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Affordable Housing & the State of the City

February 3, 2015

Mayor de Blasio’s State of the City address today presented a bold vision. His commitment to reducing inequality and ensuring that New York City remain a place where people from all walks of life can afford to live and work is clear and admirable, and he is right to focus on the cost of housing as the root of the issue.

Mayor de Blasio’s State of the City address today presented a bold vision. His commitment to reducing inequality and ensuring that New York City remain a place where people from all walks of life can afford to live and work is clear and admirable, and he is right to focus on the cost of housing as the root of the issue.

The best of de Blasio’s vision is reflected in his introduction by Sheryl Morse, a long-time Ft. Greene resident whose building partnered with the city to renovate and maintain long-term affordability. This is a story of long-term residents working with the city to ensure that they will be able to stay in their neighborhood even as it changes, and making a commitment to preserving affordability for low and moderate income people. We need to make sure this stays the story – that thousands of Sheryl Morses can tell a similar story next year. Because the alternate is a story of displacement; of low-income New Yorkers being pushed out of their homes and of more and more neighborhoods becoming out of reach for average New Yorkers as a consequence of the very housing development that is intended to prevent our city from becoming “a place defined by exclusivity, rather than opportunity.” We agree with Mayor de Blasio – we cannot let that happen.

There’s no question de Blasio has been the kind of mayor who delivers on his promises. NYC ID was pledged, and it happened. Universal Pre-K was pledged, and it happened.

Now de Blasio is pledging affordability and stability for our neighborhoods. He’s pledging a reversal in the decades-long trend of skyrocketing housing costs. Rent burdening, as de Blasio pointed out, has risen 10% in a few short years. No matter how much affordable housing is built, if people find their rents continuing to rise, their neighborhood become increasingly unaffordable, the affordable housing being built not meeting their needs, that pledge for affordability will be broken. New Yorkers are still feeling the squeeze, and are still desperate for relief. The crucial question is who will be living in rezoned neighborhoods years later, and will their communities be made stronger for them by the rezoning?

Previous administrations have promised much for communities – but delivered primarily for developers. The de Blasio administration’s actions on rezonings must not repeat the mistakes of the past, when rezonings were something that happened to-not with- communities.  De Blasio needs to take three critical steps to not repeat these mistakes.

First, community organizations need to be involved in all steps of the process – not just initial planning and visioning, but building and managing for the long-term. The recent decision of the administration to give one of the last remaining large parcels of vacant city-owned land in the neighborhood to a big developer instead of a trusted local community group is disturbing, and sends the message that these neighborhood partnerships are going to be transient – over once the rezoning is done.

Second, the city’s affordable housing strategy cannot be contingent on zoning away critical and needed manufacturing jobs. Our good-paying industrial jobs must be protected against incursions by hotels, big box stores, nightclubs, and other misaligned uses on M-Zoned land. De Blasio’s commitment to raise the minimum wage is a huge step. But supporting and retaining the good, middle-class jobs we have currently is a critical step toward halting our growing income inequality.

Third, to ensure that de Blasio’s ambitious plans result in the kind of city we all want to see, strong protections against displacement must be put in place before any neighborhoods are rezoned. A rezoning is a concrete and detailed change of what is legal in a neighborhood. Displacement protections, and other neighborhood needs, must be approached in the same manner.

Development is a piece of the puzzle, and a needed one. But it’s not the most important piece. We’ve seen the results of what happens when development is the priority, and stabilization is the afterthought. Residents are displaced. Promised parks are still fenced off a decade later. Good paying manufacturing jobs disappear. And the promise of new local jobs that never appear.

And lately, we’ve seen what happens when a neighborhood appears targeted for more development – witness the skyrocketing land prices in East New York and Western Queens. This severely threatens the ability of the city to leverage truly affordable housing and other community amenities and increasing rent pressures for both residents and local businesses. De Blasio needs to make clear that this will not be repeated in the South Bronx, Sunnyside, Stapleton, East Harlem, and our other neighborhoods that will be rezoned to come. We’ve learned our lesson – jobs, preservation, stabilization, and other community priorities need to be put in place up front. The city needs to deliver for communities before they come through for developers.

De Blasio committed to doing everything in the city’s power to keep those who already have affordable housing in their homes. That commitment must be turned into a robust set of new anti-displacement mechanisms, because too many communities have learned that hard way that the existing tools are insufficient protection for keeping residents in their homes. While de Blasio’s commitment to providing free legal representation to tenants who face harassment in rezoned neighborhoods is a great start, it can’t be the only policy. All tenants in New York City need and deserve a right to council in housing court. But legal representation is a response to harassment that has already occurred. Particularly in neighborhoods they plan to rezone, the de Blasio administration has an obligation to put proactive measures in place so that tenants don’t wind up in court in the first place.

De Blasio proposed converting areas zoned for manufacturing into residential buildings. But no housing – even affordable housing – is affordable without a job.The manufacturing and industrial sector pays, on average, twice the wages of the service sector. Rather than repurpose those places where these well-paying, career ladder jobs can exist, the administration should be looking for ways to protect, preserve and expand the manufacturing and industrial sector. Encouraging maker space is one piece of that puzzle. But creating a special district to protect M-zoned land against incursions by hotels, big box stores, nightclubs, and other misaligned uses would do far more to break down income inequality.

It’s a huge step that de Blasio’s is the first administration that has seriously talked about gentrification, recognized its negative impacts, and pledged to do something about them. And the focus on cracking down on predatory landlords and supporting legal service for tenants is desperately needed, and will make a real dent. But even while the administration recognizes that “multimillion dollar apartments drive up costs in the neighborhood,” they are still promising 160,000 units of market rate housing – which, in the New York City of recent past, has been almost synonymous with “multimillion dollar apartments.” Almost all of which would, currently, get a 421a Developer’s Tax Break costing the city more than $1 billion annually. The question needs to be asked – will these 160,000 market rate housing displace people, or help people? Will they be for working families and the middle-class, or will they be more of the same luxury development for international investors and the very wealthy?

And will our mandatory affordability in these developments be enough to offset the effects of luxury housing on neighborhood affordability? Currently, the Inclusionary Housing Program only creates affordable housing for the wealthier half of New Yorkers – those making 80% AMI and above. As it stands now, anyone making less than about $50,000 a year would be cut out of the Inclusionary Housing progam. Families of four will need to make almost $70,000. To meet the Mayor’s vision, programs like the Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and 421a need to create truly affordable housing for all our residents. And large developments like Sunnyside Yards need to focus on provide housing across the income spectrum, including for low-income seniors and families. While our affordable housing production remains strong, and (as de Blasio pointed out) is 1300 units ahead of schedule, the 40,000 units of affordable housing promised for families making less than $45,000 are lagging behind by approximately 50%.

Make no mistake, this is a real departure from past failed housing policies – an impressive vision for our city. Mayor de Blasio rejected the old false choice between a livable city and an affordable one, and that’s exactly what we need if we’re going to keep this city great. Because what makes New York – and what has always made New York – is that this is a city of inclusion. Inclusion strengthens us, not weakens us.

But inclusion doesn’t come easy. We have to work for it. We have to fight for it. Let’s make it happen together.

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