How to use a crisis

 A recent comment by President Obama’s administration chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, on the global economic meltdown has been getting a lot of play in the media: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

In her recent State of the City address, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn showed that she and the Bloomberg administration are thinking exactly the same way about how New York City can capitalize on the current dire situation. One of the most inspired ideas Quinn mentioned was the Affordable Housing Recovery Plan, under which the city would buy up vacant luxury condominium apartments and make them available as affordable and middle-income housing.

Trying to create affordable housing during the building boom was basically “swimming against the tide,” Quinn conceded. But now there is the very real situation in which thousands of new luxury units will be left empty. “These vacant apartments now represent our best asset in the fight for affordable housing,” the speaker said.

Quinn described a “partnership” between the Council and the administration to turn these unsold units into affordable homes. Where developers have units they can’t sell, the city will negotiate the lowest possible price, and make these homes affordable for middle class families to rent or buy. “Using existing funds,” Quinn said, this plan would add thousands of new affordable homes.

“New Yorkers who were once nearly priced out of their communities will now have a chance to buy or rent one of the new homes that were built in their own backyards,” Quinn said in heartening words to so many residents.

The devil is in the details, of course. For example, while a Quinn spokesperson said these luxury units would be bought with “already budgeted capital funds,” Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber said a $100 million “acquisition fund,” including foundation money, would be used. What is clear is that the mayor and Quinn are firmly on the same page in wanting to buy these units and make them affordable. Each branch of government is saying the money is there, one way or another, which gives more confidence these are not mere words, but a real proposal.

Mayor Bloomberg has committed to creating and preserving 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2013. The administration says it’s on track in reaching that goal — but, so far, it has proved easier to preserve affordable units than to build new ones. The economic crisis, however, alters that equation.

New York must not become only pied-à-terres for the ultra-rich, though it seemed it was heading that way. The city is indeed showing it won’t let this opportunity go to waste, at least in terms of meeting New Yorkers’ pressing housing needs. The mayor and Quinn are demonstrating creative, innovative thinking, right when we need it most, and right where we need it urgently, on affordable housing.