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05.06.2014
Fighting for Affordability
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveils $41 billion housing plan.
Courtesy NYC Mayor's Office

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade was a cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. From the outset, de Blasio set a specific target – and now the city finally knows how he plans to hit it.

In the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn—where glossy apartment towers are rising at a remarkable clip—the mayor unveiled his $41.1 billion strategy to fight back against New York’s affordability crisis. The city is heralding the plan as “the most expansive and ambitious affordable housing agenda of its kind in the nation’s history.”

The city will provide $8.2 billion for the plan, and hopes to secure $30 billion more from private funds. The rest of the cost will ideally come out of state and federal coffers.

“This plan thinks big--because it has to,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement. “The changes we are setting in motion today will reach a half-million New Yorkers, in every community, and from every walk of life. They will make our families and our city stronger.”

 

As expected, one of the central pieces of de Blasio’s plan is “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” which will require developers to include below market-rate units at rezoned sites. Under Bloomberg, developers were incentivized—but not required—to make 20 percent of new projects affordable. While inclusionary zoning is a focal point of this plan, it is easy to overstate its impact. According to The New York Times, inclusionary zoning under Bloomberg—albeit voluntary—only created 2,800 affordable units since 2005.

Still, mandatory inclusionary zoning will likely have a significant impact on the size and scale of future development. This part of the plan was foreshadowed in March as the city was hammering out the final details of the Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment. Before granting approval to the project, the mayor demanded that it include more affordable housing. The developer, Two Trees, obliged, and in return taller towers were approved. De Blasio’s New York will likely be a denser New York.

 

And a denser New York means a happier development community. Not surprisingly, the Real Estate Board of New York is applauding the mayor’s plan. “It identifies the problems and provides a realistic roadmap for solutions,” said Steven Spinola, the board’s president, in a statement.

Along with mandatory inclusionary zoning, the City will also “re-examine parking requirements, zoning envelope constraints, and restrictions on the transferability of development rights.” It is also launching two programs to incentive development on vacant lots. This part of the plan received high praise from the city’s architectural community. “The AIA New York Chapter supports the Mayor’s affordable housing plan and notes, in particular, that the plan calls for ‘unlocking’ potential sites for new housing development by changes in regulatory procedures, including potential changes in zoning,” said Rick Bell, the chapter’s president.

 

But for all the focus on development, new projects only represent 40 percent of the plan—or 80,000 units. The other, bigger, piece of the pie is directed at preserving the affordable units that currently exist. For starters, the City plans to double the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s capital budget.

To slow the tide of deregulation, the City is proposing a host of incentives for property owners to keep units from leaving rent-regulation. It will also focus on keeping currently affordable, and non-regulated units, from dramatic rent increases in the future.

According to the plan, “such investments will allow current tenants to benefit from improved units, and permit future tenants to be assured that the unit remains affordable, even as the neighborhood’s housing values and rents increase.”

The City also plans to engage in a “respectful conversation” about the potential of development on NYCHA’s underused land. This proposal, which sounds an awful lot like Bloomberg’s “land lease plan,” was heavily criticized by de Blasio back when he was a candidate.

Another key focus of the mayor’s plan is reducing homelessness—ccording to the city, 50,000 New Yorkers currently sleep in shelters every night. To lower those ranks, the city will reallocate some funding from shelters to lower-cost permanent housing for the homeless.

While both housing activists and the development community have lauded the mayor’s strategy, his 115-page plan leaves many questions unanswered. But what is exceptionally clear is the daunting challenge before the mayor. His predecessor claims to have built or preserved 165,000 units of affordable housing in 12 years and now Mayor de Blasio says there is no choice, but to achieve more in less time.

“We didn’t want to take the easy way out,” said the mayor. “We didn’t want to take the slower path. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something that had never been done before because our people need it.”

Henry Melcher