Opinion

De Blasio housing team needs to get on message

Demetrius Freeman / Mayoral Photography Office

Canvassing for signatures to get on the New York City ballot starts in 18 months. This deadline leaves Mayor Bill de Blasio little time to pull it together after last month’s devastating no-confidence vote on his affordable housing plan by the neighborhood leaders who sit on all but six of the city’s 59 Community Boards.

How de Blasio failed so spectacularly to win approval for an affordable housing plan that New Yorkers universally agree is desperately needed points to systemic shortcomings in his communications operation.

On average, nearly 43,000 New Yorkers submit applications when lotteries open for apartments on the city’s affordable housing website. At 160 Madison Avenue alone, there were 104,272 applicants for 64 affordable units. With that level of demand, how did de Blasio fail to win approval for his plan?

The answer is simple: he never put anyone in charge of managing the campaign to get it approved.

That’s why no one’s been fired or replaced to take charge of the war room or lead the daily conference calls coordinating the campaign to win approval for his plan – there is no war room, according to a City Council member who is equally dismayed by the lack of a communications strategy.

De Blasio named two highly regarded and accomplished people to run point on meeting his objective of creating more than 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade: Carl Weisbrod at the City Planning Commission and Vicki Been at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

But when I asked elected officials and community leaders who in the administration has taken the lead on messaging during meetings with Weisbrod and Been, they came up blank. As policy wonks, Weisbrod and Been have a tendency to get lost in housing jargon, especially when speaking about Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, two central tenets of the mayor’s housing plan. Been and Weisbrod need a communications professional who can help them make sense of programs that are not easy for the general public to digest.

I found that difficult to accept. I called the press offices at City Hall, City Planning, and HPD and asked point blank: Who was responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive communications strategy to win approval of the mayor’s affordable housing plan? City Hall and City Planning couldn't give me a name. HPD never called back.

So, who is to blame for this failure to communicate? My initial hypothesis was that the borough presidents might be wielding some influence with community boards.

The borough presidents, or their staff members who I spoke to, agree about the need for an affordable housing plan. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer even shared correspondence with Weisbrod, signed in March by Manhattan’s entire city, state, and congressional delegation, that while they felt the mayor’s housing plan had some problems, given enough time, they could probably work it out.

One of the few responsibilities the borough presidents have is to appoint community board members. If City Hall had worked with the borough presidents and been more responsive to their concerns, they likelywould have helped line up the votes the mayor needed. Clearly, City Hall wasn’t listening to the critical stakeholders whose support they needed to win approval.

A prominent Manhattan community leader says the problem is systemic. He says City Hall is opaque and unresponsive to stakeholders: “This administration makes Rudy Giuliani look like a flower child and Richard Nixon like Mr. Open Government.”

This latest failure by the de Blasio administration worries senior administration officials. “We thought we’d have eight years,” said one.

Fortunately for de Blasio there is time to right the ship.

There is an agency with a model for a successful communications strategy, including comprehensive community relations and social media that de Blasio could follow. It’s across the street from City Hall, on the eighth floor of 253 Broadway, at the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. With a small staff, headed by Executive Director Darren Bloch, de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is doing for mental health and alcohol and substance abuse what the mayor says he wants to do for affordable housing.

McCray and her team have identified the problem; created partnerships among government officials, professionals, advocates, and community leaders to develop solutions – together; and while Bloch and his staff work on getting solutions implemented, she is working tirelessly as a fundraiser and cheerleader, smoothing out any bumps they encounter along the way.

De Blasio’s re-election campaign is around the corner. It’s time to get on message.

Eddie Borges is directing a documentary about Mexican and Puerto Rican childhood poverty in New York City.

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