Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1700 Wed, 18 Oct 2017 16:22:13 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) With Clock Ticking, East New York Negotiations to Heat Up http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6262:with-clock-ticking-east-new-york-negotiations-to-heat-up http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6262:with-clock-ticking-east-new-york-negotiations-to-heat-up espinal east new york hearing

City Council Member Espinal (photo: William Alatriste) 


With only two weeks left for the City Council to vote on the proposed rezoning of East New York, all eyes are on City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who is leading negotiations with the de Blasio administration and whose approval of a revised plan will determine its fate. Espinal has promised significant improvements to the plan put forward by the city and community organizers and advocates are calling on him to reject the rezoning if it does not deliver what they see as adequate affordable housing, local hiring, and other provisions.

Meanwhile, Espinal's colleagues and many others are looking to him as the East New York negotiations with the de Blasio administration will set the precedent for rezonings across the five boroughs.

The city's proposal to rezone East New York was passed almost unanimously by the City Planning Commission on February 24, giving the City Council the next fifty days to vote on it as part of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The neighborhood is the first of 15 the city plans to rezone as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. The plan aims to change land use rules and implement community improvements in order to make East New York more desirable and liveable, while fostering development that will include thousands of new units of housing, many of them with rent regulations.

Negotiations so far have been slow going, leading to a series of news reports this past week indicating that Espinal and others on the City Council side of the bargaining table are frustrated with the de Blasio administration. The parties are set to hold another meeting on Monday afternoon at City Hall, which participants hope will yield progress.

"There's a lot of frustration because we've proposed changes to the plan and we've been waiting for [the administration] to come back to us," said Espinal, whose district covers a vast swathe of the area in the plan - the City Council traditionally defers to the local Council member to approve or disapprove land use deals.

Espinal has made his priorities clear: "serious anti-displacement measures, a strong jobs plan and truly affordable housing." While he insists there has been no push back from the administration against his demands, the lack of movement seems to be testing his patience.

"The clock is ticking," he said. "We've been working on this for over a year. It's time to talk turkey." Espinal did say that one cause for delay was that both the administration and Council had been preoccupied until last week with the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposals, two citywide zoning amendments that lay the groundwork for the neighborhood rezonings that are set to go from East New York to Flushing, corridors in the Bronx and on Staten Island, East Harlem, and beyond.

The de Blasio administration has reiterated its commitment to the process. "The city is currently having very productive conversations with Council Member Espinal on the East New York rezoning plan," said Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. "Since the beginning of the East New York planning process, we have been and remain committed to ensuring that the final proposal to be voted on by the City Council meets the affordable housing and community infrastructure needs of East New York residents."

Espinal will meet with city officials on Monday to hammer out the details of the East New York plan. On the Council side of the table, he'll be joined by Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, and Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee. Also expected to participate are the Council's land use director, Raju Mann, and the chief of staff to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ramon Martinez.

According to a source with knowledge of the discussions around the rezoning, key sticking points include not only ensuring deeper levels of affordability in new housing, but also extending affordability for about 1,000 current residents whose rent-regulated apartments are nearing expiration of their terms; details of the city's commitment to a Workforce1 job training center; and progress around adding school seats and day-care slots - two areas of need in the administration's final environmental impact assessment of the rezoning plan.

"We have an opportunity to show that we are attacking inequality head on in East New York and the administration needs to take this issue seriously as we negotiate the first rezoning under MIH and ZQA," said Council Member Richards in a statement. "The lack of progress thus far on these negotiations is deeply concerning and we need to see legitimate movement soon to ensure that the needs of the community and Council Member Espinal are met."

All the stakeholders -- Espinal, his colleagues, community leaders, housing advocates, de Blasio administration officials, real estate developers, and others -- recognize that these rezoning negotiations will set the tone for the next fourteen and determine the future of housing and development in the city for decades to come.

"What I'm doing in East New York is the reason I ran for office," Espinal said. "It's an opportunity to create the strongest affordable housing plan in the city and set a precedent for how the rest of the city approaches rezoning." He has received strong support from his colleagues who, he said, "feel that whatever deal I'm able to reach with the administration, they can work off of when their neighborhoods are up for rezoning."

Council Member Peter Koo from Queens is likely to be next in the hot-seat as the Flushing West rezoning proposal moves through the ULURP process.

"We're certainly watching what happens in East New York closely," Koo said in an email, "but the Flushing West rezoning proposal is significantly different. Our rezoning area is on the waterfront which limits depth, and the LaGuardia flight path limits height. Flushing also has serious infrastructure needs that a large-scale rezoning of this nature would need to address. So we're watching East New York to see how the city responds to the community because Flushing also has a long list of needs."

Housing advocates also recognize the immense pressure that Espinal is facing, although different groups have taken varied approaches to respond.

"The guy's in a difficult spot," said Jonathan Furlong, zoning technical assistance coordinator, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. "What he decides in East New York has vast and far reaching implications for the Bronx, East Harlem, Flushing, Upper Manhattan."

ANHD has provided technical assistance to the Coalition for Community Advancement, a collaborative effort by housing advocates to address issues of rezoning across the city, communicating with administration officials, elected representatives, and residents. Members have met with Espinal numerous times to air their concerns and will also be meeting with Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.

The CCA has called for a scaling back of the East New York plan and has proposed its own alternative community plan. Besides more affordability for current residents, they want manufacturing sites removed from the plan to protect manufacturing jobs, a $15-million small homes preservation fund, the preservation of the Arlington Village development as affordable housing, and mechanisms to set aside space for community facilities.

On Sunday, the coalition held a rally outside City Hall to tell the Council to vote against the rezoning plan unless these proposals are embraced. The group said Sunday night that about 120 people rallied, including community members, State Senator Martin Dilan and Assembly Member Latrice Walker.

Furlong commended Espinal for being firm with the administration, but faulted him for not being more vocal on specific proposals. "It's tough to get a read on him," he said of the Council member.

New York Communities for Change, a grassroots advocacy group, has been more critical. NYCC released a report titled "Educating Espinal: How to Deepen Affordability for Thousands of Apartments in East New York and Protect Low-Income Residents" in which they directly called on Espinal to fight for more affordability in the plan.

"The Council member has not yet come out in support of a growing cry in the community for deeper affordability for low-income families," said Jonathan Westin, NYCC executive director. The group, which claims about 1,000 members, has two demands: 50 percent of units in new developments affordable for families making about 40 percent of the $77,000 annual area median income (AMI), and union jobs for workers in any new construction along upzoned areas. AMI is a federally-calculated number for all of New York City and surrounding counties. The area median income in East New York is significantly lower - about $35,000 per year for a family of four, about the same as 40% of AMI.

"We're pushing that if that's not part of the plan, he should vote "no,"" said Westin. "He should not vote against the interests of his constituents."

Asked recently about the East New York rezoning and the pushback it has received, Mayor de Blasio said that development and gentrification are taking place all over the city and that the city must take action to harness it. On WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, the mayor said on March 18 that "the worst thing in the world is to do nothing about" gentrification. "And bluntly," he said, "that was the broad approach of the previous administration and I point to neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy as classic examples where there was no rezoning" to offer developers more in exchange for community benefits.

Saying that there needs to be "a coherent governmental response" to gentrification and displacement, de Blasio said that "rezonings are absolutely necessary to create that affordability...if we don't do it, you'll see displacement with no countervailing action by the government." The mayor indicated that the East New York plan will include many affordable units for both lower- and middle-income residents.

It is negotiations on the plan that will yield the full details of what that government response is, in East New York and elsewhere.

On Thursday, New York Communities for Change led a rally in East New York, blocking traffic along Atlantic Avenue to draw attention to their demands. "Along Atlantic Avenue is where lots of developers have bought property and stand to make a windfall of profits from the rezoning," said Westin. "We need to ensure that with the increase in density that they get from the rezoning, there are deep affordability standards and real job standards for workers building these buildings."

Espinal was blunt about NYCC's efforts. "I don't need any educating," he said of their report. "I was born and raised there. I know exactly the struggles my constituents are going through."

Insisting that he prefers a "pragmatic approach," Espinal said he wants a holistic plan that covers all constituents and their needs, and that the administration has been receptive.

"To be fair, they've been listening," Espinal said. "But the time to listen is over. It's time to take action."

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with details of the Sunday rally.

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With Clock Ticking, East New York Negotiations to Heat Up Mon, 04 Apr 2016 00:52:30 +0000
Hurting Homeowners Say Bank Settlement Funds Belong with Them http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5652:hurting-homeowners-say-bank-settlement-funds-belong-with-them http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5652:hurting-homeowners-say-bank-settlement-funds-belong-with-them build it back home

A home rebuilt after Sandy (photo: @NYCBuilditBack)


More than two years on and David Velez's battle with Hurricane Sandy is far from over. But, thanks to some help from the Attorney General's office, Velez's fight with his mortgage lender may soon be coming to an end.

The first floor of the retired NYPD officer's home in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn was destroyed by flooding during the hurricane, and without help from insurance he and his wife used their savings to rebuild.

Unfortunately, after the construction was complete an architect from the City's Build it Back program deemed the residence structurally unsafe. Velez and his family moved out of the home this past October and were told that demolition would begin in November. Now March, Velez is still waiting for Department of Housing Preservation and Development contractors to begin construction of his home. While the program has gotten a shot in the arm under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the pace is still too slow for many.

Even living out of his home there is another reminder of the damage Sandy has done: Velez gets regular calls from Citibank representatives asking when he will catch up on his mortgage. "They even called me the day I had cancer surgery to remove a tumor," said Velez who was advised like other Sandy victims that he could stop mortgage payments while his home was being rebuilt, only for his lender to demand missed payments immediately after the forbearance was over.

It is a call increasingly familiar to homeowners across the state who are behind on their mortgages, whether from unexpected disasters like Hurricane Sandy or thanks to the economic downturn of 2008 and subsequent recession. Even in 2014, New York City saw a 33 percent increase in first-time foreclosures compared to the year before, according to one recent study.

Many homeowners have watched as Attorney General Eric Schniederman won the state multi-million dollar settlements from major lenders like Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan. Like Velez, many struggling homeowners expected that those settlements would go directly to help New Yorkers who are underwater with their mortgage.

In Velez's case the AG's office did offer help, through an initiative called the Mortgage Assistance Program, which makes up to a $40,000 loan for homeowners who face foreclosure to pay off mortgage debt, second or third mortgages, or tax liens. Eligible families must be able to keep up with their mortgage to qualify for the program. Thousands of New Yorkers face foreclosure and don't qualify for the AG's program - some New Yorkers are simply far too behind on their mortgages to qualify.

Groups like The Fair Share for Housing Coalition and New York Communities for Change say the State needs to commit all of the funds from settlements with major lenders over mortgage fraud to go to helping homeowners.

In 2013 Schneiderman won a $615 million settlement for "mortgage misconduct" and according to the settlement 85 percent of that money had to go to programs to help homeowners. Schneiderman announced he was going to parse the cash out to nonprofits across the state that help homeowners avoid foreclosures, but Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature cut a deal in the 2014 budget that swept the cash into their coffers. According to Crain's New York, Schneiderman only ended up with $85 million of settlement funds.

Many advocates say they expected a number of "innovative" programs from Schneiderman's office given his national prominence on the issue. They feel those programs were kneecapped by Cuomo, who has a searing rivalry with the attorney general.

The AG's office currently works with nonprofits around the state to help homeowners avoid mortgage fraud through a program called the Homeowner Protection Program. A network of over 85 groups gets about $60 million in funding from the AG's office. Homeowners are directed through that program to the Mortgage Assistance Program (MAP). The AG's office expects to be able to give out "several hundred" loans through MAP. The program began last October and has given out 100 loans of up to $40,000.

The Fair Share for Housing Coalition lists a total of $492 million in settlements with Bank of America, Ocwen Financial Corporation, and Citigroup as directly related to mortgage fraud and it advocates that the State utilize, at the minimum, those funds to help homeowners. But the State actually has over $5 billion in settlements with banks and corporations that advocates would also like to go to homeowners' cause.

Charles Pollydore, a homeowner from Long Island and member of New York Communities for Change, has been circulating a petition demanding Cuomo use settlement funds to help homeowners who are underwater or face foreclosure.

Pollydore lost his consultant job on Wall Street in 2008 and, while on unemployment, began trying to negotiate a loan modification with Bank of America. He said he was repeatedly rebuffed or ignored. He reached out to a slew of state and federal representatives only to be directed to a different office each time. Also in 2008, Pollydore became disabled due to a diabetes-related amputation and he fears he will never be able to come to terms with his bank for an affordable mortgage payment.

"It is great the State is getting all this money back from the banks, but I feel like they need to give the money back to the homeowners - especially the money that came from these predatory lenders," Pollydore said.

He adds that his Long Island neighborhood has been ravaged by foreclosures. "You drive through the neighborhood and the houses are boarded up, there are squatters, we have increased crime, school taxes have increased." Pollydore says he is now surviving on government assistance and still owes back taxes.

"The money the attorney general is using for his program is a drop in the bucket compared to the settlements they have reached," said Pollydore. "We need the money back to stop so many people walking away from their homes."

Cuomo's budget proposal combines the State's pot into $5.8 billion in settlement cash and proposes to put it largely toward one-time expenditures. The plan would use $1.5 billion for upstate revitalization, $3 billion for infrastructure including the Tappan Zee bridge, $500 million to increase broadband infrastructure across the state, and $850 million for a rainy-day fund.

The Assembly budget is largely in line with Cuomo's proposal, but adds $200 million in increased spending on housing issues, including $100 million for homeowners "at risk of foreclosure or who are underwater on their mortgage." The Assembly budget plan only offers this about the program: "The Assembly provides $100 million for a mortgage modification program." Calls to the Assembly for more details were not returned.

While The Fair Share for Housing Coalition praises Cuomo for including more funding for affordable housng and has tried to avoid ruffling feathers in its push for more help for homeowners, New York Communities for Change (NYCC) has used a more confrontational style. It issued a report earlier this year called "Wall St. On The 2nd Floor" that details the connections between Cuomo's new chief of staff, William Mulrow, and his former employer, Blackstone. Blackstone is the largest private equity company in the world and NYCC worries Murrow, and by extension Cuomo, has a conflict of interest.

The NYCC report reads: "Private equity companies "snapped up properties after prices fell as much as 35 percent from the 2006 peak and rental demand rose from the almost 5 million owners who went through foreclosure since 2008." The company that bought the most foreclosed properties during this time was Blackstone."

NYCC members plan to deliver Pollydore's petition to the governor soon.

"I think the governor has made his priorities pretty clear," said Peter Nagy of NYCC. " Helping people hurt by the banking crisis doesn't seem to be as important as helping those who caused the banking crisis. I think the governor's friends believe it is in their best interest not to help homeowners."

As they do during budget season, deals will materialize and implode, and it appears that the use of settlement funds may be decided in negotiations between the Legislature and Cuomo outside of the budget, which is due by April 1. Legislative session continues through mid June.

"The windfall money is something that I believe should be settled outside of the budget and done in a very deliberate way rather than rushing it in the next three days," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said after meeting with Cuomo on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Cuomo administration was pushing back.

Velez said he is happy with the AG's program but wished there was more help out their for other homeowners, "This was a hurricane, no one asked for this," he said.

Pollydore, meanwhile, plans to keep advocating for Cuomo and the Legislature to dedicate all of the mortgage-related settlement funds to helping homeowners who are facing foreclosure. "This is why I'm appealing to the governor to help us. The banks got a bailout from the government and we didn't - so the State got that money from us. They got it from us."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Hurting Homeowners Say Bank Settlement Funds Belong with Them Wed, 25 Mar 2015 21:30:43 +0000