Construction workers at work (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)
As our city stays focused on managing what we hope to be the final chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also need to keep thinking proactively about driving a strong and just economic recovery.
It’s no secret that in my Brooklyn district and across the five boroughs, there’s a long road ahead. Our official citywide unemployment rate is now hovering around 12%, with the highest jobless rates still in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
A recent report showed that year-to-date filings for new construction – one of our city’s most vital industries – are currently at their lowest point since the Great Recession a decade ago. Kick-starting our construction pipeline will play an important role in creating more good-paying jobs to help drive the city’s recovery. One way to start is by looking seriously at opportunities to develop on city-owned land in ways that serve long-standing neighborhood needs – particularly the increasingly urgent need for more truly affordable housing.
There are a host of ideas out there about how best to deal with our affordable housing crisis, from community land trusts and comprehensive planning to reforming the land use approval process (ULURP) and rejuvenating our public housing. All of those ideas and more should be on the table but all will take lots of time and money to get right and get going, two things that our city doesn’t have enough of right now.
So how can we get started on driving our recovery and dealing with our affordable housing crisis sooner, without waiting for Albany or Washington or revising the city charter? Part of the answer is all around us in the form of city-owned land.
I am certainly not the first politician to propose building affordable housing on city-owned land. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve had conversations with myriad stakeholders about how to activate city-owned sites. Proposals to build on city-owned land seem like a silver bullet – the land is ours, we should be able to do what we want with it! – but they haven’t been scaled up for the reason they’re appealing: public ownership raises the stakes and makes the dynamics that come with any development much more acute: “Who is this for?” “How tall will it be?” “Where will people park?” “Who is making money off this and how much?”
When it comes to developing city-owned land, we have a trust deficit as big as our budget deficit and if we don’t implement a framework based on trust and respect with impacted communities from the start, we’re doomed to repeat the development stumbles of the past.
In order to deal with that trust deficit, I suggest we create and convene, in collaboration with local community boards, Constituent Assemblies to review all the city-owned sites in each district to come up with a vision for how to best use them to jumpstart our recovery and put a dent in our housing affordability crisis. Each Constituent Assembly would be made up of stakeholders representing everyone with a stake in the area – from renters, homeowners, and business owners to immigrants, seniors, and organized labor – and will receive pro-bono technical support from affordable housing experts to make sure the Constituent Assembly’s vision is grounded in reality. Local elected officials could then work with city government entities - the housing department, Economic Development Corporation, and more - to issue requests for proposals that conform to the Community Assembly’s vision. As proposals come in, the Assembly for the area of each proposal will serve as another guiding light along with the relevant community board in helping the City Council member determine whether to lend his or her support to the proposal in the land use review process (ULURP).
You may be saying, “Justin, we already have community boards to issue advisory opinions on ULURPs, why do we need Constituent Assemblies?” And I’m glad you asked! While doing this in collaboration with community boards is crucial, community boards have a lot to do and cover a lot of ground, whereas Constituent Assemblies would be laser-focused on this one issue of what to do with city-owned sites in their assigned area in order to balance neighborhood concerns with city-wide priorities. I believe that focus is key to accomplishing anything and by focusing their time, Constituent Assembly-like bodies in Europe have tackled far thornier issues than building affordable housing.
There’s no getting around having debates about development in this city – they’re as old as the city itself. But I firmly believe that by starting these debates sooner and outside the twin pressure cookers of ULURP and social media, representative groups of constituents can grapple with the trade-offs inherent in any development in a much more just and productive manner that would ultimately lead to better results.
We should get started now by identifying sites that make the most immediate sense. There's no time to waste.
Justin Brannan is a member of the City Council representing parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.