Mayor’s false dichotomy on affordable housing

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BY ANDREW BERMAN | Mayor de Blasio’s twin rezoning proposals to reshape development in our city go before the City Council for a final vote toward the end of this month. The plans purport that letting developers build taller buildings will result in their including more affordable units — while vastly increasing the number of new market-rate housing units we build — yet will make our city and our neighborhoods more affordable.

But the facts just don’t bear this out.

The mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposal would require 25 to 30 percent of new residential developments in certain areas to be affordable. But there’s a catch: The requirement would only be applied when the city changes zoning rules to vastly increase the amount of new market-rate housing that could also be built. Thus, affordable housing would only be provided if a great deal more market-rate housing is also built than would otherwise be allowed.

Sound familiar? This is the formula used 10 years ago in Manhattan’s West Chelsea/Hudson Yards neighborhoods and in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Back then, zoning rules affecting those areas were changed to increase significantly the allowable amount of residential development, with strong incentives for making a fraction of the housing affordable.

The result? Quite a bit of affordable housing was built in both areas — more than in any other part of the city, or about 25 percent of new units on the West Side and 16 percent in Williamsburg/Greenpoint. But there was also a virtual tsunami of new market-rate housing that utterly transformed those neighborhoods, physically and socioeconomically. These formerly diverse areas became among our city’s least affordable and most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, defined by walls of glassy high-rises that resemble Hong Kong or Miami more than New York.

This is the model the mayor is seeking to apply across the city. But there’s a less-discussed, more pernicious flip side to linking these affordable housing requirements exclusively to massive upzonings: Neighborhoods unwilling to accept vastly increased amounts of market-rate housing get no affordable housing. Case in point: The de Blasio administration has consistently rejected a rezoning proposal for the University Place/Broadway corridor in Greenwich Village with an affordable housing component, because we were unwilling to accept a vast increase in the allowable amount of market-rate housing along with it.

The mayor’s other rezoning proposal, Zoning for Quality and Affordability, would lift height caps by more than 30 percent in certain parts of the city when new developments include 20 percent affordable housing. Some might find this a worthwhile trade-off, if it results in more affordable housing. The problem is, it won’t.

This part of the mayor’s plan would apply to areas called Inclusionary Zones, which currently have strong incentives for including affordable units in new developments. According to the city’s own study, in 95 percent of the cases, developers are already doing this. But the city claims existing height limits prevent a higher rate of inclusion — that the caps don’t leave room to “fit” the affordable units, so developers leave them out.

Here again, studies say something different. The affordable housing program’s complicated bureaucracy and requirements, its comparatively generous tax breaks for building market-rate rather than affordable housing, and the relative inexperience of smaller builders seem to be the main reasons some developments don’t include the affordable units. Unfortunately, the mayor’s rezoning plan would do nothing to address these factors, which actually do inhibit the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments.

The mayor’s rezoning proposals create a false dichotomy, claiming if we just allowed more and larger developments, we’d have a more affordable city. At best, evidence indicates the height-lifting approach of Z.Q.A. would result in no net increase in affordable housing. At worst, experience shows M.I.H.’s vast increases in market-rate housing would likely accelerate gentrification and inflate rents and housing prices.

Either way, these plans would undeniably make for more-crowded, less-livable communities, with services and infrastructure stretched ever thinner. Worse, such approaches divert us from implementing real solutions to New York’s affordability problems.

Our neighborhoods, and our city, deserve better.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation