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
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT