Building Affordable Housing Is One Thing, Finding the Space Is Another

Written by Matthew Hamilton on . Posted in News.





New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal is to add or preserve more than 200,000 affordable housing units amid the densely packed cityscape. But how he and the City Council will endeavor to achieve that ambitious aim is anyone’s guess.

A panel of housing experts and politicians discussed the city’s housing plans—or at least ideas—at City & State’s 4th Annual State of Our City forum. While the panelists seemed to be in fundamental agreement with the mayor on his affordable housing goal, it was the “how do we do it” question that elicited varied responses.

Among the issues facing the city’s decision makers and developers is first finding the space for new development. Though de Blasio’s goal of 200,000 units isn’t the first time the city has set the affordable housing bar so high, the cityscape is much different than it was during the latter half of the past century.

“We all remember Ed Koch was very famous for proposing 200,000 units of affordable housing back in the late ’70s. That was when the Bronx had tons of empty buildings and there was a lot of abandoned buildings there everywhere, so they were able to convert those to build affordable housing,” New York City Council Zoning and Franchises Committee Chair Mark Weprin said. “Right now in New York City there are very few areas that have those abandoned buildings. They’re spread out throughout the city, but there aren’t as many units.”

While de Blasio reportedly gave the Real Estate Board of New York the thumbs up on building taller buildings as long as they included a percentage of affordable housing units, it’s finding the space to erect these towers that is increasingly difficult. One option would be to rezone some areas to allow residential use, though those changes could have the negative effect of ousting current occupants, such as businesses in the industrial and manufacturing sectors.

“Almost everywhere I go, I’m taken on a tour by a broker and it’s shocking how consistent the experience is,” said Seth Pinsky, an executive vice president and fund manager for RXR Realty and former president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “’That industrial building, there’s a company in there (and) they’re willing to move out. That could be converted into residential. That industrial building: same story.’ That is a problem.”

The issues of finding space for affordable housing and finding a way to keep jobs for low- to medium- skilled workers aren’t apples and oranges; eliminating places for affordable housing residents to work hamstrings their ability to pay their rent.

Seth Pinsky said that in theory the city could address the problem of inadequate public transportation to some neighborhoods by building commercial areas in conjunction with affordable housing, thus giving residents the option of walking to work. Practice, however, is another thing. In reality generally when housing competes with commercial use, housing nearly always wins because businesses can’t compete, Pinsky said.

To meet his affordable housing goal, Mayor de Blasio has indicated a willingness to explore mandatory inclusionary zoning, which could help promote the preservation of already standing buildings. Pinsky said preservation is no less important than creating.

But even with preservation comes the issue of finding space. New York City Council Housing and Buildings Committee Chair Jumaane Williams said former Mayor Michael Bloomberg grabbed the low-hanging fruit, leaving fewer units for de Blasio to meet his affordable housing goal.

Regardless of which route—or combination—is chosen, the issue isn’t slowing or disappearing any time soon.

REBNY Senior Vice President Angela Pinsky said estimates put a half million new people in the city within the next two to three decades. That means affordable or not, New York City simply needs more housing.

“When we look at the number of places that we can build … it’s going to lead to conversations where dense areas are going to be proposed to become more dense and less dense areas are going to be proposed to become dense,” she said. “Those conversations in the past have been very difficult. I don’t foresee them to become easier.”

While hefty population growth would seemingly be an issue for housing development, it’s born from a positive. Seth Pinsky said the housing challenge has arisen because the city has had so much success in attracting new residents. But to fix that problem, he said the solution is to keep up the success and use the benefits to address the population issue.

But Williams said the successful have become even more successful, while the less successful have become even less successful. Because of the exodus that dynamic creates, he advocated for the importance of preservation above creation.

Still, preserving housing regulated under the Mitchell-Lama program, for example, isn’t up to city lawmakers. That power lies with Albany, which Weprin said is an issue when the state Senate is run by lawmakers who don’t come from the city but can regulate how the city controls the affordable rent programs.

However, even if that system were to be altered, the issue of where to build or preserve remains.

“Yes, you can cut red tape. This mayor has said he’s very pragmatic about upzoning if he can get the affordable housing, but you need those sites and maybe a program to get it all done,” said Ed Wallace, co-chairman of Greenberg Traurig’s New York City office, which works with developers.

Even with those issues taken care of, the question of how residents would pay for units returns. There would need to be middle- and low-income jobs and training for those jobs, and wages that could support the housing costs.

The wage issue is one that also can be lumped in with housing, and it goes beyond just raising wages across the board for all workers.

“One thing with the jobs that troubles me, when we raise (the wage), which we should, we still don’t have a mechanism to control other things like housing,” Williams said.

If the cost of housing rises again, it’s back to square one. For Seth Pinsky, that means it can’t be a one-problem-at-a-time focus.

“I agree,” he said, “it’s not one or the other. It’s got to be both.”

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