New Yorkers debate de Blasio’s housing plans during day-long hearing

POLITICO New York

December 16, 2015

By Sally Goldenberg

Nearly 200 people filled a meeting room Wednesday to debate the merits of Mayor Bill de Blasio's two zoning proposals city officials believe will help them create and preserve more low-income housing.

The lively, full-day hearing in Lower Manhattan was hosted by the City Planning Commission. It began with testimony from top administration officials who defended the contentious proposals, which would require more below-market-rate apartments from developers who get city-issued rezonings and enable more development through a series of zoning changes.

Panels of five speakers each were grouped together based on whether they supported or opposed the plans.

Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, described the issue in dire terms. "I really want to stress: We are in a true housing crisis," she told commission members.

Glen said the private real estate market, which has been booming in recent years, will not yield sufficient housing options that are affordable to New Yorkers without government intervention.

"This may not be the most perfect solution in the world, but the status quo is certainly not going to address the concerns that are legitimately being raised by communities," Glen said.

At one point, commission member Michelle de la Uz asked Glen why she thought so many New Yorkers have expressed reservations about the plan.

Glen said it "would be folly for me" to presume a full understanding of the opposition.

Instead, she and Vicki Been, de Blasio's housing commissioner, said the proposals would be used in concert with a far more powerful tool— large sums of money.

The city has budgeted $8.2 billion over 10 years to subsidize part of the mayor's goal to create and preserve 200,000 low- to moderate-income apartments by 2024.

"We are trying to stretch our public dollars to get down to those very low incomes and we will continue to do so," Been said in her testimony, which followed Glen's.

Been's remarks were meant to push back against housing advocates, residents and politicians who believe the proposal known as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) does not require sufficiently affordable apartments from developers.

The plan would mandate that builders who get a permitted land rezoning devote 25 percent of their units for those earning, on average, 60 percent of the area median income, or 30 percent of their apartments for those making 80 percent of the area median income. A third option known as "workforce housing" would allow builders to devote 30 percent of their units to tenants earning 120 percent of the area median income. That option, which would ensure developers get higher rents, would not come with further subsidies as the others would.

In New York City and its surrounding counties, the AMI is $77,688 for a family of three and $86,313 for a family of four. The ratio is set by the federal government.

Some of the speakers Wednesday asked the commission, which will vote on the proposals in February, to retool the plans to ensure housing is even cheaper, particularly as low-income neighborhoods become more attractive with new development fueled by city subsidies.

"Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is a great name. I love it. I'd love it even more if it said Mandatory Inclusionary Housing for all," said Janet Jones, a speaker who identified herself as a reverend.

Jones said the city's promise to provide housing for people who make less than the incomes targeted by the plan is, for now at least, just talk since it is not written into the text of the proposal.

"And somebody has to speak for those who are not written about in the plan," she said.

"We don't think it's going to create affordable housing for the New Yorkers who need it most. We don't think it's going to create good jobs," said another speaker, Ava Farkas, executive director of the tenant advocacy organization Metropolitan Council on Housing.

Farkas said half of New Yorkers who rent apartments make less than half the AMI. "They are the most rent-burdened and they are the most in need of affordable housing," she said.

Her comments were echoed by dozens of members of an activist coalition known as Real Affordability For All, which wants the plan to mandate protections for union workers once construction begins.

Glen, in her testimony, also highlighted the number of New Yorkers who are rent-burdened — a classification that refers to those paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. The deputy mayor said 56 percent of New Yorkers fall into that classification.

As the speakers addressed the 13-member commission at the Museum of the American Indian, a clear trend emerged: Much of the opposition was directed at the proposal known as Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), while most supporters were more interested in the merits of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.

Affordable housing developers, who would benefit from a government program that would incentivize their business, took turns touting the merits of the plans, while skeptical residents insisted the rules would allow too much additional height on buildings and encourage developers to reduce parking spaces.

Rafael Cestero, president and CEO of the Community Preservation Corporation, which finances affordable housing, spoke on behalf of the proposals.

Cestero also served as one of former mayor Michael Bloomberg's housing commissioners.

"Without seeing the totality of this plan, it is easy to pick apart a zoning strategy as something that would lead to further pressure on low-income communities. But when you look at the various policies and plans that work in concert with one another under the umbrella of the Housing Plan New York, you recognize that this is very far from the truth," Cestero said.

The initiatives, he said, would "mitigate gentrification, but they should not and were never meant to be viewed in a vacuum."

Adam Weinstein, president and CEO of affordable housing builder Phipps Houses, said federal tax credits satisfy some of the lower-income populations MIH is not targeting. In fact, he said, it is especially hard to build homes for those earning between 60 percent and 90 percent of the area median income.

One of the prominent drivers of low-income housing in New York is a tax break known as 421-a. De Blasio pushed to require more rent-regulated housing than the policy previously did when it was up for renewal this year. His plan was passed, with some changes, by the state Legislature in June, but it will not take effect unless the Real Estate Board of New York and the building trades union reach an agreement on labor wages.

Those talks are said to be going poorly by several sources. The current tax abatement program expires Dec. 31.

Without 421-a to entice developers to build rentals, the mayor's housing plan would likely lose steam.

City officials have not publicly said how many units of housing they believe their two proposals would create, but most housing and land use experts do not believe they would be the central driving force to spur new development.

Nevertheless, they are being presented to the City Council as a package that will be voted on in early 2016 in a final, binding vote.

Several Council members testified on Wednesday. Manhattan Democrat Rosie Mendez expressed concern that ZQA, which encourages more housing for the city's growing population of senior citizens, would not be permanently affordable. The requirement would expire after 30 years.

Yet the plan has received the backing of the AARP and a prominent supporter of senior causes — Bobbie Sackman of the organization LiveOn NY.

Sackman spoke in favor of one controversial aspect of the plan — removing required parking lots for senior affordable developments and low-income buildings within one-half mile of a subway.

"I represent people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who don't have money. They can't afford a car," Sackman said.

Her organization conducted a study earlier this year that found the vast majority of parking spaces for senior homes are not being used throughout the city.

"I know this well — your relationship with time changes as you get older," she said. "There's no waiting list for parking; there's waiting lists for housing."

The hearing turned out many familiar faces in New York City's many housing and zoning debates.

Andrew Berman and members of the Greenwich Village Historical Society for Historic Preservation, which he runs, spoke out against the additional allowed height in rezoned areas.

"ZQA proposes to increase height limits under a variety of circumstances for purely market-rate housing — 5 to 10 feet in contextual zones, and up to 20 feet for quality housing," Berman said. "We believe this is absolutely wrong and should not be approved."

Kathy Wylde, president of the business organization Partnership for New York City and Michael Slattery, a vice president at the Real Estate Board of New York, both spoke in favor.

Slattery commended the plan for allowing off-site affordable housing, saying the current restrictions on that have "limited the opportunity to create more affordable housing."

"Our housing and affordable housing problem is in part a result of too restrictive land use regulations, including absolute height limits and use and bulk and parking regulations which are outdated," he said.