Gotham Gazette Tue, 24 Oct 2017 00:24:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon wtc orange amazon via edc

One World Trade Center lit up orange for Amazon (photo via NYC EDC)

New York is laying out the red carpet to entice online retail giant Amazon to locate its new corporate headquarters in the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a slew of incentives to support four official proposals from different regions that were submitted to the company on Wednesday, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lit up the city in orange at night as a fawning branding appeal.

New York City’s own bid -- which included four possible business districts -- was backed by about 70 elected officials that represent the city, including members of Congress, state Senators and Assembly members, City Council members, borough presidents, and Public Advocate Letitia James. But at least four notable elected officials were conspicuously absent from the letter of support sent by the mayor’s office to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Members Corey Johnson and Donovan Richards, both contenders to become the next Speaker of the City Council, did not sign on to the letter.

“No city embodies the American traditions of innovation and creativity quite like New York City,” the letter reads. “It has transformed from a Dutch settlement, to the nation’s first capital, to a booming industrial center. It became a port of hope for millions of immigrants looking for a better life, and a model for urban revitalization. From Broadway, the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Bridge, to Citi Field and the shores of Staten Island, New York City is a place where history is made every day. Our tradition of reinvention matches yours, and we invite you to join us in writing our next chapters together.”

A spokesperson for Stringer declined to comment. Multiple messages and emails sent to spokespeople for Heastie were not returned.

“We’re excited about the prospect of new businesses coming to New York City,” said Jordan Gibbons, a spokesperson for Council Member Richards, “but before we support the plan, we need more information about job standards and impact on local businesses.”

Council Member Johnson wrote in a text that he “didn’t sign on to [the] letter because I have concerns about Amazon’s labor record but also recognize 50K jobs would be good for the city.”  

As Johnson noted, Amazon’s second headquarters is expected to create 50,000 jobs and bring in roughly $5 billion in investment. One of the proposed areas for Amazon’s headquarters, Midtown West, falls in Johnson’s Manhattan district. City Council members representing other proposed sites for the headquarters signed on to the letter.

Amazon’s announcement and request for proposals triggered a mad dash by dozens of cities across the country to lure the multi-billion-dollar company. To bolster their bids, some cities and states have promised enormous tax breaks while others have pledged infrastructure investments around a potential Amazon campus. Most have hedged their bets on being able to provide the optimum balance of tech talent, affordable and ample real estate, and an appealing quality of life. One municipality in Georgia even went so far as to propose creating an entirely new city named for the online retailer.

Short of naming a new business district after Amazon, New York City’s pitch includes all those aspects. Culled from more than two dozen proposals from across the five boroughs, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, in collaboration with the Empire State Development Corporation, decided on four city areas that met Amazon’s criteria -- Midtown West, Long Island City, Lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. The city is banking on many factors, including its pool of 2.3 million residents who hold a bachelor’s degree and above -- a number higher than the combined comparable workforce of Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

The city has 296,000 workers in the tech industry and is growing rapidly in sectors of the economy where Amazon is diversifying, including media, advertising, fashion, and manufacturing.

And the city is already an attractive destination for Amazon, which has a distribution and fulfillment center, corporate offices and retail space in the city with plans to expand in Manhattan. Amazon’s website says it has 1,000 employees in New York, plus seasonal additions around the winter holidays.

An EDC spokesperson said the city cast a wide net seeking support for the proposal. “Considering how hard it is to get New Yorkers to agree on anything, the fact that we got so many signatures in such a short time was pretty impressive and overwhelming,” the spokesperson said, expressing optimism that New York would outmatch other cities with its bid.

Asked at an unrelated Thursday news conference about his pursuit of Amazon when he has been opposed to Walmart opening in the city, de Blasio called it “apples and oranges.” “Amazon, there are some issues that need to be addressed with labor, there’s no two ways about it. But, at the same time, this is a company talking about potentially fundamentally changing the economy in New York City. Adding 50,000 jobs is a game-changer. And it’s something we need and we need more high-quality jobs for the people of New York City. So we can work on those labor issues and I’m happy to work on those labor issues, but no, I’m convinced that Amazon will be a net gain for New York City, unquestionably.”

Responding to Johnson’s concerns, the EDC spokesperson said that Amazon’s presence in New York would afford the city an opportunity to engage directly with the firm and “work with them to advance our shared values.” Pointing out that it was premature to evaluate a deal that hasn’t yet been approved, the spokesperson said the city would be able to negotiate down the line to add guarantees to ensure the number of jobs created, salary levels and that jobs go to New Yorkers. “It’s pretty clear to us that they want to build the headquarters with the community, not in the community,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s puzzling, I don’t know why you’d want to turn down a shot at 50,000 good-paying jobs,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, when asked why leaders like Stringer, Heastie, and Johnson would not sign on. He conceded that concerns about corporate subsidies are valid, but that the Amazon opportunity is too good to pass up. “It’s a big win for New York City if we can get it.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Protecting Tenants from Construction Harassment sts op ed

photo, including three of the authors, via the Progressive Caucus

We’ve seen it in our districts. A new landlord takes ownership of a building and starts a construction project that never finishes in order to evict long-term residents. They may turn off the cooking gas indefinitely; they may even knock out the boiler with no explanation.

For too many New Yorkers, this nightmare is their reality. The stories are plentiful: heat and gas shutoffs in the middle of winter, jackhammering causing cracks in apartment walls, loss of power, and lead dust in the air lasting for months on end. For years, city and borough officials and community advocates have encountered a critical mass of stories like these, detailing the unscrupulous conduct of landlords as well as the insufficient response from the City of New York.

We, as members of the City Council members and its Progressive Caucus, see the writing on the walls: our city needs more protections in place for tenants facing construction harassment.

Understanding the need to strengthen the ability of the Department of Buildings (DOB) to protect tenants from construction as harassment, the grassroots Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition (STS) has partnered with the Progressive Caucus to put forth a package of legislation aimed at achieving just that.

These 12 STS bills, most of which are sponsored by members of the Progressive Caucus, with strong support in the Council, will put in place much tougher penalties against abusive landlords for illegal construction practices and enact preventative measures to help tenants protect their homes.  

The goal is to change the way DOB handles construction harassment so that the agency is empowered to become more proactive with regard to issuing construction permits and facilitating communication among tenants, landlords, and city agencies. Such renewed tenant protections are intended to quicken and fortify the City’s response to construction harassment so vulnerable residents in rapidly changing neighborhoods are able to stay in their homes and communities.

As policymakers, we know that construction harassment by unscrupulous landlords only exacerbates the affordable housing crisis already facing residents of New York City. In recent years, the average rents in some city neighborhoods have risen by 20%; in such neighborhoods especially, unethical landlords can use construction as a way of cashing in on rising rents instead of protecting the existing tenants. Calls the City has been receiving from New Yorkers reflect this; construction-related complaints number in the thousands each year.

Even as preserving and creating affordable housing has remained a focus of both the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, the myriad loopholes landlords use in existing laws allow the number of rent-regulated apartments to dwindle. With both the cost of living in the city and rent continuing to rise, protecting the health and safety of tenants through legislation is the minimum of what can be done, the least of how this city can maintain a fair and just society. With the city losing affordable housing every year, we cannot afford to ignore any way in which tenants are threatened by eviction from their homes.

As the clock ticks toward the end of the current City Council session, we need the Council to pass this Stand for Tenant Safety package of legislation as soon as possible. The New York City Council just made history by passing the city’s first ever Right to Counsel legislation, which will provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction in housing court. We urgently need to continue making progress on tenant rights in New York City by strengthening preventative measures that will help keep tenants from facing eviction in the first place.

It is time that the City renew its commitment, through strengthening the enforcement power of the Department of Buildings, to standing up for residents living under adverse conditions and protect our communities from abusive, unethical landlords. As long as economic inequality and hazardous building conditions threaten health and safety, the City must continue to strengthen every person’s opportunity for a livable and affordable place to call home. As progressive City Council members, we hope our colleagues and the de Blasio administration will work together with us to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable tenants are protected.

Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Helen Rosenthal & Ben Kallos are all members of the City Council and leaders of its Progressive Caucus. On Twitter @CMReynoso34 & @DRichards13 & @HelenRosenthal & @BenKallos, & @NYCProgressives.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Protecting Tenants from Construction Harassment Sun, 30 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Richards to Host Fundraiser for Mayor De Blasio de blasio richards town hall queens

Richards, right, & de Blasio (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

On Tuesday, November 15, City Council Member Donovan Richards will host a re-election campaign fundraiser for Mayor Bill de Blasio in Rosedale, Queens. Richards, who has been one of de Blasio’s staunchest supporters in the Council, where some of the mayor’s goodwill has frayed, said that he’s generally supportive of de Blasio, appreciates what the mayor is doing for his district, and wants to give locals a chance to support de Blasio at a small-dollar event.

“I think the mayor, for my particular district, he delivered for my community,” Richards told Gotham Gazette by phone on Friday. Richards said that while he’s not yet making an “official endorsement,” he plans to vote for de Blasio next year and that he is hosting the fundraiser because of the good work the mayor has done and to give his community the opportunity to show its support.

“He got a great reception here,” Richards said of the mayor’s appearance at a town hall meeting in June, “because he's finally paying attention to our community -- for decades we couldn't get people to pay attention. The mayor has been consistent in paying attention to Southeast Queens.”

In one major example, the de Blasio administration has pledged $91 million toward the “revitalization” of Downtown Far Rockaway.

“I talk to my constituents all the time and they are happy with the progress they see,” Richards added, “more affordable housing, more commercial opportunities, more streets being paved, more investment, infrastructure being put in. These are things we look for in a Mayor."

The mayor is “not perfect,” Richards said, but “when you're looking to support any candidate, you look at their values, and you look at where their mission is going -- am I happy with the direction this administration is taking."

The event, Richards said, will be an opportunity for him to further gauge the support de Blasio has in the area, but also for him to show his constituents that he’s behind the mayor’s re-election. “Doing a fundraiser for the mayor signals this is someone I think highly of,” Richards said, “and the community is going to listen closely to where I stand and my take on what the mayor has done, particularly for this district." Several other City Council members, including Helen Rosenthal and Ydanis Rodriguez, have hosted fundraisers for de Blasio as the mayor’s campaign has kicked into gear.

de blasio fundraiser invite richardsAccording to an invitation for Richards’ event, which the Council member said he just started to circulate, to be listed as a “Host” requires a $500 donation. A “Supporter” kicks in $175; a “Friend,” $100; and a “Guest,” $25. Checks should be made out to “de Blasio 2017,” the invitation (left) says. The event will be at Pa-Nash Restaurant and Lounge. Under the city’s public matching campaign finance system, donations up to $175 or the first $175 of a larger donation are matched six-to-one by the city. The maximum individual contribution to a mayoral candidate is $4,950.

Asked how much he plans to donate to the mayor, Richards laughed and said “I'm not saying that, I've got a kid!" Richards, who became a first-time father earlier this year, added, "We'll see as we get closer, we're being supportive of the mayor, I'll say that. Hosting itself is being helpful!"

"I'm not bundling," he said, when asked.

Richards and the de Blasio administration have worked closely on two major initiatives over the past three years, including the Downtown Far Rockaway revitalization plan and the passage of two significant changes to the city’s zoning rules that moved through the subcommittee that Richards chairs in the Council. The changes are essential to de Blasio’s larger affordable housing plan.

“We’re grateful and proud to have his support, and we’re looking forward to the event,” said Dan Levitan, spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign, of Richards, who said that he expects other Queens elected officials at the fundraiser.

The event comes as de Blasio’s relationship with the City Council and its individual members has hit a choppier stretch. There’s frustration among a number of members that the mayor is not as communicative as they think he should be and there are at times issues around credit-taking. Meanwhile, as is inevitable, over the nearly three years de Blasio has been mayor, a variety of local issues and battles have popped up, most recently around affordable housing projects and the siting of homeless shelters.

De Blasio maintains many allies in the Council. Even though she has her frustrations and disagreements with the mayor, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito remains one; and the most important one at that. Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette in August that the mayor deserves to be re-elected, and she attended a May fundraiser for the mayor in Brooklyn that was headlined by comedian Louis CK.

Some critics in the Council, however, have become louder over time, and some of de Blasio's relationships have frayed, such as that with Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. In May, when de Blasio was under fire on several fronts, including around law enforcement investigations, Richards and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso -- who co-chair the Council's Progressive Caucus -- were among the Council members who came to the mayor's defense: Richards and Reynoso co-authored an op-ed that appeared in Gotham Gazette outlining the progress achieved under de Blasio and the current City Council. It was part of what Politico New York reported at the time as a rallying of the troops behind the mayor.

“I can't speak for every member,” Richards said on Friday. “Is the Mayor perfect? No. Generally speaking, for me, I can say that many of the issues - whether they're dealt with in perfection or not - affordable housing, community development, fair share - are things important to me. But in my eyes they're moving in the right direction. Still a lot of work to do, but I also don't expect them to fix all the city's ills so quick."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Member Richards to Host Fundraiser for Mayor De Blasio Fri, 21 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
A Big Bet on 'Revitalizing Downtown' far rockaway richards

Officials announce the Far Rockaway plan (photo: @DRichards13)

With individuals constantly moving in and out of the state, New York’s population remains one of the most dynamic in the country. This fluidity changes the makeup of communities and the character of neighborhoods - lately, more people are leaving New York than coming, even leading the state to lose clout in Congress. Often related to economic forces, especially job opportunity, New York has seen a number of its once-bustling cities, towns, and communities economically devastated in recent years.

City and state governments consistently grapple with these changes in economics, demographics, and vitality. Policymakers sometimes decide to invest in stimulating a local economy, by luring a company to move in, offering an existing company incentives to stay, or by other means. “Downtown revitalization” has become a popular term in both New York City and at the state level. As part of his Downtown Revitalization Initiative, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration recently allocated a series of grants based to local communities selected by the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils.

In a statement about the development grants, Cuomo explained the initiative: “A thriving downtown can provide a tremendous boost to the local economy. This initiative will transform selected downtown neighborhoods into vibrant places for people to live, work and raise a family.” Under this initiative, the Cuomo administration awarded 10 communities, nine in Upstate and one in the city, $10 million each.  

These grants are different from, though in the same vein as, the massive state economic development programs that recently came under intense criticism due to federal criminal charges that were brought against nine individuals involved.

Through downtown revitalization projects, whether city or state, public tax dollars are allocated toward improving infrastructure, creating amenities like park space, and constructing new mixed-use buildings to make an area more attractive for incoming residents and businesses. While the state awarded most grants to downtrodden communities outside New York City and much of the city is bustling with commerce and jobs, there are spots where neighborhood economic development and commercial activity lag -- and in Jamaica, Queens, at least one “downtown,” the city is infusing significant revitalization funding.

An active governmental role in stimulating a local economy is not a new phenomenon, especially in New York City. Since the beginning of the 20th century, all five boroughs have undergone major revitalization projects. New Yorkers have seen significant infrastructural changes in places like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn and East Harlem.

When the government invests large sums of public dollars into redeveloping neighborhoods, tensions often arise between officials and the residents of the communities. To give residents a voice, government agencies and officials hold public information sessions and zoning hearings to explain revitalization plans and listen to concerns. The extent of the tension usually relates to how much community engagement is done in forming plans in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, most residents welcome changes that would bring more jobs, improved transportation, and more facilities for families and youth. However, when the plan involves building new housing units, residents often become concerned with issues of affordability, high density, and the aesthetics of new, tall buildings.

In his February State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised $91 million to revitalize Downtown Far Rockaway in Queens. In August, the city announced a “Roadmap for Action, an expansive, interagency plan to re-establish Downtown Far Rockaway as the commercial hub of the Rockaway peninsula.”

In his address, de Blasio explained some of what the revitalization would entail: “We’ll help businesses in commercial corridors like Beach 20th Street. Parents will be able to attend job training workshops while their kids play a pickup game at the greatly improved Sorrentino Recreation Center. And the whole community will enjoy the new, state-of-the-art Downtown Far Rockaway Library.”

It is largely welcome news for a community that has been seeking similar city assistance for nearly half of a century. The interagency effort, led by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and City Council Member Donovan Richards, to spur economic development and guarantee permanent affordable housing on the peninsula has been met with mostly positive feedback. Yet, some residents fear the uncertain effects of these major developmental changes, especially when it comes to new housing, created at least in part by government.

For over 30 years, a shopping center at the intersection of Mott and Central Avenues in Downtown Far Rockaway sat nearly vacant. When a Dunkin’ Donuts opened there last summer, it became one of just three stores opened over decades in 30 possible storefronts. Now, a year later, the community will undergo substantial change after the EDC, the City Planning Commission, the Department of Housing and Preservation, other agencies, and state and local public officials promised to spur economic development in the area following de Blasio’s decision to invest there.

Council Member Richards, who represents Far Rockaway in Council District 31 and chairs the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, spearheaded efforts to acquire funding from the city for the project.

In a press release announcing the project, Richards said, “Disinvestment, lack of open space, lack of local employment options, lack of infrastructure, and poor pedestrian circulation, created not only a recipe for disaster, but hopelessness in this community.”

He added, “But today, we begin the steps in righting these wrongs by paying our moral and

economic debt owed to this community. The bounced checks of promises written out to this community in the past are long gone. The historic $91 million investment that the de Blasio administration has made will go a long way in providing economic justice to this community.”

Richards, a City Council member since March 2013, said the project will focus on making Far Rockaway a commercial hub again, especially making it easier to travel to and within the neighborhood.

“Right now, when you get off the A train, it feels like you’re not even in the country,” he said in an interview with Gotham Gazette, referencing the baron nature of the downtown area so desperately in need of new life. “You feel like you’re in a third-world country.”

The mayor first spoke about Far Rockaway’s potential in his 2015 State of the City address. Then, in part as a response to a February 2016 letter of recommendations written by Richards and the Downtown Far Rockaway Working Group, a task force made up of local businesses and stakeholders created in November of last year, the mayor outlined his plan to invest in the community in his 2016 State of the City address.

Richards said he met with residents who asked for improved access to transportation services, new youth and family facilities and more job opportunities. According to Richards, community participation has been vital in getting the mayor’s attention.

“Government sometimes is top-down heavy,” Richards said. “Any projects that come into my district, I don’t care how small it is, I always want the community to be aware of what’s going on.”

The letter from the group to de Blasio, written on stationery from Richards’ office, begins with: “GOAL 1: Re-establish Downtown Far Rockaway as the commercial and transportation hub of the Rockaway peninsula,” and follows with several other goals, each with a set of specific recommendations -- many of which were adopted by the City.

Under that first goal, the Downtown Far Rockaway Working Group’s recommendations point to the specifics of “downtown revitalization”: “Redevelop the shopping center site at the heart of Downtown with mixed-income housing, commercial and community facility space,” one reads.

“Reinvigorate Mott Avenue, Central Avenue, Beach 20th Street, and Cornaga Avenue by attracting more diverse retail offerings with a balance of local, regional, and national businesses and restaurants that foster a walkable environment” is number two, “Create destinations to draw residents as well as visitors, including family and youth recreation and entertainment” is three, and “Highlight Downtown’s unique character and history, including as a music and entertainment destination, by fostering a “Main Street” feeling in Downtown with storefront improvements, traffic calming, lighting, and free wifi,” is four. These are followed by a recommendation to push the state-run MTA for increased A-train service and other transportation improvements.

Although the city’s “Roadmap to Action” plan, which outlines the major goals of the project, elicited a positive response from residents, some remain hesitant about parts of the project, especially the housing element.

As reported by City Limits, a Far Rockaway law firm, specializing in eminent domain law, sent notices to a number of residents detailing the city’s plan to acquire their properties. When this was addressed by many upset residents at a scoping hearing in September, the City explained that the potential urban renewal area is still being studied. If approved, the city said, it would affect about a dozen property owners. While the law firm made a mistake by sending these notices to many residents whose properties would not be affected, it left lasting concerns for residents about the city’s proposal. The possibility is still in the planning phases.

As with other rezonings the de Blasio administration is moving forward, there are concerns about levels of affordability in housing, gentrification, and whether new development will be out of scale with the current, mostly low-rise residential community.

Jonathan Gaska, in his 28th year as district manager of Community Board 14 in Queens which includes Far Rockaway, said a lot of residents worry that new 10- to 15-story residential units would take away from the character of Downtown Far Rockaway.

“The fear is they’re going to build it like Long Island City,” Gaska said. “Not that Long Island City is a bad place, but it’s all big buildings. It’s more Manhattan. And I don’t think this community wants to be Manhattan.”

Gaska said after Hurricane Sandy left Rockaway in wreckage, the city finally paid attention to the citizens’ grievances of the past five decades. When asked why it took so long for government to step in, Gaska said he thinks officials never saw it as a neighborhood worth investing millions of dollars to improve until Council Member Richards, who Gaska said has a “good working relationship with the mayor,” became its champion.

“Rockaway has been the Siberia of New York City government,” Gaska said. “Whenever the city had a problem, and to this day, really, they send it to Rockaway. I think that they just didn’t see this as place that could ever improve.”

The plan in Far Rockaway would implement the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program (MIH), approved by the City Council in March, which requires new construction to include permanently affordable housing. In exchange for the ability to build more units, developers must maintain affordable housing for a certain percentage of units at specific affordability rates (rental caps based on income levels and family sizes). The numbers vary based on which combination of units and incomes the local City Council member selects.

Richards said he understands one of the biggest challenges about this rezoning and downtown development project remains preserving the character of the community while infusing a large amount of government resources into the area. But current zoning, according to Richards, is not working to spur growth.

“We understand that the zoning we have now has not activated the public realm,” he said. “It has not activated better commercial and better amenities for Far Rockaway.”

However, Richards added: “We want to ensure that whatever the residential homes are, we want to keep the scale low,” Richards said. “We don’t want to have towers towering over our two areas. Even as we develop, we want responsible development.”

Governor Cuomo is also in on the revitalization efforts in Queens. Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative awarded one of its ten $10 million grants to Downtown Jamaica, in Queens.

As he awarded Jamaica the investment, Cuomo said in his August announcement, “Queens has all sorts of assets, but Queens needs a partner. You can have all the assets but you need that start-up capital to make those assets really come together.”

Cuomo’s Regional Council’s chose where to provide these assets by looking at neighborhoods both in need and with the potential to develop. Queens has now seen investment from the city and state in Far Rockaway and Jamaica as both Astoria and Long Island City have become bustling residential and commercial hubs. However, as new housing and businesses come on the market, concerns have been raised about long-time residents and businesses being pushed out by increased rent prices.

Mark Winston-Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a multi-issue community organizing group focused on issues related to rapid neighborhood change and gentrification, said despite the city’s possible good intentions behind economic development projects, current residents lose some control over their neighborhood during the revitalization process.

“Once you raise property values,” he said. “At the point you make it easier for people to not only get there, but to stay, then you inevitably make it more difficult for the people who are there now to remain.”

According to a report on the state of housing in New York City written by New York University’s Furman Center, newly developed housing units in gentrifying neighborhoods become younger, more educated and more likely to be labeled as a non-family household (as in, occupied by single people). The study found that in 2015, only incomes of those in gentrifying neighborhoods increased.

The Furman Center study found the “share of the population that identified as black also declined in gentrifying neighborhoods between 1990 and 2010 (37.9 percent to 30.9 percent), but the share of population that identified as white increased (18.8 percent to 20.6 percent).”

Winston-Griffith said there continues to be a legitimate fight for the right of low-income black New Yorkers to continue to live and thrive in the neighborhoods where they have lived for years. It is an issue that Council Member RIchards has raised and focused on when his committee was considering - and tweaking - the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

“There’s always that tension that comes with development, particularly in New York City,” Winston-Griffith said. “In this moment, when residential and commercial prices seem to know no limit, we see entire neighborhoods being transformed in front of our eyes.”

by Devin Gannon for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

A Big Bet on 'Revitalizing Downtown' Wed, 12 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
As Albany Fiddles on 421-A, New York City Suffers donovan richards podium

Council Member Donovan Richards, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

With officials in Albany about to pack up and head home, there is still some serious unfinished business.

Thanks to Albany’s failure to deliver a compromise between real estate and labor interests, it’s clear that we’ll see no movement on one of the most critical tools we have to build affordable housing: 421-A, the tax incentive program.

What a lot of us hoped was just a six-month pause in adding to the pipeline of new rental housing is at serious risk of becoming a long-term slump—and it could not come at a worse time for our city. New York City is growing fast, and grappling with the worst affordable housing crisis in generations. Half of all households are paying more rent than they can afford.

The old 421-A program that was up for renewal last year was hardly perfect - you’d be hard-pressed to find someone today who would say developers actually need a tax exemption to build and sell luxury condos.

But for all its flaws, the program did two very important things—the lack of which we’re feeling with every passing day.

One, it made it financially feasible to build rental housing, which is the housing New York actually needs right now.

And two, it was one of the only ways to secure affordable housing in some of the most expensive real estate markets in the city, places like Lower Manhattan, the Upper West Side, and Downtown Brooklyn. The reforms Mayor de Blasio pushed cut condos from the program, slashed subsidy per apartment, and strengthened affordable housing requirements citywide. But because of Albany’s inaction, we’ve never had the benefit of those improvements.

If this political impasse in Albany continues, we’ll see a city that’s less affordable, and more divided. The only kinds of buildings that will go up will be City-sponsored affordable housing and luxury condos—with none of the healthy rental housing in the middle that we need for the city’s growing workforce.

From Astoria to Upper Manhattan, construction sites are sitting vacant and projects are on hold. Building permits are down to levels we haven’t seen since the housing market crashed triggering the Great Recession. New rental housing has reached a standstill. And that means there is more and more pressure and demand on the housing we have today. If this keeps up much longer, rents are going to rise even faster than they already have—well outside the reach of working people.

Even though the City can continue building subsidy-driven affordable housing, we’ll lose the opportunity to build new affordable housing in exactly the parts of the city where it’s needed the most. 421-A was one of the few tools that could entice builders to construct affordable housing in hot markets, and the stringent affordability requirements the City Council and Mayor de Blasio secured would have only deepened that potential. What we’ll face if Albany doesn’t act is a more segregated, less diverse city. That’s not the New York we want.

New Yorkers should get angry. The City is doing everything in its power to protect neighborhoods and build a record amount of affordable housing. The proof is in the numbers: more than 43,000 affordable homes were financed in just two years – delivering enough affordable housing for more than 100,000 New Yorkers. The total is the largest number of new affordable apartments produced in nearly four decades. But, there is more that must be done, and we need Albany lawmakers to act.

This isn’t a crisis we can take on with one hand tied behind our backs. It’s time for the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to work together to fix 421-A, passing the City’s reformed plan before more damage is done.

Council Member Donovan Richards represents District 31 in Queens, which encompasses Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Far Rockaway. He is the chair of the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. On Twitter @DRichards13.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

As Albany Fiddles on 421-A, New York City Suffers Wed, 15 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Top 10 Accomplishments of Progressive Leadership & The Need to #ProtectProgress richards reynoso crowd city hall

Council Members Richards, left, and Reynoso, the authors, address a crowd

As co-chairs of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus, we have worked closely with Mayor de Blasio since he took office. It is clear that the mayor has delivered for our constituents and all 8.4 million New Yorkers in transformative ways. From affordable housing to quality jobs to expanded educational programming, New Yorkers are doing better and the scale of the accomplishments is substantial.

In partnership with our Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the City Council, Mayor de Blasio has been helping to create a more equitable New York City. But this progress did not happen by chance, and it’s no foregone conclusion that we will be able to sustain it. We cannot allow our momentum to be derailed, destabilized, or diminished.

Under a boldly progressive mayor and Council speaker, New York is safer and public policy is more equitable than at any point in our lifetimes. We must protect our progress, join us as we launch our #ProtectProgress campaign, which includes the following highlights of this work, the Top 10 Accomplishments, by the Numbers:

1. Making Communities Safer: With two consecutive years of record low violent crime statistics, New York is the safest big city in the country.

2. Making Pre-K Universal: More than 68,500 children are getting the head start they deserve this year with full day pre-kindergarten classes for all of New York’s four-year-olds.

3. Developing and Preserving Affordable Housing: Over 100,000 New Yorkers have access to 40,000-plus new units of affordable housing. More affordable housing units were created in 2015 than in any year since the city’s housing department began.

4. Creating Economic Growth: More New York City jobs than ever before, totaling 4,296,100 across all five boroughs as of March 2016. This includes 254,900 new private sector jobs created during this administration, resulting in an unemployment rate of 6.1%, lower than other large cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. This is in part due to new legislation preventing discrimination against job seekers based on credit scores and prior convictions.

5. Improving Police-Community Relations: Reducing unlawful stop-and-frisks, which disproportionately affect African-American & Latino New Yorkers with a 97% decline over four years.

6. Expanding Learning Time: The Mayor’s universal after-school program for 113,874 middle school students (double the number previously served) is providing quality programming during a critical time for childhood development.

7. Embracing Immigrant Communities: IDNYC enables non-citizens to participate in the civic and cultural life of the city, with 855,000-plus cardholders who have secured the peace of mind that comes from recognized government identification.

8. Extending New Yorkers’ Legal Right to Sick Leave: 3,400,000 private and nonprofit sector workers have access to paid sick leave thanks to an expansion created in partnership with the Council and the Mayor’s robust education campaign.

9. Making Streets Safer through Vision Zero: In 2015, New York City saw the fewest traffic fatalities in history, with a 22% reduction resulting from reduced speed limits and comprehensive safety plans.

10. Supporting a Living Wage: A $15 living wage is now guaranteed to every City worker and employee of nonprofit organizations contracted with the City, and the Mayor and Council have advocated for higher wages for all workers across the state.

We must be proud of these accomplishments while we also build on them. Today, we call on progressives from Bushwick to Harlem, from the Rockaways to Riverdale to step and up and #ProtectProgress. Parents: tweet from your UPK sites that didn’t exist two years ago! Bicyclists: tweet images of your new protected lanes that are helping to save lives! IDNYC cardholders: tweet from wherever you are putting your card to use!

Let’s get #ProtectProgress into the conversation, so that together we can promote real results that Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have delivered for New Yorkers.

City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Donovan Richards are co-chairs of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. On Twitter @DRichards13 & @CMReynoso34.

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Top 10 Accomplishments of Progressive Leadership & The Need to #ProtectProgress Thu, 19 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
East New York Deal Sets Precedent for Wave of Rezonings espinal lander

City Council Member Rafael Espinal (second from left) (photo: William Alatriste)

Colleagues heaped praise on City Council Member Rafael Espinal last week as the deal he negotiated with the de Blasio administration to rezone a portion of his Brooklyn district was passed through committee. The process and the agreement were being watched closely by Council members, especially those whose districts are in the pipeline for rezonings under Mayor de Blasio’s larger housing plan.

Espinal, who represents most of the area being rezoned, which includes part of East New York, managed to extract significant concessions from the city to get to a framework that he said he could be proud of, taking back to his community a robust plan for new housing and infrastructure, job training, tenant protections, and other community amenities.

“From the start, I told my community I would fight for a better plan,” Espinal said at the first of the two committee hearings on Thursday. “One that wasn’t just about housing, but about developing a neighborhood that had been neglected for decades.”

The package of changes in land use rules, levels of affordability for new housing, and planned investments in East New York sets an important precedent - it is the first of 15 neighborhoods that the de Blasio administration will target for rezoning as part of a plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. Next on the list: part of Flushing, corridors in the Bronx and on Staten Island, a portion of East Harlem, and other areas of the city where there is room for additional housing density and neighborhood improvements.

Espinal’s fellow Council members expressed widespread approval of the deal he reached, while some members who will soon be in his position are looking at what lessons they can learn. Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the zoning subcommittee that first voted on the plan, said Espinal had done “a phenomenal job,” while Council Member Vincent Gentile commended him on “a job well done.” Council Member Antonio Reynoso said, “I’ve never seen units that affordable and that much at any city-owned sites.” Council Member Ritchie Torres quipped, “Rafael, you’re the man.”

“The East New York Plan represents a new way of planning for New York City," said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement outlining the benefits included in the deal. "I thank Council Member Rafael Espinal for his staunch commitment to his constituents in putting forth a plan that truly meets the needs of East New York,” she said.

Perhaps the most effusive was Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee, which voted second, who called Espinal the “superstar of the day” and characterized the East New York plan as “quite literally the best community affordable housing plan ever in the history of new york.”

While each plan will be different, de Blasio is aiming to add thousands of units of housing to a variety of under-developed areas throughout the city in order to create more affordable apartments, while also adding new school seats, improving retail and green spaces, and more. In each case, City Council members and other local stakeholders aim to see how much community benefit they can secure as part of agreeing to major changes to their neighborhoods.

Fear of gentrification and displacement often top the list of concerns when an area is identified for rezoning, while many also worry that an influx of additional residents to an area will overwhelm existing infrastructure - transportation, schools, parks, and other public services. These are the issues hanging over discussions between local representatives and the mayoral administration, including city agencies like the City Planning Department and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

East New York is the first application of the newly-approved zoning amendments -- Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability -- which allow taller buildings and denser neighborhoods while mandating that developers set aside a certain ratio of affordable housing units in new developments, making it easier to build affordable senior housing, and creating more attractive retail space.

The proposal, which will head to a full council vote on Wednesday, April 20, is an expansive neighborhood development plan that includes $267 million in capital investments in addition to school and sewer construction funded through other streams.

“I’m actually calling this the unicorn deal,” Greenfield said. “And the reason I’m calling this the unicorn deal is because quite frankly you’re never gonna see a deal like this again. This is the new standard that’s being set in the city that quite frankly everybody else will chase. But rest assured I can tell you, as the chair of the land use committee, they’re not gonna capture it.”

Council Member Deborah Rose hopes that’s not true. One of the next few rezonings is the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, in Rose’s district, and the East New York plan has bolstered her confidence about the process. “I hope that my rezoning turns out to be the best plan with the most amenities for my communities,” Rose said. She recognizes the “herculean task” of a neighborhood rezoning and navigating the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, saying, “It’s quite stressful and often contentious. Council Member Espinal really wanted to get the deepest affordability he could under the MIH amendment. I only have accolades for him to get that level of affordability.”

Rose will be looking for more mixed affordability in her rezoning efforts, she said, not necessarily looking for the lowest income and rent thresholds available under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which created several choices for Council members overseeing a rezoning. The MIH bands for creating affordable housing dictate the percentage of new units that must be affordable to households with certain income levels. For instance, the East New York plan, as selected by Espinal, has two of the four options, which developers will be able to choose -- one would require 20 percent of new housing units to be set aside for households making up to 40 percent of Area Median Income ($31,080 for a household of three) and another option would require 25 percent of units at 60 percent AMI (including 10 percent at 40 percent AMI).

Rose might select one or more bands that require more affordable units at higher rents - for example, 30 percent of units at 80 percent AMI.

What Rose really wants, though, are the second- and third-order investments that come with rezoning. “I see this as an opportunity to address the infrastructure issues that we’ve been trying to remedy since I’ve been in office,” she said, citing improvements that are necessary for increased density, including hospitals, schools, recreational facilities, and, most significantly, transportation. “Through this rezoning, the resources will be available to do that,” she said.

While Bay Street corridor might be much smaller than East New York, which is likely to be one of the largest neighborhoods of the 15, Rose isn’t going to hold back on her demands. “My list is as long, probably longer than Espinal’s,” she said.

“We’re a manufacturing, residential and commercial area and we’re gonna have to support all those communities,” she added. “I’m eager to get started.”

The differences in neighborhoods are definitely going to play an important role in how the city and the Council members approach the rezoning process. Queens Council Member Peter Koo, whose district includes the next neighborhood on the rezoning calendar, said as much.

“I applaud Council Member Espinal and the Mayor for negotiating a long, hard-fought list of investments that addresses many of the needs of East New York,” Koo said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “As the focus turns to Flushing, we must remember that every rezoning area has different and distinct needs. Flushing West is on the waterfront which limits depth, and the LaGuardia flight path limits height. We are also already in the middle of a real estate boom, so the city must find a way to balance affordability with infrastructure, particularly to ensure new development does not compound our existing problems with traffic, 7 train capacity and the pollution of the Flushing Creek.”

The East New York plan saw several modifications to accommodate demands from community advocates and Espinal, who, along with the Council’s land use director, Raju Mann, led the negotiations with the de Blasio administration, for deeper affordability, anti-displacement mechanisms, and job creation measures.

Among the key changes to the plan from the original version proposed by de Blasio’s City Planning Department is removal of the Arlington Village housing development. Residents and activists had expressed concern that the owner, Bluestone Group, which had purchased the property shortly after the proposed rezoning was announced, would take advantage of the upzoning without creating sufficient affordable housing units.

The city will also dedicate 500 LINC vouchers to help move about that number of families from homeless shelters into affordable housing, while at the same time moving to close three homeless shelters and encouraging the owners to convert those units into affordable housing. The city has committed to closing two by the end of June and the third in the next fiscal year.

A working group of elected officials, community stakeholders and multiple agencies will also look into helping homeowners legalize basement units. If conversions of these units is impractical, the plan sets aside $12 million to support conversions and home repairs. It also mandates a Homeowner Helpdesk to provide financial and legal advice to help homeowners modify mortgages, prevent foreclosures, access loans for repair or weather-proofing, and fight housing scams.

To preserve affordable housing, the plan will fund free legal representation to tenants facing harassment, for five years. The plan will fund the acquisition or renovation of a childcare center with $2.8 million in capital funding.

While the original proposal had provided for the creation of a new 1000-seat school, it was modified to include another $17.45 million to fund school improvement projects for existing schools.

Additionally, the plan also addresses issues of economic and community development, including large infrastructure investments and capital spending. A key part of the proposal is the East New York Industrial Business Zone which will receive $16.7 million in funding to renovate buildings for business use, improve street infrastructure and provide high-speed broadband to businesses. The city will also create a Workforce1 Career Center to provide job recruitment, placement, training and counseling services to residents. The Housing Preservation and Development department will also initiate a Neighborhood Retail Preservation Program to create discounted space for local retailers in new developments. The plan also makes investments to renovate and upgrade two neighborhood parks, create a new NYPD community center, repave streets and replace water and sewer mains.

Community advocates and neighborhood groups had protested the East New York plan for not providing deeper levels of affordability for low-income residents. Till Wednesday, the day before the initial Council votes, protesters were pushing Espinal to reject the plan and a few were even arrested outside his district office. The final plan added an option for more affordable housing set asides at public sites but not in private units or to the levels the groups had demanded.

Espinal has repeatedly acknowledged this criticism. “The plan isn't perfect,” he said after the hearing, “but this is the best possible plan I was able to get for my community.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

East New York Deal Sets Precedent for Wave of Rezonings Mon, 18 Apr 2016 23:25:48 +0000
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.

Sides Near Deal on Major Zoning Changes Aimed at Creating Affordable Housing Mon, 14 Mar 2016 14:41:40 +0000
Richards Puts Communities of Color at Forefront of Housing Debate richards

City Council Member Donovan Richards (photo: William Alatriste)

"Why am I here?" City Council Member Donovan Richards asked rhetorically, speaking with energy beyond what you would expect from someone in the midst of chairing 20 hours of land use policy hearings over two days. The question wasn't Richards rethinking his career path or delusion brought on by testimony after testimony about zoning code, it was a way of punctuating his explanation that of course he had to put communities of color at the forefront of discussions about affordable housing in New York City.

"This is the culmination," Richards told Gotham Gazette about the Council's consideration of de Blasio administration proposals to change citywide zoning rules aimed at increasing affordable housing throughout the city. "This is a build up. People are seeing what's happening in Bed-Stuy, we've seen what's happened in Harlem, this is people's lives, people have to move out of New York City because they can't afford to live here," he said.

Richards' role is especially prominent in the process as chair of the Council's zoning subcommittee and he is clear about his support for the underlying concept of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which will require real estate developers to build affordable housing units if they receive an upzoning of a plot of land in order to build market-rate apartments. But, Richards plans to spearhead changes to the proposal - changes he sees as necessary so that low-income people of color across New York City, including in his Queens district, know that their government is working for them and can access affordable housing.

At the start of the two days of hearings, held Feb. 9 and 10, Richards set this tone, saying to top de Blasio administration officials: "There's not been any real push in this plan that we've seen so far that reaches the very incomes that reflect our communities."

Without setting exact numbers, it is clear Richards and many of his colleagues want New Yorkers making around $25,000-40,000 per year to be able to afford new housing built under updated zoning requirements. The current MIH plan is likely to lead to few apartments affordable to the lowest income-earners.

Listing examples such as East New York, Williamsburg, Jamaica, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Richards said, "Residents are being priced out, and yet we have a program that does not reach these very populations. So can you explain to the public today and explain to this Council why there is no option that is reaching our communities?"

De Blasio's top housing officials said that they believe the plan strikes the right balance of income levels and affordability rates, and that there are other city programs to subsidize housing for the lowest-income earners. But, Richards and his colleagues are not convinced. They've repeatedly stated that they'll exercise their prerogative in the land use review process to alter the MIH plan to ensure apartments at deeper levels of affordability.

Under MIH, when a real estate developer receives an upzoning to build housing, they will be required (thus "mandatory") to make 25-30% of the units built affordable under certain income and rent guidelines. It is those income and rent numbers that the Council plans to lower before passing the zoning amendments.

"The Council spoke very clearly," Richards told Gotham Gazette of the MIH hearing, "we have to get to a place where we're reaching the very communities that we represent. It's very hard for members - we want to see a mandatory program, we need a mandatory program - but for members who represent communities like the Rockaways and Harlem and East New York, we can't go back to our communities and look them in the eye and say, 'well, we're bringing back these particular proposals for you to be in favor of where you can't live.' That's very complicated for us."

"As the chair," Richards continued, "it is my responsibility to make sure that we communicate very strongly to the administration that we understand the legality issues but that there is a way for us to get [to deeper affordability]. I just want to be clear, the Council is the driving force here...this ball is in our court, members feel very strongly about it."

Richards represents parts of Queens including Far Rockaway, Laurelton, and Rosedale. As he spoke with Gotham Gazette in a nearly-empty room adjacent to the City Council chambers, Richards repeatedly hit the table in front of him, adding emphasis to what he was saying about his role in crafting policy that will decide how land is used and who can afford to live in New York City for decades to come.

In the next room over, the second of the two hearings was entering its eighth hour, after ten hours of hearings the day before. Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee, was leading the proceedings. Throughout the two days, the Council was receiving testimony from and questioning de Blasio administration officials, affordable housing developers, advocates, businesspeople, and others. Some spoke in favor of the administration's plans, many spoke in opposition to their current structure. The Council must decide on its alterations to the plans by late March.

Richards is certain that the plans put forward by the de Blasio administration will change before the Council passes them. He again said as much during an interview last week on NY1, in which Richards cautioned against assuming that MIH will definitely pass the Council. "Most of us want to see it passed," he said, "but at the end of the day there has to be changes...this is about real everyday New Yorkers needing to be able to remain in their communities even as investments of infrastructure and other things come in."

The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy is in need of deeper affordability requirements, among other tweaks, Richards and others Council members have said; while the Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposal will also be tinkered with by the Council over the next several weeks as it considers changes to parking requirements, building heights, and senior housing mandates that are included in ZQA.

"Is this about fear of gentrification?" Gotham Gazette asked Richards. "Absolutely," he said.

Defending his plans at a recent press conference, Mayor de Blasio acknowledged fear of displacement and concerns over levels of affordability. "We know that people want to stay in the communities that they have been a part of their whole lives in many cases or in many cases for generations," he said. "Communities they literally built; communities they stood by during some tough times back in the '70s, the '80s."

"We said from the beginning," de Blasio said at the Jan. 11 press conference touting gains in his larger affordable housing plan, "we're trying to reach New Yorkers who need affordable housing. Some of whom are very low income; some of whom are, you know, working folks struggling to make ends meet; some of whom are more moderate income."

De Blasio and his top housing officials have continued to stress that they need to create flexibility so that people of different income levels can find affordable apartments, with rents capped whereby they won't be considered "rent burdened," spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The administration has also been clear that the zoning changes must work for a variety of neighborhoods and for the foreseeable future. They argue that MIH creates a new baseline, upon which they use other mechanisms for ensuring affordable housing for New Yorkers.

In response to Council pushback on affordability levels, Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that supports MIH, told the New York Times that "All these Council members are thinking about the immediate impact on their neighborhoods and their constituency. But when it comes to zoning, you can't afford to think that way."

In her formal testimony submitted to the City Council, Wylde said that "a massive, collaborative approach is required to meet the demand for affordable housing that neither government nor the private sector can accomplish on its own...In order to launch a housing production program that matches the scale of need, the city has to rely on changing its zoning requirements, more flexible design and use of air rights, in order to accommodate greater density and to create value that can be leveraged for the public good."

This echoed what top de Blasio officials said at the Council, warning that adjustments to the city's zoning rules must be contextualized in decades ahead and a variety of possible housing markets, both in terms of overall strength and location across a vast, diverse city.

It is that diversity, though, that has Council members balking at the current plan and looking to add deeper levels of affordability. What they are likely to do is tweak the different options that developers will have under MIH, possibly allowing them to choose to build fewer affordable units at lower rents. And, they may attempt to further incentivize the building of affordable units at lower rents through offering additional building height.

At this crucial point in negotiations and decision-making, Donovan Richards is all of a sudden one of the most important voices in the room. Richards almost wasn't in such a pivotal position. In May of last year, he jumped at the chance to chair the zoning subcommittee when its former chair, Mark Weprin of Queens, resigned from the Council for a job in the Cuomo administration.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was happy to approve of Richards' shift from chairing the environment committee. Now, Mark-Viverito, who represents low-income communities of color in East Harlem and the South Bronx, is working with Richards, Greenfield, and others to decide how new affordable housing will be built in New York City.

Regarding his role as the Council reviews the zoning changes, Mark-Viverito praised Richards' leadership and pointed to its impact. "As our changing city grapples with issues of community planning and affordability, it is incredibly powerful to have individuals at the table who represent the diversity of New York City," Mark-Viverito said in a statement.

When Richards first took over as chair of the zoning subcommittee in June of 2015, he told Politico New York, "We have an affordable housing crisis. We are seeing communities of color in particular that are being gentrified and residents are being pushed out, so I want to make sure I do all I can so that as we develop communities the people who help build them can remain in them." 

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Richards Puts Communities of Color at Forefront of Housing Debate Fri, 19 Feb 2016 01:03:19 +0000
At Hearings, City Council to Examine Mayor's Zoning Proposals richards de blasio

Council Member Donovan Richards (photo via @DRichards13)

Amid light flakes of snow, about 20 ralliers stood outside City Hall Monday morning and unleashed a flurry of criticism of a key piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing plan. De Blasio's plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing relies in part on proposed changes to the city's land use rules, which are set to go before City Council review this week.

Members of the Real Affordability for All coalition, including construction union members, low-wage workers, and community organizers, believe that the mayor's plan to change the city's zoning codes do not account for enough affordable units for those at the lowest end of the income spectrum. They also want to see provisions for union labor in the development of affordable housing across New York City.

Monday's rally is just one example of a barrage of actions taken over the past months, heightened in recent days, as advocacy groups, urban planners, editorial writers, and city officials express various opinions about the administration's proposals, which would help shape the character of neighborhoods across the city for generations.

Having had little luck influencing the de Blasio administration to change the details of its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) proposal, advocates seeking deeper affordability provisions say they are hoping to see City Council members push for changes as they consider both MIH and its sibling zoning amendment, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). They got good news when, just ahead of City Council hearings on the plan, the Council's Progressive Caucus announced its desired tweaks to the proposals, which include units at lower rents (first reported by the Daily News).

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the zoning subcommittee of the City Council land use committee will hold hearings on MIH and ZQA, two proposals key to the de Blasio administration's goal of building 80,000 new units of affordable housing by 2024. The de Blasio administration hopes to create a new framework for development across the city, allowing for more density and encouraging more construction, while insisting on more units of rental housing with set caps on monthly charges along with an increase in market-rate apartments.

City Council Member Donovan Richards chairs the zoning subcommittee of the Council's land use committee and will be at the center of the two hearings this week, as will Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee.

Richards, who is a co-chair of the Council's Progressive Caucus but abstained from signing onto its MIH letter due to his role as subcommittee chair, has previously expressed concerns about ZQA. Like many of his colleagues, he is supportive of the idea behind MIH - requiring developers receiving a rezoning to include a set number of affordable units in their project - but has not committed to a specific position on the numbers behind those affordability requirements. Greenfield has expressed concerns as well, and has indicated that the Council may seek some significant adjustments to the proposals.

Richards' office tells Gotham Gazette that long hearings are expected on both days, with de Blasio administration officials testifying to kick things off Tuesday morning. MIH will be the focus on Tuesday, ZQA on Wednesday, though the Council will take testimony on either both days. The Council will give numbers to people signed up to testify and update where testimony stands through Twitter and the livestream of the hearing. As the City Planning Commission did, the Council will alternate panels based on whether those testifying are there largely in support of the zoning changes or against them, Richards' office said.

De Blasio's top three housing officials will be the first panel to speak before the zoning subcommittee on Tuesday: Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod. The three held a press briefing on Monday afternoon at City Hall in order to give the administration's latest take on the overall housing plan and where MIH and ZQA fit in. As they surely will in front of the Council, Glen, Been, and Weisbrod sought to stress that the zoning amendments are just one piece of the larger plan, and that deeper levels of affordable housing will be created through several means, including city subsidies to developers.

Saying that it "gets lost" that MIH is "only one part of our housing plan," Been explained to reporters that "mandatory inclusionary housing" means "harness[ing] the private market to create affordable housing." She went on to explain the "subsidies," "vouchers," and "term-sheets" that her agency uses to "reach those lower incomes" that won't be reached through MIH.

Deputy Mayor Glen repeatedly called MIH "a game-changer" Monday, referring to the fact that it would create a first-of-its-kind framework to require set levels of affordable units as part of any development receiving an up-zoning. In an interview on NY1 Monday evening, Mayor de Blasio defended the plans, saying that MIH means the city will "demand more from developers than we ever have before."

De Blasio acknowledged that City Council members have concerns, and as his top aides said, he appeared open to continuing to tweak the zoning changes. "We're going to be working with the Council," de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis. "The Council's asked for some changes, we're going to be very receptive, to see if we can find a good balance."

Along with administration officials, many of the same groups and individuals who have been outspoken on housing issues for a long time and throughout the recent process are expected to testify. The City Planning Commission, which recently passed MIH and ZQA with a few tweaks, held a lengthy public hearing in December. Much of the conversation is likely to be similar this week at the City Council, though Council members sharing their thoughts and asking their questions will be an important added dimension.

Groups expected to testify include affordable housing advocates like the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) and Municipal Arts Society, which want to see changes to the plan; representatives of AARP, which has endorsed the mayor's plans citing benefits for senior affordable housing; the Real Estate Board of New York, which is supportive; New York Communities for Change, which is not; and those from other trade and advocacy groups and think tanks.

Unions behind de Blasio's plans, including the Hotel Trades Council, 1199 SEIU, 32BJ, and District Council 37 may also send representatives to testify in support. As reported by Politico New York, these unions have just helped form a new organization created to support these and other housing proposals from the de Blasio administration.

Many are indeed supportive of the administration's plans, saying that this is the first real attempt at responsible housing development across a changing New York City, and, combined with other aspects of de Blasio's plans - like tenant legal protections and affordable housing subsidies - will stem the tide of gentrification, increase housing options, and improve neighborhoods.

However, many across the city believe that the mayor's plan does not go far enough in terms of the affordable units that would be required of real estate developers seeking a rezoning of a piece of land in order to build housing on it. Furthermore, there are concerns about the myriad provisions in ZQA that change a variety of rules around building heights, parking requirements, and more.

All eyes are on the City Council now. While other Council members may join for the hearings, along with Council Members Richards and Greenfield, the rest of the zoning subcommittee will take center stage. Other members of the committee are Council Members Dan Garodnick, Antonio Reynoso, Ruben Wills, Ritchie Torres, Jumaane Williams, and Vincent Gentile. If the subcommitte votes through MIH and ZQA (with tweaks acceptable to the City Planning Commission as "within scope" of the original proposals), the land use committee will vote, then the full Council. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito remains a key decision-maker in the process. She has indicated that the plans need some changes, but has not spoken in much detail about what she wants to see changed.

In a recent update, called "MIH Moves to City Council," ANHD leaders wrote that "Local community groups will be looking to the Council to revise MIH and make it a tool that can actually help meet the needs of all New Yorkers - particularly the lowest-income members of our communities, who are most in need of affordable housing."

While they called it a "game-changer," de Blasio's top housing officials also called MIH "one tool in a toolkit" Monday as they explained the ways in which the city creates that deeper affordable housing so that people and families earning less than $30,000 a year can afford an apartment.

Asked Monday about getting the City Council on board with the plan, Deputy Mayor Glen said that there's been a "radical shift" over the last couple of months in terms of Council members coming to understand what the administration is doing, what she called a "growing consensus among the Council that we need to do something game-changing."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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At Hearings, City Council to Examine Mayor's Zoning Proposals Tue, 09 Feb 2016 04:15:51 +0000