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Sides Near Deal on Major Zoning Changes Aimed at Creating Affordable Housing


de blasio rally

De Blasio rallies for his housing plans (photo: Demetrius Freeman, Mayor's Office)


After months of public discussion and weeks of private negotiation, the City Council is on the verge of passing, with tweaks, two sweeping changes to the city's land use rules that are key to Mayor Bill de Blasio's housing plan.

Sources familiar with negotiations say that some details are still being worked through, but that the major tenets of the controversial changes to city zoning text are all but set. A deal may be announced as early as Monday afternoon.

With several alterations to the original proposals by the de Blasio administration, the Council is likely to vote Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) through committee this week. Then, the City Planning Commission will be asked to sign off on the changes to the plans that it passed earlier this year, stamping them as "within scope" and sending them back to the Council for a full vote on March 22.

Council votes in the zoning subcommittee and land use committee are likely to take place on Wednesday, though they could be moved if deemed necessary. But, indications are that discussions between de Blasio administration and City Council representatives are close to finalized. In news that signaled the end of what has at times been a contentious process, the de Blasio administration announced on Sunday that the coalition making the most noise in opposition to the structure of the plans had come around in support given new developments.

Most importantly, de Blasio will see his Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program enacted; the plan requires that real estate developers who receive an upzoning on a plot of land in order to build more housing than otherwise allowed will have to include a set percentage of units under specific rent thresholds. Negotiating parties are making slight but important changes to the structure of affordability levels within MIH, including set-asides for lower income earners than the plan had previously included.

With a series of recent endorsements and now the backing of Real Affordability for All (RAFA), a collection of community groups and construction unions, along with prior support from a variety of advocacy groups and other unions, de Blasio is set for a big-tent win. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Council members will also tout the new land use policies as major progress for the city, especially those in danger of being priced out of an increasingly expensive New York. Council negotiations with the de Blasio administration have centered on affordability levels, with the Council apparently able to move the needle in slight, but significant ways.

The two zoning changes are part of the administration's larger housing plan, which aims to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. Forty-thousand were secured during de Blasio's first two years in office.

"We're on the verge of implementing the strongest, most progressive requirement for affordable housing of any city in the country," said de Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell in a Sunday statement announcing the backing of RAFA. "We welcome this support, and look forward to working with communities across the city to identify even more tools to reach New Yorkers with quality jobs and affordable housing."

The backing from RAFA, which is spearheaded by New York Communities for Change, an organization at one point led by a longtime friend of de Blasio, Jon Kest, who passed away in 2012, comes after concessions by the administration. Not only has RAFA seen encouraging movement on affordability levels within MIH, but the administration also promised to conduct a study of tools it can use to deepen affordability and ensure "job standards in new housing." The coalition, especially its labor component, has been calling for both local hiring and construction safety precautions to be included in the plans.

The affordability levels within MIH have been the source of perhaps the most debate as the zoning amendments have gone through the public review process. Along with Mark-Viverito and Council staff, Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Council's zoning subcommittee, has been key in the negotiations. Council Member Jumaane Williams, chair of the housing committee, has been said to be the loudest voice pushing for deeper levels of affordability. It appears that in the final MIH structure, shifts will have been made to ensure some apartments for lower income earners and broader economic diversity within new developments.

Income levels are based on Area Median Income, currently $77,688 for a family of three. AMI is a federal measure that for New York City also includes data from surrounding suburban counties. Average incomes in the city are significantly lower, especially in neighborhoods the de Blasio administration is targeting for added housing density and community improvements. "Affordable" means that a family would not be spending more than 30 percent of its income on rent.

Throughout the public review process, fears of gentrification have been at the forefront. De Blasio, his representatives, and his allies argue that without a new program from the city, gentrification will continue largely unabated as it has in many communities over the past two decades. Some advocates and politicians have been calling for a mandatory inclusionary housing program for many years. As de Blasio moved forward with his plan, the big question became the exact numbers.

As proposed, the administration included three options for builders creating new housing on land rezoned under MIH:
> 25 percent of new units affordable to tenants making an average of 60 percent AMI
> 30 percent of units affordable to tenants making an average of 80 percent AMI
> 30 percent of units affordable to tenants making an average of 120 percent AMI - this third option would not come with added city subsidies; would not be available in most of Manhattan in an effort to create more economic diversity; and is often known as "the workforce" option, meaning that it is targeted more at middle-class households.

Negotiations appear to be yielding a couple of changes to that structure. One change is that instead of simply requiring rents for the affordable units to average 60 or 80 or 120 percent of AMI, there would be clear set-asides for some percentage of units to be affordable for those earning down to 30 percent of AMI. Another change would add a fourth option that gets at deeper affordability, possibly accompanied by a smaller percentage of affordable units, again in an effort to make some new apartments available to tenants with lower incomes. Two sources close to negotiations confirmed the outline of these changes to Gotham Gazette.

City Council members indicated they were looking for these types of tweaks during a February hearing on MIH, as did Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the zoning subcommittee and one of the Council's lead negotiators on the subject, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Details of the changes as part of negotiations were first reported by Politico New York earlier this month.

Mark-Viverito, the Council speaker, has, like many of her members, been a supporter of the plans from the start, but also interested in making changes, especially to affordability thresholds. Council Member Williams said he knows Mark-Viverito and Council Member Richards have been negotiating those numbers.

"The speaker and Donovan Richards are in there trying to push what many of us are asking for," Williams said in an interview on Friday. "All of New York has to see itself in this plan. If it doesn't, we haven't achieved what we need to achieve."

Williams referenced the push for a fourth option under MIH and the carving out of a certain percentage of units for those making the most modest incomes. "We want to make sure that there aren't parts of this city that are built with no deeply affordable units," he said. "There shouldn't be a project where some of the units aren't of the deepest affordability - 30 percent or below of AMI must be considered."

Meanwhile, it is still unclear if there will be modifications around other key points of contention, such as the building of affordable units "off site," as in at a different location than new market-rate units. Council members have expressed interest in disincentivizing the practice within the MIH language, perhaps by including language requiring more affordable units if they are built away from the market-rate units.

As for ZQA, which deals with a wide variety of more specific zoning rules, the parties appear to be coming to compromises around modifications to parking requirements that come with senior affordable housing and the distances in so-called transit zones. Details of the ZQA deal are said to be among those still being discussed as City Council members often have neighborhood-level concerns, especially around building heights, parking, senior housing, and retail space.

Much of the discussion around ZQA has related to the ways in which it will help create more affordable housing for seniors. AARP and other advocacy groups have backed the plan, with AARP-NY dedicating significant resources in support, rallying with the mayor, and lobbying Council members.

A spokesperson for Council Member Richards told Gotham Gazette that negotiations have yielded a deal on the minimum size of new affordable housing units for seniors, one point of contention in early negotiations. The de Blasio plan had put the minimum at 275 square feet, which Richards and others called too small, pushing for 400. The sides have agreed on 325 square feet.

The sides are said to be negotiating specific numbers around the number of parking spots that must accompany new senior housing and which areas of the city would still require special permits to build nursing homes, among other finer points. Politico New York has reported on already-decided changes to ZQA.

When a deal on MIH and ZQA is finalized, de Blasio and City Council members are likely to celebrate, these types of changes to city zoning rules do not happen often, and the mandate for affordable housing in any upzoned development is indeed a major win.

How prior critics of the plans, including many local community boards who voted against their initial construction, will react is unclear. While some have seen and will continue to see merit in the plans, fears of new real estate development, added density, and rising rents are very real and unlikely to abate. The de Blasio administration is also moving forward with a series of neighborhood rezonings, starting with East New York, Brooklyn, but soon moving to communities in each borough.

De Blasio is staking his legacy largely on his attempts to make the city more affordable and his housing policies will be a key piece of his 2017 reelection bid.

In endorsing the mayor's plans, the New York Times editorial board recently captured the moment, writing, "This grand plan is a hugely important gamble that the city can build its way to greater housing equality, that it can ignite growth, improve neighborhoods, tame gentrification and protect tenants, all at once. That New York can still be a mixed-income city."

Passing MIH and ZQA doesn't provide the result to that gamble, it pushes more chips on the table.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 14


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has reason to smile as this week begins. Through negotiations with the City Council and outside critics, de Blasio appears to have gotten just about everyone on board with his citywide zoning changes and they are all-but-certain to be passed through the City Council over the next two weeks - first through committee this week, then the full Council on March 22. The City Planning Commission has to sign off on the tweaks in between. And there are tweaks, but the plans - Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) - will pass in forms close to what the city originally proposed. The two zoning amendments are major pieces of de Blasio's housing plan, which aims for 200,000 units of affordable housing to be built or preserved over ten years.

De Blasio spent part of Sunday speaking at South Bronx and Harlem churches to sell his housing plans. The most significant concerns about the mayor's zoning proposals have come from communities of color worried that the affordability levels of MIH are not deep enough. It appears that some of the tweaks being made to the plan will address these concerns. The de Blasio administration also continues to point to other elements of its housing plan aimed at creating affordable housing for the city's lowest income earners.

The mayor will celebrate movement on his housing plans this week and he'll also hold a town hall on the subject in Brooklyn Monday night, hosted by City Council Member Mathieu Eugene. De Blasio will also travel to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, responding to proposed federal cuts to anti-terrorism efforts - see below for details. And on Wednesday, de Blasio will speak at the New York City premiere of a new film promoting gun control - details also below.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also spent part of Sunday at two churches, both in Brooklyn, where she discussed her criminal justice reform efforts.
[Read: City Council Bail Fund Moves Through State Process]

Meanwhile, budget business continues this week, with the fiscal year 2017 state budget due by the end of the month. The Assembly and Senate are moving toward passage of their one-house budgets, which will lead to intensified negotiations among Gov. Cuomo and the two majority leaders - Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate President John Flanagan, a Republican. There are a variety of discrepancies around funding levels and policy priorities. It's unclear if anything will be done in the budget on government ethics reform. Not a necessity to passing a spending plan and with significant pushback from Republicans to what Cuomo and Heastie have proposed, ethics could easily be bumped to further negotiations in the legislative session to follow the budget.

City Council preliminary budget hearings on the mayor's $82 billion plan also continue this week. Catch up on our coverage of budget hearings thus far:
-At First City Council Budget Hearing, Concerns About City Savings and State Cuts
-Government Investigator Explains 43% Budget Bump
-Underfunded Conflicts of Interest Board Struggles to Meet Mandates

Before Gov. Cuomo gets back to budget business in Albany this week, on Sunday Cuomo made his first visit to Hoosick Falls since the town's water contamination crisis broke. Cuomo insisted that the state was not slow to act, pointed the finger at federal regulators and the media, and assured all that the state response is on the right track.

And this week: "Comptroller Stringer will be in Israel along with a delegation of Latino leaders from New York City for a trip organized in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He will arrive in Israel on Sunday evening and will depart on Thursday evening, arriving back in New York City on Friday, March 18."

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

At 7:15 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will appear on CNN to discuss the presidential race. At 1:30 p.m. Monday, de Blasio will be in upper Manhattan to "host a press conference to discuss the preservation of affordable housing." At 4 p.m. de Blasio will hold a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall. At 7 p.m., de Blasio and City Council Member Mathieu Eugene "will host a town hall meeting with Brooklyn residents to discuss affordable housing" at P.S. 6.

At the City Council on Monday: At 10 a.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will hold its preliminary budget hearing.

At 10 a.m. Monday at Newtown High School in Queens, “New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Department of Education, Congresswoman Grace Meng and Education Chair Daniel Dromm announce groundbreaking pilot program that will position New York City at the forefront of a national dialogue on access to feminine hygiene products by providing free pads and tampons in select Queens and Bronx public schools restrooms, supporting better educational outcomes and bringing dignity to girls.” Feminine hygiene product dispensers will be placed in 25 public middle schools and high schools.
[Read more: City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access]

At noon on Monday in Albany, “as budget bills advance in both the Senate and Assembly during Sunshine Week, good government and reform groups react to proposed ethics legislation.” Participating groups include Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, League of Women Voters of NYS, NY Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany.
[Read: Heastie Outlines Assembly Ethics Reform Plan]

At 5:30 p.m. Monday, The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will deliver a presentation to the Queens Borough Board, chaired by Borough President Melinda Katz, on two of its new economic growth initiatives: NYC Industrial Developer Fund and Futureworks NYC Growth Initiative. The initiatives aim to provide project financing for industrial real estate development projects in New York City and support the growth of promising companies by providing six early stage companies with $30,000 each over a two-year period, respectively.

On Monday evening in Brooklyn, City Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Jumaane Williams will host their annual "Shirley Chisolm Women of Distinction Celebration." Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver keynote remarks. 

Tuesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan, who represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, will chair a hearing on President Barack Obama’s proposed cuts to anti-terrorism funding. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has strongly criticized the cuts, is expected to testify.

At noon Tuesday, Greater New York City for Change and allies will rally in Albany to raise the minimum wage to $15.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to discuss granting special permits in regard to the enlargement of an existing property in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The committee will also discuss amendments “concerning the use, bulk, and parking regulations in Brooklyn.”
  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on General Welfare will meet for its preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to discuss previous amendments to property tax laws and a current urban development project in Manhattan.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Juvenile Justice the Committee on Women’s Issues will meet for their joint preliminary budget hearing.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Daniel Dromm will host a Celebration of Irish Heritage and Culture in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Wednesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, New York Law School will host a breakfast panel covering the future of New York City real estate. The panel will feature experts from Blackstone, Cushman and Wakefield, Related Companies, and Downtown Alliance, and will be moderated by Gerald Korngold, New York Law School Professor and The Center for Real Estate Studies Program Chair.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Council transportation committee, will lead the launch of  “Car Free NYC” at New York University’s Kimmel Center, which will lead to a “car-free” Earth Day in April.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the South Bronx Leadership Forum will hold a discussion with Vicki Been, Commissioner of New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committees on Small Business and Economic Development will meet for a joint preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Education will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, The Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) will host a public forum addressing how police reforms “preserve the racist status quo.”

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Carmen Fariña, New York City Schools Chancellor, “will discuss the changing state of public education” with Pace University President Stephen J. Friedman at the University’s Lower Manhattan campus.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, "Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom, the co-authors of Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies that Transformed a City host a free, public panel discussion on the future of a livable New York City for the other 99%."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” from Brave New Films, will premiere in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio will deliver introductory remarks before the premiere.

Thursday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Thursday in Albany.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, The Rockefeller Institute of Government will host “Facing the Global Immigration and Refugee Crisis” in Albany. The forum will reflect on past conflict and violence that has led to mass immigration and feature Maher Nasser, director of the Outreach Division for the United Nations’ Department of Public Information; Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; and Sana Mustafa, Bard College Student and Syrian Refugee.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet on results of subcommittee meetings held recently and conduct other general business.
  • At noon, the Committees on Land Use and Technology will meet for a joint preliminary budget hearing.

Friday
Friday is the second annual Student Voter Registration Day in New York City, which aims to get newly eligible voters registered in time to vote in April’s New York State presidential primary.

At 8:15 a.m. Friday, Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Shola Olatoye will be speaking at a CityLaw Breakfast at New York Law School.

At noon Friday, state Senator Jesse Hamilton, colleagues, and partners will hold a press conference at the Howard Houses Community Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn to announce the “first technology and wellness center at a public housing site in the United States.” The “CAMPUS” will serve as a resource center for technology, health, and career development. Hamilton will be joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Assembly Members Latrice Walk and Nick Perry, and other officials, residents, partners, and organizations.

At the City Council on Friday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Health will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Leanna Carroll and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

City Council ‘Deletes’ One Committee, But No Further Reforms Planned


council hearing

A scene at the City Council (photo: William Alatriste)


At one of the shortest City Council hearings ever held, Council members from the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved on Wednesday morning a resolution to “delete” the Committee on Community Development.

The decision to eliminate one committee relates to questions regarding the number of Council committees, how many committees each member sits on, and member attendance at committee hearings. Regularly, by the time members of the public testify at City Council hearings, the chair of the committee holding the hearing is the only Council member remaining to listen. At many hearings, committee members leave after testimony from the first panel, usually made up of representatives from the mayor’s administration, sometimes to attend a hearing for another committee scheduled at the same time.

The elimination of the community development committee was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee. Arroyo resigned in December and has since been replaced by Rafael Salamanca, Jr., who was sworn in on Wednesday.

Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by the other committees that’s really important there?’”

Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly given the fact, Lander said, that it did not have direct oversight over any specific city agency. Now that it’s gone, 36 standing committees and six subcommittees remain, with the 51 City Council Members sitting on an average of six committees. Critics have said that the Council has too many committees, a byproduct of the fact that chairing a committee has long come with an additional stipend, a practice the Council voted to end last month.

Speaking with Gotham Gazette on Wednesday, Council Member Lander said he doesn’t intend to do any further examination of the number of Council committees and said that he thinks the large number actually does a service to New Yorkers whereby the Council takes on a wider variety of important issues.

Part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, reduced the number of times committees are required to meet per year from ten to five. Still, Council members are often unable to fully attend one committee hearing because another is scheduled at the same time.  

“Council Member Treyger has to vote for land use, we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a Feb. 29 hearing held by the Committee on Government Operations.

Dick Dadey, executive director of the government reform group Citizens Union, believes there was a correlation between the number of Council committees and lulus, which were awarded to Council members for chairing committees until Feb 19., when Mayor de Blasio signed a package of bills reforming the City Council and raising the salaries of all New York City’s elected officials.

“Committees are created not because of a need, but for maybe the need to give someone a lulu and increase their compensation,” Dadey said at a Nov. 23, 2015 public hearing held by the quadrennial advisory commission on elected official compensation. “I mean, take a look at that list, and some of those can be consolidated.”

To Lander, however, having a large number of committees is important, because it allows Council members to hold a more focused hearing and “drill down” into the details of an issue.

“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” Lander said on Wednesday.

Fritz Schwarz, chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chair of the 2015 quadrennial advisory commission tasked with reviewing the compensation levels of elected officials, seemed to indicate that he agreed with Dadey’s point that eliminating lulus may have an effect on the number of committees.

When asked by Gotham Gazette why he choose not to address the number of committees in the commission’s report, Schwarz said, “Essentially, I didn’t think we knew enough to jump on that. And it wasn’t necessary to deal with, because we want to get rid of the lulus, and what consequence that would have beyond getting rid of them wasn’t necessary to address.”

Even without lulus, Lander says he doesn’t “really see the harm” in having a large number of committees. Combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, would shrink the amount of attention stakeholders get, Lander says. Lander also rejected the idea of combining the Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Small Businesses, citing the work that Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. has done as small business chair - work that may not be done if small business was subsumed by economic development, he said.

Though he conceded that Council members’ attendance at hearings “is a tension,” Lander believes “it’s outweighed” by being able to “bring more attention to the issues New Yorkers care about.”

“It’s a challenge,” Lander added, “one challenge is that each of those committees needs to have enough members on it. And then every member is on a lot of committees and it is a challenge to go to beginning to end for all of them and still do all the other things in the job.”

Lander said that each committee chair is able to become an expert on their issue and that there are Council aides who also attend hearings on behalf of Council members. Attendance at committee hearings could be better, Lander acknowledged, if there were fewer committees, but he said that it wasn’t a trade-off he thought would benefit New Yorkers.

Former City Council Member and current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer believes it would be wise to examine the number of committees Council members sit on, and their ability to attend the hearings held by those committees.

“I think we should look to see how many committees a person is on, and they should show up at them. And there's always an issue of signing in for five minutes, getting counted, and leaving,” Brewer said during a Nov. 24, 2015 public hearing held by the quadrennial advisory commission. “I think that would be something to look at more carefully. This has never been monitored.”

Yet, as Lander said, the decision to delete the community development committee is simply a response to Arroyo’s resignation, and “there is not a more comprehensive look underway.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.



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