Testimony of The Real Estate Board of New York Before the 2019 Charter Revision Commission September 2018 Hearings

The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc. (REBNY) is a broadly-based trade association representing owners, developers, brokers, managers and real estate professionals active throughout New York City. We believe this city draws its strength from diversity – diversity of people, ideas, and buildings – and from its willingness to adapt to change – to incorporating new technologies and industries, to building a more sustainable coastline and skyline, and to embracing its newest members. When contemplating changes to the charter, we must remember that growth has fueled this city’s best changes.

Over the last twenty-five years and since the last major revision to the charter, census data shows that our population has increased by 19.7% to over 8.4 million people. In 1980 less than a quarter of our population was foreign born, today over 37% percent is. Between 2005 and 2016 we added over a half a million people but only approximately 125,000 housing units. From 1990 to 2016, we added over 700,000 jobs. For 2017, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, real estate property taxes will generate over $24 billion in taxes, representing the largest share of the city’s tax revenue at 44 percent.

However, more housing is needed to sustain our increasing population and job growth. Despite the production levels of the last few decades, we have not kept pace with the housing needs of our existing population and we do not have enough for the population anticipated to join this city if we are to sustain our job growth. Our most pressing need today is housing, yet you will hear from many the need for longer timeframes, for more layers of review, and for more regulations. It is worth noting, per “City NIMBY’s” by Vicki Been in the Vol. 33:2 of the Journal of Land Use, that the “the imposition of more stringent land use controls leads to lower supply and higher prices” of housing, and the housing supply is further constrained when those controls instituted by local opposition are accounted for. This was also supported by the Obama Administration’s Housing Development Toolkit:

“Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.”

The Charter Commission should instead seek to remove barriers to coordination, remove redundant levels of review, and request a true accounting of the cost of additional regulation.

Standardize Community Boards’ Appointments and Support

Community Boards have a defined, advisory role within the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process. We believe the boards perform a critical function when it comes to service delivery and weighing in on budget priorities. However, more uniformity in support and training is necessary when it comes to land use. With 59 community boards across the city, a standardization of by-laws, meeting requirements, and appointment processes is sorely needed.

First, we reject term limits for community board members. The land use process can be complicated, and proper planning takes time. Removing institutional knowledge is not the answer to inertia or to entrenchment. Instead, community boards should reflect the communities they represent. Appointments should not be given out as de facto renewals; instead appointments should be made to correspond to the diversity of their communities’ population. One quarter of those appointments should be reserved for representation of local business. The Mayor should have the ability to appoint members as well who demonstrate an understanding of the city’s needs. Consideration should also be given to reducing the number of members per board and to increasing the length of terms.

Lastly, community boards should meet year-round, at least once a month, without a recess. No city agency should be closed for business at any point throughout the year, and the customary summer recess by community boards serve no engagement purpose, and unnecessarily adds months of delay to even the most routine applications.

Reform the Landmarks Preservation Commission

Historic preservation is a critical contribution to the character and quality of life of our city. However, we cannot plan comprehensively if land use actions, such as landmarks and historic district designations, are decided solely on criteria unrelated to the city’s broader needs. We request that designation is not enacted until the City Council has considered and voted on the suitability of designations on both historic, planning, economic and “best interests of the City” grounds would also ensure broader impacts are considered.

Landmark Preservation (LPC) should become a division of the Department of City Planning (DCP) to ensure that landmark and historic district designations are viewed in the context of a comprehensive view of the city and its needs. Other measures can be taken to achieve that goal by requiring a planning analysis, paying the commissioners to reflect their work load, and updating the hardship criteria.

Along with considering historic merit, the proposed designation should be required to consider economic factors. These could include development potential of the site or an area and an owner’s plans for individual property and property within districts. The planning analysis should also include the age, condition and the cost of maintenance and the needs of our city for housing. Furthermore, LPC authority should be refocused on those portions visible to the general public. Releasing draft designation reports prior to the first public hearing along with a planning analysis would also ensure debate on the full merits.


Strengthen City Planning

The Department of City Planning should be placed in charge of the capital budget to ensure coordination between city investments and land use planning. While it is our understanding that the current Department of City Planning is involved, this has not always been the case and it is worth institutionalizing ownership of the process. By moving LPC under the aegis of City Planning, or at minimum requiring a planning analysis and the ability to opine on that analysis, the City Planning Commission will approve designation through a comprehensive lens that includes economic development and the availability of sites for housing.

To promote comprehensive planning, and the adherence to those plans, administrative actions by the City Planning Commission should no longer go to the City Council. These include certifications, authorizations, and most special permits. Typically, the findings to be met as a condition for granting the special permit are objective standards. Those standards already went through a robust public review process, including adoption by the City Council. If these standards are met, the permit should be approved.

Carefully Evaluate Changes to CEQR

REBNY recognizes and is sympathetic to community concerns regarding gentrification and its concomitant pressures on vulnerable populations. REBNY also recognizes that dealing with those issues is an issue of City-wide concern that needs to be addressed on a City-wide basis. The remedy for these concerns does not lay with changes in the CEQR process, particularly as it relates to individual development projects. To do so would improperly transform SEQRA/CEQR to an overall planning statute and set of regulations. This is inconsistent with the statutory mandate of SEQRA – to incorporate environmental considerations into agency decision making. The specific language of SEQRA provides that considerations under SEQRA are not meant to override underlying agency determinations, which properly consider policy and, in the context of zoning actions, long term planning considerations. Those are the responsibility of the City agencies charged with such planning, and the burden of those responsibilities are not properly placed on individual developers as part of meeting their SEQRA/CEQR obligations.

A recent Pratt study and neighborhood advocates erroneously suggest that CEQR consultants, who are often engaged by private applicants, have the last word as to what an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will contain. That is simply not the fact. While the actual analyses are undertaken by privately- engaged consultants, the last word on what the contents and conclusion are those of the lead agency. Our members can tell you from experience that the lead agencies, particularly the Environmental Assessment and Review Division of the Department of City Planning strictly scrutinize all conclusions and analyses undertaken by the so-called EIS authors.

More importantly, CEQR is not the only basis upon which determinations of the gentrification effects of development projects and rezonings are made. The ULURP process as it presently exists allows for input from Community Boards, Borough Presidents and member of the public at large. Comments from the public are not limited to comments regarding what CEQR defines as significant adverse environmental impacts, as anyone who has attended the several public hearings and meetings that are part of the process. Moreover, the final determinations are made in most instances by the City Council, the elected representatives of the public and its approval or disproval is not in a lock step with CEQR.

That being said, more does need to be done to streamline the environmental review process to have it focus on what the community boards, the City Planning Commission and the City Council need to know in order to be able to take environmental concerns into account in their decision-making process. Most find the documents to be so detailed and cumbersome that it is typically only the environmental specialists who know and understand what they say.

Duplicate issues that are assessed through the land use review such as analyses of urban design, neighborhood character and the like, should be removed. Further, additional efforts should be made to exempt certain kinds of projects from environmental review where it has been repeatedly demonstrated over time that similar projects do not have environmental impacts. This could be of importance for affordable housing if smaller and medium sized residential projects were considered Type II actions.

One of the strengths of the City’s environmental review process is the CEQR Technical Manual. It provides a clear and comprehensive set of methodologies for the analysis of environmental impacts, ranging from areas such as traffic to air quality to open space to community facilities. Use of the Manual ensures that environmental review is conducted pursuant to consistent standards and not on an ad hoc basis.

Periodic revision and update of the Manual is a good thing. However, revisions must ensure that the methodologies are sound and are accepted among relevant professionals. Traffic impacts must be measured according to accepted traffic engineering standards. Air quality impacts must be measured according to Federal and State air quality standards. Socioeconomic impacts must be measured in ways that carefully distinguish between underlying trends and the effects of a project undergoing land use review. The methodologies must also be consistent with the way that agencies operate and administer programs.

The process for revising the Manual can include opportunities for public and community input and comment. However, the final determination of whether and how the Manual should be changed should rest with the agencies responsible for conducting environmental review, as well as the operating agencies with the technical expertise and obligation to implement mitigation measures.  

Increase Agency Accessibility to Ensure Transparency and Accountability

We believe additional measures can be taken to ensure transparency and accountability that may not require changes to the charter but should be under consideration. Predictability helps all stakeholders. Generally, greater consistency through agency rules, city law and state practices for public review, noticing, and language access should be explored. More specifically, the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) should have similar timeframes instituted for rounds of review, hearings, and public input that ULURP has.

Our city agencies also need to continue to do better with coordination of information and provision of information to the public. Better data helps everyone make informed decisions, whether it is understanding that a storefront is waiting on its LPC permit for signage and is not vacant, or being able to see all the work, from government infrastructure projects from DOT to DEP to private investment in a POPS, in your neighborhood. We support calls for a universal portal to track applications citywide and real time metrics should be provided for service delivery by the city agencies. Furthermore, we are a city of immigrants and to truly engage all we need a baseline for which of the items entering public review are translated.

We look forward to continued engagement on these topics. Thank you for your consideration and time.

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Reggie Thomas

Senior Vice President, Government Affairs        

Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY)

(212) 616-5209