By Meredith C. Kurz
City planners explained their proposals to change zoning and affordable housing rules at a standing-room-only Community Board 7 meeting Wednesday night, with several attendees skeptical that the new rules would create enough affordable housing and protect community character.
The city officials detailed the Mandatory Housing Initiative, which protects affordable housing in perpetuity, and the Zoning for Quality and Affordability, which modifies current zoning regulations as an incentive to builders. The room was packed with a wide array of locals, including professional architects, builders, community activists, affordable housing advocates, and historic landmark preservationists. (We previewed the meeting here.)
The proposed zoning changes and the short review process for the community (60 days) were a major focus of concerns. Several audience members with architectural or building backgrounds questioned the incentivizing modification of zoning, allowing developers spot zoning, tax benefits and other opportunities currently held in check.
Audience members also questioned whether there would be enough oversight of the programs, given the city’s troubling record — in February, 16 city employees were among the 50 people arrested in a widespread case of housing fraud and bribery in three boroughs.
The proposed Mandatory Housing Initiative elicited a variety of responses; some questioned the 80/20 rule, where at least 20 percent of housing units are set aside for very low-income residents. Others asked why 20% should be the maximum, and suggested reaching for a more ambitious 50/50 rule. While some expressed surprise in learning that once a tenant earned the affordable housing designation, regardless of their future salary, they’d be allowed to keep that locked in rent rate, others in the audience that work closely with those in need explained that it’s statistically rare that these tenants’ incomes would change that drastically.
Joseph Bolanos, alocal community activist said he was pleased that many CB7 community board members were interested in the details and cautious about this plan. While “affordable housing” sounds wonderful because there’s such a shortage, he felt the community is entitled to know as much about this plan as possible, including specifics on the guidelines and limitations. Bolanos also felt that, while part of the rental information was provided, he wasn’t satisfied with the answer from the HPD (Housing Preservation and Development) representative as it pertained to specific rent rules in the affordable housing plan.
While the Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposal appears to improve the aesthetic components of zoning, the increase of 1st floor ceiling height for retail use brought sneers from the audience, who have seen the consistent increase of empty stores due to the combination of rewarding a landlord’s decision to command unattainable leases to earn a depreciation tax benefit and the prevalence of online shopping.
Board member Mel Wymore concluded that zoning is a conveyance of value, and the “F.A.R. allowance reigns.” “We’re going to release those constraints which creates a market rather than offer City Planning,” he explained.
· When asked about how the city plans to staff housing that matches the timeline ‘into perpetuity’ they replied, “Since the beginning of the new administration, DCP staff increased by approximately 30 members, primarily to develop and implement the Mayor’s Housing Plan. Other agencies are also working closely with us on this priority for the city.”
· There were no case studies, because none exist for an initiative of this size.
· When asked about what the impact was on other districts, and would the affordable housing be distributed, equally, across all of Manhattan, I received the following response (please note: I provided some underlining for clarity):
- NOTE: What’s interesting here is that the presentation mentioned an 80/20 rule, while the response calls for 25-30%. “The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program would require (through zoning) that when City Planning Commission actions create significant new housing capacity in medium and high-density areas either 25 or 30 percent of new housing would be permanently affordable. MIH is intended to promote economic diversity in neighborhoods where the City plans for growth by ensuring that new housing meets the needs of a wider range of New Yorkers. It is the most ambitious such program of any major U.S. city. Production of affordable housing would be a condition of residential development when developers build in an area zoned for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, whether rezoned as part of a City neighborhood plan or a private rezoning application. As “enabling legislation,” the proposed text amendment would establish a framework that would then be applied as neighborhoods are rezoned throughout the City.”
- NOTE: If you read through this you’ll see that there are no maps, no specifics. “The program would be applied to neighborhood rezonings where housing capacity significantly increases. In Manhattan, there are two neighborhood studies: Speaker Mark-Viverito is leading the initial community process for East Harlem and NYCEDC is leading a planning process for Inwood. Scroll down on our housing page at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/housing/housing-main.shtml for more details on the neighborhood studies. MIH would also apply to individual applications, private or public, to the City Planning Commission where a significant amount of new housing capacity is created. Each would go through its own land use review process.”
- “Zoning for Quality and Affordability will facilitate affordable housing in medium and high density areas of Manhattan where zoning is already in place to incentivize it, and where the bulk envelopes may have previously constrained it. It would encourage the quality of new buildings by changing rules that lead to flat, dull apartment buildings, in order to accommodate and encourage façade articulation, courtyards, bay windows and other elements that provide visual variety and create a better pedestrian experience. By allowing these articulations in the building design, new developments will more closely reflect the character of older buildings that are well-regarded in neighborhoods throughout the City.”
Committee Co-Chair Richard Asche decided, in light of the presentation length and ensuing community response, to allow for more time at the next full board meeting which is on Wednesday, November 4 at 6:30 PM, Mount Sinai Roosevelt Hospital, 1000 Tenth Avenue (West 59th Street). Acknowledging that some community members may not be able to attend this meeting, he provided an extension of time to allow the public to express their feedback to the city.
Photo by Joseph Bolanos.