hochul’s unsuccessful 2023 housing plan included, among other things, a provision to override local zoning laws to build more housing. The Senate plan does not include that. Hochul eventually removed her housing plan from the state budget, saying she would try to create more housing using executive orders instead.

Senate Democrats hope they have more luck in 2024 with their plan.

The full budget plans for the Senate and Assembly were expected to be finished late Monday or early Tuesday. They plan to vote on their versions by Thursday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.