Gotham Gazette Tue, 20 Mar 2018 17:09:46 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: City Planning Commissioner Michelle de la Uz

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette

March 19, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Michelle de la Uz

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Michelle de la Uz is a commissioner on the City Planning Commission, where she was originally appointed by then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Executive Director of Fifth Avenue Committee, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that manages affordable housing projects and provides other services to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. De la Uz has been an independent voice on the City Planning Commission, regularly voting "no" on major proposals coming from de Blasio's administration. She joined the podcast to discuss the current housing crisis in New York City, the mayor's approach to development, and more.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy and guest Michelle de la Uz. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: City Planning Commissioner Michelle de la Uz Mon, 19 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
On Land Use, Johnson Promises 'Deference' to Members But 'No Veto' Johnson Rodriguez City Council

Speaker Johnson, center, & CM Rodriguez, right (photo: William Alatriste)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Thursday that the elected Council members of the body he leads will get “deference” but “no veto” on land use matters.

Even before he was officially elected the new speaker of the Council, Johnson had already begun to define how he would approach the job. In clear breaks from his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Johnson promised greater independence from the mayor, expanded oversight over city agencies, and a more active role in land use decisions, which is one of the most significant roles played by the 51-member legislative body.

Promising to bolster the Council’s land use division with more resources and staff, Johnson seemed to want a heavier hand in local development projects, or land use applications, where the previous speaker tended to almost completely defer to the local Council member’s sentiments and negotiations. Johnson, however, has implied that he won’t allow the same kind of leeway that Mark-Viverito gave to members to oppose or reject proposals in their districts, which, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, include a number of neighborhood rezonings that can shape the landscape and character of neighborhoods for generations.

At an event Thursday, hosted by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Johnson explained his approach, saying that he would involve himself in land use applications if a local Council member requested it, but at the same time, would not allow any single member to act as an obstacle to a worthwhile project with benefits for a community.

When asked about the ongoing land use process for a proposed rezoning in Inwood in Uptown Manhattan, Johnson first admitted that he knew little about the ins-and-outs of the particular plan. “On the Inwood rezoning, this is not me in any way shirking, but I honestly, I haven’t been briefed on it,” he said, when panellist Debralee Santos from the Manhattan Times asked him about his general approach to land use issues and specifically two rezonings, a recently completed one in the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx and the ongoing one in Inwood in Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s district.

“I’ve been so crazy dealing with so many other things across the city,” Johnson added. “I see people tweet at me about it, and I’ve read some articles about it, but I have not had the opportunity to sit down with Councilman Rodriguez or the other elected officials and have a conversation about it.”

In the past few years, the City Council and the de Blasio administration have come face-to-face with the fact that even with rezonings that invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a neighborhood, that have gone through months of negotiations and received hundreds of hours of testimony and feedback from communities, there are inevitably those who remain dissatisfied. In some cases, Council members capitulate to community backlash, killing a project, but often they do not.

For instance, in 2015 East New York became home to the administration’s first successful neighborhood rezoning. Despite Council Member Rafael Espinal negotiating commitments of more than $260 million in investments from the city as well as a slew of other community benefits -- besides the affordable housing and economic development that undergirded the rezoning -- a segment of housing advocates argued that the rezoning would continue, and exacerbate, the nascent gentrification of the district. (The advocates even threatened to organize a challenge to Espinal’s 2017 reelection bid but did not follow through.) Espinal approved the project in the end, claiming advocates did not recognize the quality of the deal coming to the long-ignored community.

But, in 2016, owing to vocal community resentment, Council Member Rodriguez announced his opposition to a proposed development, also in Inwood, the day before it was scheduled to be voted on by the Council’s land use committee. The project was unanimously rejected by the committee based on Rodriguez’s verdict.

It was different, however, for Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who faced widespread criticism for vacillating on the proposed redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights. Eventually, faced with angry residents and a strong primary challenger, Cumbo rejected the proposal before her, which forced the city to amend its plans to later have them approved.

On Thursday at CUNY, Santos pointed to the Inwood Library as one controversial aspect of the larger rezoning, where residents of the neighborhood have called for an entirely separate land-use application for the building. “That’s a local institution that people believe should merit its own process altogether, its own ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure],” Santos pointed out.

“So I don’t know anything about it,” Johnson conceded. “But I’m happy to work with the stakeholders involved and find a solution. My general principle is, unless the rezoning or the land use action that’s proposed is totally off-the-wall and doesn’t make any sense or if there is no community buy-in, which it may be this case in Inwood from what I’m seeing, I try to get to a place of ‘yes.’”

Johnson recounted his own experience with the rezoning of Pier 40 in his Manhattan district in 2016, where in the end, he managed to extract $100 million worth of investments from the city while creating affordable housing and senior housing. “I worked on it for two-and-a-half years. There were many places where I wanted to walk away from that rezoning, it was frustrating me so much that I didn’t think I’d be able to close the deal. But in the end, I always work to get to a place of ‘yes,’” he said.

Would he get similarly involved in the Inwood rezoning, Santos asked.

“If I’m asked by the local elected official,” Johnson said. It’s unclear to what extent Johnson will assert himself if asked by other parties in a negotiation, such as the mayor’s office or real estate developers.

And though he noted that most rezonings go through a negotiated process, and most of them are approved, he said he will not allow a local Council member to determine the fate of any single land-use process that he deems worthy. “One thing I said is, is there member deference involved? Of course, there’s member deference involved,” he said. “But there’s no veto. No one gets a veto. There’s a difference between deference and a veto. If someone is opposing a project or asking for things that are totally unreasonable, someone needs to step in and say, ‘that doesn’t make any sense.’”

Though Johnson said he was not up to speed on the Inwood rezoning, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, Council Member Rodriguez indicated he is pleased with the speaker’s support thus far in the process.

“Speaker Johnson and the Land Use Committee staff have been very supportive throughout the rezoning,” Rodriguez said. “Land Use has taken the time to understand the needs of the community the council members share. They understand council members have the best knowledge of the whole population in their districts and are seeking an optimal outcome.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

On Land Use, Johnson Promises 'Deference' to Members But 'No Veto' Fri, 09 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods east new york planning map

City Planning map of East New York rezoning area

Later this year, the Department of City Planning is slated to release a “draft planning framework” as part of a process to rezone Gowanus, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander aimed at increasing affordable housing and making a variety of other neighborhood improvements. Rezoning Gowanus, a middle-to-upper income, majority-white neighborhood, would be a departure from the city’s prevailing approach to reimagining a number of neighborhoods across the city.

At the beginning of his mayoralty, Bill de Blasio set an objective to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city, a goal that has since been expanded to 300,000 by 2026. To that end, de Blasio listed about ten neighborhood to rezone, the central purpose of which is to permit added housing density. The community-wide plans that have moved forward or are on the verge of passage through the City Council thus far have include lower-income communities: East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. Downtown Far Rockaway was also rezoned, and plans are moving ahead for Inwood and on the North Shore of Staten Island.

The rezonings include changes to an area’s land use rules, typically allowing for taller residential buildings that must include a certain set percentage of affordable housing units, and promises of amenities like new schools, improved street designs, and other community benefits.

But from the start, questions have arisen around which neighborhoods are chosen for such major changes, and whether those changes accelerate forces of displacement for current residents. A City Limits analysis of East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor found that 85 percent of the residents included in the rezoning areas are black or Latino and over 50 percent of the households take in less than $35,000 annually. Far Rockaway and Inwood are in line with demographic profile of the three main, larger city-led rezonings.

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the pattern of his administration’s rezonings falling in lower-income neighborhoods, de Blasio said in February that the sample size of the rezonings is small, so no sweeping conclusions could be drawn from the pattern. He also reiterated his view that low-income communities are the ones that are most suitable for increased development.

“The opportunities to create more affordable housing have been first and foremost in some communities that have been been underbuilt for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We look for where is the opportunity to make the biggest impact.”

“East New York is the classic example,” the mayor continued. “There was a lot to work with. In some cases, there’s public land or private sites that hadn’t been built out.”’

De Blasio went on to insist that his rezoning plans have been focused on increasing affordable housing stock wherever the opportunity presents itself.   

“So my point would be, one, on the rezonings, we’re still first and foremost going to be focused on affordable housing. That’s the reason we’re doing the rezonings, overwhelmingly. And two, that’s going to be where land and where building sites are,” de Blasio explained. “But at the same time, anything we can get our hands on -- Gowanus is in the pipeline as an example.”

While de Blasio has pushed through different elements of the zoning packages, including the mandatory affordable housing attached to any upzoning, in something of a surprise, de Blasio’s practices have tracked with that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in terms of the neighborhoods tabbed for such increases in density. A 2010 Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy study of the rezonings under then-Mayor Bloomberg, for example, found that rezonings in areas with whiter than average populations were more likely to retain restrictive zoning ordinances. In turn, the city allowed comparatively more density in rezonings in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the de Blasio-led rezonings, which do include many more safeguards for communities than Bloomberg’s, have been embraced by many local elected officials, especially those who’ve been able to negotiate for more local investments from the city. The de Blasio rezonings, however, have also been met with resistance from various affordable housing advocates and some elected officials.

“Overall the neighborhoods that are being rezoned are mostly low-income communities of color,” Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, told Commercial Observer in February. “They’ve all had many years of disinvestment, and now they’re facing this idea that, in order to get reinvestment they’ve needed all along, it has to come with a rezoning. I think there’s huge concern of how these shifts in the market will affect displacement. There’s a question of what’s going to get built and for whom.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Katie Goldstein, executive director of affordable housing advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors, argued the city's rezonings have created housing that is nominally affordable, but in reality too expensive for the residents in certain neighborhoods. And the location selections, she said, exacerbate displacement pressures and gentrification. “What we’re seeing now is really just city-sponsored gentrification in these neighborhoods that have already been experiencing displacement pressures,” Goldstein told Gotham Gazette.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer voiced similar concerns regarding the mayor’s approach to affordable housing. “Sometimes, there’s disconnect between the housing that we’re building and the people that can access that affordable housing,” he said. The overarching question that many have asked about de Blasio’s larger affordable housing plan, including the housing to be built in rezoned neighborhoods, has been “Affordable for whom?”

For his part, de Blasio argues the rezonings will not spur out-of-character development, nor significant displacement. Instead, the mayor says, creating affordable housing in low-income areas helps to reduce displacement pressures, especially when paired with provisions that require 30 percent of the units to be built under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) guidelines that de Blasio and the City Council passed last term.

New York City must build its way out of the housing crisis, de Blasio believes; sitting on existing housing stock will only lead to higher rents and more displacement. He also regularly reminds critics that the rezonings are not only paired with MIH, but also significant investments in eviction prevention efforts.

In addition, de Blasio offers, the added housing density in rezoned neighborhoods is coupled with improvements to infrastructure, schools, parks, public transportation, job training, and more, allocating resources for the community at hand and its thousands of new residents. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods, in de Blasio’s telling, have been underdeveloped compared to more affluent areas, as they have not been rezoned for decades.  

Lander, who replaced de Blasio in the City Council almost a decade ago, is helming the Gowanus rezoning, in its early stages, with community input. The process began in fall 2016 with a series of community visioning and planning meetings. As Lander has repeatedly noted, Gowanus would be a different type of rezoning than the ones de Blasio has put forth.

According to the aforementioned City Limits analysis, Gowanus -- a neighborhood bordering Park Slope that shares a name with the canal that runs through it -- is over half white with a annual median income of over $65,000.

Lander believes the city should not only rezone Gowanus but should make it a priority to upzone other more affluent neighborhoods throughout the city. According to Lander, loosening zoning restrictions and building affordable housing in traditionally tightly-zoned, affluent neighborhoods can help desegregate New York.

“I think it is our responsibility to affirmatively focus on upper-income neighborhoods and white neighborhoods [for upzonings],” he said. “We’ve started to have a conversation about Fair Housing and about what we do to combat residential segregation, and build a more integrated city.”

“One central way of doing that,” he explained, “is by rezoning wealthier neighborhoods.”

Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at Regional Planning Association, told Gotham Gazette that it is not as if Gowanus is the sole low-density, tightly-zoned, middle-to-upper-income community throughout the city that could use more affordable housing.

Gates said that, contrary to de Blasio’s claims, lower-income neighborhoods are not necessarily better-suited for upzonings. “If the response is ‘we’re doing it in low-income neighborhoods because this is where we have historically had housing development,’ I’d ask the city, ‘What does that mean?’” Gates said. “It’s not like there’s no people in East New York. It’s not like East New York has less density and better transit access than Forest Hills.”  

Along with Forest Hills, urban planning experts have pointed toward middle-to-upper-income, low-density neighborhoods such as Long Island City, Bayside, Midwood, and Chelsea as opportune locations to upzone. The de Blasio administration has also raised the prospect of rezoning Washington Heights, Bushwick, Chinatown, Southern Boulevard, Flushing, and, as mentioned, the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island’s North Shore.  

More broadly, Gates contended the de Blasio administration has not been clear on what it is trying to accomplish with its rezonings and it has not chosen optimal locations for them. “I think the city needs to look at transit-accessible places,” said Gates. “I think the city needs to look at places that do not currently have affordable housing opportunities.”

One of the obstacles to rezoning proposals can be opposition from local City Council members, many of whom are loath to invite outcry from constituents and community boards that are often opposed to adding density close to home. Though he has made clear his philosophy is one of ‘getting to ‘yes,’’ new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also indicated he will continue the tradition of heeding the local Council representative’s wishes on land use matters, including neighborhood rezonings, and involving relevant community boards and other stakeholders. The City Council as a whole has the final vote to approve neighborhood rezonings, or single projects that require a land use approval process.

“Council Member Koo was not happy with the Flushing rezoning, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Johnson said at a press conference last month when asked by Gotham Gazette about the mayor’s neighborhood rezoning selections. “Every district has individual needs.”

He added, “Anytime you talk about rezoning, it needs to be a process that respects the local Council member, the local community board, [and[ the Borough President.”

The Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning moved through committee at the City Council on Tuesday, and will soon be voted through the full Council. The final deal reached between the de Blasio administration and local City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera is projected to bring 4,600 new homes to the 95-block rezoned area, according to the mayor's office, and includes two new schools, about $56 million in parks investments, and other community benefits. According to the mayor's office, all housing built in the area will be affordable and subsidized in the near-term, will measures in place to ensure permanent affordability for about 1,150 of the housing units.

“The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan invests in communities that have never before gotten a fair shake," said Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, a community home to a rezoning led by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and more focused on commercial than residential growth, positioned himself as a cautious supporter of de Blasio’s neighborhood selections. “We’ve seen opportunities and communities like the Rockaways, because there is a lot of land that’s never been tapped into,” he said during a phone interview. “When you look at East New York, also -- neighborhoods with immense amounts of land where the city has never invested.”

But Richards -- who last term chaired the zoning subcommittee and participated in key negotiations to amend zoning codes and on individual projects -- said efforts to increase affordable housing stock should not exclusively “fall on the back of communities like Far Rockaway or Jerome [Avenue] or Inwood.”

“I don’t think the focus should be just in low-income communities,” Richards continued. “We should be looking for opportunities everywhere.”

Additionally, Richards argued New York is “still a very segregated city,” a problem the city’s housing policies need to address. “We need to work toward righting that wrong if we’re going to give low-income residents an opportunity at succeeding in New York City,” he said.

Asked why he believes the de Blasio administration has not adopted this strategy, Council Member Lander said he wasn't sure. “I don’t want to speculate; I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “And I think it’s a fair question.”

Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Bronx Rezoning Moves to City Council as Negotiations Enter Final Stages

Jerome Ave corridor rezoning, via City Planning

The City Planning Commission voted January 17 to approve a comprehensive rezoning plan for the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, putting the proposal before the City Council for scrutiny in the final stretch of the lengthy land use review process. The rezoning would follow four others ushered through by the de Blasio administration as it somewhat controversially seeks to add housing density, including thousands of new affordable units, and make other investments in mostly low-income communities across the five boroughs.

The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan put forth by the administration with local input envisions changing land use regulations in a 92-block area along Jerome Avenue, from East 165th Street to 184th Street, which currently comprises a mix of commercial, industrial, and residential space. The proposed plan would allow mixed-use development along the corridor with the intent of creating more affordable housing, while also funding new infrastructure, quality-of-life improvements, job creation, and economic development initiatives for the community.  

While a deal appears imminent and the clock is ticking, negotiations are ongoing between the administration and City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera, whose districts span the proposed rezoning and who will have the final say in whether the rezoning is approved. Gibson, Cabrera, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. met recently to discuss the changes to the plan that they want to see before it is passed by the Council.

The City Planning Commission’s approval of the plan started the 50-day clock for the Council to accept or reject the proposal. The entire body typically votes with the local Council member(s) on land use issues and has rarely overridden a member’s position. The Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises is expected to hold a public hearing on the rezoning on Wednesday, February 7.  

“It is and has been very fruitful,” Gibson said of the negotiation process, in a phone interview on Thursday. But there remain a few big ticket items that have yet to be resolved, she said, including preserving more affordable housing and expanding school capacity to deal with the expected increase in population from new housing created under the plan.

jerome ave verticalThe city has promised to create 4,000 new housing units in the rezoned area, which will include affordable units set aside for different income bands under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. The administration is also planning a Certificate of No Harassment pilot program to prevent tenant harassment and displacement, and will guarantee that half of new housing units created by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will go to existing residents. Additionally, it has committed millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements -- including $4.6 million to revamp Corporal Fischer Park; $4 million to rebuild the Morton Playground; sidewalk lighting; and security upgrades -- and jobs and business development plans through the Department of Small Business Services

As is, the plan will also preserve 1,500 affordable units, a number that Gibson wants to see increased to 2,500 to cope with the gentrification pressures that neighborhoods targeted for rezoning have come to expect. She emphasized that many affordable units currently in those neighborhoods will see their city rent subsidies expire in less than a decade, and that the administration should take preemptive action.

“The city has a very good opportunity to engage those landlords on new programs and tax incentives so they can remain in the affordability program and access some of our resources for the next 30 or 40 years,” she said. “Now if we go over 2,500, I’m not mad. But I think 2,500 should be the floor.”

As with other rezonings that have been approved in the last three years, Gibson expressed larger concerns about displacement of existing residents as zoning changes bring additional density and improvements to the communities along Jerome Avenue. But she maintained that, unlike other areas that have seen luxury developers quickly move in to capitalize on a proposed rezoning, Jerome Avenue will likely not see market-rate housing being built in the short term.

“People are fearful, they have a right to be fearful, but the market in Jerome does not propel luxury housing right now,” she said.

Gibson predicted that recent increases in the minimum wage and residents getting prevailing-wage and union-wage jobs will eventually lead them to be ineligible for deeply affordable housing as they start to earn more than 30 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), a federal measure that includes surrounding suburban counties and the city. The New York City region’s AMI in 2017 was $85,900 for a family of three. Gibson insisted that the MIH set-asides should therefore include additional moderate and middle-income housing.

“It has to be a diverse mixture of incomes, obviously with the majority of those incomes being on the lower end at 30 and 40 percent of AMI as well as set asides for formerly homeless families coming directly from the shelter,” she said.

Jerome Avenue is the latest proving ground for the administration’s neighborhood rezoning efforts, which are part of achieving the mayor’s target of creating and preserving 300,000 units of affordable housing across the city by 2026. The first such rezoning, in East New York, largely set the tone, with the local Council Member, Rafael Espinal, having extracted a slew of concessions from the administration including a new 1,000-seat school and about $267 million in capital investments. Diaz Jr. and the two Bronx Council members are working off of a similar script, as was the case with rezonings in East Harlem and Far Rockaway.

Diaz Jr. signed off on the city’s plan in November, granted the city meet certain conditions that he laid out in his non-binding formal approval in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a multi-step process that also involves non-binding votes by the affected community boards, which also approved it with conditions.

The borough president said in his response that the city had “acted in good faith” in listening to the community’s concerns. But he maintained, “There is still more work to be done.” He called on the city to put in place a minimum of their monetary commitments before the rezoning is approved, an increase in the number of affordable housing units preserved to at least 2,000, enhanced enforcement of housing codes, the establishment of a new community center in Highbridge, and additional funding for improvement of parks and transit infrastructure.

Jerome Avenue is also home to a large automotive industry, and Diaz Jr. urged the city to identify locations where displaced facilities could relocate as well as fund relocation, training, and certification for those businesses. Gibson has made similar demands. The city’s plan would only retain about 20 percent of the 151 auto businesses in the neighborhood, she recently told Gotham Gazette at City Hall, and she is pushing to retain at least 50 percent.  

Diaz Jr. also insisted that the city must address the school seat shortage in the district -- roughly 3,248 seats -- by identifying potential sites for new facilities. That is one of the biggest priorities for Gibson and Cabrera as well. Gibson said she and her Council colleague are pushing for two new elementary schools in school districts 9 and 10.

“The challenge we face is we don’t have large parcels of city-owned land,” she said, emphasizing that the administration will have to work with private landowners to find suitable locations for new schools, while also expanding capacity at existing facilities that can bear it.

“A school that we build of 500 seats is going to help us now but it wont help us in the future if we’re looking at potentially 4,000 units of housing,” she said. “So there has to be some give and take.”

Gibson is confident about securing that pledge from the city before the Council votes on the project. “We’ve been very consistent on what our priorities are and, at the end of the day, we are working as hard as we can to achieve that. I do know that the admin in the past typically waits until the very end to make all of their commitments and announcements and to the best extent that I can, I’m trying to avoid that because I don’t like to operate last minute.”

Asked about the final stages of negotiations, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said in a statement, "We continue to work hand-in-hand with local elected officials and community leaders to build and protect affordable housing while also boosting economic vitality along the Jerome corridor."

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Bronx Rezoning Moves to City Council as Negotiations Enter Final Stages Sun, 28 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy on Politics max murphy screenshots

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette

Each week, Ben Max of Gotham Gazette and Jarrett Murphy of City Limits discuss the latest on policy and politics in New York. Episodes, which are typically 10-15 minutes, began in February, 2016 with a focus on housing, but have expanded to other topics. Episodes are below, and can also be found on iTunes and other podcast networks. LISTEN:

June 1st, 2017: Election Season is Here!

May 25th, 2017: De Blasio in the Bronx; City's Transit System Becomes a Focus

May 17th, 2017: The Mayor's Homelessness Plan & Election Year Politics

May 8th, 2017: Controversy at Correction; The Latest in the Mayoral Race; Rezoning Politics; Stalled Voting Reforms; & More:

April 21, 2017: De Blasio Versus the Media, Re-election Year News, & The Mayor in the Boroughs

March 9th, 2017: Federal cuts looming? 421-a debates & the Mayor's new approach to homelessness

January 19th, 2017

December 2, 2016: 421-A Back from the Dead? New $ for Public Housing, and ZoneIn!

October 27, 2016: What's at stake for New York City on Election Day?

August 12, 2016: New York City Homeownership Trends, MIH gets real, and more:

July 26, 2016: With the presidential campaign in full swing and the national party platforms adopted, Max & Murphy are joined by Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, to discuss federal housing policy and how it relates to New York:

June 23, 2016: In a special episode, we were joined by two leaders of Coalition for the Homeless, Mary Brosnahan and Shelly Nortz, to discuss a wide range of issues related to city and state homelessness-fighting policies, including problems around state funding and signs of progress with city management:

June 16, 2016: The Latest at NYCHA, from its Chair & CEO

June 9, 2016: A Lot to Watch for On Housing: Next Rezonings, New Legislation, State MOU?

May 26, 2016: Tenant Protection Efforts and Signs of Progress at NYCHA

May 12, 2016: NYCHA's 'Core Challenge' with guest Ritchie Torres, New York City Council member and chair of the public housing committee 

May 4, 2016: A Lot in the Spring Balance

April 21, 2016: Presidential Candidates Visit Public Housing; Next Up: 421-A

April 8, 2016: The presidential primaries are here - in New York!

April 1, 2016: Big Housing $ in the State Budget

March 25, 2016: Putting MIH Into Context

March 18, 2016: Good and Bad News for Mayor de Blasio

March 10, 2016: The Politics of De Blasio's Housing Plan Heats Up

March 4, 2016: Governor Cuomo Casts a Shadow Over Housing Hearing

Feb. 26, 2016: Amid fears of gentrification, neighborhood plans move ahead

Feb. 19, 2016: As the City Council deliberates, neighborhood planning heats up

Feb. 12, 2016: The City Council hears two major de Blasio zoning proposals

You can find more from Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy by visiting the latest reporting from Gotham Gazette and from City Limits; and find us on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy.

Max & Murphy on Politics Thu, 01 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Part of Rezoning Plan, City Opens New Career Center in East New York bdb espinal town hall

Mayor de Blasio & CM Espinal (photo: Jeffrey Reed for the City Council)

After serving jail time in 2014, Anthony McGlashan, a resident of East New York, Brooklyn, struggled to find employment for three years. While he had a certification from the Anthem Institute in the field of Information Technology, he continued to be rejected by employers due to his lack of experience and his criminal background. McGlashan then turned to one of New York City’s Workforce1 Centers, a city initiative that provides free career services by pairing employers with workers, holding workshops for resume and interview preparation, and other resources to aid the job search.

In August 2015, McGlashan enrolled in Employment Works, a city program designed to match individuals with criminal histories with full-time, permanent positions in an attempt to reduce recidivism. Through workshops and the support of the program, McGlashan was able to secure an IT support position with the State of New York Unified Court System.

“It’s been awhile, it was a struggle,” McGlashan said. “I almost felt like giving up at one time. It was only three years, but it felt much longer than that.”

“The program pushed me to look for a more permanent, full-time position,” he added. “It shows you what you have to do in life to get something, to fight for it. Stay ambitious and determined.”

Those previously involved with the criminal justice system often face significant difficulties when looking for permanent job opportunities. Despite serving their time, a criminal history makes employees much less likely to be hired. To eliminate this type of employment discrimination by employers, New York City passed the Fair Chance Act in October of 2015, forbidding employers from asking for the criminal records of job applicants until a job offer has been made.

To help further break down barriers faced when looking for a job after a conviction, Mayor Bill de Blasio, working with City Council Member Rafael Espinal and Commissioner Gregg Bishop of the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), is opening a new Workforce1 center in East New York, Brooklyn on Monday. The center, part of the East New York Neighborhood Plan that was negotiated by Espinal and the de Blasio administration and passed through the City Council, is tailored to the specific needs of this neighborhood.

East New York has a high percentage of out-of-work, out-of-school youth and individuals with criminal backgrounds, according to the city. As part of the East New York rezoning that passed earlier this year, the career center is the nineteenth such center across the city. It will cost about $700,000 annually to run, according to SBS, with that money coming through a federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant. The funding for creating the facility, about $165,000, came from the $276 million allocated for community development in the East New York plan, which encompasses a key stretch of Espinal’s district that will soon be home to new housing, retail, and other development, along with other community services, like a new school. It is an underdeveloped area with high concentrations of poverty and the first neighborhood rezoned under the de Blasio affordable housing plan.

“We are investing in the people of East New York,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement accompanying the announcement of the new workforce center’s opening. “We are committed to providing the training, the education and the job-placements families need to work their way into the middle class.”

Council Member Espinal, who negotiated with the de Blasio administration to pass the multi-faceted, “anti-gentrification” rezoning for his district in April, called the high unemployment rate in Brooklyn, especially in East New York, “unacceptable.”

“The economic disparities in our city that have put a strain on so many New Yorker’s must be addressed,” Espinal said in a statement. “That is why I pushed so hard to secure this Workforce1 Center as part of the East New York Neighborhood Rezoning Plan. After all, a house is not affordable without a job.”

Some of the debate centered on the East New York plan -- and other rezonings being considered around the city -- revolved around the levels of affordability for new rent-stabilized housing in the rezoned area. New housing in East New York will be deeply subsidized by the city, but there are still concerns of displacement. Relatedly, Espinal and others rallied on Saturday against predatory homeowner speculation that has been occurring in the area in anticipation of community improvements and rising property value.

“All New Yorker’s should have access to good paying jobs and the tools they need to secure a bright future for their families,” Espinal said. “I am excited that the center has opened so quickly and look forward to the opportunities it will create for our community.”

Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor, said opening this career center in East New York reflects the mayor’s understanding of the biggest challenge facing young people of color: unemployment.

“High levels of joblessness among these young people is a major contribution to participation in underground economies of drug dealing, property crime, and prostitution,” Vitale said in an email.

While these centers provide job-searching resources, Vitale said the mayor should continue to identify more ways for unemployed youth to get jobs, increasing public and private sector opportunity.

“The question is whether these centers will produce an overall increase in employment or merely rearrange who gets the few jobs that are out there,” Vitale said. “The mayor should also take steps to significantly increase the number of jobs for these young people, through public employment if the private sector is unable or unwilling to do it.”

According to the city, the new East New York center includes partnerships with community-based organizations. Espinal points out that while the unemployment rate continues to drop nationally, it has remained higher in Brooklyn, and it is even higher in East New York.

“A quality career opportunity can be a ticket out of poverty for all New Yorkers, including those who were formerly acquainted with the criminal justice system,” said Bishop, the city’s commissioner of small business services, in a statement. “This career center will be an asset for the entire East New York community.”

by Devin Gannon for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: details of the funding for the career center have been clarified from the original version of this article.

Part of Rezoning Plan, City Opens New Career Center in East New York Sun, 11 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Protecting the Soul of Flushing, and Beyond soul flushing 

132-40 Sanford Ave in Flushing, a Treetop Development-owned rent-stabilized building

After more than a year of intensive community engagement, Flushing’s "under the radar" rezoning study of an 11-block waterfront area dubbed Flushing West was suddenly withdrawn by the Department of City Planning (DCP). The decision was prompted by a letter from City Council Member Peter Koo, who outlined a comprehensive list of outstanding concerns including “that the numbers don’t add up” for developers who perceive that the rezoning amounts to a “downzoning.”

DCP’s decision to pause the study elicited mixed reactions, in part because the rezoning study did spotlight the heavy infrastructural strain of Flushing’s white hot real estate market and unified multiple community stakeholders to protect the neighborhood’s rapidly diminishing affordable housing and advocate for equitable community development.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently penned a Huffington Post column proposing that in the current market climate of hyper-gentrification, the city’s existential identity is defined by residents of public housing and rent-stabilized apartments. As the mayor opines, “It’s in protecting these people that we protect the soul of our neighborhoods.” I dare say the soul of Flushing has been under attack and protecting its diverse, working-class residents is long overdue.

Like many neighborhoods of color, affordable housing in Flushing is threatened by predatory equity investment. Investors target “underperforming” and “undervalued” multi-family residential buildings in strategic markets (i.e., “up and coming” and gentrifying areas). They count on capturing unrealized market value through replacing current tenants with those that can afford to pay higher rents or reselling properties at huge profits after making nominal capital improvements. Treetop Development LLC, one of the largest real estate companies in the New York City area, has a business model based on these “multi-faceted” strategies, to the detriment of communities.

Treetop’s online profile notes, “We actively acquire and transform existing rental properties in the region by modernizing living spaces, common areas and building systems before returning them to market. We are well-known for creating cutting-edge projects in neighborhoods coming up as desirable new addresses.” Since its establishment in 2005, Treetop Development LLC has been one of the region’s most active investors in multi-family properties including federally subsidized, project-based Section 8 developments and rent-regulated buildings.

In the past few years, Treetop has acquired and flipped numerous rent-stabilized buildings, generating huge profits. In July 2013, Treetop purchased 17-27 West 125th Street, a 50-unit rent-stabilized building in Harlem for $13.6 million. According to Treetop’s website, “17-27 West 125th Street boasts large apartments, which will be renovated upon vacancy to include new wide plank hardwood flooring, modern and chic kitchens and bathrooms, and stainless steel appliances.” After spending only $1.5 million on “signature” capital improvements, Treetop sold the building to Thor Equities for a whopping $30.6 million in August 2015 (a $17 million gross profit after 25 months of ownership).

Similarly in 2014, Treetop acquired a portfolio of six rent-stabilized buildings with a total of 139 rental and seven retail units in Washington Heights for $23 million. These properties, referred to as the "Columbia Audubon" portfolio due to their proximity to Columbia University Hospital and Audubon Avenue, were sold a little over a year later, in December 2015, for $36 million to a group of private investors.

In describing Treetop’s strategy to purchase and flip a multi-family portfolio in Central Harlem, co-principal Adam Mermelstein explained, “This portfolio is the perfect example of how picking the neighborhoods, identifying underutilized properties, effective management and recognizing the right time to buy and sell can pay tremendous dividends.” The portfolio purchased by Treetop for $22 million in 2013 was comprised of 12 five-story walk-up apartments and included rent-stabilized buildings on St. Nicholas Ave and Frederick Douglass Blvd. Two years later, Treetop sold the portfolio to a newly formed investment firm for $35 million, generating a profit equal to 59% of Treetop’s original purchase price.

Treetop Development LLC was featured in Crain’s New York Business for its enormous $138.8 million acquisition of eight rent-stabilized buildings in Queens representing the county’s largest multi-family transaction in 2015. Seven of the rent-stabilized buildings (totaling 489 apartments) are clustered in a three-block area near downtown Flushing and one building is in Elmhurst. Treetop wasted no time in making cosmetic upgrades to common areas such as lobbies and hallways, and renovating vacated apartments. A recent visit and conversation with a long-time, rent-stabilized tenant in one of Treetop’s Flushing buildings indicated that the common areas had already undergone capital improvements which permitted the prior landlord to increase rents.

Since Treetop’s acquisition, tenants have reported construction-related disruption and dust, spotty heat and hot water, and a sudden increase in vacant apartments. City Council Member Koo’s office has submitted a list of complaints pertaining to these buildings to 311.

This past year has been very busy for Treetop as it expands its extensive portfolio of rent-stabilized buildings in Harlem and Flushing, sold “select holdings at high profit margins,” and refinanced some properties through mortgage consolidation, as in the case of four Brooklyn properties including 188 South 3rd St., a rent-stabilized building in Southside Williamsburg. Among its early acquisitions in New York City’s multi-family market, Treetop paid a little over $5 million in August 2006 for the 41-unit building, intending to convert the apartments into upscale rentals. A few months later, various publications including the Metropolitan Council for Housing’s newsletter detailed the reasons why Treetop’s Mermelstein was named the city’s “most abusive landlord” by a group of tenant advocacy organizations.

Treetop’s 188 South 3rd St. was in the news again in July 2013 when a three-alarm fire erupted between the ceiling of the top floor and the roof. Over one hundred firefighters responded to the early morning blaze that took approximately two hours to extinguish. Several tenants were interviewed noting long-standing electrical problems and non-professional repairs. Charlin Ramos said to Brooklyn News 12, “I knew this was going to happen, I predicted it was going to happen.” Jacqueline Jimenez claimed Treetop ignored numerous calls from tenants. Extensive damage required many tenants to vacate and according to the Department of Buildings, the current status of 188 South 3rd St. is that a partial vacate order remains in effect as well as civil penalties and an outstanding Class 1 violation defined as “immediately hazardous.”

The same weekend that Mayor de Blasio’s column was published by Huffington Post, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled, How to Force Out Rent-Controlled Tenants. The timing and message of these articles underscore the precarity of rent-regulated housing that has been affordable to working-class New Yorkers. Key forces destabilizing the city’s neighborhoods, especially its communities of color, are the tactics deployed by predatory equity investors such as Treetop Development LLC. While the Flushing West rezoning study provided an opportunity to highlight the outstanding need for affordable housing, the current state of the neighborhood’s rent-stabilized housing requires immediate action to protect long-time tenants, or as the mayor would describe them, the soul of Flushing.

In early May, the Flushing West Community Alliance (FRCA) released a comprehensive research report that includes anti-harassment and anti-displacement measures. Based on numerous discussions with rent-stabilized tenants, FRCA recommends that landlords with a history of tenant harassment should not be able to receive permits necessary for renovations that will enable them to increase rents. At minimum, the four bills introduced to the New York City Council earlier this year, including Brad Lander’s “Certificate of No Harassment,” should be acted on immediately. Although the Flushing West rezoning process is temporarily on hold, speculative real estate market conditions have not abated which means rent stabilized tenants need strengthened protections now.

Tarry Hum is a professor at the City University of New York and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

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Protecting the Soul of Flushing, and Beyond Wed, 22 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Legislation Aimed at Holding City Accountable for Rezoning Commitments city hall rotunda during announcement

Announcement at City Hall (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

With the recent passage of the East New York rezoning and community development plan, the city committed to revitalizing the neglected Brooklyn neighborhood by creating affordable housing, investing in community infrastructure, and promoting economic development. The first among 15 neighborhood rezonings planned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, East New York ushers in a new era of planned change and city promises.

As these rezoning and development plans progress, a parallel effort is moving through the City Council to ensure that the city is held to its word in making commitments to communities when modifying land-use rules and upzoning neighborhoods for development.

Last month, a bill was introduced in the City Council -- sponsored by Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Council Members Rafael Espinal and Deborah Rose -- that would create a publicly accessible database of commitments made by the administration in any city-sponsored Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application. The database and an accompanying annual report would allow elected officials and, perhaps more importantly, the general public to track the promises to communities made by the Mayor and city agencies.

The database and reports would provide regular updates on the progress of initiated projects and track projects left unfulfilled. Following the final passage of any city-sponsored land-use application, the commitments would be recorded on the database within 30 days.

“It will not only record commitments,” said Public Advocate James, “It’s an ongoing reminder of the commitment made by the city to the general public.”

James recognizes the need to push this bill at a time when the city is gearing up to rezone and redevelop those 15 neighborhoods across the city, starting with East New York, as part of an ambitious plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio to harness gentrification and create affordable housing in neighborhoods under strain from market forces.

The public advocate, formerly a Brooklyn City Council member, says she has seen a pattern in similar neighborhood rezonings in the past where guarantees made by the city routinely fell through the cracks. She cited Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint as a few areas where the city reneged on its pledges to provide ample community benefits while allowing real estate development. “I see all of these luxury condos that have gone up and no public benefits and amenities,” James said.

James’ vocal opposition to the Atlantic Yards redevelopment in Brooklyn was in part because of the city’s failure to ensure adequate community benefits particularly affordable housing.

“The bill is a transparency and accountability effort ensuring that promised benefits are delivered,” she added. James said the bill would be prospective and would not apply retroactively to any land use deals.

City Council Member Brad Lander is a “big fan of planning” and he gives the administration credit for the broad community development plan created for East New York. “There’s a lot of important parts to getting planning right,” he said.

One of those important parts, he believes, is tracking community commitments and the public advocate’s bill would make those commitments “visible, public, and online, and ensure regular tracking and reporting,” Lander said in support.

Of course, tracking does not necessarily mean that promises will definitely be kept, he said. “It’s very hard to mandate keeping of promises,” he said, pointing out that the Council can only make budget decisions for a one-year period and cannot control decisions made in later years by new elected officials. But he added that it provides people with a strong tool to hold the city publicly accountable.

If there’s any elected official now facing this, it’s Espinal, the Council member who represents a majority of the East New York area under the new rezoning plan. He was front and center in the negotiations with the de Blasio administration and managed to secure $267 million in capital funds for East New York under the plan (plus other investments through school and sewer construction that comes from other funding sources).

Ensuring that the capital projects outlined in the East New York deal are carried out is “one of the most important parts of the plan,” Espinal told Gotham Gazette shortly after it was voted through by the Council land use committee. “We want to make sure that the commitments that are made by the administration are kept, that the community residents are able to track this easily online so that we won’t be kept guessing on when these projects will start and when they’ll be completed.”

Espinal is hoping, and trying to see, that the bill passes before the East New York commitments are set in stone -- which he said would be 30 days after the full Council vote of April 20.

“We’re currently working with the administration in creating the template of what that (database) will look like so the bill is actually being worked on and it’s something that we hope to pass very soon,” Espinal said. “It’s gonna happen within a month or so.”

In a letter that listed the various capital commitments in the East New York plan, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said her office was working with the Mayor’s Office of Operations and city agencies to “develop a tool that will track the progress made against each commitment and make this information available online for the public.” These commitments, the letter states, will be posted on the city’s website within 30 days of the council’s full vote. MOO will also post an annual progress report online.

“Our goal from the beginning of the process has been to ensure that we create a clear set of commitments, which can be tracked by the community and the Council Member to ensure that we are honoring our commitments made as a part of rezoning,” the letter reads.

These efforts would become mandatory if James and the Speaker’s bill passes. Currently, there is no hearing set for the bill, which would go before the land use committee, but a spokesperson for Speaker Mark-Viverito said they expect to find a date soon. The bill will require one committee hearing to garner feedback from the de Blasio administration and the public, followed by another committee meeting for a vote and then a vote through the full Council.

“Obviously my interest would be to put this in place as quickly as possible,” Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette after a recent news conference at City Hall. “We want to be able to track whatever commitments are made on any new development deals or land use deals.”

Both James and Mark-Viverito said that they were having conversations with the administration on the bill. An aide for the speaker said there was a “a normal back and forth that the administration’s generally supported.”

And it appears the de Blasio administration is onboard. "We look forward to working closely with the City Council and Public Advocate on this important transparency measure," said Austin Finan, spokesperson for the mayor, in an email.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Legislation Aimed at Holding City Accountable for Rezoning Commitments Thu, 05 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Flushing’s Affordable Housing at Risk Flushing town hall

Last week, the New York City Council approved the contested East New York rezoning - the first of 15 proposed neighborhood rezonings through which Mayor de Blasio intends to advance his goal of preserving 120,000 units of affordable housing and producing 80,000 new units at below-market rents. Described by some as a rezoning taking place “under the radar,” the Department of City Planning (DCP) has been conducting a planning study and holding numerous community town halls on a ten-block area of Queens dubbed “Flushing West.”

This proposed rezoning would have a transformative impact on Flushing, a densely populated, pan-Asian immigrant neighborhood with a sizable Latino population and a small but historic African-American community. Although DCP recently postponed the April certification of the Flushing West rezoning plan (which would have initiated the uniform land use review procedure (ULURP), the plan continues to move forward and remains a key piece of the mayor’s controversial housing program.

As the rezoning of Flushing West moves forward, the existing affordable housing stock there is at risk.

After much public debate and protest, Mayor de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) plan was approved by the New York City Council in March. MIH is a citywide policy that requires residential developers in newly upzoned areas to provide some below market-rate housing, either inside a new development or somewhere off site. As MIH (and the related Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) plan) moved through ULURP, communities contested the plan on numerous grounds: it would not build enough affordable housing; the affordable housing that would be built would be too expensive for those most in need; increased density would exacerbate transportation, education, and infrastructure problems; large new buildings would alter local streetscapes; and, most importantly, the plan would spur luxury development and hasten gentrification.

Relative to the vigorous and sustained public debate on these issues, there has been little public discussion on the ways that the city’s proposed rezonings are already impacting New York City’s largest form of affordable housing: rent regulation through rent control and rent stabilization.

Rent regulation accounts for nearly all of Flushing’s affordable housing. The neighborhood’s white-hot real estate market, however, increasingly threatens these rent-stabilized apartments.  DCP’s proposed rezoning - which links the production of affordable housing with the construction of thousands of luxury units - has only increased land speculation and, therefore, landlords’ imperative to deregulate their holdings. Though the rezoning has been paired with an increase in funding for anti-eviction legal services, it has already catalyzed a number of hyper-speculative real estate transactions in downtown Flushing, including within the rezoning area.

Based on the 2014 state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) list of rent-regulated buildings, there are 388 rent-stabilized buildings in Flushing. This list, however, includes buildings that have partially converted to co-ops, meaning some units are owned by residents. Conversion of rental buildings to cooperatives requires a minimum of 15 percent of tenants opting to purchase their apartments. DHCR lists properties as rent stabilized as long as there is at least one rent-stabilized unit in the building.

Based on a review of city Department of Finance sales data, 81 buildings, including five that converted to cooperative in the past year or so, recorded 1,198 apartment sales since 2010. In addition to the hundreds of co-op sales in rent-stabilized buildings, 42 buildings (with a combined total of 1,800 rent-stabilized apartments) were also sold during the study period of 2010 to January 2016. The sold buildings represent a sizable 11 percent of all of Flushing’s rent-stabilized buildings.

In December 2015, a massive sale of eight rent-stabilized buildings, all but one located a few blocks from Flushing’s waterfront, was covered by Crain’s New York Business. These rent-stabilized buildings, comprising 488 apartments, are clustered on Flushing’s Sanford Avenue and were sold to an investor group represented by New Jersey-based Treetop Development LLC. ACORE, a California-based investment fund established in May 2015 - only a few months before the Sanford Avenue purchases - financed the hefty $138.8 million purchase. ACORE is capitalized by a $1.6 billion commitment from Delphi Financial Group Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Tokio Marine Group, Japan’s largest publicly traded insurer.  The purchase of seven Sanford Avenue rent-stabilized buildings, financed by transnational private equity investors, illustrates how multi-family, rental properties in the outer boroughs are treated as global investment vehicles with tremendous potential profits.

In order for those profits to be realized, however, rents will have to increase substantially, and in all likelihood, the apartments will be deregulated. Although Treetop Development LLC principal Adam Mermelstein reassured, “We’re not running after tenants like some landlords do, trying to induce turnover on the apartments to get them to market rate,” their $10 million investment in “an intensive capital expenditures program” portends displacement. Treetop Development LLC plans to renovate apartments and landscape gardens in order to “remake the Flushing Portfolio into one of the premier residential addresses in Flushing, Queens.” This rebranding language underscores that so-called “major capital improvements” in rent-stabilized buildings are a primary landlord strategy to permanently raise rents and facilitate tenant turnover.

This speculative activity is not confined to privately-owned buildings. Queens College students learned from a local resident that tenants were recently evicted from 132-30 Sanford Avenue. This building is listed on two real estate websites as for sale, with one site noting that the building is currently under contract. Further research indicated the building is owned by one of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE)’s tax-exempt organizations - Community Homes Housing Development Fund Company Inc. According to the building’s deed, AAFE purchased the building in 2008 for $3.5 million. Online realtor descriptions highlight the gap in current and potential rent revenues as a key selling point: “The average monthly rent is $1,023 month, approx. 76% of the current market value, offering tremendous upside potential.” The building is now selling for $9.8 million - a 180 percent increase in just eight years.

In October 2015, DCP completed a Draft Scope of Work for an Environmental Impact Statement, which identified 13 projected development sites and included a breakdown of anticipated outcomes based on the proposed upzoning. On these 13 sites, DCP expects the production of 2,062 residential units (excluding 1,254 units of luxury housing currently under construction at Sky View Parc) of which 516 would be affordable to households earning 60 percent of AMI ($54,360 annual income for a family of four) or 619 units affordable to households earning 80 percent AMI ($69,040 annual income for a family of four).

DCP’s Draft Scope of Work was completed before the City Council added the option of 20 percent of units affordable at 40 percent AMI, which would mean the Flushing West rezoning may result in 412 units affordable to a family of four with an annual income of $36,240. The Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, unions, and churches, fought hard for this option because the median household income for downtown Flushing residents is just $34,428. The final Flushing plan may also include additional HPD subsidies toward deeper affordability, but the extent, quantity, and longevity of those subsidies is yet to be determined.

With Flushing’s remaining rent-regulated apartments at stake, it is important to look at the balance of what is being offered now: the proposed rezoning will produce thousands of market-rate, luxury housing units; a mere 412 apartments will be affordable to average Flushing residents (and then only if the local City Council member and developers choose the newly added option); and nothing at all will be built for families making below-median wages.

The neighborhood’s wholesale transformation, which has already begun in expectation of an upzoning, would sweep rent-regulated housing up in its wake and trigger even more harassment, rent hikes, and evictions than the neighborhood has already seen. This scenario demonstrates that Mayor de Blasio’s MIH program is less about preserving neighborhood affordability than turning working-class spaces into luxury enclaves, with small pockets for the middle class.

In Flushing’s overheated real estate market, where even nonprofits enrich themselves by selling rent-stabilized buildings for enormous profits, this planned rezoning is already adding fuel to fires of gentrification and displacement. The addition of a few hundred units of affordable housing could not possibly stem the transformative effects of global finance and commercial real estate speculation, and the preservation program the city is currently pursuing will do little to protect rent-regulated apartments.

City planners must stop acting as if the negative consequences of upzonings on rent-regulated housing will be mitigated by the paltry provision of new quasi-affordable units, or by increased investments in legal services (though the latter are, of course, important). Instead, we need to prioritize the preservation of rent-stabilized apartments and the production of truly affordable housing, decoupled from market-rate development and its attendant impacts on neighborhood land markets.

Tarry Hum is a Professor at the City University of New York and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

Samuel Stein is a PhD student in Geography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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Flushing’s Affordable Housing at Risk Sun, 01 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Homeowners Stand to Gain in Areas to be Rezoned, If They Can Keep Their Homes de blasio homeowners sign sandy

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)

As plans to spur new development in areas around New York City proceed, mostly silence surrounds the experience of homeowners who are being pressured by investors to sell. Prior to the City Council’s approval of rezoning East New York, Brooklyn last week, there had been little public discussion of how or whether to ameliorate real estate speculation on small homes. At least in East New York, some homeowner protections have been introduced to the plan, but investor-backed speculation, to some extent, still seems to be part of the city-wide housing agenda.

Facing a shortage of housing attainable for moderate- and low-income residents, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stressed the importance of creating a comprehensive affordable housing plan, part of his larger agenda to combat inequality. De Blasio is attempting to harness the sweep of gentrification that continues to displace residents – both renters and small home owners - who are being priced and bought out, especially in the “next” neighborhoods where prices are rising rapidly.

“We know right now that we can do a lot to stop evictions from rental apartments,” de Blasio said in a March interview with WNYC. “We don’t have as good a model to protect homeowners that might be the subject of speculation.”

The mayor is working with the City Council on much of his housing plan, including tenant protections, new affordable housing requirements, and the rezoning of as many as 15 neighborhoods across the city. East New York’s is the first such rezoning plan to be approved by a Council vote.

The Council itself has been especially focused on protecting tenants from eviction. When asked, though, about protections for financially-strapped homeowners who will have trouble resisting aggressive speculation, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also indicated, like the mayor, that the subject has not been thoroughly discussed. Acknowledging pressure on homeowners as a challenge in a “very hot” market, she said, “Those are things we can talk about as we think about initiatives and existing legal services and getting to more targeted populations.”

In the revised East New York rezoning plan, the city has committed to establishing a “Homeowner Helpdesk,” which will be a community-based support service with financial and legal counselors offering advice to homeowners facing overbearing speculators who are drawn in by low prices and the potential for high price growth that comes with the ability to build higher. The city will also provide low-income homeowners with loans and small grants for critical repairs through the Home Improvement Program and Senior Citizen Assistance Program, among others.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which subsidizes the construction of affordable housing, also says it will work with the Department of Environmental Protection to implement water rate relief programs, and is also looking into the possibility of establishing a “Cease and Desist Zone,” where homeowners would be protected from unwanted solicitation. Buying, however, is still a principal tenet of the agenda to have real estate developers build much of the city’s new affordable housing stock.

Part of Mark-Viverito’s East Harlem district is also on the list to be rezoned, as well as neighborhoods including Flushing West, Long Island City, a Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, and a Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island.

The rise in sales prices and the interest investors are showing in one-to-four unit houses in areas eyed for rezoning indicate that homeowners may increasingly become the targets of forceful, even predatory, buyers.

Mark-Viverito mentioned the calls she herself receives to sell her East Harlem home, while “keys for cash” flyers proliferate in the neighborhoods on the shifting lines of gentrification. Often, even more aggressive tactics are taken by those looking to invest early when a neighborhood appears to be considered for improvement.

Stakeholders and Stakes
All homeowners stand to gain from increasing property values in neighborhoods slated for rezoning. Those with moderate incomes and unburdened by mortgages are in particularly good position, whether they decide to take the money and run or stay vested. But many, often most, of the homeowners in areas pending rezoning have relatively low incomes and face significant pressures like mortgage obligations and the cost of maintaining old housing. As investors see greater opportunity in neighborhoods the city plans to upzone, this latter group of homeowners becomes more vulnerable to buyout offers that don’t reflect the value of their assets.

For small home owners, the ability of government intervention to prevent displacement and promote affordable housing options falls into a grey area. “Obviously, the first thing we would say to anybody is to encourage nobody to respond to anything unless they get some sort of guidance,” Mark-Viverito said in March of homeowners being approached to sell. “These are challenges that we face in a market that is very hot, you know, that is putting a lot of pressures.”

While Mark-Viverito may offer a tip to fellow homeowners - some of whom speak limited English and many of whom are seniors - and the city provides some advice and loan services, homeowners appear to be largely on their own as the city encourages investment in underdeveloped communities. As part of the plan to rezone East New York, the city aims to subsidize the construction of new deeply affordable housing on private land, but in many cases, developers must first buy land from existing homeowners.

“Gentrification, rezoning it all trickles and impacts,” said Darma Diaz, a homeowner in Cypress Hills, which is partially included in the East New York rezoning plan. “We definitely know that rents in New York City are high and apartments are hard to find, but it makes [living in the city] that much more challenging when you have the pressure of investors wanting and pursuing and making it really financially lucrative to sell your home.”

Diaz has been living in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn since the late 1970s and has owned a home there since 2007. She is worried that small home owners have not received enough attention throughout the city-wide discussion of rezoning as part of the mayor’s affordable housing agenda. “We knew that building more units was necessary for our community, but I think what [the mayor and City Council] did not take into account was the impact that the speculators were gonna have on small home owners.”

Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, in part using legislative tools passed through the City Council in March, includes leveraging property value growth that will come with changing land use regulations to allow greater housing density, encourage construction, and require developers to build tens of thousands of new units of affordable housing. De Blasio’s overall plan is to build and preserve a total of 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years with varying rent regulations affordable to low-, moderate-, and middle-income New Yorkers. Another 160,000 market-rate units are part of the plan.

Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), told Gotham Gazette that the areas pending rezoning are typically regions of the city with high concentrations of low-rise buildings. Now with low housing density, developers will soon be allowed to build higher in these neighborhoods, creating additional market-rate apartments along with mandated affordable units.

The buildings that would need to be torn down to make room for the higher, denser housing necessary to achieve the mayor’s goal of 80,000 newly built affordable units are also often the kinds of buildings - one-to-four family houses - that are occupied by the owner.

In East New York, a majority of all housing is in buildings with fewer than six units. According to the Coalition for Community Advancement, a group of neighborhood organizations independently monitoring the planning process and pushing for deeper affordability levels, roughly three-quarters of the buildings on sale in East New York are one-to-four family houses.

The Department of City Planning’s East New York Community Plan, the revised version of which was passed just by the City Council, proposed to change land use rules to allow six- to 14-story buildings to be constructed, which could more than double the area’s population density. In the next two years, HPD plans to build 1,200 new affordable housing units in East New York and, by 2024, seeks to make affordable half of all new units developed in that community.

Even before rezoning proposals are approved through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which is the public process involving many city actors that any major land use change must go through, the increase in property value that comes with rezoning has potential to make waves among buyers and investors - and thus, existing homeowners.

While the steady sales price growth of New York City real estate over the past five years (20 if you allow for some dips) is cooling, annual price growth in East Brooklyn, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, Crown Heights, and East New York, increased to a high 20.5 percent in February, exceeding the Brooklyn-wide growth rate by about 300 percent, according to a StreetEasy report.

Alan Lightfeldt, a data scientist at StreetEasy, said that it is impossible to tell what impact the new affordable housing legislation will have on home sales because of the complexity of factors that affect prices, such as the “endemic demand” for homes - the built-in demand that a large city with a population of aspiring homeowners, like New York, almost always has today.

That demand is part of the general trend of gentrification, radiating outward as the population continues to grow, business centers expand, and the city becomes safer. The latest hot neighborhoods are those where prices are still affordable to moderate- and middle-income residents, and that have public transportation infrastructure connecting them to the rest of the city.

Paula Crespo, a senior planner at the Pratt Center for Community Development, who works with the Coalition for Community Advancement, provided Gotham Gazette with data that the sales prices of one-to-four family homes has increased by 13 percent in East New York since the rezoning was announced in 2014. Yet, they are still relatively low compared to the city- and borough-wide median sales prices.

The combination of low prices and high price growth makes places like East New York incredibly appetizing to real estate speculators who seek to turn a profit. When speculation is rampant, homeowners - both current and prospective - feel the effects.

From a market perspective, other considerations aside, “when an area sees widespread value change, especially through external factors like rezoning,” Lightfeldt said, “homeowners usually benefit.” Being able to choose when to sell gives homeowners, like investors, the ability to capitalize on the increase in their property’s value.

Hardships of the Small Home Owner
For homeowners who are in debt and facing financial hardship, however, the agency to choose whether and when to sell is not always theirs. Up against wealthy buyers attracted by favorable prices and even more favorable price growth, homeowners in areas under rezoning consideration face the weighty task of holding out against offers to buy. Giving in may satisfy immediate financial needs, but, for the lowest-income earners, it almost certainly means displacement from the community as speculation ratchets-up prices.

“I think it’s dollars and cents,” said Diaz, who works with the Coalition for Community Advancement in Cypress Hills. “They’re capitalizing on people who may be financially strapped, and that’s a way to harass them, and makes them think…they can pay off their debt and go buy something else. OK, and where are they going to buy something else in Cypress Hills or New York City as a whole?”

According to the Coalition for Community Advancement, the median income of homeowners living in one-to-four family houses in East New York is nearly $19,000 below the city-wide median, making it difficult to meet housing and maintenance expenses, including mortgage and loan payments, property tax payments, utilities, and repairs. Because of their effect on taxes and everyday neighborhood expenses, rising property values can actually hurt a homeowner who wants to stay in their house and in their community.

In the zip codes that comprise East New York, census data from 2010 show that, of the 15,157 owner-occupied housing units, 12,286 were owned with a mortgage or loan. Less than one-fifth of homeowners were free and clear. For many of these homeowners, the risk of foreclosure is high and buy-out offers, even relatively low ones, may be hard to resist. (It should be noted that the East New York rezoning does not include the entirety of the neighborhood, but a significant portion of it.)

Some of the homes in East New York have already changed hands as a result of foreclosure. The 2008 housing collapse resulted in millions of foreclosures nationwide, and in New York City a second wave of foreclosures early this decade further destabilized homeowners. Census surveys in 2010 and 2014 show that the number of owner-occupied units in one East New York zip code fell by 217, or about three percent, in the intervening years.

Last year, East New York reported the fourth highest foreclosure rate in the city, according to data from the Coalition for Community Advancement.

The foreclosure crisis has not been lost on unscrupulous opportunists, who have inundated New York City homeowners with unlicensed and often illegal mortgage refinancing offers. According to a 2014 report by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods in conjunction with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, “New York homeowners report larger losses to scammers than in the rest of the country.”

Because such foreclosure rescue scams are so costly to their victims – they often involve the redirection of mortgage payments towards fraudulent restructuring services – and in many cases lead to more urgent mortgage trouble, they compound the risk of displacement of homeowners who are, by definition, already in distress, and incentivize buy-outs below the potential market prices of the near-future.

The areas hit hardest by these scams – Southeast Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, and the Northwest Bronx – are also places where rezoning is being discussed.

In addition to the financial stresses that accompany onerous mortgage obligations, the Coalition for Community Advancement reports that a majority of homes in East New York – 64 percent – have a water or sewer lien, demonstrating the level of economic distress faced by homeowners to pay for essentials. Adding to the cost of staying, most of the small housing stock there was built prior to 1950 and, according to several sources, many homes need serious repairs. Increasing property value also means that property taxes will rise, an additional burden to homeowners who do not wish to sell.

Diaz, who does not intend to sell her home despite regular solicitation from buyers, says its assessed value has gone up $8,000 in the past year, and that her property tax payments have increased by about $116 a month.

The homeowners in areas to be rezoned represent more vulnerable and historically disadvantaged groups that face greater barriers to keeping their homes and greater challenges if they lose them. According to Coalition data, nearly half of all small homeowners in East New York are senior citizens and 89 percent are either black or Hispanic.

Many senior citizens in East New York depend on retirement benefits, and some have experienced a significant reduction in income upon retiring. Discussing the challenges faced by seniors in her neighborhood, Diaz said, “I was speaking to a senior just on Sunday, and her income basically decreased by $32,000 when retiring. So that’s a big indicator.”

Ring of Investors
A mark of community fracture, homebuyers seeking to take advantage of favorable conditions in the market are less and less first-time buyers and end-users. Increasingly, they are investors and big firms using their buying power to flip real estate quickly. The Center for NYC Neighborhoods, which works with the city and state to facilitate home ownership and prevent foreclosure, recently reported that house flipping in New York City is at a five-year high, with more than 1,800 one-to-four unit homes flipped last year.

Speculators, often using public records to identify which doors to knock on, are seeing gross return 29 percent higher than the country-wide rate. It is a practice highlighted by the There Goes The Neighborhood podcast from WNYC radio and The Nation, which investigates themes of housing, race, and gentrification in New York City.

Cypress Hills had the highest median gross return on flipped one-to-four unit houses in the city in 2015, and East New York as a whole experienced the highest volume of flips. The house next to Diaz’s in Cypress Hills, she said, has been bought and resold three times since she bought her home in 2007.

Investor-backed buyers have the capital to buy houses that many first-time buyers do not. As a result, they can make cash purchases on houses in foreclosure directly from the bank, renovate them quickly, and sell them or rent out rooms in a significantly higher price tier than many of the current residents of East New York and other neighborhoods can afford. According to the Center’s data, most homes that were originally affordable to families making 95 percent of the area median income (AMI) last year - about $75,000 annually for a family of three - were resold at prices affordable to families making 163 percent of AMI, sometimes only months later.

At times, as in the case of Dixon Advisory, the Australian firm that has bought up large swaths in Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights, investors are buying houses with the intent of converting them into market-rate rental units, rather than making them affordable or building more units, a portion of which would have to be made affordable under MIH. Turning units in one-to-four family houses, currently among the more affordable rental options in the area according to Dulchin of ANHD, into market-rate housing would restrict the number of affordable housing units available for preservation in rezoned areas, as well as the potential number of new affordable units that could be built if the land were to be redeveloped.

The decrease in affordability of ownership means that many longtime renters will not be able to own property in their neighborhood following rezoning. “For me owning a home was one of life’s plans,” said Diaz. “I know what it is to have two-point-five jobs and say that’s what you are gonna do.” For families who have lived in Cypress Hills all their lives, she said, “it would take some sacrifices to be able to do that.”

HPD offers a down payment assistance program for low-income, first-time buyers who can receive up to $15,000 toward a down payment, as well as some low-interest loans for repairs and energy efficiency improvements. Even with assistance funding, though, most homes in East New York will not be affordable to residents there when they are being flipped.

A Challenge to Affordable Housing Options
Home speculation has the potential to impact Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing goals. In addition to feeling pressure from speculators in the areas targeted for rezoning, homeowners also house a significant portion of renters in these communities, people who risk displacement if market prices rise ahead of the development of new affordable housing.

According to Humberto Martinez, an urban planner at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, part of the Coalition for Community Advancement, over 34,000 people live in owner-occupied homes, roughly 40 percent of East New York residents.

If homeowners sell their homes en masse to speculators seeking to flip houses into higher price brackets or to create market-rate rental units, many of these renters will be displaced from their homes. According to the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, “The rents required to sustain the resale prices of flipped properties...far exceed the median rents in their boroughs.” Before the mayor’s affordable housing agenda even rolls out in East New York, both renters and former area homeowners may have to leave the community.

Unregulated one-to-four unit, owner-occupied buildings are a “hidden supply of affordable housing,” said Dulchin. Because landlords live next to their tenants and often have personal relationships with them, these rental units tend to lag behind the market, providing housing options for some of the lowest-income earners.

“One of my cohorts who is also a small home owner, he rents to working Section 8 families,” said Diaz. “With the increase of the taxes it’s made it difficult for the rents to be at the level that they are now. When the homeowner’s expenses exceed those subsidies that they’re getting, they’re gonna have to go outside the box and will no longer be able to rent to those that [depend on public assistance] programs.”

David Shichman, director of homelessness prevention at New Alternatives for Children Inc., says that if rents in unregulated buildings are too far below market rates it is a sign of inadequate housing. Often there is doubling- and tripling-up, which is considered a form of homelessness.

East New York, in addition to being an area with the potential to greatly increase housing density, was also put forward for rezoning, according to Shichman, because it is “a top catchment area” of eviction and homelessness. As rental prices rise, it is becoming increasingly common for single-resident occupancy units (SROs) to house more than one tenant, which increases burdensome water and sewer charges and compounds the need for repairs.

While there was some effort to incorporate homeowner protections into the East New York plan, it seems that the sale of one-to-four unit houses from homeowners to developers is key for enough land to be made available to construct new housing in these low-rise areas. Small homes - under six units - contain 60 percent of all current housing units in East New York. All the same, HPD plans to build three-quarters of the 1,200 new units of affordable housing on privately-owned land over the next two years. Without high-volume buying of small homes by developers, there might not be enough available land for HPD’s development plan to unfold.

A senior HPD official said that land speculation simply cannot be stopped, but it can be dampened by Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), which places affordability requirements on developers that could deter those seeking to exploit the market. In an interview last year with New York Magazine, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen said, “I’m not here to be punitive. We want these guys to build.”

Whether aggressive speculation at the level experienced by current East New York homeowners is inevitable is under dispute. Paula Crespo, in an email, stated, “The mere announcement [that] the plan [to rezone East New York] would happen has fueled speculation.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, Gotham Gazette

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Homeowners Stand to Gain in Areas to be Rezoned, If They Can Keep Their Homes Thu, 28 Apr 2016 04:00:00 +0000