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There’s Been A Lot of Talk About Affordable Housing in SoHo and NoHo. Here’s What They Really Mean

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.

The report — click to read.

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.

Village Preservation signs and flyers at the recent Community Board 2 hearing on the SoHo NoHo report, via the Village Sun https://thevillagesun.com/divisions-over-envision-soho-noho-rezoning-at-meeting

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.

(l. to r.) 10 Sullivan St. (204 ft. tall), The James Hotel (258 ft. tall), and the Mondrian SoHo (311 ft. tall).

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.

A classic SoHo/NoHo streetscape. Will the City maintain this, or allow an upzoning which allows dramatically out-of-scale new development?

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.

See www.gvshp.org/sohonoho for more information.  Click here to send a letter to city officials opposing upzoning NoHo and SoHo.

4 responses to “There’s Been A Lot of Talk About Affordable Housing in SoHo and NoHo. Here’s What They Really Mean

  1. Dear CB 2:
    I was at the meeting at the Sheen Center, and here are my comments:
    When a speaker identifies themselves as a current, longtime resident of Soho, they are in effect establishing a pedigree. They walk the streets daily, use public transportation, and have shared the ups and downs of the neighborhood for years. They understand the needs of the community in a deep and resonant way.
    During the Sheen Center meeting, many people stood up and made sweeping statements without have established any credibility. They said they stood for “lower carbon footprints” that would be achieved by “greater density” and “more housing.” No one asked for their credentials.
    Had any of the speakers representing real estate development ever actually built a green building? If not, they cannot recommend this for Soho. Have they experienced the weekend crowds, the overflowing garbage and general filth dumped upon our streets daily? Every day?
    Have they ever taken the subway at peak hours from one of the stations in Soho? Climbed up the stairs from the D, B, F. and W trains on a regular basis? Have they the depth of information and intimate experience that residents of Soho have? The answer, I believe is no.
    A great many crocodile tears were shed by them, as they expanded on ideas founded fundamentally on 3 pillars: 1. a lack of deep experience of quotidian life in Soho. 2. greed disguised as altruism and wisdom 3. dishonesty cloaked in fact, false trends, and extraneous bits of misleading fluff–such as quoting presidential candidates saying more housing and more density is required. Certainly not of a small landmarked, and already threatened area, that by its tenuous existence draws millions of tourists who create millions of dollars in revenue for the city, state, and federal government. And all this is to be born on the backs of long term residents who in one way or another contributed to the creation of a district so remarkable and unique that it has made its way onto every major and minor tourist guide published around the world?
    Tell me: are we always to remain under attack? Will there always be a state of emergency in Soho? Live music until 2 am, mega-stores, mega-apartments? Alway more demand by the 1% that so clearly benefit from the proposals for more and more buildings housing more wealthy people, extension of huge chain stores?
    Their vision inevitably leads to the absolute destruction of one of the few intact historical districts in New York City and the sweeping away of the people who sacrificed heat, elevator service, mail delivery, legality, protection from the avarice and aggression of landlords. And will the CB 2 take these phonies and their phoney excuses for the real thing? This cannot be.

    Look around you carefully as I do. Walk these streets at every hour of the day, as I do. Go through the hardships, spend your measly life’s savings to renovate someone else’s property, as I did. Raise your children here, haul your groceries by hand, ride a bike in fear of traffic, try to cross Broadway and Houston on summer weekends. Try to take out recycling at 6 pm. as I do. Avoid getting knocked over as people come at you four abreast on a sidewalk that accommodates only two in each direction, as I do, aged 69. Wonder what will happen when that NYU building is occupied, or any one of the fancy new condos that sell for more money than you, your children and your children’s children will ever have. Please do this! I personally promise it will be highly effective when it comes down to deciding what the hell to do with the former Hell’s Hundred Acres.

  2. Great article as always by A. Berman. I wish Carlina Rivera, our local Councilwoman would be as eloquent in defending us.

  3. I’m glad Andrew Berman clarified the GVSHP position against the up zoning and mega retail proposals supported by City Planning, Boro President Brewer and M. Chin. I also was at the community board meeting at the Sheen Center to support the Soho community and GVSHP. It’s clear that only the real estate development community would benefit from these two very wrongheaded proposals. Young housing activists supporting the City’s proposals seem to be confused and/or co-opted by real estate development interests in their understandable desire for affordable housing. As Mr. Berman makes clear, Soho can get affordable housing by creating housing in existing buildings and/or building according to existing zoning while leaving the beauty and human scale pleasures of Soho, our neighborhood, for current and future residents to enjoy.

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