Skip to main content

Lesson from Koch: Fix housing, fix city

By Errol Louis, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EST, Thu February 7, 2013
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
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT