Lawmakers in Albany are finalizing a housing deal — that nobody is really happy about. Credit: Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

There’s an old axiom stating that the measure of a good compromise is both sides feeling like they got stiffed. You hear this a good amount in political journalism, and journalism writ large, where a reporter or editor will point to the fact that a piece was assailed by both the political right and the political left as a marker of objectivity.

As a journalism lecturer myself, let me be clear: I think this idea is bunk, and a pretty lazy substitute for legitimate fairness in coverage. It allows journalists to hold this up as a proxy for thoroughness and depth and wave off criticism as not only irrelevant, but in fact a marker of a job well done. The main structural problem with this approach is information asymmetry — one side might be mad at you for completely legitimate reasons, while the other is lobbing bad faith. It doesn’t mean you’re right for landing in the middle (the quintessential example of this was the yearslong terrible coverage of climate change that put the pro-science and anti-science camps on relative equal footing).

I say all of this as a setup for looking at the contours of the tentative housing deal in the already very late state budget. There are plenty of specifics still missing, but as several outlets are already reporting, everyone seems to hate it. In broad strokes, the deal appears to include a watered-down version of so-called “good cause” eviction protections — which are designed to stop landlords from evicting tenants via lease non-renewals unless they have specific cause, like non-payment — as well as an increase in the amount of apartment improvement spending landlords can recoup through rent increase, and a reinstatement of a tax break for developers of affordable housing, among other things.

Lawmakers are continuing this week to finalize the language on that and other provisions — including cannabis enforcement, school funding, and other issues — that will be part of the budget, which is already over two weeks late. (If you’re wondering why there’s all this policy stuff in the budget itself, that’s an excellent question that we can leave for another newsletter, but suffice it to say here that lawmakers have gotten used to attaching controversial provisions into the must-pass budget so they don’t have to have individual votes on it.)

Advocacy groups decry what they see as watered-down tenant protections. Credit: Joshua Armstrong

The real estate lobby and industry are dissatisfied with the level of tax incentives for affordable housing construction and the additional tenant protections on the table, while tenant advocacy groups are decrying what they see as watered-down tenant protections and a financial giveaway to landlords. The “good cause” provision, for example, would rely on local governments opting in, exempt new developments for three decades, and include carve-outs for owner-occupied buildings of eight units or less or landlords with portfolios of ten or fewer units.

Obviously, these are organizations constituted in large part to always push for their members’ interests, which certainly diverge, and which are at base not identical to lawmakers’ interests. That’s the crucial point here: neither side has objectives that completely align with policymakers’ overarching and long-term goals, which is to build much more housing, have it be reasonably affordable, and respond to the shifting needs of NYC’s public and economy.

There’s a good deal of overlap in some of these goals — for the housing to be built under our current system, private developers need to build it, and they need financial incentives to do so; for the housing to actually be useful, it needs to be accessible to tenants across income bands — but neither group’s advocacy aligns exactly with what lawmakers are trying to achieve, and so there is a certain inevitability to the heated protestation. At the risk of angering everyone myself, I don’t think that if either side got the full slate of their demands, it would benefit New Yorkers in the long term. I lean much more on the side of strong tenant protections and affordability guarantees, but I’ve also seen some of the research that suggests this can backfire if and when the requirements and costs become onerous enough so as to discourage construction or maintenance.

This reality gives lawmakers some latitude to claim success if, in the end, everyone is unhappy with the deal. Yet I don’t think that inherently means they hit the right balance. There have been plenty of legislative deals that turned out disastrously after much-touted compromises (see the cannabis rollout). I am personally more convinced by arguments setting out concrete system-wide tweaks, like those outlined in this story including an analysis by scholars at the NYU Furman Center. There, they point out that settling on 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) as a benchmark of affordability is ultimately regressive given that the AMI itself has soared in the last several years, far more than inflation, and much beyond increases in working and middle-class incomes. They argue that to actually enact the housing affordability that they’re seeking, lawmakers should lower this cutoff to 60%, because that’s the equivalent of an 82% AMI in 2015.

The income of wealthy New Yorkers has risen so much that it has dragged up average incomes to a level that excludes many needy. Credit: Hiroshige Fukuhara

That’s all a bit technical, but it can be easily summarized: the relative income of wealthy New Yorkers has risen so much in recent years that it’s dragged up average incomes to the point that the same percentage of that average is functionally much higher than it was in 2015, and so a cutoff set at that percentage would exclude more needy New Yorkers.

It’s precisely this sort of argument that should cut through the wrangling and inform what legislators ultimately land on: not whether any individual policy seems ideologically positive or not — and I want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that lawmakers sacrifice their principles at the altar of pragmatism, which is really an ideological preference by another name — but how it will intersect with all the other policies in an extremely complicated system and produce or not produce the outcomes they’re seeking, and which they have been elected to produce.

These processes are by definition political, and so we think of them politically, as a battle between personalities and a prelude to the next election. When it comes to housing, though, everyone agrees the issue is existential, and we’ve kicked the can down the road about as far as we can. Housing negotiations during last year’s budget process collapsed with little to show for it, and who knows when lawmakers will get another real bite at the apple. They have to get it right, and that means sifting through the incoming feedback from both real estate and tenant groups to sketch out as clear of a trajectory as they can about how their policies will play out in the real world.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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