Gotham Gazette

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The City Council Should Reject Misguided Housing Bill

Affordable housing in the Bronx (photo: @NYCHousing)

A new consensus is taking shape in New York City: politicians, advocates, and policymakers are prioritizing ways for the city to produce more housing. Of course, there are still plenty of housing disagreements, but most now agree that New York’s severe affordability crisis is caused by the fact that there is not enough housing to go around.

While this is progress, New York City still has plenty of work to do if Thursday’s City Council Housing and Buildings Committee hearing is any indication.

City Council Members will hear feedback on a series of misguided bills highlighted by Intro 0637, which would require New York City to “prioritize not-for-profit developers and community land trusts” whenever it “disposes of land for affordable housing.” While that may sound innocuous, it would impose new bureaucracies and inefficiencies in housing production. It is the exact type of housing policy that got us into this crisis in the first place – and one that should be roundly rejected.

First, it is important to consider the overall context in which New York is making policy. The Mayor’s Management Report showed that New York City produced 45% fewer affordable homes in 2022 than it did the year prior. Despite the city’s new language about housing production, these figures are a stark reminder that rhetoric alone will not ensure our neighbors are safely housed. 

The drop comes as the need continues to grow: a recent study found that New York City needs to add an additional nearly 600,000 units just to account for the lack of production over the last decade. And with the darkest days of the pandemic now years behind us, people are flocking (back) to New York City – causing intense competition for the housing stock we do have as the economy rebounds, many workers return to the office, and others want to live in the city as they work from home.

To make a dent in this crisis, New York City needs to utilize every tool at its disposal. It makes very little sense for a policymaker to reject material help from an entity solely due to its tax status – a framework the city does not use when purchasing city vehicles or any other type of good. In fact, doing so would functionally amount to trying to solve a problem that requires two hands with one hand tied behind our back.

Worse, Intro 0637 would kneecap the affordable housing industry’s growing MWBE presence. If passed in its current form, the bill would disenfranchise businesses owned by people of color and women. Right now, roughly 80% of all projects created by members of The New York Real Estate Chamber – a BIPOC-focused chamber of commerce – are affordable housing projects done in partnership with city agencies, including affordable and supportive properties like the Alabama Avenue Apartments in Queens, The Grand in the South Bronx, and Balton Commons in Harlem.

Affordable housing production is one of few bright spots for MWBEs in New York City, as nearly 84% of MWBEs “do not have access to city spending” right now and just 3.8% of city contracts flow to MWBEs. By prioritizing non-profits on City-owned land, we risk perpetuating these figures for no reason other than to satisfy pre-existing ideological preferences.

That last point is particularly instructive: there is no reason for this so-called “fix.” Because of the way affordable housing is created, all City-owned land goes through a request-for-proposals (RFP) process that guarantees permanent affordability regardless of a developer’s tax status, so the change would have zero bearing on the rents residents would pay, even decades from now.

Additionally, for-profit developers are already prohibited from bidding on such RFPs unless there is at least 25% ownership in a project by either a not-for-profit or MWBE. In other words, Intro 0637 would slow housing production by limiting choice and further closing off MWBE firms from city coffers to solve a problem that does not exist.

New Yorkers deserve housing policy conversations that will meaningfully address the housing shortage that is causing rents to balloon for everyone. What they will get on Thursday is a distraction from those core issues – and a return to a time when New York City’s leaders were far less serious about making the City as affordable as it can be.

Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing. On Twitter @NYSAFAH.

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