As he promised to do nearly a year ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio is moving forward with Zoning for Quality and Affordability, his gargantuan $41 billion plan intended to create and preserve hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units city-wide. But since the city released early details in February, responses have been decidedly mixed. (What, you thought this was going to be simple?)
While just about everyone agrees the city needs more affordable housing options, not everyone's so sure about a key strategy in the mayor's proposal: changes in zoning that will allow developers to build higher, and by continuing to make deals requiring developers to include a certain amount of affordable units in new construction (i.e. more "80/20" buildings).
Unsurprisingly, the plan has a lot of moving parts, and involves keeping a lot of disparate groups happy. While it's still in its early planning stages—and as the months-long public review process (and public debate) heats up—here are the key details you need to know:
THE MAJOR POINTS
In addition to preserving the city's existing affordable housing, de Blasio hopes to create 80,000 new affordable units, which means clearing the way for a lot of new construction, and requiring developers to include affordable units in their projects. This approach is rooted in the basic supply-and-demand concept that the creation of new housing stock will help alleviate the city's housing crisis, particularly if inclusion of affordable housing in the mix is mandatory.
"If you're restricting building or construction in general or in entire neighborhoods, that's one of the worst thing you can do in terms of affordability," John Karras, urban planner and founder of UrbanScale tells us, citing economist Ed Glaeser's findings in Triumph of the City. "There may be good reasons to preserve certain buildings or neighborhoods, but that also keeps supply very low. Nothing is going to make New York cheap, obviously, but restricting housing will make things worse for average zones."
In part, this means subsidizing plans to build affordable housing developments in areas like East New York and Sunnyside Yards. "It’s more than just managing growth, it’s about protecting the affordable housing we have now and ensuring new development has affordable housing as a matter of law" in gentrifying neighborhoods, City Hall spokesperson Wiley Norvell tells us. Another key factor in the plan is loosening existing zoning rules (or "modernizing" them, per the city's language) to allow for taller buildings and a wider variety of designs—even in neighborhoods that currently have special height limits meant to preserve character—in exchange for the inclusion of affordable units and housing for seniors. The plan would also eliminate parking space requirements (which have known criticized as hampering affordable housing) for affordable, senior, and inclusionary housing near transit lines.
- Preservationists. Those "modernized" changes to height and design requirements? A lot of neighborhood activists aren't exactly thrilled about them. Many neighborhoods like the Village and the East Village have hard-won "contextual zoning requirements," which limits height and street-wall requirements for new developments to help keep a neighborhood's historic and architectural character intact. (In other words, developers can't plop down a massive glass tower on a quaint cobblestone street.) Some residents of Carroll Gardens, whose rezoning was helped along by then-council-member de Blasio, feel particularly betrayed by the about-face. Put simply, few seem completely convinced that rezoning would create enough affordability to be worth the potential change. "There should be more than 20 percent affordable units in new buildings" in order to justify the rezoning of historically valuable districts, Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation tells us. "We should be getting a lot more in return, at the very least. I have some skepticism about whether this is a helpful route to go, where you're tying the production of affordable housing to market-rate housing. Like everyone else, we believe in the goals, but we think that the plan needs some really serious changes if it's going to meet them."
- Affordable housing advocates. As with many critics concerned about preservation, a lot of affordable housing advocates feel that local communities should have been consulted earlier in the process. (Per the New York Times, many in East New York, for instance, are wary of what even affordable housing development might do to prices and the pace of gentrification in the neighborhood.) "Process is important, and [not involving communities] was a mistake," says Rob Solano, executive director of Churches United for Fair Housing. "But I don't think it's a big enough stumble to say, 'that's it, the rest of the plan sucks.' I want to look past that." The main question on the mind of affordable housing advocates, says Solano, is exactly what will be required of developers, and how ratios of affordable housing units and income requirements will vary building to building and neighborhood to neighborhood. The key here is to create enough protections and enough affordable units to ease the effects of "secondary displacement," when a new development raises overall prices in the surrounding neighborhood (see: the Williamsburg waterfront). "Once one building charges higher rent, everyone wants to get in on the game," says Solano, who adds, "The devil is in the details. If development is dependent on private owners, then the leverage is important." On affordable housing advocates' wish lists? Affordable housing ratios higher than 20 percent in new developments, income requirements that reflect the income of the surrounding neighborhood, and particularly heavy concessions for owners of manufacturing land opting into a residential re-zoning (i.e. if new zoning allowed a Bushwick factory owner to convert to a full-on apartment building, he'd have to do a lot for affordability in exchange for the massive boost in profits). In spite of all the questions, though, Solano tells us, "There are people in real desperate need that cannot wait for politics to sort themselves out."
WHAT IT ALL MIGHT MEAN FOR YOU, AND WHAT'S NEXT
In the long run, this could mean some taller buildings—and higher overall prices—in your neighborhood, depending on where you live. It could also mean more options if you're hoping to apply for an affordable rental, and some long train rides to visit your friends who've decided to move to East New York.
But for now? Not much. Technically, the public review process hasn't even begun, and won't until the city releases a draft of its Environmental Impact Statement sometime in the next month or two. (The public had the option to weigh in until this week.) From there, the public review process will officially open up in the summer through the fall, and eventually culminate in a city council vote. If you'd like to get involved, now's the time to start going to your local community board meetings—this is likely to be a hot topic with boards across the city—and keeping an eye on the Department of City Planning website for dates of future public meetings.
To dig deeper:
Citywide rezoning would benefit developers, hurt neighborhoods (Gotham Gazette)