Officials and advocates debate Downtown housing

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Housing, finance and community development experts met on Monday to brainstorm ways to reconcile the goal of creating affordable housing in Lower Manhattan with the reality of high land prices.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has outlined a broad vision for Lower Manhattan revitalization that includes enticing more families to move to the area. While more than 8,000 apartments are currently slated for construction south of Canal St., many families cannot afford to pay projected market-rate rents of $6,267 for a three-bedroom unit.

Suggestions for creating and maintaining a diverse Downtown community included creating a public school on the East Side, granting more government subsidies, and preserving the area’s existing affordable housing. Vishaan Chakrabarti, who was briefly a member of Community Board 1 before joining the Department of City Planning, mentioned the current overcrowding at P.S. 234 in Tribeca as a reason why the city needs to focus on making the area more attractive to local residents.

Panelists at the forum, presented by the Architecture Research Institute, Rebuild Downtown Our Town, and the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, included members of the banking, development and non-profit communities, as well as representatives from city government.

“The cheapest affordable housing unit is the preserved affordable housing unit,” said Jonathan Rose, president of a development firm that bears his name.

Currently, residents in some 1,345 apartments in the Tribeca Independence Plaza North complex face the possible loss of their rent protections under the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. Such a large-scale affordable development would be almost impossible to construct under current conditions, panelists said.

Lisa Gomez, a vice president of the city’s Housing Development Corporation, said developers would need to charge rents of about $44 per square foot to recoup land and building costs in Lower Manhattan. In this climate, developers cannot build apartments for middle-income tenants without government incentives, panelists said.

The expected Downtown residential construction boom has been driven in large part by Liberty Bonds, tax-exempt financing provided by the federal government after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But some said Liberty Bonds alone do not provide enough leeway for developers to create the needed amount of middle-income units. Rose said that the addition of tax credits would help spur the creation of more affordable housing.

The city and the state each control $800 million in Liberty Bond financing for rental housing. The city charges developers a 3 percent “origination fee,” Gomez said, which will be used toward the creation of affordable housing citywide. The state mandates that all of its Liberty Bond-financed developments set aside 5 percent of the units for tenants making 150 percent of the area median income, or about $94,000 for a family of four.

In addition, the city will create about 300 affordable units with $50 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has voted to place these units on the city-owned 5B lot off Warren St. between West and Greenwich Sts. But Gomez did not mention the 5B site in her presentation, saying only that the city would likely announce the plans for the 300 units early next year.

Some community advocates said that the 5B units won’t come close to meeting the need for affordable housing. Barbara Caporale, of Rebuild with a Spotlight on the Poor Coalition, was among the many participants at Monday’s forum who said that more should be done to help low and moderate-income people live Downtown.

“Those 300 units—it’s just a slap in the face,” Caporale said later.


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