Interviews & Profiles

Brian Kavanagh on the interlocking crises of housing affordability

The state senator was a cheerleader for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s failed housing plan.

State Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh

State Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh NYS Senate Media Services

State Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh had been a vocal supporter of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ambitious plan to build 800,000 housing units in the next decade, which fell out of state budget negotiations several weeks before the final deal. This setback means that housing will likely be pushed to next year’s budget season. Kavanagh also said he’d be open to including tax breaks for developers or other changes to the tax code when these conversations resume. City & State spoke with Kavanagh about why housing has been so tough for New York to address, the importance of creating more affordable housing and supporting public housing with more money for maintenance.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Both Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have proposed wide-ranging plans to try to get housing affordability under control. Why do you think this has been such a difficult issue to tackle?

There are a series of interlocking crises here that need to be addressed, and there is no single set of policy changes that is going to address them comprehensively. So we have a massive homelessness crisis. We have more than 90,000 people homeless at any given moment. We have an eviction crisis, a very high volume of people experiencing eviction, far too frequently. And we have an affordability crisis. In that, there are way too many people spending an amount of their income on housing that makes it difficult for them to afford other basics. So even though they might be housed in a reasonable way, like they might be housed in a setting that is acceptable, it is far too expensive. And I think the governor in particular has emphasized, we also just have a plain supply shortage of housing, which relates to the question of affordability. Obviously, if supply tightens, property owners can charge more, and they will. But it also is a drag on every other aspect of our society. So there’s a supply shortage as well. To the extent you’re trying to address the supply shortage, you’re not just doing it for the sake of market forces driving down the cost. You’re also trying to provide adequate supply for the people who live here, for the growing population and for the economic base that the city supports.

Tax breaks for developers have been used for many years to incentivize more affordable housing. What role do you think they play in addressing the affordable housing crisis?

I think there is a role to play, and using reductions in property taxes in promoting affordable housing, which is what the 421-a and some other programs like J-51 (do), I mean, it’s expired, and we have a proposal to renew that as well. So there is a role in using property taxes. The reason people focus on property taxes so much, particularly in New York City, is property taxes on multifamily housing, especially rental housing, are very, very high. And so developers and others make the case that because those taxes are so high, it’s hard to build anything, much less build affordable. So we need property tax exemptions in order to achieve affordability. And again, I am not opposed to using those kinds of tax breaks to promote public goods, including affordability, and also environmental sustainability, good jobs in the production and in the buildings. And that’s what we use them for.

The New York City Housing Authority and other housing authorities have struggled to keep up with maintenance. How big of an issue do you think that is for the collective effort to create more affordable housing?

I think a paramount concern with public housing is to maintain the volume of housing. Generally, that means, especially in New York City, it means maintaining what you’ve got, and the underinvestment by the federal, state and city governments throughout the state has been problematic. And it’s a long-term problem that we’ve tried to address at the state level. We address it by putting additional state capital on the table. I mentioned just now, we get $366 million of new state money to make sure that the rents of people living in Section 8 and public housing that occurred during COVID are being paid now, so that they don’t have operating deficits as a result of that (back) rent.