a sweeping housing bill passes, but complaints remain News

| 28 Mar 2016 | 05:47

A week after New York’s City Council passed the biggest, most extensive changes to New York’s housing and zoning laws since 1961, handing a major victory to Mayor Bill de Blasio, neighborhood groups across the city say they still don’t think the changes go far enough.

The bill requires developers building in newly rezoned areas of the city to include below-market-rate housing, and encourages developers to build more affordable and senior housing by removing requirements like parking garages and height limits.

Both elements of the plan went before all 59 New York City community boards, with only five of them voting in approval. Because of the community boards’ opposition -- and complaints by other groups -- council members made changes to de Blasio’s original proposals, which were then passed on March 22.

But frustration with the policies remains. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said he was “not happy with either of the proposals in their entirety.” While the council primarily focuses on preserving buildings, rather than making them more affordable, Bankoff feels that the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing part of the bill is a step in the right direction. But he takes issue with its basis in upzoning, a term used when buildings are rezoned for more intensive purposes, like when residential buildings are upzoned for commercial use. “[MIH] doesn’t work without upzoning,” Bankoff said. “And we’re not totally satisfied or thrilled with that as a policy decision to try to cure the affordability crisis.”

The historic council’s main concern, however, is with the other part of the bill, called Zoning for Quality and Affordability. Bankoff particularly dislikes the way the new zoning policy endangers the character of many New York neighborhoods by countering measures--like height limits--that various community groups have fought for in order to preserve that same character. He described it as “top-down, really messy and indiscriminate,” and worries that it will put pressure on the Landmarks Preservation Commission to approve more development in historic districts. “The basic concern is what we see to be an inherent conflict in public policy,” he said. “The fact that the city has now gone on record saying ‘our policy is to encourage development’ now puts additional pressure on the historic districts and on the Landmarks Commission itself to approve bigger buildings. (The LPC) doesn’t want to be seen as standing in the way of city policy.”

According to Bankoff, his group was involved in countering the legislation -- meeting with city councilmembers, making presentations at community meetings and sending letters -- from the start. “To their credit, city planning listened a little bit and City Council responded better and kept a lot of the height limits in place,” he said. “But it’s still, at the end of the day, a plan that’s being imposed across the city to encourage higher, denser developments in areas that had fought very hard to not have that kind of development.”

Maritza Silva-Farrell, campaign director of Real Affordability for All, also conceded that changes represent steps forward, despite there being much more to accomplish. RAFA, a community coalition with a variety of campaigns, was formed once it became clear that affordable housing would be a main focus of de Blasio’s administration. “We came out with a report about a year and a half ago identifying about 700,000 people who needed affordable housing and did not get it,” Silva-Farrell said.

One of her key issues with MIH is that it does not include provisions for the creation of jobs to go along with all the new construction the policy will supposedly encourage. “What kind of jobs are going to be created?” she asks. Hopefully, she said, ones that pay more and that employ local workers so that they will be able to afford the new housing being built in their neighborhoods.

Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, said her organization was most concerned with the fact that the original proposal’s lowest Area Median Income (AMI) required by MIH was 60 percent, or roughly $51,000 per year for a family of three. ANHD pushed to change the proposal and helped get it lowered to 40 percent AMI, adding about half a million households to those eligible, though the group was hoping for 30 percent. “We think that it is far from perfect, but we also think it is a very strong policy,” Goldstein said. “That said, it’s still not enough.”

She is particularly concerned, like Bankoff, about the likely increase in upzonings that will result from the new policies. “Displacement is another huge issue,” she said, referring to residents who will be suddenly priced out as their once-affordable neighborhoods are upzoned.

“You can’t build your way out of this mess,” Bankoff said.