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What's Going On With the Recent Rezoning News?

September 7, 2016

August is usually a quiet time for City policy news, but this past month two zoning and affordable housing struggles made headlines. One was the decision by Upper Manhattan Councilmember Rodriguez to block a vote on the proposed Sherman Plaza housing development, the other was a decision by Queens Councilmember Van Bramer to block a vote on the proposed Barnett Avenue affordable housing development in Sunnyside.

August is usually a quiet time for City policy news, but this past month two zoning and affordable housing struggles made headlines. One was the decision by Upper Manhattan Councilmember Rodriguez to block a vote on the proposed Sherman Plaza housing development, the other was a decision by Queens Councilmember Van Bramer to block a vote on the proposed Barnett Avenue affordable housing development in Sunnyside.
 
The votes made news because they were unexpected, and because affordable housing issues are urgent. Given the timing, it is tempting to look for parallels between the two stories, but the situations and the lessons are very different - one is about the straightforward need for affordable housing, and the other is about the balance of concerns that may come with new partially-affordable housing development. The Barnett Avenue development in Sunnyside, Queens is a 100% affordable housing project proposed by a not-for-profit developer that would create 209 new apartments with rents ranging from very-low to moderate-income. The land is currently a parking lot owned by the not-for-profit developer, but a zoning change is needed to build the housing. Local residents have raised various concerns, from the loss of parking spaces, to the level of affordability of the apartments, to the best use of the new community space in the building.
 
A City Council member is always correct to listen to the concerns of the local neighborhood and take those into account to shape the final project design. But, the basic proposal for the Barnett Avenue development is solid, the developer has a strong track record, and the affordable housing is desperately needed in Queens and the City as a whole. Councilmember Van Bramer has long been a leading voice for affordable housing and equitable City policy, and we hope that he can lead a process to make whatever design adjustments are necessary allows this much-needed project to get built. At the Sherman Plaza site in Inwood, a private for-profit developer sought an upzoning to allow a 355 building. The zoning change would make the site subject to the City's new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy - in this case, with a requirement that 20% of the apartments be affordable to a family earning approximately $35,000 a year (40% of Area Median Income). But many voices in local community raised concerns about the project because of its likely impacts on existing affordable housing in the area.
 
A development that adds 80% market rate units, even if the 20% affordable units are meaningfully affordable, was not seen as a net gain for a community that is facing significant displacement pressures. And that neighborhood is facing a displacement storm. Predatory developers see a neighborhood with high-quality building stock and within easy commute of the business centers of Manhattan, and see the low-rent paying current residents as the only thing standing between them and a windfall profit. As a result, local residents have faced major harassment and displacement. In the past 7 years, ANHD research shows the price at which developers are flipping existing apartment buildings in that neighborhood has risen by a remarkable 96%, while the incomes of the long-time residents have risen by only a fraction.
 
The concern raised by some voices in the community is that the project's affordable units would not offset the impact of the market-rate units because, in some neighborhoods, adding market-rate apartments increases overall displacement pressures as wealthier residents flood in and change the overall housing economics of the area. It is our understanding that the Council Member and the City discussed adding City subsidy to add a meaningful number of additional affordable apartments, beyond the baseline 20%, but could not yet come to an agreement. This is one of the tensions inherent in the Mandatory Inclusionary policy. While it can be an important and worthwhile tool for creating new affordable housing in market-rate buildings, on its own it may be insufficient to meet the affordability needs of many communities. Absent stronger protections for existing residents, the displacement pressures furthered by new market rate housing may outweigh the benefits of new affordable housing in the eyes of local residents. It is important to note that while some local voices have raised the issue of density as a concern with both of these projects, that is not the primary issue in either case. 
 
ANHD believes strongly that in a city that is loved by its residents in part for its density, a few extra floors should not be a valid reason to oppose much-needed housing; when the project is well designed and meets the needs of the surrounding community, it has a positive impact for the neighborhood and all new Yorkers.

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