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NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis Puts Deference to City Council and Local Opposition Under Scrutiny

Every new unit must be built in someone’s backyard, but the current approval process stymies building, say developers and some advocates.

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Mayor Eric Adams announces the start of construction on a $189 million affordable housing development in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, July 27, 2022.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams went to Throgs Neck in The Bronx on Sept. 7 to make the case for a rezoning plan that would greenlight construction on four new developments with 349 apartment units — almost half of which would be affordable. And the neighborhood sorely needs more affordable housing.

Throgs Neck has added only 58 affordable homes since 2014, according to the nonprofit New York Housing Conference, the lowest of any neighborhood in the city. That’s when the Bloomberg administration first pushed to have the area downzoned. 

But despite the area’s housing shortage, the Adams-backed rezoning proposal has sparked heated local opposition from residents who claim the new buildings will bring unwanted density to an area already struggling with inadequate sewers and other failing infrastructure.

City Councilmember Marjorie Velasquez (D-The Bronx), who has unofficial veto power over the rezoning under the Council’s tradition of deferring to the wishes of the local member, says she opposes the project as is. 

The mayor says she should not get in the way.

“This is an area that has no affordable housing,” Adams said at the rally in support of the new units. “The lack of diversity in this community…is not acceptable.”

The battle between City Hall officials seeking to build more housing units and neighborhood activists and representatives resistant to development in their backyard is nothing new. But the struggle has taken on a sharp and urgent edge during the Adams administration.

New York needs 560,000 new units of housing by 2030 to make up the deficit in new construction over the past decade and to accommodate expected population growth, according to a study by the consulting firm AKRF commissioned by the Real Estate Board of New York.

New York City can only solve this housing crisis if it builds more apartments in every neighborhood, begins the mantra from administration officials. And because the city doesn’t have enough money to build affordable housing in high cost neighborhoods, it can do so only if we can enlist private developers. To do that it needs a replacement for the expired and controversial 421-a tax break, which while it existed triggered requirements for a substantial amount of affordable housing, they add.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Dan Garodnick, chair of the City Planning Commission, pleading with 140 business people at a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce event at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg on Sept. 14. “We need your support. We need your advocacy. We need New Yorkers of goodwill to stand up and say yes this is what we need.”

The Adams administration’s view is supported by an informal coalition of 80 housing groups, advocacy organizations like AARP, and faith leaders who sent a letter in late August to city officials urging borough presidents and City Council members to work together to alleviate the city’s housing shortage.

“We are all going on record saying this is important,” said Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, which is developing a 950-unit, all-affordable housing building in Brooklyn following the recently approved Gowanus rezoning.

Research from the Citizens Budget Commission shows that New York City issued fewer housing unit permits on a per capita basis in the last decade than nearly every other large city, including not only fast-growing cities like Seattle and Austin, but also cities that face similar constraints to development. New York issued permits for 40% fewer units per capita than San Francisco, half as many as Boston, and nearly two-thirds less than Washington, D.C.

“It’s obvious we need to build more housing, more affordable housing and more deeply affordable housing,” said de la Uz.

The de Blasio administration pushed through rezonings in SoHo and Gowanus in 2021, the last year of its tenure, by arguing that those two neighborhoods, which had become increasingly white and wealthier, had the capacity to allow more housing and more affordable units.

The New York Housing Conference, a nonprofit affordable housing advocacy group, is shining a spotlight on which communities had not seen much affordable housing with a tracker for each Council district.

“Council people can see what has been produced and what their responsibility to the entire city is,” said Rachel Fee, the executive director of the conference who played a key role in recruiting the organizations that signed the letter. “It underscores the need to do more and shows our zoning and other factors create quite an exclusionary situation.”

“We know the housing crisis is a regional crisis and an apartment anywhere in New York impacts the whole city,” said Open New York political director Logan Phares. The group is frequently attacked as being outsiders in the community, though its members live in the city. Still, the group is creating borough-based chapters to try to blunt the criticism.

The End of 421-a

While trying to equalize the interests of communities with the citywide need for more housing, the Adams Administration is continuing to try to revive the controversial 421-A tax break, which expired in June.

The 421-a tax break, which costs the city $1.1 billion a year in forgiven property taxes, is designed to offset the high cost of building in New York and high property taxes on rental properties. Buildings participating in the 421-a program must set aside 25 to 30% of their units for affordable housing at specified household income levels.

“We believe that without a tax break like 421-a we won’t get housing in certain areas of the city,” Garodnick argued before the Brooklyn Chamber. “What we want is for the private sector to deliver more housing for us and specifically more affordable housing which the city can’t do entirely on its own.”

Opponents say either the tax break is a giveaway and that building would continue without it or that reforming the property tax system would allow construction without it.

While the Adams administration is trying to reframe the housing crisis debate, a few voices are calling for an overhaul of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process, known as ULURP, which provides community review and final approval by the City Council.

The key stumbling block is what is known as Council deference, which means the body will go along with whatever the local member decides on a project. Only once in the de Blasio administration did the Council override a member’s opposition — and that case involved the expansion of the New York Blood Center on the Upper East Side, not a rezoning to bring more housing in a community.

“The system for building housing in NYC is fundamentally broken and dominated by narrow self-interests and we have to change the rules,” said Jonathan Rosen, co-founder of Berlin Rosen, the progressive public relations and lobbying firm that also represents real estate interests. “It’s time to really look at getting rid of ULURP, moving towards greater use of as-of-right projects with mandatory inclusionary zoning and other public benefits.”

The Council, however, defends its record.

“This Council is fully committed to advancing affordable housing to address the housing crisis facing our city. That is why it has approved over 30 land use applications this year for over 4,600 units of housing, of which more than half are affordable,” said a spokesperson. “We are clear that every district must contribute to the goal of developing affordable housing.”

Some pro-housing members are hopeful as well. Progressive Councilmember Tiffany Cabán  (D-Queens) this month said she supported a million square foot 1,400-unit development called Hallets North in Astoria. It will provide 350 affordable apartments and will be built with union labor.

“It seems to be that we have an all new Council and all of them ran on building more affordable housing,” said Fee. “The rubber meets the road when a project comes up in their neighborhood.”

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