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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Is there a better way to provide affordable housing?

A view of Singapore's public housing on September

A view of Singapore's public housing on September 4, 2008. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

What if New York were more like Singapore?

Not the island city's more nanny-state traditions that would make former Mayor Michael Bloomberg drool — a now-loosened ban of chewing gum, for example. But what about housing?

Eighty percent of Singapore residents live in public housing, according to government statistics. And the home ownership rate is 90 percent.

The housing crisis in New York City is undeniable. A study by NYU Furman Center/Capital One released this week found that rental stock was diminishing and getting more unaffordable in NYC and other metropolitan areas. It found that 30 percent of NYC renters paid more than half their household income to housing.

The rent is too damn high, and there's no place to go. So why can't we build?

Another way to provide affordable housing

In 1960, Singapore set out to build more than 50,000 units of housing over five years. Five years later, it had done it.

Rather than renting for life, residents bought their units and were able to have equity for retirement.

Additionally, the government "set price appreciation limits," says Nick Bloom, professor in the social sciences department at New York Institute of Technology and co-editor of Affordable Housing in New York.

While rents can still be high and first-time buyers have to wait for an opening, mandatory government pensions, composed of personal savings and employer contributions, help make that housing more affordable.

In promotional videos from the era, the early housing is blocky and stark. The design has improved over the years, says Bloom: It's "more colorful than it used to be."

The catch, of course, is that the buildings are "extremely tall," climbing tens of stories to pack people in.

Singapore has affordable housing, but it comes with one of the dirtiest words in New York life: density.

"But you know what happens with that?" asks Bloom. "You house people."    

If you build it, it's your problem

The most substantial government construction was done by the New York City Housing Authority. Created in the 1930s during the era of big government and financed in large part by federal funding (which to some extent still supports NYCHA today), the agency is the most reliable and permanent source of affordable housing in the city, with close to 180,000 units.

And while the city has dabbled in co-op programs for low to moderately-affordable housing, the vast majority is rental.

For decades, the city has relied on tax breaks and other enticements to get developers to build housing in the five boroughs, including under progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio.

"We believe that public/private partnerships with private and non-profit developers and managers offer the right balance to spur successful projects," says mayoral spokesman Austin Finan. "Governments have not been proven to be the best property managers."

This is a convenient arrangement for the city: Politicians don't need to insert themselves into the free market or serve as landlord, suffering the slings and arrows that are the landlord's lot (see NYCHA and widespread complaints about sub-par service). Then you avoid creating and being responsible for "the projects."

It also works out for developers, who stand to make money off the construction. And if affordable requirements aren't permanent for rental units, they have the potential to make even more profit over time.

The housing mayor

De Blasio is "the housing mayor," said New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Thursday, during de Blasio's announcement of advance financing for four new affordable housing developments funded by recaptured tax money from tax incentive program abusers.

It's another drop in the bucket in the mayor's affordable housing plan, which he hopes will preserve 120,000 affordable units and build 80,000 new ones.

But it's a constant race against time to keep apartments affordable. And for new construction, it's a fight, one by one, for the handful of for-now-affordable apartments coaxed from developers through the mayor's rezoning plans and other initiatives. Thursday's announcement would add some 600.

And forget about 30-story towers — community boards around the city are in uproar over the mayor's tweaking height restrictions in return for senior housing.

This is the state of our affordable housing future without a sea change in political landscape or federal and state funding. But at least we can chew gum here.

This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.


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