Skip to main content

Lesson from Koch: Fix housing, fix city

By Errol Louis, Special to CNN
February 7, 2013 -- Updated 1719 GMT (0119 HKT)
Ed Koch speaks at the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in his honor in May 2011. The brash former New York mayor died Friday, February 1, of congestive heart failure at 88, his spokesman said. Ed Koch speaks at the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in his honor in May 2011. The brash former New York mayor died Friday, February 1, of congestive heart failure at 88, his spokesman said.
HIDE CAPTION
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
Ed Koch through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: Building affordable housing in NYC was a Koch feat; other cities should follow
  • He says Koch made major investment in housing to raise up families, neighborhoods
  • He says Koch did this at a blighted time in NY when fed housing support dried up
  • Louis: New York continues to lead in spending on rehabs, new housing, a Koch legacy

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York City all-news channel.

(CNN) -- Before memories begin fading of the funny, feisty, combative former mayor of New York City, America would do well to pause one last time, and remember the greatest achievement of the late Ed Koch: his extraordinary, multi-billion-dollar program of building low-cost, affordable housing.

It's easy to lose perspective on the legacy of this larger-than-life character. As host of New York's only nightly political show, I got to sit and talk with Ed Koch every Tuesday night for the last two years, when he appeared on our "NY1 Wiseguys" segment, a weekly forum for retired politicians to weigh in on the issues of the day.

Koch's final appearance came less than three weeks before he died -- and to the very end, he was a dazzling showman, always ready with a quip, a quarrel or a crusade. All of us will miss him terribly.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

But we shouldn't miss the main lesson of his mayoralty: Investing in low-cost housing helped families, preserved neighborhoods, and saved a city. And it might be used to do the same for the rest of the country.

In 1977, the year Koch was elected mayor, New York had been devastated by waves of arson, abandonment and economic decline, leaving entire neighborhoods strewn with rubble and vacant shells where apartments once stood. A front-page story in the New York Times captured the scene when President Jimmy Carter made a dramatic, unannounced trip to Charlotte Street in the South Bronx to see "block after block of burned-out and abandoned buildings, rubble-strewn lots and open fire hydrants."

Opinion: Koch, a friend and force to the end

Koch, who was elected a month after Carter's "sobering" visit, scrambled to organize a response to the blight but encountered a roadblock a few years later, when the Reagan administration effectively ended federal support for low-income housing, replacing a longstanding program with rent vouchers for the poor.

As the federal government got out of the housing business, Koch decided that New York would get in -- and get in big. In 1985, he announced a $4.4 billion plan to create 100,000 units of subsidized housing over a 10-year period, a number that later expanded to 252,000 units that eventually cost $5.1 billion.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The plan was audacious. It required massive rezoning of the city and coordination between multiple agencies. More importantly, it deployed New York's capital budget, normally used to pay for sidewalks, roads, bridges and government buildings.

Koch put the full faith and credit of the city on the line, borrowing the billions needed for rebuilding and trusting that a general economic recovery would provide the funds to repay bondholders. It was a gutsy move, coming barely a decade after New York's near-bankruptcy.

Tweeters loved Koch's 'New York-iness'

But the plan was a spectacular success. A veritable army of nonprofit, community-based housing developers worked in partnership with the city to reclaim and rebuild apartments, and neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem slowly reversed pernicious patterns of decline.

Financial meltdowns plague U.S. cities
Ed Koch: I created the foundation

Some who had been homeless left the streets and got their lives back on track, while middle-class families moved back in and began paying taxes, raising families and supporting local businesses.

Ironically, it was the very neighborhoods Koch saved that provided the votes that speeded his political downfall, with the election of David Dinkins as New York's first black mayor in 1989. But Dinkins and every other mayor since Koch has sworn allegiance to the housing plan, using the capital budget and alliances with community organizations to build and subsidize workforce housing.

Eulogists remember Koch

It's surprising that more cities haven't followed Koch's example. Year after year, for decades, New York has produced or rehabilitated 15,000 units of affordable housing. In some years, it has spent more on housing than the next 50 cities combined.

Compare modern Harlem or Bed-Stuy to the most troubled sections of cities like Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and you see what a difference a massive housing program can make.

We'll all miss Ed Koch terribly. It would be a shame to miss a chance to spread his greatest triumph to other cities around the nation.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT