Mayor de Blasio unveils his housing plan (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Michelle de la Uz was first appointed to the powerful City Planning Commission in 2012, by then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, then re-appointed in 2017 by the current Public Advocate, Letitia James. Over the course of time, and with de Blasio now in his fifth year as mayor, de la Uz has become the most consistent and often lone dissenter on the 13-member commission, voting against a variety of de Blasio’s land use plans.
During a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, de la Uz gave her perspective on the city’s housing crisis and de Blasio’s approach to affordable housing and changing land use rules for various swaths of the city, often known as neighborhood rezonings, which have so far occurred in low-income communities of color like East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx.
The City Planning Commission is responsible for reviewing land-use applications across the city, ranging from small projects on individual plots of land to the redevelopment of the Hudson Yards, community-wide plans, and more. Several hundred applications come through the Commission each year, most of them not controversial, but there are typically at least a handful of great significance.
Seven of the CPC members are appointed by the mayor, five by the individual borough presidents, and one by the public advocate. De la Uz described working on the Commission as a privilege, and said of the different land review processes that, “some of them are quite technical and relatively minor, honestly, and others really call into question what are broader public policy questions around planning.”
Also the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a non-profit community development organization in Brooklyn that seeks to promote economic and social justice through a wide range of local initiatives, de la Uz has a particular philosophy about city planning and land use that not only comes from a social justice and equity lens, but also starts with “do no harm.”
“One of the reasons why I was appointed by Public Advocate de Blasio and Public Advocate Tish James, was not only my knowledge and expertise, but also quite honestly my independence,” she said, “at the time I think he was enamored with it.”
De la Uz has been an outspoken critic of the mayor’s planning policies, and recently voted against the major rezoning plans in East Harlem, East New York, Jerome Avenue, downtown Far Rockaway, and Inwood, often as the only dissenter on the Commission. This slate of rezonings would allow for more development in these neighborhoods and is central to the de Blasio’s affordable housing policy and community development efforts.
According to the his plan, Housing New York 2.0, the city aims to build or preserve 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. Neighborhood rezonings typically include new land use rules to allow more housing with greater density, and a variety of neighborhood investments, such as new schools, transportation improvements, park land, and more. De Blasio has defended his administration’s rezoning of only low-income communities of color, indicating that the city has gone where there has been interest from local officials and opportunity to add housing.
While de la Uz agrees that the mayor’s policies are headed in the right direction, she emphasizes the need to provide deeper affordability and for more careful zoning. She thinks there is significant room for improvement to the approach, including how the city leverages private investment to create affordable housing and how it uses other subsidies at its disposal.
On the podcast, de la Uz spoke about the New York Housing and Vacancy Survey of 2017 (HVS), and the upcoming HVS of 2018, which indicate that apartment vacancy rates in the city are extremely low, at 3.63% citywide, which qualifies as a housing crisis (below 5%). This has been a consistent problem for more than 20 years. Low vacancy rates give leverage to landlords over tenants in rent negotiations. The city addresses this imbalance with rent stabilization, among other programs.
According to a city official, in 2017 there were 966,000 rent-stabilized units (occupied and vacant available), comprising 44 percent of the total rental stock. De la Uz described rent-stabilized housing as one the city’s most valuable assets, together with public housing.
Giving some credit to the de Blasio administration’s efforts, de la Uz pointed out that “the city produced more [housing] units in the last few years than it’s had in decades, and I think that certainly is an endorsement of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan.” She also mentioned other measures that de Blasio has instituted to help tenants keep their rents affordable or stay in their homes.
As of November, landlords in certain areas need to provide “certificates of no harassment” signed by tenants, if they want to make significant alterations to their building. And, as of August 2017, the city has promised legal counsel to many low-income tenants facing eviction. De la Uz also expressed cautious optimism about the new “Neighborhood Pillars” program, which will pledge capital to help non-profit organizations acquire and preserve affordability in existing, unregulated, and rent-stabilized buildings.
“What’s interesting is that rents, especially at the upper income levels, are actually coming down,” she said, “the problem is that the rents really aren’t coming down for the folks that are most in need, and the people the Fifth Avenue Committee serves, and other non-profit community development corporations serve.” This pattern corresponds with the vacancy rates of different affordability brackets: according to the HVS, for units with rents less than $800 a month, the vacancy rate is 1.15%, while for units with rents more than $2,000 a month, the vacancy rate is 7.42%, and above $2,500 asking rent, the vacancy rate was reported at 8.74% in 2017.
A key part of de Blasio’s housing plan is the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy (MIH), which, through zoning actions, forces residential developers to build a certain percentage of units that are affordable to households in different income brackets, measured as a percentage of Area Median Income.
De la Uz expressed dissatisfaction with the MIH targets -- she voted against MIH at the Commission -- which underlies many of the neighborhood rezonings and land use measures the city backs to help create affordable housing through new development. “We know it’s the most aggressive mandatory inclusion policy in the country, but the need is much, much greater than that,” de la Uz said of how the MIH income targets play out in low-income communities.
Asked to respond to de la Uz’s critiques, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration noted that the city added $2 billion to its affordable housing budget last year, specifically to preserve and build more deeply-affordable units, with nearly half allocated for families living on less than $43,000 per year. The city official also reported that the share of households that are rent burdened is still high, but it is stable with about half of renter households rent-burdened, and one-third severely burdened. A household is defined as rent-burdened if it spends 30% or more of its income on rent, and severely rent-burdened if that percentage hits 50.
De la Uz made a connection between the MIH targets and the strong local opposition to the major rezonings: “you have nearly 27% of New York City’s population that is not benefitting, whose incomes are so low that they are not benefiting from any of the new development that's happening in a community, right, so that's part of the problem -- MIH doesn't reach below 40% AMI, and yet in a number of the neighborhoods that have been rezoned or are targeted for rezoning, that’s the majority of residents in that community. So no wonder people are opposing it...none of the new housing is going to be for them. People want to see themselves in what is happening.”
While that is not entirely true, there has been some community opposition to the rezonings, with some people feeling that development will exacerbate market pressures, accelerate gentrification, and displace local businesses and residents. Although these rezonings have come in packages which include major investments in the neighborhoods, one critic, Emily Goldstein of the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, has pointed out that wealthier neighborhoods have been able to receive city resources “without having to “trade” for something City Hall wants.”
De la Uz explained where her skepticism comes from, saying, “I think [it’s] because I run a non-profit community development corporation, one that has seen all the mistakes of past rezonings.” Citing significant losses of rent-stabilized housing in North Park Slope, South Park Slope, and Sunset Park following their respective rezonings in 2003, 2007, and 2009, during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, she emphasized the need for caution. “Zoning can be too broad, you need a scalpel...It could be more targeted.”
De la Uz also expressed frustration with the environmental impact review process employed by the City Planning Department. At the moment, rent-stabilized housing is not viewed as at risk of demolition, but following the rezonings in Park Slope and Sunset Park, she said “certainly Fifth Avenue Committee and I, personally, have seen that that's just not the case.” More broadly, they don’t take into account risks of displacement of rent-stabilized tenants. “We have no data, or no data that’s being shared. That’s really critical, that the city and state’s information around rent stabilization is not publicly accessible,” she said, “If you don’t measure it how could you possibly know what the impact is?”
In the Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning process, for example, a neighborhood where the real-estate market is relatively weak, the Department of City Planning predicts that all of the residential development in the short-term will be subsidized and 100% will be income-targeted, according to Abigail Savitch-Lew from City Limits. Even in such cases, de la Uz wants to ask the question, “what was there before? - because in a number of these communities, there were naturally occurring affordable communities that had no subsidy from government to create the affordability, and often times the income level of the folks were lower than the new housing that's being created, especially in East New York. You know, that's a community that's moderate income that has a lot of homeowners.”
“What's being lost at what AMI level, and what’s being gained at what AMI level?” de la Uz asked. She also raised the concern that the rezonings displace undocumented immigrants. “We’re talking about people who are not eligible for the new affordable housing programs,” she said.
“You really need multiple strategies, and the city now, with the tenant right to counsel, and the certificate of no harassment, with MIH, these are the things -- and many more things -- that you have to put together in order to have the desired outcome of really increasing economic diversity and preserving not just buildings, but neighborhoods and the people that have lived in them,” de la Uz said, giving the de Blasio administration and other officials some credit.
She raised the possibility of using another strategy, saying, “none of the land use actions have thought about using value capture to help preserve public housing. NYCHA is talked about as if it’s a totally different universe despite the fact that it is all in these communities.”
The Gowanus rezoning process, occurring right in de la Uz’s backyard, could be a welcome break with the pattern of only rezoning poorer neighborhoods, as some have called for rezonings in more prosperous areas. The process is being led by City Council Member Brad Lander, who succeeded de Blasio in the City Council representing the area, and who was de la Uz’s predecessor at Fifth Avenue Committee.
De la Uz discussed her work with the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, a coalition of public housing residents, industrial business advocates, nonprofits, religious groups, and civic members, who are currently advocating for the community’s interests in four separate rezoning processes, including the larger Gowanus plan.
GNCJ is pushing for even deeper affordability than in MIH, investment in NYCHA through value capture, and the creation of the city’s first eco-district; close-by are three manufactured gas sites, and the neighborhood has lived with the environmental impacts for decades, not to mention the polluted Gowanus Canal. Additionally, there is a large industrial-business zone in the area, “that really needs much more attention and really should be leveraged, and should be thought of as part the mayor’s 100,000 jobs plan.”
Since de la Uz and Fifth Avenue Committee are involved in the local processes, she will have to recuse herself on the City Planning Commission.
On the city’s larger battle to create affordable housing, de la Uz also touched on the large number of vacant apartments in the city, according to the HVS.
“I think the other interesting number is the number of apartments that are vacant, but not for rent. So, pied-a-terres. There are over 70,000 apartments in the city of New York that are vacant or not really available, because someone is using them as investment properties. That number is more than the homeless population that we have in the city of New York. We don’t tax those units differently, for instance. To have an affordable housing crisis, and to have a public housing authority crisis, to have the highest number of pied-a-terres in the city’s history, not looked at, in my mind, as something that should be taxed or should be regulated more directly. They're not contributing to relieving the city’s housing crisis basically, they’re sitting there as investment property,” De la Uz said.
Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly advocated for a pied-a-terre tax and a mansion tax, which would additionally tax sales of expensive properties to support more affordable housing subsidies. Any tax legislation would have to pass through the State Legislature.
“We support wealthy out of towners paying their fair share through a pied-à-terre tax,” said de Blasio spokesperson Melissa Grace. “As we continue to explore our options in this challenging legal area, the Mayor is pushing hard for a mansion tax targeting a similar ultra-high-income group. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement is aggressively enforcing laws that bar property owners from taking permanent housing off the market to create illegal hotels.”
by Gabriel Slaughter and Ben Max