Zoning amendments crucial to address housing crisis

The Real Estate Board of New York was among the hundreds of people who showed up last week to testify at a City Council hearing on two proposals to create affordable housing in New York City. REBNY believes that the two proposals under consideration, the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) Text Amendment and the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) zoning text amendment are both important components that will help spur development of the housing New York desperately needs to keep pace with our growing population and address our affordable housing crisis.

REBNY’s Zoning Committee — comprised of architects, planners, land use attorneys, and builders — welcomed the changes in ZQA that encouraged better and more flexible ground floor retail, residential units with adequate ceiling heights, façade articulation, and courtyards.

REBNY also strongly supports provisions that would eliminate parking requirements for income-restricted housing in areas well-served by mass transit – a change will significantly reduce the cost of affordable housing construction.

ZQA also seeks to clarify ambiguities and correct contradictions in the zoning text that add to the cost, complexity and difficulty in building affordable and senior housing.

Numerous other provisions in the text change will allow for more architecturally interesting and efficient building designs with a very low impact on the neighborhood’s character, such as the reduction of minimum distance between buildings, allowance for small outer and inner courtyards, the allowance for 100 percent lot coverage of corner lots, a revision to measure setbacks from street line instead of from street wall, among other features.

In terms of MIH, I would first like to commend Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, City Planning Chair Carl Weisbrod, and Housing Commissioner Vicki Been for the scope and depth of the financial and market analysis to support their presentation at the Council hearing. It concluded that the program could be used to support housing and promote neighborhood economic diversity for a range of building types and in a range of conditions, when combined with increased density, tax benefits and in some instances public subsidy, and seeks to establish a consistent and predictable approach in areas mapped for mandatory inclusionary housing with enough flexibility to reach low to moderate income households in a variety of market conditions.

The question has now become for us whether the program, as structured and applied to City initiated rezonings, can be tailored to work for private rezoning applications. The neighborhoods in which the City initiated and proposes to initiate rezonings are areas that have seen very little (if any) new private sector development, especially high density development. Despite the increased bulk and availability of tax exemptions in in weak or moderate markets, new residential development in these neighborhoods is not generally feasible without public subsidy.

One such concern is that public subsidies available to address a financial gap in new housing production in City rezoned areas would not be forthcoming for areas rezoned through private applications which may not propose the same amount of increased density as the city action and which may be perceived as an emerging area where subsidy is not required.

Another concern is that the 30 percent MIH option at an average of 80 percent AMI reduces the economic value of the 30 percent 421a benefit, which significantly diminishes the subsidy value of the benefit, making this MIH option problematic.

Finally, the threshold for projects to be permitted to pay into a fund to meet its affordability requirements should be either 50 units or 50,000 feet. We have seen a number of small projects whose square footage is just above the proposed affordability threshold that would have difficulty accommodating the housing on-site.

Among our suggestions on ways to improve the program include allowing builders to choose the MIH option that works for specific projects, due to the different market conditions throughout the City. Additionally, the City should determine the appropriate threshold, if any, for mandatory inclusionary housing when a private application advances other planning objectives, such as transit improvements, landmarks preservation, and cultural bonuses such as theaters.

Our housing and affordable housing problem are in part a result of too restrictive land use regulations, including absolute height limits and use and bulk regulations which are outdated or fails to take full advantage of the nearby transit. We commend the administration’s efforts to have the City’s land use policy address our most urgent housing and affordable housing needs.