Housing (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
New York State’s drawn-out budget process is finally done, but the largest issue in the minds of New Yorkers, housing, was virtually untouched.
Thousands of New Yorkers are struggling to find housing options they can afford, millions of square feet of commercial space sits empty, and more than 77,000 people live in New York City shelters, including more than 25,000 children. Fortunately, there are proposals that have received widespread support among the Legislature and other stakeholders when it comes to housing. They involve tools to support the conversion of empty offices to housing — including new affordable units in Manhattan.
State lawmakers have a moral imperative to support these measures before they wrap up this session — even if it means their summer vacation starts a little late. If they wait until next year to find solutions, the City will have to dig itself out of a far deeper economic challenge.
We are a third of the way through the decade and New York City is already well behind the lackluster housing production of the preceding two decades. That’s why we can no longer afford to let a select few Manhattan members of the Legislature from affluent areas use “progressivism” as a Trojan Horse to slip poison pills into housing policies — as we saw them attempt during the budget process.
Real champions of hardworking New Yorkers would be committed to constructive solutions to get housing built. They would work like hell to provide relief for the full half of New York City households who cannot afford to live here anymore, according to a recent study by the Fund for the City of New York and United Way of New York City. You would think they would look at the fact that at least 30% of those people’s incomes go to rent and feel compelled to get to “yes” on lifting the floor-to-area ratio (FAR) cap or expanding office-to-residential conversions. But instead, a select few have fear-mongered and blocked any prospect or opportunity for Black, Latino, and Asian people to move into their neighborhoods.
We have to be better and dream bigger. The warped view of perfect policies from those who have challenged these reforms has stopped the rest of us from getting anything done. The decadelong effort to keep the FAR cap in place has led to a mere 45,968 new units across Manhattan from 2010 to 2019, according to the Furman Center. That’s 10,000 fewer units created on the island than in the preceding decade – one in which two major crises temporarily slowed production. Such a downturn in production is a major reason why the average monthly rent in the borough has ballooned to $4,000.
Housing production in the 2020s has become even more anemic. Last year saw a mere 626 new projects filed with the Department of Buildings, according to data tracked by the Real Estate Board of New York. The 22 buildings that sought foundation plan approval last December represented a 90% drop from the same time a year earlier, signaling a lack of pro-housing policies has real implications.
It’s incorrect to say we’re barreling toward a crisis when we’re already in one, particularly when you consider the simultaneous explosion of commercial vacancies. Just recently, both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times pointed to a potential economic strain worse than any we’ve seen before.
Let’s be clear: many Class A office buildings are still attractive. It’s why you still saw big commercial projects carry on through the pandemic. But Class B and C commercial space is underperforming overall, driving the historically high 16% commercial vacancy rate in Manhattan. There are serious implications the longer this goes on as real estate taxes account for the bulk of New York City’s revenue. Fewer tax dollars from empty properties means less money for the City in the years ahead, which translates to less money for schools, sanitation, mass transit, and other services New Yorkers depend on.
Lifting the FAR cap and expanding conversions, with an incentive to create affordable housing, are popular policies that Albany leaders can get done this year. No, they alone will not create the 800,000 units Governor Hochul has pledged to create to meet demand and allow growth. It would be a fool’s errand to hold out for a single, magic policy to deliver. What these measures can do, however, is create as many as 50,000 new housing units where they’re most needed – namely Manhattan.
There’s no other policy that’s united five borough presidents, nine community boards, dozens of advocacy groups, 32BJ SEIU, and elected officials at all levels of government. This is a proposal that’s united the Governor, the Mayor, and the City Council Speaker, as well as Council Members from across the political spectrum. When something looks this good, we shouldn’t let it slip by.
Our elected officials must stop using fear tactics to block good legislation and punt this into the next session. You can tell someone “Wait till next year” when their favorite team loses. But it’s cold comfort to someone about to lose their home or someone desperately looking for their first.
John Sanchez is executive director of the 5 Borough Housing Movement and a former Bronx community district manager. On Twitter @NYJohnSanchez.