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
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT