Behind the Adams administration’s Albany housing strategy

After mixed results in previous sessions, the mayor came away with everything he wanted for housing in the latest state budget. Here’s how they got their act together.

Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Workforce and Development Maria Torres-Springer looks on as Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a “City of Yes” rally in April.

Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Workforce and Development Maria Torres-Springer looks on as Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a “City of Yes” rally in April. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and his administration knew they needed Albany to deliver on a sweeping state housing deal to have even a chance of building the city out of its longstanding housing crisis. That’s why when the 2023 legislative session came to a close without a housing plan, city officials’ mourning period was short-lived.

After last session, we licked our wounds for a grand total of 10 seconds.
New York City Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Development and Workforce Maria Torres-Springer

“After last session, we licked our wounds for a grand total of 10 seconds,” New York City Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Development and Workforce Maria Torres-Springer said in an interview from her City Hall office. Posters emphasizing the city’s housing goals decorated the walls. “We wanted to make sure that if we fast-forwarded a year, we needed to be in a very different place with all of the tools we’ve been seeking from Albany.”

Adams’ record in Albany during the first two years of his mayoralty were a mix of successes and failures. In 2022, his first state budget as mayor, lawmakers accused the Adams administration of being unorganized and absent, arguing that the new mayor waited until the last minute to push its priorities. Things went a bit better last year after Adams made some changes to his intergovernmental affairs operation, but the administration’s housing requests all ultimately fell through after lawmakers failed to move on the governor’s housing plan.

But roughly a year after the ambitious plan to force more housing development in New York fell apart, the Adams administration came away in April from the freshly inked budget deal trumpeting victory. All four of the city’s main housing requests had been included to some degree: replacing the defunct 421-a developer tax break program to build affordable housing, a tax incentive to spur the conversion of office buildings into housing, lifting restrictions to permit more residential density and a pilot basement apartment program.

While some of the city’s priorities coincided with what the governor and legislative leaders wanted going into budget negotiations, their requests were buoyed by a lobbying operation run out of City Hall that started laying the groundwork well before the 2024 legislative session began. Recognizing the need for a new approach as the housing crisis raged, the Adams administration didn’t just work with housing advocates and real estate industry leaders – the “usual suspects,” according to Torres-Springer – they also worked with labor unions, faith community leaders and others not necessarily seen as “housers” to hone their requests and build “a big tent” emphasizing the need for urgent action.

“When a (housing deal) didn’t happen last year, it became clear to us that we had to create our own momentum,” Torres-Springer said.

“Robust Housing Strategy”

Frustrated and disappointed by the lack of action on housing in the 2023 legislative session, Adams convened a small team led by Torres-Springer, Adams’ chief adviser Ingrid Lewis-Martin, and senior advisers Tiffany Raspberry and former state Sen. Diane Savino in June of last year. They were tasked with crafting the administration’s 2024 Albany housing agenda and developing a strategy to get it passed, and they were supported by roughly a dozen policy, communications and intergovernmental affairs staffers.

The team, which would later be officially dubbed the “Robust Housing Strategy,” initially started gathering twice a month, but shifted to meeting on a weekly basis on Jan. 21 after Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled her executive budget proposal for fiscal year 2025. Leaders of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Department of City Planning joined the team’s meetings at that point. Torres-Springer said she began every meeting stating how many days remained until the April 1 budget deadline. Then she’d detail everything the city needed to do to push its housing priorities ranging from sending out op-eds to weekly Albany visits to the traditional highlighting of priorities at Tin Cup Day in February. A memo obtained by City & State from the team’s Feb. 22 meeting detailed week by week engagement targets dictating who from the administration would be dispatched to Albany when. The memo also included a detailed engagement plan for late January through March broken down into bullet points. Scheduling regular calls with Stewart-Cousins and Heastie and convening dinners with key state electeds at Gracie Mansion were both listed under the “ongoing” section.

In the build-up to the session, the Adams administration also launched an office conversion accelerator to expedite office-to-housing conversion projects, formed the “Housing-at-Risk Task Force” to support affordable housing projects at risk due to the expiration of 421-a, and announced a plan to advance 24 affordable housing projects on public sites in 2024.

“There was a ton of internal coordination. We needed to be disciplined about what we were looking to do and what the city’s participation needed to be,” Torres-Springer said. 

The team held close to 60 meetings with advocates and housing stakeholders about their housing agenda between June and April. A bevy of faith-based organizations rallied for the Faith-Based Affordable Housing Act, legislation that would allow religious institutions like temples, mosques, churches and synagogues to bypass local zoning laws to build affordable housing on their properties.

A solid coalition

While housing advocates, labor unions and industry groups like the Real Estate Board of New York – the main group for New York City developers and landlords – are always heavily involved in the state budget fight, Torres-Springer said the city made a conscious effort to work with labor unions, including the Building and Construction Trades Council, building service workers union 32BJ SEIU, the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council and the city workers’ union District Council 37. 

On Jan. 20, Adams hosted a private meeting at Gracie Mansion with around a dozen labor leaders to share the administration’s housing priorities and to hear leaders’ demands. On March 14, he called another, more urgent meeting between real estate industry groups and labor leaders via Zoom to urge them to make a deal. 

Disagreements between unions and developers over wages and tenant protections were part of what ended up stalling the budget deal as state lawmakers and state leaders left the creation of a 421-a replacement in the groups’ hands. Negotiations were tense, but roughly two weeks after the budget deadline, Hochul announced a housing deal had been struck – one that left 32BJ SEIU particularly pleased. In addition to including a version of “good cause” eviction protections and replacing 421-a, the agreement included robust labor standards and set a minimum wage of $72.45 an hour for construction workers on buildings in western Queens, western Brooklyn and parts of Manhattan.

Labor unions played an especially big role in housing negotiations this year – especially 32BJ SEIU, which tried to function as a “middle ground” between progressive lawmakers and the real estate industry by coming out in favor of a version of “good cause” tenant protections that proved acceptable to all parties. Looking to maximize their political power while lobbying Hochul and lawmakers, 32BJ SEIU, the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council and public employees union DC 37 formed a coalition early in the legislative session. The coalition met repeatedly with REBNY before and during the session.

“Year after year we were unable to get anything accomplished because people were very invested in their own interests,” said Candis Tall, the vice president and political director of 32BJ SEIU. “Really early on, we had meetings with leadership in Albany and the city on how we keep people together and start conversations to come to a compromise.”

While 32BJ SEIU has long been entrenched in housing policy given its representation of building workers, DC 37 and the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council were newer to negotiations this year, spurred in part by necessity.

High housing costs are increasingly forcing families and working class New Yorkers out of the city, threatening unions’ membership. The number of vacant units available to rent in New York City dropped to just 1.4% of the total rentable housing stock – the lowest rate since 1968, according to findings from the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey released in February. The vacancy rate of apartments that rent below $1,650 per month was even less.

“We were negotiating as tenants,” said DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido of negotiating the new 485-x tax incentive. “We’re going to be using those very same affordable units.”

Not everyone was happy with the end result. REBNY said the new tax break will produce less housing than 421-a. “Good cause” was watered down significantly. DC 37 wanted to see more clawback provisions for developers who don’t live up to expectations. The list goes on.

Still, Torres-Springer said building relationships with labor and real estate leaders “helped keep everyone at the table” amid disagreements over what everyone felt the housing deal should contain. “The mayor continued to be clear that despite their differences, they had to keep negotiating and not let the perfect get in the way of progress,” she said.

Garrido said he thinks the coordination between the city, REBNY, and labor unions was imperative to securing the city’s priorities in the housing deal. “The difference in the past was that all of those industry groups would push or pull individually,” he said. “It was much more important that we had a solid coalition arguing for the same set of principles. That was unique and refreshing to see.”

Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said the group has worked closely with the mayor’s office during the session on several key housing initiatives, including announcing a $400 million affordable housing fund in March. 

“We are currently working with the Adams administration on a number of other initiatives to expedite construction projects through the Capitol and legislative task force and want to continue to collaborate with his office to push forward development that will create more housing stock, provide more paths to the middle class, and uplift New Yorkers from all backgrounds and neighborhoods,” LaBarbera said in an email.

REBNY declined to be interviewed for this story.

‘A steady drumbeat’

Even beyond the city’s housing wins, 2024 was Adams’ most successful year yet. Concentrated outreach to lawmakers started much earlier than previous years. Members of the Adams administration were deployed to Albany on a weekly basis, meeting with individual legislators over 100 times to repeatedly hammer their housing requests during the session, according to City Hall. Adams and Torres-Springer were both part of that effort. “It was a steady drumbeat of we need action, we need action,” she said. State lawmakers took notice.

Last year, they were far less engaged. They would troop up here with a passel of staff, commissioners and all that, but I think this year they were more effective.
Assembly Housing Committee Chair Linda Rosenthal

Housing Chair state Sen. Brian Kavanagh said the city did a good job of making its perspective known while also providing analysis for various housing budget proposals like the new affordable housing tax break along the way. He noted that last year the Adams administration was still waiting on Albany to make some of the regulatory changes they needed for commercial conversions. When a housing deal wasn’t reached, the city proceeded to make many of the changes on the local level, which “streamlined” what lawmakers needed to do this session.

“Getting the details of these proposals right is really important from the perspective of the city because so much of what we do with respect to housing in the city involves city agencies implementing and city tax dollars,” Kavanagh said. “It’s appropriate for the city to get in the weeds and provide their analysis and their perspective. That dialogue was very helpful during the budget process.”

Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Housing Committee, said it felt like the Adams administration had their act together this time around. “Last year, they were far less engaged. They would troop up here with a passel of staff, commissioners and all that, but I think this year they were more effective,” she recalled.

Labor unions also noted the city’s strategy helped build momentum for a deal. “In the past the mayor’s team has been active in the conversation, but this time they were all over the conversation in a way that was extremely helpful,” Tall of 32BJ SEIU said.

Still, Adams’ housing victories weren’t solely the product of the city’s hard work, Rosenthal said. Having Hochul on board was pivotal, as was the fact that much of the Adams administration’s priorities coincided with what REBNY wanted. All of the city’s top housing priorities were part of Hochul’s budget proposal. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had also both signaled their intent to pass a housing package going into the session.

“They had the governor very open to what they wanted. We in the Legislature had heard all this before, so I guess in some sense they wore us down on certain items, but in another sense, we weren’t opposed to all of that,” Rosenthal said.

The Adams administration didn’t get everything it wanted on housing. The program to pilot legal basement apartments in New York City for example was watered down significantly. Instead of applying citywide like what Hochul initially proposed and the city had hoped for, the pilot will open up legal conversions to 15 of the 59 community board districts. Six of the districts are located in Manhattan – a borough home to only 1% of the eligible spaces. Only one is located in Queens, where nearly 40% of the city’s basement and cellar spaces in small homes are located, The City reported.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Hochul will continue to work with Adams to build a “more affordable and more livable New York.”

“For the first time in decades, the Governor of New York and the mayor of New York City are working in lockstep to address one of the most consequential issues impacting New Yorkers today: the lack of affordable housing,” Justin Henry, Hochul’s deputy communications director, said in a statement. “Governor Hochul pushed forward on her transformative housing package to build the homes New Yorkers deserve with support from Mayor Adams.”

Looking forward

There are more battles to come like expanding the basement apartment program, but Torres-Springer said she thinks the city is in a good place going into budget negotiations next year. She and several labor leaders all said they think the budget deal is a testament to the fact that solving New York City’s housing crisis will require a bevy of partners working together – the community boards, Hochul, lawmakers, unions, industry, the City Council, advocates and more.

That’s again the case as public review of Adams’ key initiative to address the city’s housing crisis moves through the seven–month public review process.

City of Yes for Housing Opportunity, the most consequential column in the mayor’s three-part City of Yes plan, is a sweeping proposal that seeks to tackle the city’s housing crisis through various zoning changes. The plan is intended to lead to the creation of 100,000 new apartments across the city over the next ten years by cutting red tape. Proposals range from ending parking mandates for new housing to allowing developers to build roughly 20% more housing than currently allowed when the extra units are income-restricted. The plan is already facing opposition from residential communities in the outer boroughs as it goes through the city review process. The City Council will vote on the proposal some time before the end of the year.

“Much like with Albany, we’re not going to take anything for granted,” Torres-Springer said.