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Why Affordable Housing Advocates Should Oppose the City’s Rezoning Plans

The City’s rezoning proposals ‘Zoning for Quality and Affordability’ (ZQA) and dcp-presentation-iconMandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) are making their way through the public review process. If approved, each would profoundly impact our neighborhoods and our city, increasing the size and amount of allowable development.  And while both have received overwhelming disapproval from community boards and Borough Presidents, the Mayor insists they will ultimately be approved.  The City Council has final say over these proposals’ fate, but their position remains to be seen.

It’s therefore critical that New Yorkers get involved with the process.  But affordable housing advocates have a particular stake in ensuring these rezoning plans are not adopted.

Why?  Because these proposals would arguably do little or nothing for the cause of affordability, and might actually do more harm than good.

Through ZQA, the Mayor wants to lift the height limits by as much as 50 feet or 31% for new 80% market-rate/20% affordable developments in “inclusionary” zoning districts throughout the city.  In these zoning districts, market-rate developments are now encouraged but not required to set aside 20% of units as affordable housing; the incentive is additional market rate square footage is granted if they do.

There are height limits for these and all other new developments, to ensure that they fit in with their surroundings.   But the City claims the current height limits prevent developers from including the affordable units, leaving no way to cram in all the extra space for the affordable and additional market-rate units in adequately proportioned spaces.

However, the facts don’t bear this out.

About 50 percent of the new developments in such zoning districts in our area, Greenwich Village and the East Village, include the affordable units at the dimensions the City says we want in new developments.  At the same time, we’ve seen many developers who had ample room to add the affordable units within the current height limits, but simply chose not to. The height limits were not an impediment; within this voluntary program, these developers simply decided it wasn’t worth their while.

(l.) 11 Second Avenue was built under the existing East Village height limits with the maximum amount of affordable housing (20%). Under ZQA, it could grow 25 feet higher, but would not add a single additional unit of affordable housing. (r.) 138 East 12th Street was also built under the existing East Village height limits. The developer chose not to include affordable units, even though the height limits left plenty of room to do so. Under ZQA it is unlikely that a single unit of affordable housing would be included here, but the building might have gotten taller.

So the Mayor is proposing to lift the height limits for such developments though there is little or no evidence that it will result in a single additional unit of affordable housing being built.   What it will do is increase out-of-scale construction in residential neighborhoods, and eliminate hard-fought-for height limits which were often delicate compromises that took years to craft and achieve.

While ZQA would do little or nothing to help affordability, making the current voluntary affordable housing program mandatory clearly would.

Many people think Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), the companion to ZQA, will do that. But under the Mayor’s plan, it won’t.

MIH would require that new residential developments include 25-30% affordable units.  But under the Mayor’s plan, MIH would only be applied in areas where rezonings also allow a large increase in the allowable size of market-rate housing development.

But many areas of the city will probably never see MIH because such large increases in the allowable size of development, especially market-rate development, are just not tenable.

Perhaps worse, requiring a huge increase in the allowable amount of market-rate housing in order to get a significantly smaller amount of affordable housing will have the net effect of making an area less affordable, not more — to say nothing of the impact it will have destroying neighborhood character and livability.

Cases in point: the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront and West Chelsea/Hudson Yards.  These are the two areas of the city which have seen the largest production of affordable housing in recent years, through programs similar but not identical to MIH.

But the price for the affordable housing in those neighborhoods was the tsunami of large-scale, market-rate housing to which it was attached. This resulted from zoning changes significantly increasing the amount of market-rate housing which could be built, which the city says would also be a prerequisite for using MIH.

Rendering of Hudson Yards after full build out.

The result: two of the most rapidly gentrifying, unaffordable neighborhoods in New York, with a scale and sense of place more like Hong Kong or Miami than New York. While the percentage of affordable housing under MIH might be slightly different (in those cases 27-28 percent was promised, as compared to MIH’s commitment of 25-30 percent), the net effect would be pretty similar.

So why would the Mayor so aggressively pursue ZQA, which has little or no likelihood of increasing affordability, and choose to significantly diminish the effectiveness of MIH, which would?

It seems the Mayor is intent upon staying on the good side of the real estate industry, and thus far he has succeeded. As has been widely reported, industry players have been his biggest financial backers, and generous to the “Campaign for One New York,” the nonprofit fund which supports the Mayor’s ‘affordable housing’ plans and other initiatives. The Mayor seems to be trying to make his rezoning proposals as palatable to big real estate as possible, regardless of how it affects the outcomes.

A further example: right now we are pushing the Mayor to rezone a 12-block area of Greenwich Village that currently allows 300-foot-tall towers, and guarantees such new developments will be 100 percent luxury housing, hotels, or dorms.  We want to change the zoning to impose reasonable height limits for new development, eliminate incentives for dorms and hotels, and add incentives (or requirements, if the City agreed) for including affordable housing.

The administration’s response: an adamant no. Mayor de Blasio wants to keep the existing luxury tower-only zoning.

ZQA and MIH as proposed may please the Mayor’s real estate backers.  But they won’t accomplish their purported goals of increasing affordability.

Want to help?  Attend the City Council public hearings at City Hall on Tuesday February 9 or Wednesday February 10 starting at 9:30 am, and send letters to city officials in opposition here (letters can also be used as sample testimony; testimony must be no more than four minutes, but 20 copies of written testimony of any length can be submitted).  More information on how to testify, track when you will be called to speak etc. can be found here and here.

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