Former Judge & WSNA Organizer Promote Affordable Housing


Karen Smith

Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 3:25 PM CST

When a former New York State Supreme Court judge gets so riled up that she drops the F-word, it’s time to sit down, spit out the gum and take heed. That’s just what happened when the Honorable Karen Smith (of the Real Rent Reform campaign) discussed the state of affordable housing at a November 15 community forum hosted by the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (CRDC).

Matt Kelin
After a numbing presidential election and an uninvited guest named Sandy who overstayed her welcome, Smith’s presentation was a wake-up call to a local problem in need of serious attention. She was joined by Matt Klein of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance, who provided insights regarding the planning, building and term limits of affordable housing.

“Real estate is to New York what oil is to Texas,” Smith stated firmly, “And we’re up against it. If you look at the papers and editorials, they’re demonizing us much as they use to demonize welfare recipients years back. They claim we don’t need rent control and rent stabilization even though statistics show that the median income for those in rent regulated apartments is under $35,000. Busing to Albany no longer works. They no longer listen.”

Two years ago, Smith turned in her judicial gavel for a hammer to fight for the rights to affordable housing for struggling New Yorkers — much with the same spirit as her mother, the late Esther Smith, did in fighting for housing and equal rights when she was Chelsea’s District Leader (1980-90). This apple didn’t fall far from the tree (which was in Penn South, a rare housing project that manages to comfortably keep affordability).

During the course of her work with Real Rent Reform, Smith has met with over 75 organizations, examined the problems associated with of all types of housing and is now in the process of forming a coalition under the banner of “Affordable New York.” Smith, who envisions a growing force that Albany will not be able to ignore, made the case for why the current affordable housing movement’s scope should be broadened to include all renters (co-op, condo and limited equity), home owners and public housing.

“We have vacancy de-control provisions that have deregulated over 500,000 apartments in the last 11 years, many of them illegally,” Smith said, adding that there’s also “the issue of Major Capital Improvements and Individual Apartment Improvements (IAIs) — where a landlord says he’s done major work to your building or apartment, so you get a rent increase. There are only six inspectors statewide to see if the landlord really did the work.”

Real Rent Reform is fighting for a bill that would both reduce rent once the capital project is paid for and regulate IAIs. They also want to repeal the Urstadt Law, so that, as Smith put it, “Local city councils can pass the laws that relate to people in their housing, instead of the State Legislatures up in Albany.”

After Smith spoke about the high foreclosure rate in the outer boroughs and for further regulation of the open rental market, Klein added, “We are losing affordable housing through vacancy destabilization, the fact that they are not building any more public housing projects and that Mitchell-Lama and Section A buildings are opting out of their affordability.” He lamented that most apartments in the current affordable housing programs lose their affordable status after a set number of years — units of Low Income Housing Tax Credits in 30 years, the 80-20 Program (20 percent affordable) in 15-30 years, and 421A (20 percent affordable) in 30 years.

“These are not permanent fixes to a permanent problem,” said Klein. “They all cost the city millions in lost revenue. What we need to do is come up with ways to build permanent affordable housing that doesn’t cost the tax payers or the city money.”

Real Rent Reform’s current battle is to get a series of rent protections back into a bill that renews tax abatements for co-ops and condos and for landlord’s J-51 tax abatements. That bill, A.10798, is believed to be part of a deal to be enacted when the State Legislature reconvenes to approve their own raises.

But most disturbing to those in attendance was Smith’s assessment of public housing — based on recent volunteer work at Fulton Houses alongside CRDC members and a band of locals. Smith said that housing residents fear the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) more than anything Hurricane Sandy could have brought, citing cases where NYCHA residents refused to evacuate no matter how dire their situation. “Public housing is in terrible shape,” she said. “In fixing apartments, they say to a family, ‘Here’s a Section A voucher. Go live somewhere while we fix up your place and you can come back.’ Guess what? They’re not letting them back in. And they all know it!”

Smith blames the fear of NYCHA on a new federal government policy of privatizing housing projects. She said that in New York City, Citibank is systematically filling apartments “with people making quite a bit of money.” The idea is that, over time, the extra income will pay for improvements at the same time “they are kicking out people who are poor.” Adding insult, NYCHA has also been selling off its real estate, including a St. Nicholas children’s playground in Harlem to the developer of a school for $70 million even though there was an empty school across the street. “They’re destroying communities,” she declared.

Smith and Klein were joined by the meeting’s moderators, Judy Richheimer and Lee Sinovio, in requesting that the community generate their own ideas to improve the state of affordable housing.

As Smith put it, “We need to broaden our vision of what is possible.”

For more information, visit Real Rent Reform Campaign at, the West Side Neighborhood Alliance at and the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club at