Vicki Been ’83 talks about her work as New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development

Judge Edward Weinfeld Professor of Law Vicki Been ’83, a faculty director of the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, returned to NYU Law in January after serving as New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development from May 2019 until the end of 2021.

Vicki Been
Vicki Been '83

The position, which she filled while on public service leave from NYU Law, was her second stint in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. From 2014 to 2017, she was commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the nation’s largest municipal housing agency. As HPD commissioner, she oversaw the creation and implementation of a 10-year plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments; the plan employed an array of tools that included a Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) policy requiring permanent, mixed-income affordable housing in areas rezoned for residential growth. The city hit the 200,000-apartment target in December 2021, two years ahead of schedule.

In a Q&A, Been discussed her latest government role, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the issues involved in creating a better quality of life for everyone in a notoriously high-priced city.

What was particularly compelling to you about returning to the de Blasio administration in the deputy mayor role?

When I went back into government as deputy mayor, I had a much broader—but very interrelated—portfolio. I was working on all of the things that ideally go along with housing: wonderful parks, vibrant cultural, arts and media institutions, sensitive historic preservation, and meaningful economic development opportunities. I had a much more holistic responsibility -- to bring both housing and all else that was needed to help a neighborhood achieve progress for its residents.

At HPD, I was focused on bringing the cost of housing down, but housing affordability is not just about the price of housing but also about what people are making. The economic development imperative of helping people earn higher incomes is extremely important. As deputy mayor, I could both work to bring all the amenities needed to ensure that the affordable housing the city financed was in a thriving neighborhood, and also work to help people in that neighborhood achieve better jobs and careers.

Apart from housing, what other components of your role did you focus on most?

I was laser-focused on parks. Parks are always important, but the COVID-19 pandemic really showed us just how critical it is to be able to have some place other than your home to escape to. Parks and affordable housing go together in a very important way. The neighborhoods that have often been the most neglected in terms of investments in housing also tended to have neglected parks. In 2014, when Bill de Blasio was elected, some neighborhoods were getting nine times as much investment in their parks as other neighborhoods. There were real disparities.

Through a program called the Community Parks Initiative, we invested in the parks that had received the least investment over the last 20 years. In some cases, those parks had not seen any investment in two decades. After focusing on more than 200 neglected parks and playgrounds, by the end of the administration we had cut that ninefold disparity significantly. If you took that kind of analysis and focused on where we are spending our capital dollars across the board—where we are spending money on schools, streets, resiliency measures, and so on—we would have a fairer city.

When you became deputy mayor in 2019, the city had made great strides in building affordable housing, thanks in no small part to record-low unemployment and rising tax receipts. How did the fallout from the pandemic shift your trajectory and priorities?

We went from record-low unemployment to many people losing their jobs. Many others shifted to working from home, which affected the local shoe repair shop, the local deli. That domino effect was very hard to counter. We were trying to keep people safe from COVID, but also from the economic ravages of COVID—a very hard balance to strike.

Also, government had to be extraordinarily flexible and able to pivot. All of a sudden, the housing and building inspectors had to be redetailed to make sure restaurants were safe for outdoor dining. Parks workers had to be assigned to the task of helping people safely maintain social distancing. The pandemic required enormous creativity and management skills all the way up the chain of command so that our workforce could quickly address the needs of the moment—whether it was helping local manufacturers switch their production lines to supply masks, sanitizers, and ventilators, or finding people who could teach seniors cut off from their families how to use a device to communicate through social media. That demanded a very different nimbleness and commitment from the city’s incredible public servants than normal times require.

The pandemic also showed just how much certain things matter to communities. The arts world was obviously hurt very badly by the pandemic. They lost their audiences, their ability to go to studios, their funding. They were facing an incredibly uncertain future. We had to be able to help all the city’s arts organizations—museums, performance spaces, dance rehearsal sites—pivot to a completely new world, knowing just how critical they would be to the city’s comeback and to the mental health of our residents. That was all very, very challenging.

How has the plan to create affordable housing units aligned with your expectations?

We were ahead of the numerical targets in our plan as 2021 drew to a close. As importantly, though, we were able to change the very structure of the system to ensure better, fairer housing. For example, the mandatory inclusionary housing program we worked with the City Council to pass means that the city is now securing thousands of new affordable homes in neighborhoods that offer great opportunities for residents, but where the high cost of land made it particularly difficult for government to subsidize affordable units. Mandatory inclusionary zoning applies to the many comprehensive rezonings we achieved—in East New York, Inwood, Jerome Avenue, East Harlem, Bay Street in Staten Island, SoHo/NoHo, and Gowanus—where developers are already constructing thousands of new affordable homes and will continue to build over the coming decade. But inclusionary zoning also applies any time a developer seeks a rezoning through a private application, and that’s producing thousands of units across all areas of the city. If you see a building going up that had to have a rezoning, even for just that lot, it now has to provide affordable housing. That’s a game-changing policy shift, not only in requiring developers to finance affordable housing and to locate it in the same building as their market-rate homes, but also in insisting that every neighborhood provide opportunities for affordable housing.

Now that you’re back at NYU Law, what academic research will you pursue?

COVID gave me a new perspective on the tensions between state and local governments. Seeing the very real challenges that a local government faces when trying to work with state and federal governments to deal with urgent local and very context-specific problems made me think about the allocation of power between the different levels of government differently. So I am going to be thinking harder about when a decision should be made by the state; when it should be made by the local government; how we should work tensions between the governments out; and what we learned during COVID, where we had this natural experiment in which many states preempted their local governments’ ability to respond to the pandemic. There’s lots to learn from that experience.

Another issue that I worked hard on as deputy mayor, as I mentioned with regard to parks, is how we think about fairness in investments. I want to do a lot more work on how we measure equity in spending, which has tremendous implications for reducing racial segregation and the racial wealth gap, and for the trajectories of different neighborhoods and their residents.

During my time in government, I thought a lot about what kinds of academic research were helpful and what weren’t. Academics need to understand that government officials have to make decisions quickly and with imperfect information. They don’t have the luxury of waiting until the right answer is clear, and the perfect is often the enemy of the good. On the other hand, government officials often cook up a plan, take it to academic experts, and say, “OK, by tomorrow I need your comments on this, but I’m not able to share any of the underlying data or thinking on which it is based.” Both sides need to work harder to learn how to work together and have a productive relationship.

I’m really delighted to be able to come back to NYU to tackle these problems. And I am grateful that NYU Law has always valued the role academics can play in helping to inform government policy—both by allowing faculty to take leaves to serve in government and by facilitating research that can help governmental officials make better decisions.

Posted April 4, 2022