Building a stronger middle class through affordable housing

By Jolie Milstein |  

February 7, 2017 |  

(Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

In his State of the State addresses last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made his priority clear: he wants to strengthen the middle class across New York State. At a time of uncertainty in the federal government, this will be one of the governor’s greatest and most important challenges. 

Gov. Cuomo’s executive budget proposal took some critical first steps toward achieving that goal by providing record funding for affordable housing programs. But the governor and state legislative leaders can and must do more to build and preserve housing that supports the middle class, generates thousands of good jobs and billions of dollars in statewide economic impact. 

They should start by making it clear they will not fall into the same trap – played out last year – that left $2 billion in potential affordable housing funds unused due to an impasse between the governor and legislative leaders. Gov. Cuomo, Senate co-leaders John Flanagan and Jeff Klein, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie must ensure that every single dollar proposed last month is approved by April 1. 

With regard to the governor’s focus on the middle class, we need to recognize that while homelessness and poverty are huge problems, New York’s housing crisis also affects millions of middle-income families. More than half of all renters across the state are rent-burdened – meaning they pay more than 30 percent of income on rent – and that includes the teachers, firefighters, police officers and others who make up the bedrock of the middle class.

Building new housing does much more than provide New Yorkers with places to live. The New York State Association for Affordable Housing has found that an average 100-unit affordable housing development generates around 175 construction jobs and 20 permanent jobs, as well as more than $29 million in construction-related spending and $3.6 million in ongoing annual local economic activity. These projects are economic engines that strengthen communities and make it easier for residents and workers to enter and remain in the middle class.

In his executive budget proposal, Gov. Cuomo once again signaled that he will try to provide these benefits through new spending on housing development – but he seemed to acknowledge that last year’s approach was not the best way to distribute much-needed funds for low- and middle-income housing. 

Unlike the 2016 budget, last month the governor proposed over $2 billion in new funding and identified specific programs that would receive those dollars. In other words, this year’s budget gives New Yorkers a much clearer sense of how the housing money would be used thereby making it easier for the funds to be approved by April 1.

In particular, the new $150 million proposed specifically for middle-income earners would go a long way toward alleviating the strain of the housing crisis. 

Now that Gov. Cuomo has laid out this wide array of new housing funds, he and the state legislative leaders must not repeat last year’s mistake of allowing this vital funding to lie dormant and unused.

If the state government truly wants to strengthen the middle class, and we believe it does, Gov. Cuomo must quickly broker an agreement this year on housing funding and help ensure middle income New Yorkers can provide for their families and grow New York’s economy.

Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH).

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