Albany Agenda

Maria Torres-Springer on why she’s ‘extremely grateful’ to Kathy Hochul

The New York City deputy mayor for housing said the governor has included all the city’s priorities in her budget proposal. The next hurdle is convincing lawmakers.

Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Development and Workforce Maria Torres-Springer

Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Development and Workforce Maria Torres-Springer Benny Polatseck/Mayoral Photography Office

On the heels of New York City’s latest Housing and Vacancy survey that found vacancy rates are the lowest they’ve been in decades, state officials are set to hear testimony regarding housing issues in the budget on Wednesday. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has laid out his wishlist already: replacing the defunct 421-a tax break program to build affordable housing, incentivize converting commercial buildings into housing, lifting the floor area ratio cap to permit more density and safely legalizing basement apartments. Gov. Kathy Hochul has included each priority in her budget. 

The city’s housing demands are identical to last year, when lawmakers and the governor failed to reach a housing compromise. Although legislators talked about passing their own package of bills that may have included some of the city’s asks, they never did before breaking for the year. Lawmakers and legislative leaders said they would not approve housing legislation without new tenant protections, an idea that Hochul has been cool to. 

Even though the governor has abandoned some of the most controversial tenets of her housing plan since last year, compromise on tenant protections and a new developer tax break is far from guaranteed. Ahead of the budget hearing when these issues will take center stage, Maria Torres-Springer, the city’s deputy mayor for housing, economic development and workforce, spoke with City & State about the what the city hopes to see out of Albany this year, the impacts of the troubling new vacancy rate numbers and how negotiations are going so far. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The mayor has laid out his priorities for Albany, but ahead of the budget hearing on housing, what are the items that you’re hoping lawmakers discuss?

When (the administration first testified), that was, of course, before we released the findings of the latest Housing Vacancy Survey. And what I'll say is the survey confirmed that we continue to be in a housing crisis that has deepened even more. If you look at the vacancy rate that dropped from more than 4% a few years ago, to now 1.41%. across the city, that's the lowest in six decades. So the type of relief that is needed for renters, for New Yorkers, has never been more important. And what we need from the federal government and from the state government, it's a type of swift and decisive action to really make a dent in this crisis. The housing vacancy survey confirmed yet again that the demand for homes in this city far outpaces the supplies that we've created. And it is true across the board. It's particularly true for lower-income households in our city. And so the stakes are really high.

The governor’s proposal for a new tax break for affordable housing development leaves many of the details up to the city. How do you feel about that idea? Would you like to see more specifics from the state?

What we care about in the city is that we see an improved program that emphasizes deeper affordability that emphasizes permanent affordability, that has new labor standards, and better enforcement. So we have been in really good and productive conversation with all of the stakeholders, including lawmakers, so that, at the end of the day, we have a program that is workable.

But would you be OK with the city coming up with specific regulations around affordability requirements, or would you prefer the state codify the requirements in statute?

I think it's important that this is a predictable, as of right, and effective program. And so the governor's bill lays out what I think was a very strong start, lays out the key tenets. At the end of the day, and this is the work that we're doing, we have to make sure that it provides the type of clarity and predictability to the development communities so that housing gets built. So it’s difficult to say, kind of in isolation, about that particular provision. We really do have to see the full details of what a new program will be. 

Last year saw no big housing deal, even for some of the relatively low-hanging fruit. What are the conversations with state officials like right now and the attitudes around finding compromise so at least something passes?

One, we're extremely grateful to the governor for including in her State of the State and in her budget the key proposals that we have been advocating before. I've been very encouraged with the conversations and discussions that I've had, and members of the administration have had, with lawmakers this session. Encouraged because I think there is full recognition that there’s a lot at stake. That it has been made even more stark by the results of the Housing Vacancy Survey. Whereas last session, I think, a lot of the conversations I would describe as being more maybe conceptual in nature. The conversations thus far, at least the ones that I've had, have been a lot more substantive about how is it that we can strike the right balance of – tools that boost supply, tools that protect tenants, and at the end of the day, give us the ability to really affect change. 

The Housing Vacancy Survey also showed how rent-burdened low-income New Yorkers are. Legislative leaders have said they won’t do housing without new tenant protections, and the mayor has been open to it. Have there been discussions about what such protections would look like?

The mayor has been consistent that all of the tools need to be on the table, including new tenant protections. So those conversations are ongoing. We want to make sure that we do strike the right balance, and that on the tenant protection side, that those bring real relief to tenants, while taking into consideration the needs of small landlords, for example. All of this is under discussion at the moment, and we're encouraged by those discussions. 

With vacancy rates, the numbers are the lowest for the most affordable apartments and the rate gets higher as rent goes up, a trend in the past even when the overall vacancy rate is higher. It has been pointed to as an example that building more luxury or market-rate apartments will not solve the crisis. What measures – 

I want to be clear: There is no ambiguity in the empirical literature that more homes equals more affordability. We need to increase the supply of all types of homes. Market rate apartments, apartments for working class New Yorkers, apartments for lower-income households. We need to increase the overall supply so that the dynamics change for households of every income level. And we start to see changes in what new renters are facing today. Displacement, high rent and sometimes predatory behavior from landlords. That paradigm shifts only if the supply of housing actually starts keeping up with demand. So it has to be an all of the above approach in order to finally turn the tide here. But I also want to be clear, of course we have to do everything that we need to to finance homes for lower-income households. But unless we tackle the overall supply problem, the progress here will be incremental.

You’ve spoken about what a big ally the governor has been, but a housing deal fell apart last year despite her support. Is there anyone you think is to blame for the slowness at which this is happening despite the urgency?

No, I think the time for finger pointing and hand wringing about the crisis is over, and it does a disservice to New Yorkers. I think there has been a sea change in the narrative and in the awareness of these issues, yet again punctuated by the results of the Housing Vacancy Survey. I think what's more important, what's more productive, what's more useful, is to really consider what we can get done together if we have all of these tools. The federal government, the state government and the city level, we all have to play our part, and I for one am encouraged and optimistic that we're going to do right by New Yorkers this session in Albany.