Mayor Adams and others at a development ground-breaking (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
Mayor Eric Adams promised on Thursday that in the coming week, he will release a comprehensive housing plan to address New York City’s affordable housing crisis and rebuild its crumbling public housing stock. Adams spoke at the annual conference of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH), where officials from his administration appeared on expert panels to discuss the challenges of building affordable housing in the city and further preview some of the strategies that will be in the new Democratic mayor’s plan.
“We have to stop judging our success by a unit count,” Adams said in a brief keynote address at the conference on Thursday afternoon, held at a Manhattan hotel. “Anyone can walk around and say, ‘Well, we have x number of affordable units.’ No, we're going to judge it by how we close the deal to get people actually in apartments. That's the success that we need to start reflecting.”
New York City’s population and economic growth have far outpaced its creation of housing. Over the last eight years, while the city has created about 800,000 jobs, it has only built 200,000 units of housing. And the pressure is being felt by those at the lowest economic strata. The highly anticipated 2021 Housing and Vacancy Survey (HVS) released by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development this week showed a just under 1% vacancy rate for apartments renting below $1,500 a month, a 12.64% vacancy rate for apartments renting above $2,300 a month, and a citywide vacancy rate of about 4.54% (though that was higher than the 3.63% vacancy rate in 2017, but lifted by an astronomical Manhattan rate that appears significantly inflated by temporary pandemic moves).
At one panel on Thursday, Eric Enderlin, president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC), and Daniel Garodnick, former City Council Member and currently the city’s director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission, acknowledged that there’s a supply problem in the city, as they outlined the solutions that the mayor is pursuing.
Greg Russ, chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority, and Adolfo Carrion Jr., commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, were both scheduled to appear at the panel but could not attend the conference. In a statement through one of the conference hosts, however, Carrion said, “Our blueprint will be driven by a commitment to quality and impact. We will not be driven by numerical targets but by how well we address affordability, rent burden relief, safety, health equity and access to opportunity.”
During recent budget testimony at the City Council, Carrión outlined several key principles of the developing Adams administration housing plan and discussed the mayor’s executive budget housing allocations, both on the expense and capital sides. Carrion, Garodnick, Enderlin, Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz, and others are involving in crafting the Adams housing plan.
“We have real affordability challenges and also real supply challenges,” Garodnick said. He stressed the need to expedite land use applications, change the city’s zoning resolution, and direct resources to historically underinvested neighborhoods. “This cannot be a one neighborhood experience. This has to be an all neighborhood experience. We need every community to do their share. We can’t simply pretend like we do not have a crisis,” he added.
Enderlin, whose agency is largely responsible for financing affordable housing projects, pointed to several concerning trends. Housing preservation and development tend to run countercyclically, he said. If the economy is strong, the city builds new housing. If the economy is weak, the city preserves the housing it already has. But currently, the price of home ownership and of rental housing is increasing, with the added pressure of inflation, which is raising costs on both the expense side of the budget and on the capital side of building housing.
Adams’ predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, did make certain strides on the housing front. He ushered through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a policy requiring developers to build certain percentages of rent-restricted housing at set income levels when they receive city permission to build bigger, and he pursued large-scale neighborhood rezonings to both encourage housing development and major community improvements.
But the rezoning policy was criticized for focusing on low-income communities of color and many critics said that he did not do enough to build deeply affordable units at lower income bands. Merging the two criticisms, some have noted that Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is designed to be used more in higher-income areas in order to ensure more affordable housing in those locales. Mayor Adams has pledged to upzone wealthier areas in order to both increase housing supply and bring affordable housing to higher-income areas, including in Manhattan.
Enderlin said the issue is one of resources and supply. “We know how to do this stuff, we just need the resources and the will to do it,” he said. He noted that in mixed-income developments, market-rate units help subsidize affordable units, which limits the need for city subsidies. And developments with 100% affordable apartments at lower income bands, he said, can run up against increasing and unsupportable operational costs, requiring greater assistance from the city.
“New York City is growing, will grow, should grow in ways that require us to constantly increase that supply of housing and affordable housing. And the act of increasing supply alone takes pressure off the system,” he said.
The City Council and housing advocates say Mayor Adams isn’t moving with the urgency that the city’s housing crisis requires. The Council and advocates had called on the mayor to invest $4 billion in capital funds annually in affordable and public housing, a pledge that Adams had agreed to on the campaign trail. But his executive budget added $5 billion over ten years, bringing the city’s capital investment to $22 billion in total over that time.
But Enderlin said that amount of funding is appropriate for the city’s current plans. “Budgets are planning documents, they’re priority documents, but they're also frankly steer-as-you-go documents,” he said, insisting that the city has the flexibility to add more funding depending on the resources available. But he said investments have to be “systemic” and supported by permanent funding from the state and federal levels as well.
One of the ways the Adams administration is course-correcting is bringing NYCHA and homelessness under the fold of its overall housing plan. Enderlin said the administration is making a concerted effort to continue preserving NYCHA housing stock, though he did not say specifically how. He also said the administration’s approach to homelessness involves “a whole range of solutions” including real estate solutions such as building housing for homeless people and reducing administrative burdens.
Some of the solutions for the city’s housing crisis depend on state action. “What we run up against in New York City is we have a lot of opportunities to make change but there are state rules, state laws…that frequently create an impediment to our ability to act,” said Garodnick.
The two pointed to several pieces of legislation pending before the State Legislature that could help the city accomplish its goals, including one to allow easier conversion of vacant hotels into affordable housing and another to create a Public Housing Preservation Trust, allowing the city to obtain more federal funds for NYCHA as well as using bond sales. Enderlin also spoke in support of the “good cause eviction” bill currently being debated in Albany, which would establish stronger tenant protections against eviction statewide. “The challenge is having it not slide into something unintended, which is something that can cool or chill or stall the market” and affect the supply of housing, he said.
The panelists also addressed the soon-to-expire 421-a tax credit, a controversial state incentive aimed at encouraging developers to build affordable housing as part of mostly market-rate buildings in the city. Critics of the program say it is a giveaway to wealthy real estate interests and that it has exacerbated the city’s housing crisis. Adams and others have called it, or some version of it, essential. Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed replacing it with a slightly modified 485-w program, which would mandate deeper affordability levels in developments that benefit from it, and the mayor has called for its passage.
Both Enderlin and Garodnick warned against the consequences of letting the program expire without an alternative.
Garodnick said 421-a is a “crucial” component in making the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program work. “We are concerned that without it, that will slow up or stop. And at a moment when we're talking about the crisis that we have, and the need to do more of everything, that is not the right time for that to happen,” he said.
“I think it would be a huge, huge, huge mistake at this moment to turn off a supply program like that,” Enderlin said. He said that the as-of-right program helps build housing across the board, not just in wealthier neighborhoods, and allows the city more flexibility to target its own resources surgically where they are needed.
One of the challenges in building housing in the city is the lengthy and labyrinthine land use process, which Garodnick said the Adams administration is committed to reforming. Under the previous administration, there were instances when major rezonings failed at the last minute, either because of community pushback or because the local Council member opposed it, or both.
“Politics and time are the two biggies, and the things that create the most uncertainty,” Gardonick said, “the things that create the biggest variation in terms of being able to get the project done, and frankly, not knowing when you make it almost all the way through to the end of the line, whether things are going to radically change.”
He said that City Planning is looking at ways to streamline the land use process, while also assuring developers that the department will work with them at every stage. “We understand at City Planning that we are not acting in a vacuum and that private applicants are not acting in a vacuum,” he said. “We are all in a process that we want to be successful at the end of the day, provided that it is a project that delivers real benefits to the City of New York, creates new housing, creates new opportunity for affordability.”
Asked if the administration would pursue large-scale neighborhood rezonings, Garodnick pointed to major rezonings that are moving ahead – the M-Crown rezoning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and rezonings around new Metro-North Stations in the Bronx. He added, “neighborhood plans are certainly going to be important to us.”
At another panel, several experts and administration officials proposed changes and reforms to the city’s zoning resolution, which establishes the regulations for land use and development throughout the five boroughs.
The panelists included Michael Sandler, assistant commissioner at HPD; Edith Hsu-Chen, executive director of the Department of City Planning (DCP); William Stein, senior consulting principal at Dattner Architects; Matthew Washington, VP and chief of staff at Phipps Houses; and Moses Gates, VP for housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association.
“We do OK in housing production in New York City,” said Gates. “We don't do great, but we do OK.” He said the zoning resolution should be changed to create more density in what are now one- and two-family home neighborhoods, allowing perhaps for two- to four-family homes. “I don't think that that conversation is an instant non-starter. I think it would be tough, as all rezoning conversations are tough, but I think it's one you can have,” he said of approaching communities and local officials about such changes, which would need to pass the City Planning Commission and City Council.
Washington spoke of reducing minimum parking requirements, particularly in areas with access to transit, potentially building large municipal parking structures and also of allowing easier repurposing of vacant lots in historic districts. “We've got to be creative and we've got to think about space, and how do we optimize and maximize space that we have as a city,” he said.
Stein said the zoning text should be amended to relax or even eliminate density requirements. “Minimum standards will be maintained but in some cases more compact building units are appropriate to achieve greater density in greater numbers of units,” he said, suggesting that the city could pursue single-room occupancy housing for those who most need it, something Mayor Adams has talked about doing. “[T]hey are part of a response to the pressing need for housing for the homeless and for single adults,” he said.
Stein also encouraged the administration to restart a pilot program to legalize basement apartments, as well as push for legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units (which would require state authorization).
HPD’s Sandler spoke of the Where We Live NYC plan, a city effort to create more equitable housing through 2025. Aspects of the plan include expanding housing in low-density neighborhoods and increasing the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) cap for all affordable housing, among other things. “You can’t forget about place-based planning,” he added. “There are parts of the city where the zoning that’s set there is not the right zoning for our city’s future.”
“I think we need to rehabilitate zoning, the concept of zoning,” said Hsu-Chen, who works closely with Garodnick at the top of City Planning. “Zoning is such a powerful tool for good. It is a powerful tool for change.”
Hsu-Chen’s point was that the city needs to build trust among communities so they don’t feel that rezonings are being forced upon them, and that communities need to do their part and ignore impulses against change and growth, otherwise known as NIMBYism. “Now is the time for a citywide approach, for citywide solutions to boost housing production,” she said.