Wary Of Delaying Local Input, Officials Question De Blasio Zoning Plan

City & State
December 16, 2015
By Sarina Trangle

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s zoning proposals garnered support from some affordable housing developers at a City Planning Commission hearing on Wednesday, but elected officials criticized the administration for trying to pass citywide zoning templates and later modify them for specific neighborhoods, as opposed to taking a local approach from the beginning.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz described two zoning proposals put forward by the de Blasio administration as philosophically “troublesome” because, unlike prior approaches, communities may not be involved. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said a more localized, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to affordable housing had successfully generated 17,000 units under his tenure. And New York City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez said she was so frustrated with the description of community board votes on the matter as “advisory” that she would not answer questions, instead deferring to the four community boards in her district.

“I pay particular attention to what my community boards have to say, and I hope you do too,” Mendez told the City Planning Commission during the hearing, which drew a packed crowd in the auditorium of the National Museum of the American Indian. “I urge the administration to take a moment to consider that perhaps Zoning for Quality and Affordability must depart from the one-size-fits-all approach and to work with each and every community board to tailor this proposal to the needs of our different communities.”

De Blasio administration officials at the City Planning Commission hearing Wednesday claimed that the more general framework was needed to shift the paradigm.

Echoing the administration’s argument, former Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Rafael Cestero, who now leads Community Preservation Corporation, a nonprofit providing financing for affordable developments, said the citywide Mandatory Inclusionary Housing approach would set a new baseline in negotiations.

“No longer are we negotiating over a housing project in a particular neighborhood and starting with, ‘I have the ability to build; and I have the ability to build without affordable housing,’” he said. “We would be starting with a conversation that says, ‘You have to build with affordable housing.’ And then there would be a negotiation that would happen through the public review process … for each individual project and each individual neighborhood.”

The City Planning Commission is expected to vote on the two zoning proposals in early February. If approved, they would be directed to the City Council for final vote. The first proposal, Zoning for Quality and Affordability, includes several tweaks meant to promote a spectrum of senior facilities and more modern, mixed-income housing near mass transit. It would eliminate parking space requirements for projects within a half-mile of subway stations, allow for taller buildings and lift street setback and other provisions that can currently cut into sites’ authorized footprint.

The second measure, called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, would allow for denser development but require “permanently” affordable units. The regulation would require builders to set aside varying portions of their developments for affordable housing for families with income levels that average out to either 60, 80 or 120 percent of the area median income.

The proposed income thresholds have spurred criticism, however. Jennifer Gray-Brumskine, who lives in Staten Island and is involved with the Real Affordability for All and Make the Road New York community advocacy groups, said few in the borough’s North Shore African immigrant community could afford the income levels eyed for the subsidized housing. She described the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing option targeting middle income New Yorkers as so out of reach that she’d have to retire, get another job in Africa and return to afford it.

“MIH take leverage and power out of the hands of communities and give away density without requiring enough in return,” Gray-Brumskine said.

When asked whether the administration would consider lowering the average income levels tied to the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Proposal, Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said, “we are visiting, we have revisited” the matter and described subsidy programs for extremely low-income New Yorkers. Been added that any neighborhood considered for rezoning would go through the traditional land use process, and local input taken into account. In the administration’s first upzoning proposal, in East New York, Been pointed out the city committed to ensuring 15 percent of the first 1,200 units would be reserved for those earning 40 percent of the area median income.

Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, joined Been in emphasizing that the two zoning strategies would work in tandem with several other components of the administration’s affordable housing platform. Glen said the city had budgeted $8.2 billion, which would leverage another $32 billion for capital work on housing. The city also broadened the affordability requirements for developers receiving the 421-a property tax benefit and had taken steps to help the homeless, seniors and those with disabilities with housing, she added.

“These are citywide frameworks, but they have been crafted with the flexibility to meet the needs of our diverse communities,” Glen said. “We can’t just sit by and do nothing as market pressures change the city that many of us grew up in and love. We are doing everything we can, but we need the ability to do even more. … Communities need to understand that this is a fundamental game changer.”

Developers in the affordable housing sphere joined the Real Estate Board of New York and the Partnership for New York City in voicing support for the administration’s approach. Elizabeth Strojan, of the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners group, said the housing crisis could not be solved without the changes.

However, some elected officials said they were uncomfortable with the city waiting to hash out the details with the communities they represent. Diaz said the review time given to community boards ran counter to “the spirit of progressive, inclusionary and transparent government.” He said the changes his constituents sought had not materialized. Mendez repeatedly praised the suggestions and input from her local community boards. And Katz, who previously chaired the City Council’s Land Use Committee, questioned the idea that starting with a blanket Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy would produce preferable results than in the past.

“We negotiated a lot of affordable housing over the last decade as well,” she said. “I did it in my committee, and we did it with the community. The communities have been involved with every, single rezoning, and in this particular case, that’s not going to be the case. And I think that’s really my philosophical issue here.”