An abridged version of this piece appeared as an op-ed in the January 23, 2020 edition of AM-Metro NY.
A recent report issued on behalf of the NYC Department of City Planning, the Manhattan Borough President, and City Councilmember Margaret Chin called for seeking opportunities to create affordable housing in SoHo and NoHo, and to increase density to do so. That suggestion has recently been amplified by a small but vocal group of activists who’ve made this their No. 1 priority as zoning changes are being considered for these lower Manhattan neighborhoods.
This may sound benign enough; there’s no denying New York City in general and these increasingly pricey neighborhoods in particular need affordable housing, and one could easily be forgiven for thinking that “increased density” means nothing more than allowing smaller buildings to be replaced by larger ones for this purpose. In fact, what is actually being called for is something far less innocuous, that would result in much more super-luxury than affordable housing being added, and in grossly out-of-scale development of the sort currently prohibited in these neighborhoods. And no one would benefit so much from these proposed changes as the real estate developers who would earn a tremendous windfall if they were implemented.
The de Blasio administration has adopted a policy whereby in order to get new affordable housing mandated in a neighborhood, communities must accept a massive ‘upzoning,’ meaning a change in rules to allow much larger development than what is currently allowed. Every New York City neighborhood has limits on the size of new development defined by local zoning; no matter the limits, though, those rules allow substantial new construction to take place in every neighborhood in New York City. But in order to get affordable housing as a required part of the mix, the de Blasio administration insists that existing zoning rules be changed for that neighborhood to allow a doubling or tripling of the allowable size of new development. Only in those cases will they impose requirements that 25-30% of new housing fit certain criteria for affordability.
But here’s the catch — the upzoning that’s attached means that getting that small amount of affordable housing also means getting 70-175% more market-rate housing than would otherwise be built along with it, which in neighborhoods like SoHo and NoHo (and many others in New York City) means super-luxury housing. And it also means that new buildings will be 2-3 times the size of those which have been going up in the area. This way, the real estate developers who will build the housing (and who by no coincidence are also the largest contributors to Mayor de Blasio’s campaigns) will actually make much more money than they would otherwise on their properties, which is why they have been largely supportive of this policy.
To use some real life examples, new construction in SoHo includes 10 Sullivan Street (204 feet tall), The James Hotel (258 feet tall), and The Mondrian SoHo (311 feet tall) — all built under the existing size limits for construction in the neighborhood. Upzoning advocates are calling for allowing new construction two and half times as large as what’s currently allowed.
Such changes are a real possibility, given the confluence of real estate interests, city government officials, and upzoning advocates using the false premise of affordable housing as justification for seeking this dramatic policy shift. If implemented, it would result in a radical change in the character of these historic neighborhoods — not only in terms of oversized development, but introducing a flood of new luxury housing under the guise of creating new affordable housing. This is why communities across the city — from Bushwick to Inwood to Sunset Park — are resisting these upzoning proposals.
This approach is absolutely unnecessary. Even the city’s existing policy would allow requirements for the inclusion of affordable housing when non-residential buildings are converted to housing, which is the source of by far the majority of SoHo and NoHo’s housing. And the city can and should end its practice of making massive upzonings a requirement for affordable housing.
If not, we’ll continue to be presented with this false choice between maintaining neighborhood character and building new affordable housing, and continue to bear the burden of the false linkage between new affordable housing and vastly increased and comparatively much larger amounts of new super-luxury housing as the price to pay for it.