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Looking for Government Help on Housing


The prospects for resolving New York City’s affordable housing crisis have suddenly brightened thanks to the recent election results. Housing advocates are excited that a Democratic Congress and Senate can address a long list of problems contributing to the crisis, a list that includes the loss of federally subsidized housing in Section 8 projects and the financial difficulties faced by the New York City Housing Authority.

“The election results are absolutely thrilling for those of us working on housing issues and the tenant movement,” said Patrick Coleman of Tenants and Neighbors, the statewide tenant lobby group.

Victor Bach, senior housing policy expert at Community Service Society, agreed.

“I think it’s a big opportunity,” Bach said. “It certainly changes what we expect in terms of housing initiatives coming from Washington.”

In Washington, the Democrats can now move forward with long-stalled plans for a national low-income housing trust fund and seek to repeal laws passed in 1998 that require some residents of public housing to do community service or face eviction, Bach said.

Democrats like Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who has long pushed for government intervention in housing, and New York Representative Charles Rangel will be able to use their new clout to address the financing of affordable housing and other federal housing policies. Frank is expected to become chair of the Financial Services Committee and Rangel chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Coleman of Tenants and Neighbors recalled attending rallies where Frank's commitment to affordable housing was clear. "He has the background as a community activist and he is very knowledgeable about Section 8" and other housing issues, Coleman said.

The federal government has done very little to preserve and create affordable housing for years, according to advocates. They now hope that will change with the Democratic gains.

“We need allies in Congress (to work on housing issues) and now we’ve got that,” Coleman said. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development, he said, “has only listened to the Republicans for the last six years. It’s been a nightmare. Now HUD is going to have to respond to Democrats who will be in positions to oversee HUD.”

On the state level, housing advocates hope to counter 12 years of inaction on housing by outgoing Governor George Pataki. (A report from the Pratt Institute for Community Development released in June described in detail how little Pataki has done to create and preserve affordable housing, especially compared to his predecessors.)

Advocates look to Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer to reinvigorate the state’s efforts, but many are unsure what to expect. Spitzer comes from a real estate family, they note, and the real estate lobby is always powerful. Nevertheless, advocates hope Spitzer strengthens rent regulation laws and overhauls the agency charged with enforcing those laws, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Spitzer has already indicated he supports the use of administrative tribunals to address repair issues, one item on advocates’ agenda, but does not support repeal of the Urstadt Law, which restricts City Council’s ability to write rent regulation laws that are stricter than state laws.

Again, advocates are looking to Spitzer to put more resources into preserving and creating affordable housing.

“Spitzer has said some good words about preservation of Mitchell-Lama and other subsidized housing,” Bach said. The governor could also “restore operating subsidies” to public housing that Pataki cut in 1998. The New York City Housing Authority has significant budget deficits and this summer announced plans to hike rents and fees for repairs to address that deficit.

Noting the new governor has also “said some good words about that,” Bach said, “We expect to hold him to his words.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

The Staten Island Ferry Crash Three Years Later


It is easy to miss the small plaque on the wall of the ferry honoring the people who died in a terrible accident on October 15, 2003. Repaired and back in service, the Andrew J. Barberi looks like the other eight Staten Island ferries, but it was the boat that failed to slide into its usual slip and instead crashed into a concrete pier. Eleven people died and 165 were injured. The captain on duty had been overmedicated and passed out as the boat charged full-speed into the pier.

Three years later, while the ferry trudges dutifully back and forth on its 25-minute journey from Lower Manhattan to Staten Island, it remains a continuing and costly drama for those involved – including City Hall.

Crime And Punishment

The criminal cases have been settled. Federal prosecutors used an obscure 1838 maritime law known as seaman's manslaughter to charge both the pilot and the director of ferry operations. It is the same law that was used to prosecute executives when an excursion boat in the East River sank, killing more than 1,000 people. That happened in 1904, which was the last time a vessel in New York waters killed or maimed a large group of people – until the Andrew J. Barberi.

Richard Smith, the pilot who passed out at the helm that day, is incarcerated. Right after the accident, he had attempted suicide twice but failed. He pleaded guilty to 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter and making false statements. He is serving an 18-month sentence.

The ferryboat captain, Michael Gansas, was in the outbound wheelhouse doing paperwork during the crash. Prosecutors said that since the two-pilot rule was not enforced at the time of the crash, Gansas would not be charged with a crime. Since Gansas ducked investigators right after the accident, the city fired him. He sued the city for reinstatement but lost.

The director of ferry operations at that time was Patrick Ryan. He is in prison for not enforcing the rule requiring that two qualified pilots be in the wheelhouse at all times. He pleaded guilty to seaman's manslaughter and making a false statement to investigators and is serving a sentence of a year and a day at Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex.

Smith's physician, Dr. William Tursi, had hidden evidence of the pilot's medical problems and use of medication. He received probation, six months of home confinement and 300 hours of community service. His license to practice medicine was suspended.

The port captain, John Mauldin, who is Ryan's brother-in-law, received two years' probation for making false statements to investigators.

A crewmember, mate Robert Rush, was in the wheelhouse with the pilot, but didn't see the blackout. Officials suspended him from his job after he failed to show up for a meeting with investigators.

City Liability

Rulings are still pending on some of the issues that will affect how outstanding victims' claims will be settled. City attorneys have tried some odd arguments in court to limit liability. The accident involved an act of God because of the captain's medical condition. That would absolve City Hall of responsibility for some damages. The city government’s court filings also present seemingly contradictory blame of "intentional misconduct of Captain Smith…and the negligence of Mate Rush." That would mean that the crew was responsible, not the city (in the form of supervisors).In addition, attorneys argued that maritime law limits the amount of compensation to the cost of the vessel. That would be $14 million (though settlements already made have exceeded that amount).

Victims argued that ferry rules mandate two licensed pilots in the wheelhouse during docking. Federal prosecutors found two printed rulebooks—from 1908 and 1958—that list the two-pilot rule. If the rule was clearly on the books, the city may have to pay out much more to victims.

The city even paid for the (unsuccessful) defense of Patrick Ryan, the director of ferry operations, saying he was unfairly prosecuted for seaman's manslaughter. Criminal conviction of the ferry official (not just the personnel on board) could mean the city will be held responsible in civil suits by victims.

The city also paid for lawyers for 52 other city employees.

The city has settled 110 claims with $16 million so far with widely varying amounts. The largest settlement so far, $8.9 million, has gone to Paul Esposito, a waiter who lost both legs in the accident. William Castro, whose 39-year-old wife Debra died of injuries two months after the accident, received $3 million. One injured passenger got more than $1 million, and another received $500.

Another 81 victims' claims are pending. All the claims together total $3.2 billion.

Another lawsuit demands $8 million from the city for a tugboat that assisted the ferry. Immediately after the crash, the Dorothy J chugged over to the ferry, helped get the boat into the slip and held her steady for 68 hours. Maritime law allows the operator of such a vessel to claim compensation.

Other expenses for the city include nearly $7 million to repair the ferry and $1.4 million to repair the damaged pier. The city has also paid almost $4 million to outside attorneys.

Rules and Crews

Some 30 accidents caused by carelessness or lapses in judgment have marred the generally reliable service in recent years, according to an examination of records by the New York Times.

The most damaging accident before the Barberi crash happened in 1978, when a ferry rammed a seawall, injuring 200 people. In 1963, a ferry sank. While those and other accidents were serious, none caused fatalities. Many incidents could have been prevented with more vigilance by the crew, investigators found. But few procedures changed over the years.

Now, because of the deaths in the Barberi accident, rules for running the ferries have been firmed up and are more likely to be taken more seriously. In 2004, new regulations mandated more staffing on the boats, background checks, a strict drug and alcohol policy, more stringent medical exams for employees, surveillance cameras on board, better signs, and communication with fellow crewmembers.

There were always supposed to be two people capable of driving the boat in the wheelhouse. In practice, few ferry operators had ever followed the rule. Now the rules are more explicit. Three people are required, two of them pilots.

The ferry operation had been criticized for cronyism and nepotism. A change in management is meant to change that culture. Less than a year after the crash, James DeSimone, a graduate of the State University of New York Maritime College and a former vice president of a tugboat company and of New York Water Taxi, became the new chief operating officer.

There are questions about why the ferries are run by the city Department of Transportation and not by the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority, as all the other city public transportation is. "We think it needs to be integrated into the public transportation system as a whole," Carter Craft of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance told the Daily News.

Anachronistic Transportation

The city took over ferry service in 1905. It was—and still is—the only direct way to get from Staten Island to Manhattan. It seems like an anachronism in such a big city, to rely on boats to carry vast numbers of commuters. But only the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge provides a faster direct method of getting from Staten Island to other boroughs (specifically to Brooklyn). Two bridges carry vehicles to New Jersey. After 9/11, motorized vehicles could no longer travel on the ferry. The ferries remain an essential service for commuters.

The service runs 110 times a day, transporting 65,000 people. That adds up to some 19 million people a year. That would be a massive public transportation system in most cities. In New York, where people take 7.1 million subway and bus rides in the city every day, the ferry represents a small program.

Since 1997, the service has been free. It was too complicated to integrate into the new Metro Card system, said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at the time.

Today, rebuilding and remodeling of the terminals at both ends have made the trip more pleasant. Renovations replaced the grubby terminals with shiny new structures more welcoming to commuters and tourists.

The Manhattan side features a glass-fronted building with a big blue neon Staten Island Ferry sign. Inside, but still visible from the street, the words from the familiar Edna St. Vincent Millay poem unfold across the room: "We were very tired/We were very merry/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry."

With the long open wooden benches inside, the $2 beers and the magnificent views of the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan and the boats in the harbor, the free ride is an appealing jaunt for tourists as well as an essential ride for commuters. Senator Charles Schumer found out just how appealing the ride is for visitors when he campaigned for reelection in 2004. He rode the ferry one day, shaking hands with everyone who was awake. "Hi, how are you? Where are you from?" he'd ask. England, France and Iowa were some of the answers that day. He chatted and quickly moved on, looking for constituents. After awhile, he turned to an aide, and sounding frustrated, said, "They're all tourists."

The tourists and the commuters (the commuters were probably the sleeping people that Schumer knew better than to wake up) know that despite the harrowing events just three years ago, and with more strict attention to safety, the Staten Island Ferry remains an integral part of the city's day.

Related Web Sites:

Staten Island Ferry, from the Department of Transportation Staten Island Ferry History, Facts
 

Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses And City Planning Today


The opposing visions of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses towards city building resonate with many New Yorkers today. It is certainly clear to me that Jane Jacobs is now the prevailing force. While no one person changed the physical landscape of New York as much as Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs’ legacy and her influence is much more deeply rooted and felt widely by urbanists, planners and elected officials.

That legacy embraces:

  • the importance of the relationship of people and the public realm
  • the appreciation of networks created by diverse uses
  • understanding that blocks are the basic unit of the city
  • the primacy of the street as the glue of neighborhood life

Moses may have gotten a lot done, built a great deal in the name of “the people”, but the truth is that he wanted little to do with the people who would live in the city he created. Their voices were dispensable, their homes were dispensable. And that is why he couldn’t conceive of the importance of neighborhoods.

Jacobs, on the other hand, knew that if you neglect neighborhoods, you do so at the city’s peril. People who no longer have faith in the future of the place in which they were brought up or where they are raising a family, will, if they can afford it, leave for a more predictable, safer place.

So understanding and appreciating the integral character of diverse neighborhoods has to be a primary requirement for any planning initiative. The goal of city planners, or how we are looking at the city’s challenges today, is no longer the broad brush, the bold strokes, the big plan.

Make no mistake about it, we have an enormous need to build thousands of units of affordable housing; we must create a broad spectrum of jobs for a rapidly expanding population; we need to reclaim and revitalize our waterfront; and we must lay the foundations to support the growth that is to come and that we welcome.

But it is just not acceptable, or wise, or even possible to undertake these challenges without espousing Jacobs principles of city diversity, of the rich detail of urban life, to build in a way that nourishes complexity.

That is not an easy goal with the limited and somewhat crude tools that planners have at hand. We are rapidly trying to diversify the contents of the tool box to respond to community needs and community concerns.

And that brings me to one legacy that Jacobs left which has a daily influence on city policy today. And that is her role as a fearless civic advocate. She gave community activists the confidence that they indeed can make a difference and prevail.

She inspired individuals – inspired them to join community boards and advocacy organizations, to speak out at public hearings, and to lobby their elected officials.

Planning has changed because of Jane Jacobs. Robert Moses’ centralized planning is a thing of the past.

Planning today is noisy, combative, iterative and reliant on community involvement. Any initiative that does not build consensus -- that is not shaped by the give-and-take of the public review process -- will be an inferior plan and, deservedly, will be voted down by the City Council, and die.

Where we do, or some of us might, have nostalgia for Moses is in the realization that it is very very difficult to get very complex and expensive projects built that are critical to our city’s future such as the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, a one seat ride to the airport from Lower Manhattan and the #7 line.

With the limitation of a two-term mayoralty, it is an enormous challenge to get great new open spaces such as Fresh Kills, the East River Waterfront in Lower Manhattan, the High Line and the Greenpoint Williamsburg waterfront approved, designed and built so that the initiative cannot be undone by subsequent administrations.

These are great projects that need the kind of sustained, focused leadership and a guaranteed funding stream that Robert Moses was so ingenious -- indeed diabolical -- in securing.

Big cities need big projects. Big projects are a necessary part of the diversity, competition and growth that both Jacobs and Moses fought for. But today’s big projects must have a human scale; must be designed, from idea to construction, to fit into the city. Projects may fail to live up to Jane Jacob’s standards, but they are still judged by her rules.

It is to the great credit of the mayor that we are building and rezoning today, once again, like Moses, on an unprecedented scale, but, with Jacobs firmly in mind, invigorated by the belief that the process matters and that great things can be built through a focus on the details, on the street, for the people who live in this great city.

Amanda Burden is the chair of the New York City Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning. This essay was adapted from remarks presented at a forum entitled "Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses: How Stands the Debate Today?", presented by the Gotham Center Of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

 

 

Stuyvesant Town, Queens West And The Debate Over Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses


However else New Yorkers reacted to the sale last month of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, and to the announcement the same week that the Bloomberg administration would develop a new community on the “Queens West” site, it was inevitable that in the ensuing discussion some people would invoke the spirits of two larger-than-life figures in the history of New York City’s built environment – author and urban planning pioneer Jane Jacobs (who died on April 25th) and the city’s “master builder” Robert Moses (who died 25 years ago, in 1981).

This was inevitable because these two names are invoked nearly every week in debates about the future of New York City. Just the week before, in fact, the Gotham Center for New York City History presented a well-attended forum entitled “Jane Jacobs Vs. Robert Moses: How Stands the Debate Today?” which featured speakers ranging from the head of the New York City Planning Commission to the architecture critic of the New York Times.

But the Moses/Jacobs debate seems especially well-suited to Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, since Moses actually played a substantial role in the building of these housing complexes, and Jacobs felt they were the antithesis of the “life on the street” that she adored in New York City. And across the East River in Long Island City, the 5,000 mixed-income housing units planned for the “Queens West” site would replace what would have been Olympic Village (had New York City been chosen to play host to the Olympics), reminiscent of Moses’ large-scale projects in Queens; his career was book-ended by the two World’s Fairs held in Flushing Meadows Park.

A closer look at both Stuyvesant Town and Queens West suggests the complications in using the usual arguments in the debate over Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.

Has Jane Jacobs Won?

At the Gotham forum at CUNY Graduate Center, as throughout the city, Jacobs is generally praised and Moses is scorned. Neighborhood residents look at such projects as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, and see the kind of imperial efforts used by Robert Moses to roll over communities (as detailed in the biography of him by Robert Caro, The Power Broker). They cite Jacobs for her love of the “ballet of neighborhood life” and her opposition to planning from the top down, memorialized in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“Jacobs has won the debate,” New York City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden declared at the forum, presenting the traditional view. (See her essay) The Department of City Planning, she said, now develops finely-grained, nuanced plans that seek to incorporate neighborhood feedback. Even when she plans for large-scale developments, she said, she imagines Jacobs looking over her shoulder.

But perhaps things are more complicated than they seem. Most of the presenters on the panel disputed the idea that “we are all Jacobs-ians now.” Richard Kahan (development czar under Mario Cuomo) agreed that "we are trying to have a diversity of uses where Moses was encouraging monolithic super blocks." But he argued that "we are still talking about mega projects, not bad, not good necessarily … but they are hardly paying much attention to neighborhood scale."

Other panelists presented revisionist views of the Jacobs vs. Moses debate. Columbia University professor Hilary Ballon argued that Moses got some important things right that Jacobs missed – especially a city’s need for large-scale infrastructure and large institutions such as universities. Ballon is curating a retrospective exhibition on Moses next year at the Queens Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and Columbia. And two panelists (Samuel Zipp, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, and I) cited a paper by Damon Rich arguing that the image of “big plans and little people,” in which government planning is always seen to roll over neighborhood residents, has in many cases been used to give cover to conservative arguments that we ought to accept for our cities whatever the “free market” gives us.

Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village

At first, Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village might seem to follow the usual argument. The 11,500-unit development was created through eminent domain – pushed through by Moses – that displaced several thousand residents in a low-rise, tenement style, mixed-use neighborhood. It was planned from the top-down, built in “towers on the park” super-blocks, and has no street life. At the beginning, it was a segregated community; African-Americans were not allowed to live there.

And yet five decades later it is seen by most residents and planning observers as a supremely successful place. Community life thrives within its interiorized open spaces. And while it has not become the city’s most diverse community, it has become an enclave for the middle-class within a sea of far more expensive and socially homogeneous luxury housing.

From one angle, the recently-announced purchase of the property by Tishman Speyer from MetLife shows just how successful the property has become. The issue now, of course, is not about whether Stuyvesant Town is a planning affront, but how to save it as a middle class community. The purchase price of $5.4 billion can only be supported by substantial increases in the rents, by taking units out of rent regulation over time. The offering circular for the sale suggested that the complex could be converted from 75 percent rent regulated units now to only 30 percent rent regulated by 2018.

The same offering circular also proposed several ideas that might be seen as “bringing Jacobs back in” -- improving the retail mix along the streets, and perhaps the creation of new buildings that might better integrate with the grid -- as ways that potential buyers could bring in higher-paying tenants and increase the value of the property.

The threat to diversity in this case, then, comes not from top-down planning but from the marketplace. In fact, the only thing that has preserved a more diverse, more middle-income community at Stuyvesant Town is government action and regulation. The affordability requirements that came with the tax breaks MetLife received to build the property expired decades ago. Since then, it is only rent regulations that have kept the units affordable. And it is the weakening of those laws that has made the sale possible. In 1994, the New York State legislature began to allow “vacancy deregulation,” by which units can be taken out of the rent regulation system upon vacancy once their rents exceed $2,000 – and increasingly, landlords can deregulate units that rent for several hundred dollars less than this through major capital improvements.

Queens West

The proposed development of Queens West is also more complicated than the traditional “Jacobs vs. Moses” debate frame would suggest. The development will likely be in high-rise towers with a master plan created by City Hall – the type that Jacobs would likely have scorned: In 2005, just a few months before her death, she wrote a scathing critique of the Bloomberg administration’s similar proposal for the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront just to the south. Yet local residents, community board leaders, and elected officials all praised the proposed development of the site. The most popular element of the plan is that it would provide housing for the “middle class,” for households earning from $60,000 to $145,000 each year.

It is important to note that the proposed development hardly serves the diversity of Queens. More than 60 percent of Queens residents earn less than $60,000 – so most of Queens two million people will not be able to afford even one of the proposed 5,000 “affordable” units. A diverse set of Queens community organizations, known as Queens for Affordable Housing, is calling for a far better mix, with half of the units affordable to families earning less than the Queens median income of $48,000.

Here, as in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, it appears that what communities fear is less mega-projects imposed by the government than market-led development that creates luxury housing that only the wealthiest New Yorkers can afford.

Neither Top-Down Nor Natural Evolution Of Markets

It is not simply income and racial diversity that is in question. New York City’s growth and consequent market-led real estate pressures are putting strains on the quality of life of neighborhoods in every corner or the city – more traffic, more people using scarce open space, overcrowded schools in many growing neighborhoods, tear-downs of historic structures.

The answers will not be found in Moses’ style top-down mega-projects, which led to massive increases in traffic and were in many instance contemptuous of the very poor families they were serving (although he did create more open space that anyone before or since).

But the answers also won’t be found – as some who invoke Jacobs’ name today try to do – in seeking to prevent development altogether, nor in diminishing the role of government in city-building. New York City is expected to grow by one million people (mostly as a result of immigration) in the coming decades. We need thoughtful city planning and smart, activist government to make that growth work for New York’s communities.

To keep the city diverse and affordable, we’ll need not only more investments in affordable housing, but also strengthened rent regulations to enable those who are here already to stay. To preserve mixed-use communities, we need stronger zoning provisions that allow manufacturers to survive in the city. To make the new jobs created by all this growth and development pay enough for a family to live in the city, we’ll need “living wage” regulations that make sure we aren’t using our tax dollars and public planning to subsidize poverty wages.

To address ever-increasing traffic – in a region that already has the longest commute times in the nation – we are going to need both “congestion pricing” (charging people something when they drive in Lower/Midtown Manhattan) and investments in more transit infrastructure. To truly improve quality of life and create more green space, we will need to de-map some of the area we now give to streets, to let pedestrians have more room in their neighborhoods.

Many of these issues will be at stake over the next few months as the Bloomberg administration begins to reveal more about the work of its newly created Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (profiled in Gotham Gazette’s land use column).

As the new office begins its work, it might take heart in looking neither to Jacobs nor to Moses – but instead to two efforts in the Bronx. At the Kingsbridge Armory – after many years of organizing by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition – the New York City Department of Economic Development recently sought proposals for a 575,000 square foot redevelopment to include a mix of retail, entertainment, recreational, and community uses. Several schools will be developed in an adjacent campus. For the first time, City Hall agreed to favor developers who commit to pay a living wage to workers. Unlike the displacement of the Bronx Terminal Market last year for a large-scale retail mall, when many community groups and small business advocates criticized the administration, in this case there was praise from all side.

Two miles to the southeast, residents of Soundview, Hunts Point, and West Farms are open to an even larger development. The Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance – a coalition of four community organizations and three citywide groups – have proposed the demolition of the Sheridan Expressway, an unnecessary blight on the neighborhood built, of course, by Robert Moses. This summer, through a series of community planning sessions, they developed a plan for something far grander in its place: a mixed-use, mixed-income development that would include thousands of units of housing; new commercial, retail, and community facilities; and new open spaces.

The (hopeful) lesson: we don’t have to choose between top-down Moses mega-projects (that accommodate growth but undermine communities) and the natural evolution of markets in places like Jacobs’ West Village that may preserve neighborhood character but results in a neighborhood that very few can afford. When people are truly included in the planning, when development comes with real and more fairly-shared benefits, and when smart public policy helps shape growth to make it work for neighborhoods, communities can be willing to accept large-scale development and shoulder their share of the city’s growth.

Brad Lander is the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

 

Tenant Organizing For 36 Years


If sheer animosity from one’s opponents is any gauge of one’s effectiveness, then Michael McKee may be the most effective tenant organizer in New York City: The landlords I talked to flat out refused to comment about him, not even anonymously.

Whether or not he is the most effective, McKee is certainly the longest-serving. It has been 36 years since he first became an advocate for rent regulation.

“If you go through the list of tenant victories, there isn’t one that doesn’t have Michael as its leader,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told about 150 people who gathered recently to honor him. “Whether faced with bad speakers, bad governors, bad Rent Guidelines Boards, I’ve never seen Michael give up faith in the tenants movement.”

The tenant movement has faced rough times over the last few years. I thought it a good time to ask one opinionated man his opinion of tenant organizing, and the housing picture in the city:

How did you get involved in housing?

I stumbled into community organizing by organizing a rent strike in the building I was living in at the time.

What would you list as some achievements?

1. The warranty of habitability, which was a bill we drafted. We put a remarkable coalition together that supported that bill and it was one of the few times we got a bill through without having to water it down. And the landlords lobby at the time predicted that if it became law it would lead to another wave of abandonment, which of course did not happen.

2. The 1977 fight to renew the Emergency Tenant Protection Act when there was a danger it was going to be gutted.

3. The 1997 rent law fight, where Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno basically said he would not renew the rent laws and meant it, which I don’t think a lot of people understood. If only Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver hadn’t gone in the last weekend and given everything away, it would have been a great victory.

Why do elected representatives seem to discount housing as an issue?

I think the reason elected officials don’t take tenants seriously is because tenants don’t vote as tenants when they go into the voting booth. They vote pro-choice or anti-war or whatever. It’s much more difficult to organize tenants than it is to organize workers.

How do you explain your staying power?

Organizing is very difficult work, there are more defeats than victories. You have to be prepared to deal with that and roll with the punches.

In your opinion, what is the housing situation like today?

While we’ve always had too many people chasing too few housing units, it’s getting worse all the time. The rent laws were weakened at exactly the wrong moment, allowing landlords to take apartments out from under rent regulation. We don’t have an emergency anymore, we have a crisis, objectively speaking, and I think it’s going to get worse.

What do you mean objectively?

The number of people spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent has gone up dramatically. Overcrowding has gone up: Twenty years ago, overcrowding was six or seven percent of households; in 2002 it was 11 percent of households. I mean any objective measure you want to use, including the fact that homelessness is at an all-time high. If you look at the overall picture – rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments – we lost probably 57,000 units between 2002 and 2005. There’s virtually no measure that would show you that the housing situation is better.

And how would you say politicians are dealing with it?

I think it’s deplorable. The smart thing the real estate lobby did this time, unlike 1971, is they figured out that a gradual decontrol mechanism would not stir things up. People got totally up in arms between 1971 and 1974, resulting in the repeal of vacancy decontrol.

Do you think some form of rent regulation in New York City will always be necessary?

Absolutely. I think rent regulation should be universal…covering all buildings of, say, four units or more, regardless of when they were constructed or regardless of when people moved in or moved out.

We can’t sit around and wait for 2011 [when the legislature will decide whether to renew the rent laws]. It’ll be too late by then. There won’t be anything left. I think in two or three years it’ll be too late to turn it around. The real estate strategy is to have the laws come up in five more years and have many, many fewer rent regulated apartments so that we will be politically weaker.

What are the major areas you’ll spend your energy on over the next few years?

I don’t think anything is going to change until the Democrats take control of the State Senate. Not that the Democrats are so wonderful, but they are certainly better than the Republicans. And certainly there are more Democrats that will fight for us than there are Republicans who will fight for us. There are no Republicans who will fight for us. So even though some Democrats are not so pro-tenant or pro-rent regulation they are offset by people who are.

In NYC, does it all come down to money? Is that the root of the problem?

No question. The NYC real estate industry funnels money to state elected officials and state parties – they basically buy what they want in Albany. In my view it’s a form of corruption. They basically are buying deregulation by paying off legislators from upstate New York who do not have a single rent regulated unit in their districts. And yet who are the ones who make the decisions?

Knowing what you do about incremental changes, what can be achieved for tenants over the next few years?

I don’t think anything can be achieved legislatively until the Democrats take control of the senate. And that’s why I have not gone to Albany since June of 2003. There’s no point in doing any lobbying right now. Next year there will be a point in that there is a new governor.

Is there any hope that Spitzer will be more progressive with housing?

I think he’s going to be better than Pataki, but that’s not saying much. And who knows – we don’t know what Eliott Spitzer really thinks of rent regulation. He hasn’t said. I think he would not veto a bill passed by both houses, for example. The question is will he fight for anything? We know he’s opposed to home rule, although they’ve never told us that. Every meeting we had with him, they never would say what his position was. But now it’s official” He told the Times he opposed the repeal of the Urstadt Law.

Once there is a change in Albany, what can be done?

We can get a lot. We can get vacancy decontrol repealed, and I think we can get the Urstadt Law repealed. I think it would be very hard for the Senate Democrats not to do that when they’re the majority.

Housing advocates in Los Angeles told me once that that city got cyclical inspections of buildings to make sure they are up to code and that landlords love that system, that they say it helps them maintain their buildings. But the idea of housing advocates and landlords working together in New York City seems laughable. What do you think explains the housing climate in this city?

You have some of the richest people on the planet owning real property here. Literally, some of the richest people in the world own residential real estate in New York City. One difference between us and Los Angeles is we can’t spread out horizontally. Or the way Dallas can. We don’t have a sixth borough lying fallow waiting to be developed the way the Bronx was 100 years ago.

The real estate lobby has a ton of money and they use it.

What would you give as your strongest arguments for people to care about housing and get involved?

Well, you can’t do anything really without a roof over your head. There are people living in shelters who go to work every day, there are kids living in shelters who go to school every day. But it’s very difficult.

Housing is not, in my view, a luxury item. People need a place to live. Some people think the market should take care of it. There will never be a perfect tango between supply and demand the way the marketers think there will be. You will never have enough housing in a place like New York City to go around for everyone who needs it. You will always have an imbalance. The only way you would have that is if there were a national depression and people started moving out of the city. God forbid.

People want to live here. They come here and they want to live here. They come here from all over the country, they come here from all over the world. And in some cases they come here with a lot of money and in other cases they come here with no money and they end up eight to a room in a basement in Queens. So, you know, that’s not going to change. We’re going to be a magnet.

And as good as it is that the Bloomberg administration is embarking on a plan to build new housing, they’re being very shortsighted in the need to preserve the affordable housing that we have. The mayor is never going to build as much as we are losing. It’s not that the housing disappears, it just becomes unaffordable.

Is it just politics to them?

I think the mayor fundamentally believes that the city would be better off without rent regulation. I think he really thinks that the market would do a better job. I think he’s fooling himself but I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what the man believes.

How would you rate the tenant movement today?

I think the tenant movement is amazing for hanging on in extraordinarily difficult circumstances….

This last year for the first time we succeeded in making a lot of new groups, that had never ever dealt with the Rent Guidelines Board before, ever, understand why they should pay attention to this board [which determines how much rents will go up in rent regulated apartments]. And they did.

The board had a historical practice of having daytime hearings in Manhattan. Who goes to daytime hearings? Elderly people. Younger people can’t go as a rule because they’re working somewhere. So consequently you’d have reporters writing, “A crowd of mostly elderly tenants blah blah blah.” We succeeded in bludgeoning the RGB into having nighttime meetings somewhere outside of Manhattan in a neighborhood like Harlem.

It’s a very different crowd and it’s a very different dynamic. I think some of the members of the RGB actually appreciated that and they were able to see a bigger picture by going to the Brooklyn hearing, the Bronx hearing.

You’re working on new things and still thinking about the fights. You’ve got a new group – Tenants PAC. You’re going to continue working on this stuff?

I haven’t really retired. It’s not a new group – we started Tenants PAC in 1997. But it was clear to me that if we were going to have a chance of having an impact on elections I had to free myself up to devote more time to Tenants PAC because I was essentially doing Tenants PAC in my spare time, of which I had none because my job at Tenants & Neighbors was like having two-and-a-half full time jobs. And I’m still doing things for Tenants & Neighbors as a volunteer, but I can pick and choose what I do. It has freed me up to concentrate more time on Tenants PAC to raise more money, to open an office and to really concentrate on a campaign in a way that we haven’t been able to do in the past because we didn’t have any staff. And I believe, and I’ve convinced a number of people in the tenant movement, that until such time that there is a change in Albany in terms of the political line-up there’s not going to be any chance of getting legislation.

The housing movement doesn’t seem to have high energy.

It’s a lot better than it was a couple years ago. People are much more motivated, I think. And there’s new people coming into the movement all the time.

Would you say you’re optimistic?

If I weren’t an optimist, I couldn’t do this work.

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

Long-Term Planning At City Hall


City Hall recently unveiled two new efforts to look at the long-term future of the city. On September 21, the Mayor’s Office announced the creation of a new Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, with a 16-person Advisory Board. Rolled out during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s visit with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the initiative is billed as part of “an ambitious environmental agenda for New York City.”

The other effort, unceremoniously leaked to the press in recent weeks, proves to be no less ambitious. “Visions for New York City: Housing and the Public Realm” is a report to New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, dated May 2006, by former City Planning Commissioner Alex Garvin (best known for his role in the beginning of the effort to rebuild Lower Manhattan.) The report proposes 400,000 new units of private housing by 2030 by building platforms over rail yards and highway cuts, converting industrial waterfront property, and building new surface mass transit lines to spur private housing development. The report also calls for green boulevards, protected bicycle lanes, Sunday street closings, and new pedestrian streets to “improve the quality of life” and support higher density development.

The new office and the Garvin report are about one and the same objective: opening up opportunities for future growth. The city’s growth advocates and powerful real estate industry seem to be coming around to the view that ambitious development goals like those set out in the Garvin report will never be achieved unless they’re part of a bigger, long-term planning strategy that pays attention to the environment.

The Garvin Report: Envisioning A Growth Agenda

For years now community leaders have been after city officials to plan for the long-term future and not just rezone their neighborhoods for new development. The Task Force on Community-based Planning, a coalition of some 40 community organizations, community boards and professionals created five years ago, has stood behind the scores of neighborhood-based planning efforts. It asked city officials to support them, prompting the city government to do both city-wide and neighborhood-level planning.

But the main impetus for Alex Garvin’s visions report, and City Hall’s newfound interest in long-range planning, seems to be a realization among real estate developers that the city’s infrastructure, especially mass transit, can’t support a lot more growth in Manhattan and at existing transit hubs. While the number of riders of mass transit continues to grow, the system hasn’t added any major new lines since the 1930s; New Yorkers have among the longest average commute times in the nation. As a result, Garvin proposes new “transit-oriented development.” This would entail building new light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit lines in areas that would be rezoned to spur private housing development. Two priority areas are identified: 3rd Avenue and 161st St. in the Bronx and 21st Street in Queens (with the possibility of continuing the line south to Red Hook in Brooklyn). The report gives no indication that existing community-based plans were consulted in the search for future development sites.

Garvin found that many of the lower-density areas of the city with available land for development lack mass transit and are not likely to attract investment in new housing. Instead, he believes investors will go to more centrally-located areas where developable parcels can be created by incentives and changes in land use policy. This would include, for example, building on platforms over the Sunnyside Rail Yards in Queens and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Waterfronts targeted for redevelopment are the Bronx River, Harlem River, and the North Shore of Staten Island. These are the strategic areas that would absorb most of future development, according to Garvin’s study.

But this top-down approach to planning is bound to raise questions in the neighborhoods. Garvin rejects starting from an analysis of “needs,” as most community-based plans do, and instead talks about “opportunities,” basically investment opportunities. He ignores the environmental consequences of building over highways. He claims there will be no displacement, but ignores the effects that increasing property values and rents will have on surrounding areas – that is, secondary or indirect displacement. And he neglects the issue of housing affordability. It is the kind of planning that is likely to produce instant resistance at the grass roots level. Neighborhood planning involving local residents and businesses (who also tend to be pro-development, as any survey of neighborhood plans will show) is more likely to find development opportunities that fit better with the existing urban context and also help to address needs.

To its credit, the Garvin report puts forth a bold set of recommendations about public space and transportation that will resonate with many community planning advocates. The section on “the public realm” says that “a fundamental shift needs to occur in planning and capital investment for streets.” The city should rely less on cars and develop “a more balanced public realm.” This includes greening boulevards so they are friendlier to pedestrians. Bicycle lanes would be upgraded from stripes painted on the pavement to safer, physically separated rights-of-way. Following the example of cities in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, selected avenues would be closed to traffic on Sundays, creating giant public spaces. Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, Broadway in Manhattan, Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and Kent Avenue/Vernon Boulevard in Brooklyn and Queens are some examples given. Finally, active neighborhood retail streets like Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, would be reclaimed as pedestrian streets.

Will The New Office Of Long-Term Planning And Sustainability Be Sustainable?

While the Garvin report only sketches out broad proposals and it is not clear what the current administration will embrace or reject, the huge leap in housing growth that it foresees inevitably leads to many bigger questions. How will the city’s already-strained transit, water, sewer and utility infrastructure handle all the new growth? What about the schools, libraries, and health facilities? While part of the transportation problem would be solved by improving the public realm and reducing traffic, it is bound to take a great deal of public investment and many more strategies to improve energy efficiency and environmental quality. And is anyone trying to insure that the costs and benefits of development are equitably distributed?

The new Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability promises to grapple with some of these hard questions. Paraphrasing the classical United Nations definition, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated: “Sustainability is all about ensuring that economic growth and development today is compatible with the ability of our children and grandchildren to meet their needs in the future.”

If the new office is true to the sustainability mandate, they must take the “needs-based” approach that the Garvin report rejected. The ambitious agenda of the new office includes reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and exploring new strategies for energy efficiency in government and the private sector. Moving beyond City Hall’s successful High Performance Housing Initiative, the office proposes to make “green building” more widespread.

But while conserving energy and cleaning up the environment will create more opportunities for housing development, it remains to be seen how much the long-range planners will be looking at existing neighborhoods and the enormous environmental and public health crises they face, including asthma, lead poisoning, obesity and diabetes. To what extent will they be clearing the way for the pristine new housing enclaves foreseen in the Garvin report without addressing the profound deficiencies and inequalities in the quality of life that already divide the city? And with only a few years left in this administration’s mandate, to what extent can the long-range planners engage the city’s hundreds of diverse neighborhoods in the planning process so that whatever gets decided actually has a chance to be implemented in the decades to come? Will the new office have the time to change the deeply imbedded agency cultures that resist sustainable development strategies – for example, a Department of Transportation that resists traffic reduction and a Department of Sanitation that opposes waste reduction? While doing its share in the war against global warming, City Hall could also make peace with its own neighborhood planners.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Can Small Stores Survive in New York?


With large national chain stores having solidly established themselves in much of the city, Duane Reades and other discount drug stores occupying spaces once used by mom and pop businesses, and banks appearing on every street corner, many locally owned shops have shut their doors. Recently, the Municipal Art Society sponsored a panel discussion on locally owned retail in New York City: Can it survive and what can, or should, be done to save it.

The following comments are excerpted from the discussion.

Creating a Market

By Irwin Cohen

The 8 million people in New York City are being jumped on by the 292 million people who live on the mainland of the United States. They are trying to push their retail ideas on us, and it’s not good. We have to stand up to this, keep our neighborhoods strong and keep merchants in business. But we can do it. The opportunities are unlimited.

Even with the chain stores, you can still go into the retail business and be successful in New York. Maybe we have to cede the rights to have these mall-type stores in Manhattan because, if I’m a landlord and I can get a chain or a bank or a pharmacy to pay a high rent, I would probably think about it. But there are great facilities available in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. There is always something in each neighborhood that is available and can be developed.

You should take some of the parking garages around the city, get rid of them and let the city make that into space exclusively for small businesses. We don’t need cars. We don’t need parking. We have fantastic public transportation. If we got rid of cars and took all the lots and made those into locally owned retail we could go some place. We could set up pushcarts again. We would be healthier, and we would be able to have great shopping.

Chelsea Market

 

Chelsea Market provides an example of how this can work.

In the middle of the 1990s I was fortunate enough to find the old Nabisco buildings on the West Side. And I was even luckier to have investors in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and in Siberia. When I told them what we had purchased for them in Manhattan, the Russian said, “Aha, the capital of the United States.”

They allowed me to do what I wanted to do with respect to the ground floor of the building. At that time, we would hold meetings, with engineers, architects and construction people. My architect was from Holland. He lived in New York. My structural engineer was from Ireland. He lived in New York. My electrical engineer was form Russia. He lived in New York.

At these meetings, I was the only one who was born in New York City. And I realized one of the great strengths of our five little boroughs is their ethnic diversity. And I said we have to take advantage of that.

And we have to run counter to what everyone else is doing. I was able to convince my investors that just making a lot of money from retailing was not the function of a great, old building of historic significance in New York City. There was something more that the people had to have. So my daughter and I, working together, set some standards.

We said first, every one of our tenants has to be a family owned business, at least half of the businesses have to be female owned, the owner of each business and its executive offices have to be located in Chelsea Market, and the tenants have to be both wholesalers and retailers. That is because when the economy in the city was good, their wholesale business selling to restaurants would be good. But when business slowed down, as it did after 9/11, the tenant could stay in business because their retail operation would cater to the people who were not going out to restaurants.

It was a bit crazy, but it was a social experiment. You have to have a social conscience. But it worked out very, very well.

We have Manhattan Fruit, which did business out of a truck and a very small freezer on 15th Street before it came with us. The Fat Witch Brownies operated from her kitchen. And the man who makes the gift baskets ran his business from his living room.

If you create a market – a concentration of people in similar businesses – you can create stability and establish a location where people will feel comfortable shopping without name stores. Every single tenant in that building that started nine or ten years ago is still there. Our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough room.

The market has to be an experience. At Chelsea Market, you are walking through a street that happens to have a roof on top. I kept it very cool in the winter and warm in the summer because you have to feel as if you’re outside.

We located the tenants haphazardly. Each was chosen for a very, very strong reason. “Can you get what this tenant makes any place else?” And if the answer was no, that was the tenant that we wanted. And that’s why people come back.

We created a neighborhood by having the owners on premises. If you had a little complaint about any of our tenants, they would be in your face in 30 seconds. “You don’t like the recipe? My grandmother used this recipe. She used it in Russia. How can you say it’s no good?” And the owner would take you into her kitchen and show you the ingredients and how she prepares them.

We brought all of the production to the front where people could see it. When we first opened, I could gauge the amount of customer activity and acceptance by the number of nose prints on the glass in front. People would come in with notepads and become specialists in cooking. People come in and watch today the way Amy puts her bread together. And it works.

There was no standard for entrances. I said just keep it clean and decide how you want to run your businesses. The last thing that can fail is where you run your business. You’ll give up your home before you give up your business because you have to eat.

La Marqueta

And there are other opportunities, An example: La Marqueta under the elevated Metro North tracks going up from 111th Street. The state Economic Development Agency said, “Give us some ideas about what we can do to bring La Marqueta back.”

I said, “It’s a good idea, but two blocks of La Marqueta is not the answer. You need a mile of La Marqueta.” And they said, “How are we going to fill it up?”

So, we went into a store on 116th Street where the people were from Senegal. The owner sold leaves that people press at home and use to make tea. And I said, “I have a new business for you. You’ll set up a tea shop and you and all the people that we get into La Marqueta will develop a market – a concentration of wholesalers and retailers.” With that, the owner said something in his language and his entire family came out from behind a curtain – they were living in the store – and one of them said, “I will translate. My father will go to work in La Marqueta and my mother and I will stay here, ”

That’s New York. We can do it.

Hunts Point

I am now working in the South Bronx, in Hunts Point, trying to change the way Hunts Point conduct its retail business. In the next six to a year, you will see what I’m planning to do. We are going to have hundreds of family-owned businesses operating. I’m trying to use that as a model for the rest of the city.

There is plenty of business for everybody. We have many great people in this city who know how to cook and how to sew and how to weave but they don’t have the opportunity to show their wares so they work as bricklayers and they have to work in factories. They could run their own businesses and train their families.

But for it to happen, there have to be people who are willing to take the risks and go against the 292 million people who are generating these malls. It can be done.

--Irwin Cohen is the chief of ATC Management and developed Manhattan’s Chelsea Market.

A Will To Preserve Character

by Victor Dadras

New York City is a city of neighborhoods. We have recognized there is an issue, if not a problem, and that is the loss of the character of those neighborhoods.

Once every neighborhood has the same stores -- Starbucks, Rite Aid, Papa John’s Pizza, and all the others – there is no reason to go from neighborhood to neighborhood. It happens now when you travel. Eat at a TGI Fridays in Salt Lake City, it is like eating at the ones on Long Island. New York City is, along with Boston and Philadelphia, one of the older cities in North America, and we need to be at the forefront of preserving character, which is ultimately what makes people who visit New York come back to shop.

The problem is once you put the independent druggist out of business, where is he coming back from? Once Home Depot and Lowe’s put out the local lumberyard, they’re gone.

We do not have a plan or a vision to address this. The city operates on a reactive basis. Everything we are talking about is a reaction to something that we don’t like, something that is happening to us, to our neighborhood, to the local stores, the corner drugstore, etc.

City property is a perfect example of this lack of vision. City property is always used in my recollection to maximize profit, not to preserve character.

There are many things that can be done. First there must be a will to preserve character. My firm has worked with some communities where people didn’t even think they had a “character.” It was being lost due to ignorance and neglect. So the first thing we need to do is educate communities as to what they actually have. We meet the community and work with them on what they see their neighborhood’s character as being: What do you have? What do you see as the positives, what would you like to improve, how can we best preserve what you have?

But once you have a vision, you develop guidelines. There are certain zoning regulations –- not in New York City -- that prohibit banks on corners. You can have incentive zoning where you try to encourage things or zoning regulations where you discourage things. You cannot tell someone what they can’t do with their property, but you can guide development.

The same criteria Irwin Cohen used for tenants in Chelsea Market can be used by communities, if they are organized, working with the city and the state to help with funding and with regulations and guidelines to help preserve the neighborhood character that makes a place special.

I like the fact that these are independent, hard-working, mom and pop stores and retail that I want to support. That’s why I live in New York.

--Victor Dadras's architecture firm works with neighborhoods to preserve the character of their downtowns and their main streets.

 

Waterfront In Fits And Starts (And Stops)


If a revitalized waterfront is part of the vision of the current mayoral administration, with projects planned throughout the city, progress has been spotty, beset by squabbles, cost over-runs, reversals or simply inaction. .

Minerva's View

The tale is that the statue of Minerva in Green-Wood Cemetery waves at the State of Liberty in New York Harbor. The nine-foot goddess of wisdom has been sending that greeting since 1920. That's when her bronze form was put up at this highest point in Brooklyn to commemorate a Revolutionary War battle.

When a developer tried to put up a condominium tower at 614 7th Avenue at 23rd Street in Brooklyn that would block the view between the two statues, people in the South Slope neighborhood protested.

At 70 feet, the tower would be taller than the 40 feet the new zoning allowed. But the developer Chaim Mussencweig argued that he had laid the foundation for the building before new zoning went into effect. The tower should be grandfathered in on the old zoning rules.

On September 12, the city Department of Buildings denied his appeal. The building will have to abide by the new zoning rules, and Minerva can keep waving at her big green buddy in the harbor.

It wasn't just for sentiment's sake that neighbors argued to limit the tower. They wanted to maintain a neighborhood of modest-sized residences. Minerva's shield helped win that battle, and now residents have new zoning laws that will keep them safe from marauding high rises.

Belt Parkway Path

After bumping through Brooklyn streets past the hurly burly of apartments and businesses, the Belt Parkway always provides a welcome view of open water and the lofty Verrazano Bridge in the distance. A 13-mile path along the shore to the bridge gives residents of Bay Ridge a place to walk and bike. It was the location for a love scene in an iconic Brooklyn movie, Saturday Night Fever. But like the film, the path shows its age.

The seawall deteriorated badly over the six decades since it was built on landfill, and last summer, the Parks Department closed a two mile stretch of the walkway in order to rebuild it. Cost was estimated at up to $14 million, to be completed by this summer. Complications of backed-up sewers that caused soil erosion delayed the project, now costing more than $20 million and scheduled to be done this month..

Political complications also ensued. Republican Congressman Vito Fossella took credit for getting the project going and for getting $5 million in federal funds.

In a speech in August, his Democratic opponent Steve Harrison said that Fossella waited years too long to spur the repairs, and that he never actually received the federal money. All of the funding came from the parks department.

The issue is likely to remain a factor in the campaign. It'll be worth watching to see each of these candidates for Congress try to prove how much more he cares about a waterfront park than his opponent. Since the city parks department is in charge of the Belt Parkway paths, a Congressional representative won't have much control over the project. But if park advocacy becomes a viable campaign issue, it might be a charming election season in Bay Ridge.

Ikea and the Graving Dock

This isn't a case of paving over paradise and putting in a parking lot, as the lyrics go. It's the case of paving over a gritty piece of Brooklyn's waterfront industry to put up a parking lot.

To some, that might not sound like a bad thing, replacing a noisy, dirty industrial site in Red Hook with a big store that sells good-looking furniture at good prices.

But to some people who work in the waterfront's oldest profession – shipping -- the loss of a graving dock to repair ships is a truly bad idea.

Built in 1867, the dock is a clever structure. A ship floats into the watery parking spot, a door slides shut behind it, and pumps drain the water so that the ship can be repaired. At more than 700 feet, the dry dock can accommodate large ships. Replacing it would cost a fortune.

There's only one other graving dock in the harbor, and it's in New Jersey. Ships go to other ports for maintenance and only use one here for emergency repairs. As more and more ships come into New York Harbor every year, it's shortsighted to fill in a usable graving dock, argues Captain Andy McGovern of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association.

At this point, good arguments for the graving dock's preservation aren't likely to make a difference. The city changed the zoning from manufacturing, and the operator sold the property in early 2005.

Though Ikea is unlikely to take them up on their ideas, the Municipal Art Society offers a plan for accommodating Ikea and their parking needs and preserving the dry dock.

At present, Ikea may leave the outline of the graving dock as a historical relic. Industrial archaeologist Mary Habstritt says that would be like "the outline of a body after a homicide."

Hudson River Park

Hudson River Park from the Battery to 59th Street features smooth, well-marked walking and bike paths. It's a spine that is being filled out and dressed up with grass, trees, playgrounds, piers with vistas, boathouses, and sports venues. But the park is a work in progress, and the path to completion is not perfectly smooth.

The Hudson River Park Act of 1998 allocated state and city funding ($360 million so far) to remake the five-mile-long park from a stretch of derelict piers into a waterfront showplace. By rebuilding 13 piers, the plan respects the historic importance of the working waterfront.

Today, the completed sections show off lush lawns, pleasant playgrounds, and spacious piers.

The section adjacent to Greenwich Village opened in 2003. Clinton Cove Park at 54th Street opened last spring. A newly landscaped park and walkway opened in July from Battery Place (the west end of Battery Park) to Chambers Street. In mid-October, Pier 84 at 42nd Street (next to The Intrepid, the museum battleship) will open, becoming the largest public pier in Manhattan. It will feature a boathouse and a large fountain.

Work recently started on sections across from Tribeca and Chelsea. Two new piers will offer spectacular views. These are not quick projects. They should be ready by 2009.

There are growing pains. Pier 63 in Chelsea will be demolished and rebuilt as a public space. In order to start the work, The Hudson River Trust, which runs the park, evicted the commercial enterprises there.

Basketball City, which occupied Pier 63 for nine years, fought eviction. Legal appeals gave them several reprieves over the years. But they lost their last appeal in August and had to vacate the pier by September 10.

Sixteen high schools from around the city and corporate leagues rented space in the six courts of the for-profit courts. Now Basketball City is scrambling for temporary space.

Another venture at Pier 63 knew that demolition was coming, but was still unprepared. When the Manhattan Kayak Company www.manhattankayak.com had to vacate the pier on September 10, it seemed to cut the boating season cruelly short. They had counted on Basketball City prevailing again, and they thought that the trust wouldn't throw them out so quickly.

The kayak company co-owner was philosophical about it: "The suddenness of this came as a bit of shock to us all as you may imagine, but we must adapt and continue as we always do," wrote Eric Stiller on the company's Web site.

In the meantime, the kayak company will work from the boathouse at Pier 96 (at 57th Street). Next year, the company will run their operation from 26th Street.

The pier also houses the New York Police Department's mounted unit, which will move its stables to another pier.

Lower East Side

Basketball City eventually plans to move to a pier on the East River just north of the Manhattan Bridge, one of three piers on the Lower East that are scheduled to be refurbished and opened to the public. The piers are currently behind tall chain-link fences.

Re-using the piers for new purposes is part of a larger plan to fix up the walkway/bikeway under the FDR drive adjacent to the Financial District, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. There is a biking and walking path under the FDR with glorious views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, but beneath the highway next to the promenade along the river are parking lots, bad lighting and noise.

Funding for beautification is already there, in part from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (from federal funding allocated in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center). The work has yet to begin, however.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents the area, says he's looking for an expedited timetable for the entire waterfront project along the East River. "We should be making better progress," he says. "We should not be going through 'hurry up and wait.'"

East River Park

Just north of the Manhattan Bridge, the park is still a mess, though rebuilding started on the walkway along the river last year. After contractors tore out the old promenade, soil from the muddy embankment began sliding into the river. The contractors placed bales of straw to stop the churned up mud from further erosion.

The work then stopped. Most of this summer, the construction site looked deserted, with heavy machinery sitting idle. Now, a parks department spokesman promises it will resume.

The delay did not attract much complaint from the neighborhood. The walkway has been closed since 2001, when it was deemed unsafe, so the community is used to living without it.

Carter Craft of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance thinks the lack of community outrage at the stalled rebuilding has to do with how cut off the neighborhood is from the river on the Lower East Side. "They're so used to having crappy access," he says. He notes that there are just three pedestrian bridges across the FDR Drive to the park.

If construction stopped on the West side, where access is plentiful, says Craft, "they'd go nuts.”

Some on the Lower East Side explain the reaction differently. "The kind of development that happened on the West Side is the kind of development that’s going to raise rents and the cost of living, and I think there’s a huge part of this neighborhood that’s very scared of that," said David McWater, chair of Community Board 3 in Grand Street News, a neighborhood magazine. "They’d rather leave it alone because we don’t want everybody wanting to move here, because then I’m going to have to move to Iowa."

A Faster Track

The delay in the promenade construction led at least to one unexpected benefit. Since the landscapers couldn't work on the promenade, they transferred their energies to a runners’ track in the park at 6th Street. Runners will have their place to train in service at the end of September, well ahead of schedule.

 

Housing Activists' Fall Agenda


While the scarcity of affordable housing continues to grab most of the attention when people talk about housing issues, advocates are pushing for answers to other problems. They have a full agenda for the fall, some of it a continuation of battles already begun – one is against the city’s flawed rent subsidy program, little more than a year old, called Housing Stability Plus, another is the effort to repeal the Urstadt Law, which prevents the City Council from strengthening rent regulation laws that affect about one million apartments in the city.

Building on the momentum housing issues have gained politically over the last year, though, advocates are now mounting new campaigns. In coming months some are hoping to persuade the City Council to pass legislation that would:

  • Establish a “repair board” to enforce the city’s housing maintenance code
  • Establish the right to counsel for senior citizens in housing court
  • Make it illegal to discriminate against a person because of her or his source of income under the city’s human rights law
  • Make it possible for tenants to sue landlords for harassment in housing court

Few advocates pretend that any of these issues will be easy to achieve. They are building support among a wide variety of groups for the inevitable political fights ahead.

Repair Board

For months John Williams has been trying to get his landlord to remedy a mold problem that is turning the floor of his Brooklyn apartment black. A tenant for 26 years who has always paid his rent, Williams has a problem that is far from unique in New York. Repair problems are as common in the city as cockroaches, which themselves are a problem that landlords are obligated to “repair” under the city’s Housing Maintenance Code.

When a tenant reports a problem to the city, an inspector is sent to confirm a violation of the housing code. That violation is entered in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s computer database and the landlord is then informed. And that’s usually where it stops. The exception is when the tenant – or the city’s housing department -- starts a lawsuit against the landlord in housing court.

“The current system isn’t working,” argues Ben Dulchin of Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, which has spearheaded a campaign to make violations of the housing code like violations of the building code or the traffic code: Inspectors would be writing tickets and landlords would have to appeal to a newly created repair board, which would be an administrative tribunal.

“Just look at the statistics, Dulchin said. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development “writes 400,000 violations a year. About 25 percent are heard by a judge in housing court and most of those get corrected. But the other 75 percent are dealt with by sending a notice of violation … a polite suggestion to the landlord” to make a repair. “There is a misconception that notices of violation have teeth. They don’t.”

This explains why the city’s computers contain a list of three million housing code violations reported but never resolved.

The idea of a repair board has been around since the early 1980s, but got a boost recently when Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic candidate for governor, expressed his support for its creation.

Landlords generally do not like this idea: “Anyone who thinks that penalizing the landlord is going to make more money available for repairs is fooling themselves,” said one landlord who asked to remain anonymous because he deals frequently with government agencies. “It’s going to mean less money for repairs.”

But some tenant attorneys feel the same way. The remedy a repair board offers “is not repairs; it’s fines,” said Susan Cohen, an attorney at MFY Legal Services. “The fine will be a cost of doing business. An administrative tribunal would have no authority to order repairs. It would just levy fines.”

Right To Counsel For Low-Income Senior Citizens

Of all the problems in housing court, none strikes more people as less fair than the uneven distribution of attorneys. While almost all landlords have legal representation, almost no tenants do. Free legal services available in the city are woefully under-funded and can represent only a small fraction of the people who qualify for their services.

For more than two decades advocates have sought to establish a right to counsel at housing court to remedy this problem. A small step in that direction is now under consideration: Establishing a right to counsel for low-income senior citizens in housing court.

“Housing laws in New York are very complex and on top of that the court system is difficult to navigate,” said Craig Acorn of the Community Service Society, one of the organizations pushing the proposal. “People who are brought to court on eviction actions are often very intimidated by those two things…. And landlords have an unfair advantage over those who are un-represented.”

Landlords have long opposed a right to counsel in housing court, arguing that giving tenants attorneys would be too expensive and slow down eviction proceedings. The court, they say, would need more judges, court personnel and space.

Acorn argues that the costs would be less than they are now. Evictions are expensive: “People who get evicted – in inordinate numbers elderly people – end up in nursing homes, hospitals, shelters,” he said. “One way or another, the city and state become responsible for their care. “And there’s an intangible benefit [to preventing their evictions] because we think that maintaining the character of a community and a neighborhood in large part depends on allowing long-term residents to stay where they’ve lived for years.”

Income Discrimination

The city’s human rights law, among the most comprehensive in the nation, outlaws discrimination in housing for a number of “protected classes.” One reason advocates say tenants are being forced out of affordable housing is landlords’ refusal to accept rent subsidies like Section 8 and public assistance. The answer is to update the city’s human rights law to prohibit discrimination based on “source of income.”

“It has become a very frightening way to push out long-term residents,” said Anne Lessy of the Pratt Area Community Council in Brooklyn. “Landlords are refusing to renew leases for tenants with Section 8 or other subsidies. And it’s harder for people to identify new housing opportunities if they receive income support or other assistance.”

The City Council is now considering legislation that would add source of income to the list of protected classes under the city’s human rights law.

The same landlord who cringed at the thought of a repair board was apoplectic at the thought of being forced to accept Section 8 and other rent subsidies: “The government behaves horribly in those programs,” he said. “I’ve had hundreds of bad situations. The city would be two years behind in paying. The city takes two years to figure out (a rent increase) and I’m supposed to go back and whack this tenant for two years rent?”

In fact, whether landlords should have to accept Section 8 in rent stabilized apartments – where leases automatically renew under “the same terms and conditions as the original lease” – has been a source of contention between landlords and tenants for a few years now. An appeals court decision is expected before the end of the year on this issue because housing court judges have come down on both sides.

But Lessy pointed out that other cities around the country have expanded their human rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on where their money is coming from.The answer to inefficient bureaucracies is not discrimination; the answer is to fix the bureaucracy, she said.

Suing For Harassment

When he was an organizer at the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, Ben Dulchin recalls a landlord who put a bomb in the lobby of a building. The tenants filed an harassment complaint with the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent regulated apartments.

“But (the division) said because he only planted one bomb, it wasn’t harassment,” Dulchin recalled. “Harassment, they said, was a pattern of behavior. That was the last time I filed an harassment claim with DHCR.” Dulchin is hoping the City Council will make harassment a “right of action” for tenants at housing court, allowing them the possibility of counter-suing when landlords file frivolous cases. Again, because landlords are almost always represented by attorneys, they do not have to go to housing court themselves. Most tenants do not get attorneys and end up spending hours at court, often losing at least a day’s pay as a result.

“We get calls from people who have been taken to court even though they’ve paid the rent,” said Jenny Laurie of the Met Council on Housing. “Some mechanism for getting landlords to stop suing tenants just to harass them would be good.”

It is not clear what punishments landlords would face for filing frivolous cases. But giving tenants the power to counter-sue for harassment would be a powerful deterrent against hauling tenants into court for rent that’s already been paid or subletting their apartments when all they have done is found a roommate.

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

 

 

Housing In New York City -- Figuring Out The Big (And Little) Picture


When Metropolitan Life recently announced plans to sell Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town - two communities the insurance company built a half century ago to house the middle class - many New Yorkers wondered whether the residents would soon be priced out of their homes: "The city can't survive without middle-class housing," Senator Charles Schumer said at a press conference to save the two housing complexesfor the middle class. But a new report shows that the residents of an area that includes Stuyvesant Town already have the highest median income of any community in the city.

In the area with the second lowest median income in the city, Morrisania-Crotona in the Bronx, according to that same report produced by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at NYU, there are high rates of crime and poverty, and low student test scores, but nevertheless the price of housing in the area is on the rise, more people are purchasing homes there, and more homes are being built.

Median Income:

Highest: Stuyvesant Town-Turtle Bay

Lowest:
Mott Haven/Hunts Point

As New Yorkers obsess about real estate - some struggling to find a place to live, others worried about staving off eviction, still others hoping to get rich off the market - they all think they know what is going on in the housing market: Housing is scarce and expensive. But the picture is complicated, playing out differently in different neighborhoods, and the effect of the situation varies from community to community, as do the reactions to it.

So how does one get a good picture of what's going on?

City Hall released the latest Mayor's Management Reportlate last week, a legally-required document that the Bloomberg administration touts as "a public report card on city services affecting the lives of New Yorkers," but which critics see as a missed opportunity to help citizens piece together a picture of the state of the city, issue by issue, including housing.

The accompanying report put out by the Mayor's Office of Operations, however -- the online service My Neighborhood Statistics -- provides information broken down by community, and now features the latest data, from the fiscal year that ended this summer. Other reports, some by city agencies, others by private organizations, offer a closer and often more nuanced look at one of the issues of greatest concern to New Yorkers, the city's housing. There are surprises in these figures, but even more mysteries.

WHAT THE FIGURES SHOW

More Housing

The city now issues about 20,000 building permits a year, up from an average of 7,000 in the 1990s. "And the increase is not just in Manhattan," says the Furman center's director Vicki Been. "When we had something of a boom in the 1980s, it was concentrated in Manhattan and a few parts of Brooklyn. But now, perhaps because the improvement in the city has lasted longer, there has been a real shift."

Racial Diversity:

Most Diverse: Ozone Park-Woodhaven, Queens

Least Diverse: South Shore, Staten Island

While the neighborhoods that had the most new permits issued in 2004 - Clinton-Chelsea and the Upper East Side - are in Manhattan, the number three neighborhood is Rockaway-Broad Channel at the southern edge of Queens, where 886 permits were issued in 2004.

Much available housing is for sale (rather than for rent) and at high prices, judging from information gathered by the real estate broker Prudential Douglas Elliman , which reports that there has been a 53.9 percent increase this year over the same period last year in the number of condos and co-ops on the market in Manhattan. These are both new apartments and those being re-sold.

What about affordable housing? The latest Mayor's Management Report notes progress in Bloomberg's 10-year New Housing Marketplace Plan, having started to build or preserve 17,393 homes in the fiscal year that ended in June. The program also financed or otherwise helped complete more than 13,000 homes. To further increase the supply of affordable housing, the report also points out the administration's approval of new "inclusionary zoning" - one for a site on the Williamsburg waterfront, the other for Queens Boulevard in Maspeth-Woodside -- that allows private developers to build taller buildings if they provide affordable apartments.

But City Hall has also taken steps to slow down construction of new housing in some neighborhoods, those that complain of overdevelopment, by rezoning to allow for less density (known as downzoning) in 20 neighborhoods last year. The Bloomberg administration expects to do this in other communities in the future, according to the Mayor's Management Report.

Meanwhile, rising interest rates, and higher costs for some building products and oil, could discourage new construction in the future -- or push the prices for housing even higher.

More Expensive Housing

Permits for New Homes

The Most:
Clinton - Chelsea

The Least: Washington Heights/Inwood

What housing there is in New York City -- houses and apartments, rentals as well as coops and condominiums -- continues to grow more costly.

In the city as a whole, the cost of a dwelling with two to four families has almost doubled since 1994, with Fort Greene-Brooklyn Heights seeing the biggest increase, according to the Furman Center report. The median price of a condo in the city rose by 12 percent from 2002 to 2003, with the largest increase in Chelsea/Clinton. The median monthly rent for unsubsidized housing increased from $831 in 2002 to $900 in 2005 (in constant dollars). While the greatest jump came in the area grouped together as Greenwich Village-Financial District, poor neighborhoods are seeing price increases too. In Morrisania-Crotona, home prices went up by almost 50 percent between 2002 and 2004.

The city government is feeling the effects of the housing inflation as well, according to the Mayors Management Report. Its spending on public housing has increased every year since 2002, and the cost of providing homeless shelter facilities has gone up.

Crowded Households

The Most: Borough Park

The Least:
Queens Village

And the increases continue, despite talk of a softening real estate market. At the upper end of the housing chain, Prudential Douglas Elliman found that the average sale price of a Manhattan residence increased by more than five percent between the second quarter of 2005 and 2006.

The Housing Gap

The city continues to lose low and moderate income housing. "We're losing more at one end than we're gaining in affordable housing at the other end through the mayor's plan," Victor Bach, a senior policy analyst for the Community Service Society, told the New York Times recently. "It's more difficult to make the argument that the efforts of the city in affordable housing, which deserve a lot of praise, are going to compensate for the market losses that occur through sales."

In 2005, city residents needed 100,000 more homes than existed in the city, the Furman Center estimates. And the city planning department Housing Consolidation report for 2005 found that in 1999 (the year it cites in the report) only 3.19 percent of the city's rental housing was vacant - well below the 5 percent rate considered the threshold for a "housing emergency."

As further evidence of the shortage, the Mayors Management Report says that the building department responded to 25 percent more complaints about illegal conversions of residential space.

 

Given the rules of supply and demand, such a shortage has pushed rents and purchase prices higher. But while housing costs have risen, New Yorkers' incomes have not. The median household income in the city actually declined in constant dollars between 2002 and 2005 - from $42,700 to $40,000. And in 35 of the city's neighborhoods, the poverty rate increased. According to the American Community Survey - which is available on the city planning department web site - more than 23 percent of city families with children under 18 have incomes below the poverty line.

Median Rent

Most Expensive: Greenwich Village-Financial District

Cheapest:
Central Harlem

A general rule of thumb is that people should spend about 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities. By this measure, the Furman Center calculates, a family making $32,000 should pay no more than $800 a month on housing. But between 2002 and 2005, the number of apartments that that family could afford decreased by 205,000 homes.

Experts generally agree that the housing crunch in New York contributes to the number of homeless people. But, in the Mayors Management Report, Bloomberg says that the estimated number of homeless people living on the streets, in parks, under highways, and public fell by 13 percent - from 4,395 in fiscal 2005 to 3,843 in fiscal 2006. Advocates for the homeless, however, have disputed the accuracy of these numbers.

Better Neighborhoods, Costlier Neighborhoods

Depending on whom you ask, the housing situation offers a kind of good news/bad news dilemma in many communities. Falling crime rates have made previously depressed neighborhoods, such as East New York and parts of the South Bronx, more attractive places to live. And this has boosted costs.

The Mayors Management Report cites an array of improvements in services from a decrease in crime to cleaner street to smaller class sizes in the public schools. "Two-thirds of the things are going in the right direction," Bloomberg said upon releasing the annual audit. "A third aren't going as fast as I'd like, or in the right direction."

By going to My Neighborhood statistics, people can chart the improvement or decline in city services in their neighborhood, as defined by community district. Going to the pages for the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, for example, one sees that the area's streets have become appreciably cleaner since 2002 while parks have grown dirtier. Crime has gone down in most categories, while schools are less crowded.

But perusing the Furman report makes it clear that Bushwick is not any easier to figure out than many communities in the city. Even though Bushwick has the fewest number of places to live, and has the highest number of serious housing code violations, it also has the highest number of mortgages being taken out -- and among the highest notices of foreclosures.

 

GETTING THE NUMBERS

Vacancy Rate for Rental Housing

Highest:
North Shore, Staten Island

Lowest:
Bensonhurst

Any number of agencies, organizations and others compile number of the city's housing situation. Some offer a kind of consumer help - where would you like to live - others advance a political agenda and still others have more of a policy focus.

Mayor's Management Report

The city charter requires that the mayor issue two management reports a year: a preliminary report by mid-January and a final report by mid-September. The report for fiscal year 2006 was released last week with little fanfare - there was virtually no advance warning and the mayor did not offer visual aids or the general hoopla he has at times in the past.

The report assesses whether city agencies have met goals in a number of different areas. Housing information can be found in the sections for the departments of Housing Preservation and Development, Homeless Services and City Planning.

But by its focus on specifics, the report makes it difficult to glean information on big city problems. For example, the advances in providing affordable housing are concealed in two dry paragraphs about the New Housing Marketplace Program.

"It includes too many insignificant indicators, lacks any overview or sense of priorities, and says little or nothing about such major (and problematic) policies as the reorganization of city schools, big changes in homeless services, the costs of school construction, and high levels of overtime among the city's uniformed services, " Glenn Pasanen wrote in Gotham Gazette assessing last year's report.

My Neighborhood Statistics

Compiled by the Mayor's Office of Operations, this accessible program provides information about city neighborhoods as defined by community board. One types in an address (or an intersection) to get to an array of information, including complaints to the city's 311 line, health and education data, information about the condition of area parks and streets, crime and figures

The site takes data from city agencies, so there is no information on rents (since that is charged by private landlords) but there is data on housing complaints. Much of the data is raw - one sees the number of felonies in the neighborhood but it is not ranked or given as a rate so that people can easily compare one community with another.

City Planning Department

The city planning department offers a number of reference tools on its site:

Serious Housing Code Violation

Highest Rate: Bushwick

Lowest Rate: Financial District

New York City Census Fact Finder: The planning department's home page features a "GeoQuery" box. Typing in an address brings you to a map, showing the census tract and the adjoining area, and to tables with a lot of information from the 2000 census. Two pages focus on housing - one on characteristics, including vacancy rates, types of housing and so on; the other looks at costs.

The tool allows users to create the boundaries of their own neighborhood, combining adjoining census tracts and to get statistics on that area

In the case of Stuyvesant Town for example, one can focus on its census tracts from 14th to 23rd Street, rather than on the whole swath of the East Side up to 59th Street that comprises the community district. While the more tightly defined area is hardly poor, in 2000, more than two thirds of its households had incomes of less than $100,000 - bolstering claims of its middle class character.

Community District Profiles: These are portraits - each about 35 pages long - of each community district in the city, based on the 2000 census and broken it down by census tract. Some information is updated to 2003; other charts compare the figures for 1990 and 2000. It also lists community facilities - such as schools, libraries and hospital.

American Community Survey: This is essentially a 2005 update of the 2000 census, providing information for community districts with at least 100,000 people.

City Planning Commission Reports: In addition to providing a sense of what a neighborhood is like now, the site also offers links to reports on how the area might change. Visitors can search the commission reports section by borough, type , date and perhaps most conveniently by keyword. Typing in Williamsburg and inclusionary, for example, produces the report the commission report on allowing a 20 percent taller building

 

New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey

The city housing department produces this every few years. Its primary goal is to get information that can be used to evaluate rent control and rent stabilization laws, but the survey also includes a range of demographic and other information that can be used to help set housing policy. To gather this data, an adult in each of about 18,000 homes is asked a series of questions focusing on housing and its cost - the utility bill, whether an apartment is wheelchair accessible, if rodents are a problem and so on. The tables provide a wealth of raw statistical information but the report, published on the U.S. Census Bureau web site, but does not analyze the material on the site.

State of New York City's Housing and Neighborhoods

Number of Places to Live

The Most:
Upper East Side

The Least: Bushwick

The Furman Center does analyze much of the data from the housing and vacancy survey, along with material from the city finance department and other sources, and puts it on its New York City Housing and Information system that offers information for the city as a whole and by borough and community district. They boil this down into the State of New York City's Housing and Neighborhoods-- available in hard copy and online -- that shows how each of the city's communities has been changing over the past four years and compares community districts, by ranking them on a number of indicators. It also interprets the data in interesting ways, devising, for example, an indicator of racial diversity and of income diversity.

Community groups use this data to address issues in their communities, such sa so-called predatory lending -- housing loans with excessively high interest rates or fraudulent terms. Groups working to address housing code enforcement - a key fight for many housing activists this year -- have also used it. (See related story, Housing Activists' Fall Agenda.)

 

Market Reports

Produced by the real estate company Prudential Douglas Elliman, these reports offer a very different perspective on the housing market, surveying the market for homes in Manhattan - loft, coops, condominiums, etc. They are the source of those stories, so beloved by the New York Times, of average home prices going above the $1 million mark. 

 

 

 

 

Inclusionary Zoning


City Hall has encouraged affordable housing in Manhattan for decades by the use of an innovative land use tool known as inclusionary zoning. This allows real estate developers to construct bigger buildings in exchange for allocating a portion of the new housing to people with modest incomes. Such measures were incorporated in the recent rezoning of Manhattan’s West Side.

This practice was extended to Brooklyn in June, when ground was broken at 164 Kent Avenue, an apartment building that will include 113 apartments for people of moderate income. Now it has come as well to one area in Queens, sections of Queens Boulevard in Woodside.

While the loudest voices in many local zoning battles in Queens have often been homeowners and neighborhood associations seeking to restrict real estate development, this time housing advocates played a prominent role in steering new private development in a way that insures some affordable housing.

Inclusionary zoning is also being considered in several other neighborhoods where zoning changes are proposed that would spur new development. In other words, it has now become an accepted norm throughout the city

The Turnaround in City Policy

Only a few years ago, affordable housing advocates were criticizing the administration for refusing to use this land use tool outside the sections of Manhattan where they have been in place for years. The City Planning Department refused to incorporate in the rezoning of Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, for example, much to the chagrin of local housing groups that were concerned that the city’s zoning would displace low-income households. The city’s planners argued that it was too cumbersome and wouldn’t work, and pointed to the relatively low numbers of affordable units created under the complex rules used in Manhattan.

Housing advocates made their case for a change in policy to candidates in the 2005 election campaign, and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer came out with a strong platform calling for inclusionary zoning and other measures to beef up the city’s programs for low- and moderate-income housing. In October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg countered by expanding the scope of his long-term housing plan and for the first time endorsed inclusionary zoning.

Pitfalls

Are we looking at a new day for land use policy, where a hot real estate market will also mean more housing to stem the growing deficit in affordable units for people who can’t afford market-rate housing? Do we have the perfect “win-win” situation where both private developers and low-income people come out ahead?

Perhaps it’s too early for housing advocates to break out the champagne. Here’s why:

  • Inclusionary zoning in New York City is voluntary and not mandatory. The incentives may or may not be used, and it is strictly at the discretion of the private developer. There are scores of similar zoning practices around the country, some in big cities, but they only produce a good number of units of housing where it is a requirement and not an option. Developers simply incorporate it in their business plans (and with generous subsidies they can end up coming out ahead of the game), and mandatory rules affect every developer equally. Maybe a mandatory rule ought to be the next step here?
  • Right now the rules have to be established on a case-by-case basis and only when there’s a rezoning proposal put in front of community groups. Housing advocates have their work cut out for them if they want to win such zoning in all developing neighborhoods; they will have to win many separate battles, one at a time. The result may end up being the concentration of new affordable housing in only a small number of neighborhoods where there happens to be a receptive political climate and where housing advocates can muster enough muscle.
  • Areas of the city that lack developer interest and where the city’s planners aren’t interested in rezoning will be left behind. Because inclusionary zoning relies on market-rate development, what happens when the market collapses or dissipates? What about the neighborhoods with chronically weak developer interest? Will they be left out?
  • It’s easy to forget that 80 percent of the housing created under inclusionary zoning rents at whatever the market can bear. When this new market-rate housing moves into neighborhoods with relatively affordable homes it can jack up rents and housing prices and have a net effect of displacing more low-income people than it provides housing for.
  • This kind of housing is usually not available to very low-income households, but tends to serve households with higher incomes. In some cases they can be built off-site, in which case they could help create less integrated neighborhoods.

These are all reasons for caution, but not cause for abandoning the concept.

“Inclusionary zoning has to be one among many tools for affordable housing,” according to Benjamin Dulchin, director of the Initiative for Neighborhood and City-wide Organizing at the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers (http://www.anhd.org/) in New York. “It can help harness the private sector but it doesn’t let government off the hook.” There are four things that government can do now to promote affordable housing, says Dulchin. They need to:

  • invest in new development
  • preserve existing affordable units
  • protect subsidy programs that may expire
  • and secure rent regulations.

This brings us back to the main purpose of inclusionary zoning. If the purpose is only to produce housing units, it may not have the numbers to show, and it could even backfire if it serves as a cover for market-driven displacement. The political impetus for such zoning in the suburbs was to open up housing markets that were exclusionary. The impetus for such zoning in New York is mostly to protect affordable neighborhoods, and not just to produce new affordable housing.

So the final question is an open one to the scores of non-profit housing developers in the city. You are the only neighborhood-based developers with a long-term commitment to not only create affordable units but make neighborhoods strong by insuring jobs, services and greater equity. How about a program that works the other way around: 20 percent market-rate and 80 percent affordable?

The best and most comprehensive case for inclusionary zoning in New York is “Increasing Housing Opportunities in New York City: The Case for Inclusionary Zoning,”issued in 2004 by the Pratt Institute Center for Community & Environmental Development and PolicyLink. The report includes the recommendation for mandatory rules and other proposals that would help the city move towards a more effective inclusionary housing policy. Before the next neighborhood battle, it might be worth dusting it off and thinking more about where we’re going.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

 

 



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