Mayor Eric Adams’ plan to address the affordability crisis in New York calls for “a little more housing in every neighborhood.” And he’ll need support from every neighborhood to see it through.
The long road to get to the “City of Yes” officially begins Tuesday with the administration releasing more specifics on its zoning proposals, which will soon begin an environmental and public review period that will stretch into next spring.
That process could get loud. Adams proposes to change land use rules citywide, rather than fix them in any one specific neighborhood. The last time a mayor went for citywide zoning changes, an overwhelming majority of community boards voted them down following weeks of heated public testimony. The City Council eventually approved the changes over the boards’ advisory opinion.
Adams’ plan is a collection of seven ideas taken, in large part, from things that have worked well in cities across the country — like allowing homeowners to build new, small units on their properties, and doing away with minimum requirements for new parking spaces — and proposals aiming for relatively modest development in many areas of the city.
The changes to existing rules are projected to create an additional 100,000 new homes, the mayor said.
To Howard Slatkin, executive director of the Citizens’ Housing & Planning Council, it’s a “very anti-gentrification premise” — in that gentrification gets super-heated when “all the supply is choked off.” In that scenario, you get a lot of pressure in a small handful of neighborhoods, like Crown Heights, where there are opportunities to build and “the pressure in the system is going to burst through that little gap.”
“If you decrease the pressure in the whole system by everyone turning on their faucets a little bit, then you don’t have the manhole cover bursting off,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll go down smoothly in a city where even small changes to the built environment — like the recent controversial rezoning of Throggs Neck in The Bronx — can spur fierce backlash.
“You are always going to combat NIMBYism,” said Margy Brown, executive director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board and a city housing department official under former mayors. “Is it the administration’s job to do that, and I do think that this plan really tries to push forward on that in a balanced way.”
In order to become law, City Hall will seek the support of all 59 community boards — though it does not legally need their OK to proceed — and needs approval from the City Planning Commission and City Council.
Insiders say changes to parking requirements, in particular, may prove tough to sell in areas of the city where public transit is sparse and car driving is more common. At the same time, rules to allow new rental properties may be the right carrot to budge homeowners on board in the outer boroughs — or not, as Gov. Kathy Hochul learned when she proposed similar changes in the state last year. Residents in eastern Queens and Staten Island were among those who decried the idea.
The mayor’s plan was already welcomed by Council Speaker Adrienne Adams as it was unveiled late last week.
“The housing crisis that has exacerbated homelessness and made our city less affordable demands comprehensive solutions,” she said in a statement. “We welcome Mayor Adams and City Planning’s encouraging and thoughtful proposals as a starting point towards critical changes that will help us equitably produce more housing across the city to confront these challenges.”
“I didn’t see anything that raised red flags, but I also didn’t see anything that created a great level of enthusiasm,” Councilmember Diana Ayala, who represents parts of Manhattan and The Bronx, told THE CITY.
Here’s what each of the seven proposals looks like:
Universal Affordability Preference: 20% denser buildings if affordable
This land use change would give property owners the right to build a 20% larger building if and only if that 20% addition is used to create income-restricted, below-market-price apartments — so-called affordable housing.
This would apply to new construction and existing buildings so, theoretically, already-built apartment buildings could add 20% more apartments — on top, or in an addition somewhere — if they’re all affordable. But that’s not likely to happen for cost and logistical reasons, experts say; instead, this 20% affordable bonus would primarily be used in new construction.
Freeing more old office buildings to become apartments
Right now, for the most part, New York’s land use rules allow office-to-residential conversions in buildings that fit into two categories: office buildings built before 1961 all over the city, and in office buildings built before 1977 in Lower Manhattan. The mayor’s new proposal would extend that year-based benchmark to 1990 citywide, meaning an office building built in 1983 — like the former Goldman Sachs headquarters in the Financial District, for example — could be converted into residential apartments.
Allowing housing above existing commercial strips
This proposal would revamp current regulations to allow the kind of development you see in many places in the five boroughs: modest-sized apartments built over ground-floor shops and retail spaces.
Doing that type of building now is hard and expensive, said Slatkin, especially because current rules usually require street-level parking access. Without those requirements, you’ll likely start to see housing pop up over commercial districts in low-density neighborhoods that don’t have a lot of that type of housing today, Slatkin said. And, most critically, they are not going to “super costly buildings to build,” he said.
“These are not luxury, high-rise buildings. These are ordinary apartments above shops that go on the main drag of a neighborhood,” he said.
No more mandatory parking spots
The mayor’s plan would nix rules that say new buildings have to have a certain minimum number of parking spots built into them — rules that have created the large underground parking lots you tend to see in new buildings.
Housing advocates have pushed for years to do away with them, especially in places where few New Yorkers own or drive cars. In the South Bronx, for example, where there has been a housing boom in recent years, market-rate rental buildings must include spaces for cars where fewer than 25% of people own a vehicle.
The proposal from City Hall is not a ban on parking; individual builders can still choose to add parking to their buildings if it makes sense.
“There is nothing here about prohibiting parking. It’s all about allowing people to provide parking that’s the right amount,” Slatkin said.
Legalizing ‘Accessory Dwelling Units’ on Lots
This change would have a profound effect for owners of one- and two-family homes with a bit of extra space on their property to create a new apartment. (And basement apartments might be included in it, too.)
This proposal would make “access dwelling units,” or ADUs, of up to 800 square feet legal on some city properties. That could look like a rentable tiny house placed in a backyard, a mother-in-law suite added to a home or, perhaps, a basement apartment — if it complies with building codes for things like windows, entrances and proximity to boilers, for example.
Zoning to allow ADUs is not new; that type of housing is already common in places like Berkley, California and Portland, Oregon. But Slatkin said New York’s ADUs will look different, mostly because those places have much bigger lots.
Still, in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s East Flatbush, the option to add an extra apartment could be a boon as it “gives homeowners access to rental income.”
“We have a large community of Black homeowners who are looking for alternatives to selling their homes to someone who’s going to build new,” he said. “It lets people pay their mortgage, and gives some financial stability and wealth-building opportunity.”
Spurring new housing in outer borough transit zones
These changes would make it easier for developers to build modest-sized buildings — which City Hall defines for now as three- to five-story buildings — along transit corridors in the four boroughs outside of Manhattan.
Few details have yet been released on the specifics of the idea, except for a map of where it would be changed, including wide swaths of southern Brooklyn, the border of Brooklyn and Queens and northeastern parts of The Bronx.
Making it easier for churches and schools to build new housing
The mayor’s final proposal aims to make it easier for institutions with large, underused lots to build housing. Planning officials say it could apply to many properties with lots of open space — which they’re calling “campuses — which could include some Mitchell-Lama developments, churches or schools.
Experts don’t see this part of the plan as a huge engine to create lots of housing, but a relatively modest fix to zoning rules that will make development easier for faith-based organizations in particular.