Lack of Deeper Affordability Hurting Mayor’s Housing Plan

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

When Mayor de Blasio first introduced his ambitious affordable housing plan, the Community Service Society and other advocates for the poor voiced concerns about the plan’s income targeting. Chief among them were the fact that only 20 percent of the envisioned “affordable” units in the plan would be accessible to New York families with the lowest incomes.

As conceived, the mayor’s “Housing New York” blueprint calls for nearly 60 percent of the apartments to be  targeted to low-and middle-income households earning roughly 51 to 80 percent of the Federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Area Median Income (AMI), which translates to $38,000 to $60,000 for a family of three.

Compare that with the reality that more than a third of the city’s households -- including half of Latino households -- earn incomes considered “very low” or below 50 percent of AMI. Within that group, 30 percent of city households are below 40 percent of AMI. And 22 percent of households are below 30 percent of AMI.

You get the picture.

Misgivings about the mayor’s affordable housing plan voiced nearly two years ago are today serving to revive other legitimate housing issues in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Specifically, that persistent concerns about gentrification, seemingly unchecked re-development and mounting fears that a trend is emerging in which newly-developed apartments offer affordability levels that effectively lock out incumbent populations and those with the greatest need for affordable housing.

Majority of Community Boards Oppose Plan

The mayor has to be disappointed with the community opposition to his housing proposal. Before this month’s City Planning Commission vote to approve a mandatory inclusionary housing program – the last step before it goes to the City Council -- 43 of the city’s 59 Community Boards voted against the plan.

In essence, mandatory inclusionary housing requires new buildings to include a portion of rent and income-restricted apartments in exchange for permitting developers to increase density and building height on residential projects. At a public hearing on the plan last week, several Council members echoed the concerns voiced by housing advocates and low-income residents that the plan left out the city’s lowest income residents and vowed to make changes. 

The de Blasio administration’s use of the city’s zoning power to stimulate adequate supplies of affordable housing makes sense, especially given the city’s dwindling stock of developable land for those purposes. However, inclusionary zoning raises a number of important problems as an affordable housing strategy because of the way it links affordable housing development to market development.

As CSS Housing Policy Analyst Tom Waters stated in his Feb. 10 testimony before the Council Committee on Land Use: “The affordability benefits from a rezoning must be enough to mitigate the rent pressures that result from redevelopment. And that means that they must target the households most at risk: those with the lowest incomes.”

Once a neighborhood is re-zoned, it’s re-zoned forever

Now that the Council has heard from the public, we hope it will focus on how to really include poor and near-poor people in the redevelopment that will come through rezoning. That means lower affordability levels. The de Blasio Administration says that it can reach more people at these lower affordability levels by adding subsidies on a building-by-building basis with requirements beyond those of the inclusionary zoning proposal or 421-a, which expired in January. This is true, but problematic.

Before we rezone a neighborhood to allow more density, which will stimulate higher-rent development, we need to make sure developers don’t just do the minimum on affordability and leave most of the neighborhood’s incumbent population out in the cold. Let’s understand something; the city’s additional subsidies don’t have to be taken by developers. But once a neighborhood is rezoned, it’s rezoned forever. We won’t get a second chance if developers decide to leave people with lower incomes out of their plans.

Through their community boards, many of the city’s low-income neighborhoods have expressed their displeasure with mandatory inclusionary housing. They have done so because they lack the confidence that rezoning-based redevelopment will meet their housing needs. The City Council can show they’ve heard these communities loud and clear by amending the proposal so that it includes firm commitments to include housing that matches community needs, even if that requires the use of subsidies.

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