When it Comes to Affordable Housing, It’s Time to Look at the Bigger Picture

New York City’s robust growth in population and employment are increasing the economic pressure on our housing stock—market rate and affordable.  This pressure is most acute with our rental housing inventory which accounts for two-thirds of our housing stock.  To promote our continued growth and to address this ongoing crisis, we need to build more multifamily housing and ensure that city residents benefit from this development.

Mayor de Blasio recognizes the problem and the solution when he says, “the scarcity of housing actually exacerbated the displacement. If you’re not adding to the supply, you have a pressured supply of housing, more and more people want to be there—of course that creates a massive displacement pressure.”

City Planning Commission Chair Marissa Lago has noted that taller multifamily housing buildings, “are the absolute workhorses of housing our growing population.”

Unfortunately, the roadblocks to new market and affordable housing production are widespread and impeding our ability to effectively address the housing crisis.

Earlier this year, two local officials threatened to slow the development of three residential towers in Lower Manhattan which include affordable housing.  Alarmingly, the local Council Member with the full support of Council colleagues and other elected officials changed the rules for themselves so they could change the zoning rules and stop these projects.  Further uptown and across the East River, Council Members representing Inwood and Sunnyside worked to block affordable housing projects in their neighborhoods.  

This month, a mixed-use project in Queens was halted in similar fashion. A plan for 120 apartments in Jackson Heights included 30% of the units at below market rents. After the local Council Member told the developers to pull their application, he explained this was due to his desire that a new development in his district would offer enough below-market-rate units at the most affordability he could get.  Now, the project will proceed at a slightly lower density, but none of the units will be required to be below market-rate.

With the Council’s tendency to completely defer to the local Council member on land use applications, an environment is created where hyper-local interests supersede broader regional goals. This should concern all of us who are care about the future of our city.

Meanwhile, the city has embarked on several initiatives to produce more housing that has not drawn the intense opposition that has accompanied new development.

One idea gaining momentum is the micro-unit concept — tiny, apartments in amenity-laden buildings, to serve single member households.  This approach can help to hold down rents and provide a housing type to meet the demands of the marketplace.  To maximize its effectiveness and make this approach truly beneficial, the city will need to loosen its density restrictions.

A pilot program recently announced by Mayor de Blasio and Council Members Brad Lander, Rafael Espinal and Inez Barron would allow some basements to be used as legal apartments if they can made compatible with building and fire codes.

These initiatives are steps in the right direction but increased multifamily housing development is necessary to adequately address our housing crisis.  This new development must benefit all city residents.  To continue to afford to build such housing and ensure that the direct benefits of new construction benefit city residents, we must embrace a responsible contractor policy for government assisted projects. This policy must guarantee that every construction worker is paid a living wage, receives basic benefits for health care, retirement, and promotes Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE).

It is time for an honest conversation about the impact of prevailing wage requirements on housing construction and job opportunities for city residents. It is unfair that an operating engineer who lives on Long Island or a carpenter who lives in Westchester earns nearly $225,000 while the qualified Corona resident cannot find work. Elected officials should serve the best interests of their constituents over the special interests of their campaign donors.

With the recent announcement of a Real Property Tax Reform Commission, we need to acknowledge the inequitable tax burden the current system imposes on the production and preservation of rental housing.  Our property tax system has led to more condo conversions as these buildings emerge from their tax exemption benefits.  We need a system that does not impede new development, does not discourage ongoing property maintenance or fosters conversions, but instead encourages the development, the revitalization and retention of rental housing at all rent levels to address those populations most in need.

The de Blasio administration has significantly increased its capital contribution to maintain the quality and affordability of existing rental housing.  However, public investment alone cannot sustain the quality of our rental housing stock as the conditions at the New York City Housing Authority have made all too clear.

A critical contributing factor to the current high quality of our rental housing stock has been the impact of private investment since the introduction of vacancy decontrol.  These changes in our rent regulation system has attracted new capital to housing and has been a boon to the quality of life of existing rent regulated tenants. In addition, a return to the old days before deregulation will ignite a surge in coop and condo conversions as we witnessed in the 1980’s.

Lastly, we need to objectively examine the impacts and benefits of new development. We need analytic data to ensure that every community benefits, that these benefits are going to city residents, and that every community is doing its fair share to address our citywide housing crisis.