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With 16% Vacancy Rate, City Planning Department ‘Laser Focused’ on Staffing to Advance 'Ambitious' Agenda

City Planning Head Dan Garodnick (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The acute staffing crisis at city agencies threatens to undo the many ambitious plans announced by Mayor Eric Adams, and has become the central concern for the City Council as it examines the mayor’s proposed $102.7 billion preliminary budget for next fiscal year.

On Thursday, at a Council hearing focused on the Department of City Planning, a similar refrain emerged as the agency currently faces a 18% personnel vacancy rate, which includes recent hires not yet onboarded, and has a considerable agenda now and for the years ahead.

Design and implementation of the administration's land-use policies falls to a significant degree under the purview of City Planning, and Mayor Adams has set it to task. He has proposed a massive “Get Stuff Built” housing plan with a “moonshot” goal of building 500,000 new units of housing over the next decade and he is also pursuing three citywide zoning text amendments under his “City of Yes” plan that are meant to promote affordable housing, economic development, and climate sustainability.

At the same time, the city is lobbying for various proposals at the state level as Governor Kathy Hochul pursues her own “housing compact” that will create 800,000 units of housing over ten years.

The Department of City Planning is taking the lead on the zoning amendments as well as dozens of land-use process reforms meant to speed up permitting, environmental assessments, construction, and more to facilitate the larger housing plan. And, it is constantly advancing individual affordable housing and economic development projects, while currently working on several area rezonings in the city, including in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, with more to come.

“City Planning continues to be laser focused on hiring staff to meet the ambitious goals we've set, under your and the mayor's leadership, for housing, job creation, and climate resiliency,” said Dan Garodnick, Director of the Department of City Planning and Chair of the City Planning Commission, at Thursday’s hearing. Garodnick, a former City Council member from Manhattan himself, was appointed to the dual posts by Mayor Adams early last year.

Adams’ proposed budget for the Department of City Planning for the 2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is $44.3 million, a $4.8 million decrease from the budget for the current fiscal year that was adopted last June. In the proposed budget, the agency would see a net increase of one more position, bringing its budgeted headcount to 348.

But the agency has 286 employees – including 17 that were just hired and haven’t started yet. Out of the remaining 62 positions, 55 are vacant — for a nearly 16% vacancy rate — while another 7 are federal grant-funded positions that are currently unfunded. DCP did hire 74 new staffers in 2022 and is continuing to bring people on into this year. At the hearing, agency officials told the Council they had a 26% attrition rate, echoing a similar struggle that other agencies have also faced in retaining workers given the city's rigid workforce policies that do not allow any work-from-home or hybrid arrangements, low public sector salaries, and national labor shortages.

Garodnick, however, expressed optimism about the current state of affairs. “We believe we are now in a much better position than we were at the start of last year,” he said.

Though Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr., a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s land use committee, suggested that City Planning might need an even higher headcount beyond what is proposed in the preliminary budget, Garodnick said the agency would be able to meet its needs if it fills its vacancies. “We are hopeful that we continue to hire at the same pace…but we're not even at our budgeted headcount. So, to me, I think we should aspire to get there and that is what we are trying to do,” he said.

Part of the challenge seems to stem from low levels of pay at the agency, where city planners – who currently make up about 63% of the staff and are required to have either a bachelor’s degree and two years of experience or a master’s degree before being hired – start off with an annual salary of just over $55,000. Under questioning from Salamanca, Garodnick acknowledged that salary levels had led to departures and recruitment challenges.

“[Y]ou're right to say that this is a concern that has been presented by the folks who have left and certainly by prospective hires,” he said, noting that the agency had also seen a drop in applicants for city planner positions.

The low pay also means that those who apply for jobs tend to be wealthier and whiter, Garodnick said. “The people who can take those lower paying jobs frequently are disproportionately more privileged because they're doing something as a mission driven effort, and they tend to be more white on the whole so it is not an area in which it helps our ability to create a more diverse workforce,” he said.

Asked by Council Member Kevin Riley, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, David Parish, DCP’s Chief Operating Officer, outlined the agency’s recruitment efforts. DCP has hired an Assistant Director of Recruitment and Retention, and is holding hiring panels roughly every six weeks, as well as “salary exercises to look for promotional opportunities and increase wages,” Parrish said. “We're doing everything we can to recruit and retain as quickly as possible.”

[READ: At First Preliminary Budget Hearing, City Council Takes Aim at Agency Staffing Crisis]

The hearing also touched on City Planning’s work ahead.

Garodnick said the first of the proposed citywide zoning amendments, dubbed “City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality,” will head to public review on April 24, just after Earth Day.

The agency also recently created a seven-member Community Planning and Engagement Division to conduct outreach on the many initiatives the city is pursuing. “We want to find ways to speak the language of the various communities of New York City and I mean, like literally actually speak the language,” Garodnick said. “And I also mean talk in ways that demystify some of these complicated concepts that we're frequently engaged in communities on.”

Zoning for Carbon Neutrality will be followed by Zoning for Economic Opportunity, then perhaps the most ambitious, important, and political fraught: Zoning for Housing Opportunity, which is expected to be unveiled in early 2024.

Besides the citywide zoning amendments, the Department of City Planning is also heading up several major neighborhood rezoning efforts that are underway including around the four new MetroNorth Stations planned for the East Bronx and along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The agency is also in the preliminary stages of studying a rezoning in Midtown South in Manhattan, another on Staten Island’s North Shore, and has been asked by City Council Member Julie Won and the local community board to start work on rezoning a stretch of Northern Boulevard in Queens.

Garodnick also addressed one of the city’s priorities at the state level, the next step in joint city and state efforts to provoke the conversion of unused office space into housing. Governor Hochul’s housing plan includes allowing conversions of office space into housing, to capitalize on office vacancies caused by the pandemic. At the hearing, Council members pushed Garodnick on the necessary steps to ensure that new housing is affordable.

“I think most fundamentally, we recognize the challenges here and that we need to find ways to incentivize the creation of affordable housing in connection with office conversions today,” Garodnick said. “There is no incentive to do that. Office conversion gives you a market rate unit. Full stop.” 

Hochul has floated a proposal called Affordable Housing from Commercial Conversions, which would provide a 19-year tax break in exchange for a requirement that 20% of converted units are rent-stabilized and affordable for households making 70% of the area median income. Though Garodnick said the administration supports some level of tax breaks for such conversions, he did not comment specifically on Hochul’s proposal.

[READ: City Council Questions Mayor's Additional Planned Cuts to Internal Government Watchdog]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been corrected to note that DCP’s vacancy rate is about 16%, not 18%, and that David Parish is DCP’s Chief Operating Officer, not Chief Financial Officer. 

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