Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/22 Tue, 19 Nov 2019 15:05:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) A Well-Meaning But Misguided Housing Proposal https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8932-well-meaning-but-misguided-housing-proposal-homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8932-well-meaning-but-misguided-housing-proposal-homelessness city council cm raf salamanca

Council Member Salamanca (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


A year ago, a homeless woman confronted Mayor de Blasio during his gym workout in Park Slope to ask why the city doesn’t set aside more apartments for homeless people. The incident and a video of it in which the mayor refused to talk with the woman, Nathylin Flowers Adesegun, were widely reported. A few weeks later, City Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx introduced legislation that would require any rental housing project receiving taxpayer subsidies such as tax abatements, loans, tax credits or reduced-cost land to set aside 15% of its units for people living in the city’s shelters. 

The mayor’s comments about the proposed legislation were on target. He said:

“I think that the [current] affordable housing plan works for the people of the city because it is for everyone. It is meant to reach working-class people, middle-class people, low-income people,” and, “I don’t want to send a message that the only folks who can get affordable housing are folks who end up in shelter. I think that’s wrong for everyone.” 

Now, almost exactly a year later, Salamanca has re-introduced the same bill but the mayor’s response has been quite different -- he says he is sure he can reach a deal with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

The mayor was right a year ago and there is no reason to change positions now. His apparent disinterest in or distaste for conflict with the Council cannot be allowed to lead to bad policy that will impede what has been a successful program to build and preserve affordable housing for needy New Yorkers at a variety of income levels.

In 2014 the de Blasio administration issued Housing NY, a ten-year plan to build and preserve a total of 200,000 units of housing in the five boroughs. An important principle of the plan was that the apartments developed would be affordable to families at an array of income levels, from those of extremely low-income, defined as below $25,000 a year for a family of four, to those of middle-income, families of four earning $100,000-138,000 a year, and others in between. The plan projected the distribution of units developed at 20% (40,000) for extremely low- and very low-income households, 58% (116,000) for low-income households, and 22% for moderate- and middle-income households (44,000).

In 2017 Housing NY 2.0 modified the administration’s already-ambitious goals by accelerating its plan, extending it two years, and adding an additional 100,000 units to be preserved or created by 2026. The new targets increased the number of extremely low- and low-income households to be housed to 25% of the total.

Providing affordable housing to New Yorkers at all low- to middle-income levels is important to maintaining a thriving economy and a diverse, vibrant city. As a recent report from the Department of City Planning shows, the city’s supply of jobs far exceeds its supply of housing and we need to generate more places for workers to live.

It is very expensive to build and maintain units for extremely low-income households (approximately $150,000- $200,000 in city capital subsidy per unit for construction, plus ongoing rental assistance) so the rents at higher income levels are necessary to make developments economically viable.  The situation is not helped by the fact that the City Council keeps piling on requirements -- like the just-added prevailing wage requirement -- that are not only costly, but deter developers (both for- and non-profit) from wanting to even do deals with the city. It also must be acknowledged that many families in the shelter system need a variety of on-site services in addition to housing, services that private-sector buildings do not provide.   

Reasonable people can debate the shortcomings and details of Housing NY,  for example, the inclusion of thousands of units in Stuyvesant Town as “preserved” but there is no denying that it has been an ambitious effort that has thus far leveraged over $14 billion in city capital commitments and generated 135,000 units of urgently needed housing.

City officials need the flexibility to design each project based on its overall size, location, and cost; they should not be constrained by arbitrary apartment allocation requirements to particular income levels or types of tenants. 

Mayor de Blasio needs no prodding to devote priority and resources to homeless individuals and families. His annual budget provides more than $3 billion a year for shelters, rent assistance, legal assistance, and other homelessness prevention programs, re-housing efforts, and related social services.

So far, about 11% of the units generated by Housing NY have gone to homeless households. Moreover, in 2016 NYCHA started giving preference to homeless families and over the past three years, nearly half of all tenants placed in NYCHA units -- 6,400 -- have been formerly homeless. Another 4,400 homeless families have received Section 8 rental assistance through NYCHA in the same time period.

The City Council should not create a one-size-fits-all set-aside that would tie the hands of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor for Housing, and other city officials who are trying to spur as much housing construction as possible and who are already motivated to create units for homeless families without compulsion.

If the 15% homeless requirement is in addition to the 25% proportion of units Housing NY 2.0 already requires for extremely low-income units, it will make some projects so costly that they will not be built. If the homeless allocation is instead made part of the total number of project units allocated to low-income families, it will take much-needed units out of the pool available to the thousands of other families earning less than $25,000 a year who also need decent and affordable places to live in New York City. Neither is acceptable.

The Council’s focus should be on streamlining the process for project approval and creating more new affordable housing across the income spectrum, not counterproductive requirements and virtue posturing.

***
Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

 

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A Well-Meaning But Misguided Housing Proposal Sun, 17 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Questioning Jails Plan, Advocates Seek ‘New Deal’ to Address Homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8864-advocates-seek-housing-new-deal-to-address-homelessness-in-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8864-advocates-seek-housing-new-deal-to-address-homelessness-in-new-york-city vocal ny housing presser oct 2019

Friday's press conference (photo: Vocal New York)


A coalition of housing rights advocates and elected officials is seeking a “new deal” for homeless people living in New York City, as one activist put it at a rally on Friday.

Members of the coalition gathered in front of City Hall to point out what they believe to be shortcomings of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing agenda and the dangers of celebrating too early the plan to shutter the Rikers Island jails. The jails are a cornerstone of the city’s criminal justice system that the advocates say have helped destabilize communities and contribute to the cycle of incarceration and homelessness, particularly among black and Latino New Yorkers.

Just after the City Council’s Thursday passage of the new jails plan and in the shadow of the brutal killing of four homeless people in Chinatown two weeks ago, the groups are calling for a holistic approach to homelessness centered on adequate housing for at-risk New Yorkers.

The press conference, organized by VOCAL-NY and Coalition for the Homeless, came less than 24 hours after the City Council took the decisive vote to replace the Rikers jails with four new locally-situated jails. The vote is a historic step towards ameliorating what has been described as devastation to individuals, families, and communities caused by mass incarceration and lock-up inside the city’s blighted detention facilities. In addition to the ones on Rikers Island, the system includes antiquated jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and a Bronx barge that are all set to be replaced.

But the advocates at City Hall Friday say the city’s emphasis on replacing the Rikers jails without including affordable housing creation in new plans fails to address the root causes of mass incarceration and its relationship with the homelessness crisis. There are currently about 7,000 detainees in city jails and more than 62,000 homeless people in New York City.

The groups on Friday were rallying around a set of recommendations under the “House Our Future NY” campaign launched by Coalition for the Homeless to address the city’s shortage of meaningfully affordable housing. As part of the campaign the organizations are pressing for 30,000 more units of affordable housing dedicated specifically to homeless people, of which a vast majority -- 24,000 units -- would be newly created.

Participants included community-based organizations like Housing Works, Make the Road New York, Neighbors Together, and New York Communities for Change. Three elected officials -- Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, and Council Member Stephen Levin -- also spoke.

The groups are seeking action in three areas: permanently affordable housing for homeless New Yorkers; supportive housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and need social services on-site; and improvements in the city’s shelter system to materially address the experiences of people it is meant to serve.

“If you want to shut down Rikers Island and reduce the number of people who are incarcerated...and if you want to end homelessness in this city it starts with access to safe, affordable housing,” said Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, at the Friday rally.

“The only solution is housing,” said Felix Guzman, an organizer with VOCAL-NY who identified as formerly homeless and incarcerated. “We must build housing for the people that need it the most in our city.” Guzman questioned plans for the MTA to hire 500 new police officers aimed at addressing homelessness in the subway system and what he called the criminalization of street homelessness, explaining that some people who sleep on the street are afraid of the city’s shelters.

There are approximately 78,600 people in beds or chairs across the city’s shelter system or who are homeless and unsheltered, according to data provided by the city to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in January, and cited by advocates Friday. The count is greater than another frequently-cited metric -- roughly 60,000, the daily population of those living in Department of Homeless services shelters -- because it counts people in shelter placements not administered by DHS, such as ones for people with HIV and AIDS and people who have experienced domestic violence, said Craig Hughes of the Urban Justice Center, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. The figure also includes estimates of unsheltered people, he said. Hughes did not participate in the press conference but had discussed the metrics with organizers leading up to the event.

“It shows that the city has failed in solving homelessness and its housing crisis,” Hughes said. “My argument would be that its housing crisis is producing homelessness at a much higher rate than we are often talking about.”

The DHS shelter census of roughly 60,000 has been relatively stable in recent years as the city has continued to implement a variety of programs, including rental vouchers and a “right to counsel” for thousands of low-income tenants, which has led to large drops in evictions. Still, many thousands of New Yorkers are cycling through the shelter system each year, and advocates say de Blasio’s approach is not designed to meaningfully reduce the city’s homeless population.

The $8.7 billion plan to construct new jails to replace Rikers Island capacity, which the City Council passed Thursday, came with $391 million in additional funds for community investment and criminal justice reform initiatives, according to a press release from the city. Among the reforms are tens of millions in pre-trial diversion programs, incarceration alternatives, and re-entry services. The plan also includes a provision to increase the number of supportive and transitional housing units for homeless people who have been involved in the criminal legal system.

“That plan needs to be enhanced and needs to be executed. If we talk about this thing as already done, then we have lost,” Public Advocate Williams said at the press conference. “I was pleased about some of the investments that I saw. Unfortunately, it seems like the majority of them have more to do with what happens inside the criminal justice system, as opposed to what happens to prevent people from coming in in the first place.”

“What we need to see is significant investment to the tune of the same amount of money that was put into that plan yesterday. Closing Rikers was never simply about bricks and mortar,” he added.

One of the groups’ central goals is the accelerated creation of permanently affordable housing accessible to the lowest-income New Yorkers.

The mayor’s housing plan, Housing New York, is a sweeping initiative to preserve or create 300,000 units of affordable housing over 12 years, coordinating across a myriad of public and private entities. An initial version of the plan (for 200,000 units over 10 years) was unveiled in 2014, later updated with the current goals, and as of June has led to the preservation of 91,500 rent-regulated units and creation of 43,900 such units, according to the program’s website.

But critics say it does not meet the affordability demands of the city’s lowest-income households. A report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) found the ratio of housing unit development for “low-,” “very low-,” and “extremely low-income” was the inverse of the citywide need in terms of those populations.

The groups rallying at City Hall Friday also say the current housing projections are not sufficient to create an affordable landscape for future generations because they lack permanency. The ANHD report indicates that 234,520 subsidized affordable units could be lost by 2037 due to expiring housing programs.

There is “too much money being wasted for temporary housing. Give them permanent housing, they deserve it,” said Gail Gadsden of New York Communities for Change.

Creating new affordable housing is better for homeless New Yorkers than keeping existing units affordable, said Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, speaking on the steps of City Hall. That’s because preserved units are often already occupied and don’t address New Yorkers currently living without stable housing, she said.

The coalition also wants to hold the de Blasio administration to the mayor’s 2015 commitment to build 15,000 supportive housing units to serve at-risk New Yorkers with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Supportive housing refers to domiciles that come with social services geared toward the diverse needs of homeless individuals and families. According to the city’s Human Resources Administration website, support units can come in the form of congregate housing -- meaning, supportive units make up a larger percentage of a building’s total housing and have on-site service providers -- and scatter-site housing, which are individual units located in private buildings that are served by contracted non-profits. The coalition is pushing for half the 15,000 units to be congregate and the other half to be scatter-site.

In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his own plan to create 20,000 supportive housing units statewide over 15 years. According to recent reporting by Gothamist, the governor’s office has said the state has funded 5,348 units since 2016, but that only 1,426 are operational.

In addition to affordable and supportive housing, the groups backing the House Our Future campaign are seeking changes to the shelter system itself, including reforming the intake and assessment process and improving access to safe havens and emergency shelter placement for homeless living outside. Reforming the shelter system will encourage people to choose city services over the dangers of streets and public places.

The DHS shelter intake process is a bottleneck, according to Routhier. She said there is one intake center each for single men, families with children, and adult families without children, and two for single women.

“For example, for men there is only one intake center and then a handful of sites you may be sent to for assessment before ending up at your ‘official’ shelter. Intake and assessment sites are often the ones men are least willing to enter,” she told Gotham Gazette, “which is a big deterrent for many folks.”

“The community is calling for a caring and compassionate New Deal,” said Jawanza Williams, lead organizer at VOCAL-NY.

“I’ll be in office for another two years and a couple of months, you have my full commitment that this is priority number one,” said Brooklyn Council Member Stephen Levin. “We need to do this for the next generation.”

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Questioning Jails Plan, Advocates Seek ‘New Deal’ to Address Homelessness Sun, 20 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
To End the Homelessness Crisis It’s Time to Refocus the City’s Housing Plan - Here’s How https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8859-end-homelessness-crisis-refocus-city-housing-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8859-end-homelessness-crisis-refocus-city-housing-plan homelessness rally

The authors and others at a rally (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


More than 61,000 men, women, and children will sleep in New York City shelters tonight, and this historic homelessness crisis will continue to devastate the lives of even more people unless Mayor de Blasio embraces the common sense plans that we have put forward from a City Council office and the Coalition for the Homeless, respectively.

The record number of homeless New Yorkers will continue to reach new highs every year, according to the latest report from the Coalition. In stark contrast to Mayor de Blasio’s predicted decrease in the shelter census of a mere 2,500 people by 2022, the Coalition’s analysis shows that the number of city residents living in shelters will increase by 5,000 people in that time period.

While the mayor often touts the work his administration has done to prevent homelessness and protect tenants, his failure to meaningfully reduce the shelter census is a direct result of the lack of truly affordable apartments created specifically to house homeless New Yorkers. This is why the House Our Future NY Campaign, with the support of the majority of the New York City Council, has spent more than a year and a half calling on Mayor de Blasio to make his Housing New York 2.0 plan -- badly in need of a third iteration -- address the true scale of the homelessness crisis.

Of the 300,000 apartments the Housing New York 2.0 plan will create or preserve by 2026, only 15,000 apartments will be set aside for homeless New Yorkers – and just 6,000 of those will be created through new construction. The remaining 9,000 of those apartments in the mayor’s plan will be set aside for homeless New Yorkers through the preservation of already-occupied units, which will remain unavailable to homeless New Yorkers for many years.

To address the housing needs of our homeless neighbors, the House Our Future NY Campaign, formed by the Coalition and 66 partner organizations, urges Mayor de Blasio to create 24,000 apartments through new construction (about 20 percent of all planned new construction in Housing New York 2.0) and preserve at least 6,000 more units for a total of 30,000 apartments for homeless New Yorkers.

In the Bronx, we have seen how the issue of homelessness impacts people firsthand. Many hurtful and false narratives have been spread about people in the shelter system, primarily that individuals are unemployed or are looking for handouts. To the contrary, many in the system have full-time jobs or are living on fixed-incomes and turn to the shelter system as a last resort because of rising rents in their communities. Once in the system, people face a lengthy wait to be placed in permanent housing due to a lack of truly affordable housing.

To address this issue and the staggering number of individuals and families in the shelter system, we introduced legislation, Intro. 1211, which requires all new housing developments that receive city financial assistance to set aside at least 15 percent of new apartments for homeless households.

Working together to raise awareness on this proposal, Intro. 1211 has secured a veto-proof majority of Council members signed on as co-sponsors, as well as the support of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. While an overwhelming number of homeless advocates came out in support of the bill at a public hearing held in December 2018, the de Blasio administration declared its opposition to the bill, citing financial concerns. But we have demonstrated that more affordable housing can be built for homeless New Yorkers than is conceptualized in the mayor’s plan.

Starting in April 2018 while drafting the language for Intro. 1211, we began requiring developers who were looking to build housing in Council District 17 in the Bronx to set aside a minimum of 15 percent of developed units for homeless individuals and families. Despite the administration’s insistence that the financing would not work, we were able to secure a 15 percent homeless set-aside in every new construction project that required our Council approval.

In total, our Council office approved 121 new set-aside units over eight projects. While this number of units is a drop in the bucket of the overall need for our homeless population, it shows the impact this legislation could have in changing the tide on homelessness if implemented across New York City.

We are pleased that Intro. 1211 is already having a positive effect on the movement to build more housing for homeless people. Many Council colleagues have begun requiring a 15 percent set-aside minimum in projects in their own districts. With a citywide policy to substantially increase new housing built for homeless New Yorkers, we would be able to move more people out of city shelters and achieve the goal of reaching the 24,000 new units the House Our Future NY Campaign is advocating for.

We cannot continue to accept mass homelessness in our city as a fact of life. We have the means to alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers by building more deeply subsidized affordable housing to match the scale of the need. In addition to being the moral thing to do, the New York City Council has demonstrated through its support of the House Our Future NY Campaign and Intro. 1211 that it is entirely feasible. Now it is time for Mayor de Blasio to finally address the ongoing homelessness crisis with the best tool available: building new affordable apartments for homeless New Yorkers.

***
City Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. represents parts of the Bronx. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @Salamancajr80 & @Giselle_Ashley.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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To End the Homelessness Crisis It’s Time to Refocus the City’s Housing Plan - Here’s How Thu, 17 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Planning Chief on De Blasio Administration's Zoning for Growth, and the Need for More Housing in the Suburbs https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8834-city-planning-chief-on-how-de-blasio-administration-is-zoning-for-growth https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8834-city-planning-chief-on-how-de-blasio-administration-is-zoning-for-growth marisa lago city breakfast2

City Planning Director Marisa Lago (photo: May Vutrapongvatana)


In a Friday morning speech about how New York City’s limited space is used, Marisa Lago, director of the Department of City Planning, discussed some of the department’s approaches to the housing, employment, and equity challenges facing the city.

The city has a population of 8.4 million and is “the only older U.S. city that has surpassed its 1970s-era population peak,” said Lago, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to direct the Department of City Planning and chair the City Planning Commission in early 2017 after over three decades in city and federal government. The city has 4.5 million jobs, including 800,000 created between 2010 and 2018, she told the audience attending the CityLaw breakfast at New York Law School.

In the picture Lago painted Friday, the Department of City Planning is responsible for balancing New Yorkers’ personal and professional needs with the implications of broad, even global, economic changes in a way that makes room for long-term growth. The work often revolves around the limited resource of land, which is heavily regulated by zoning rules enshrined in law or controlled by property owners, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.

“It’s important to remember that, despite the growth in population in the city, we still have the same 303 square miles of land,” Lago said. “So to grow sustainably and equitably, we have to build more housing and especially affordable housing, and we also have to create what I call ‘space for jobs.’”

Using zoning rules to expand housing and job production is a fixture in the lifecycle of big cities throughout the country and the world. Lago also pointed to the need for more housing development in the New York City suburbs. The prongs of Lago’s approach to city planning, which extend back before her tenure at the Department of City Planning to her predecessor, Carl Weisbrod, include utilizing and expanding flexibility in zoning, and embracing data-driven planning, she said.

Flexibility in Land Use
Flexibility in zoning is key for a city as large as New York to adjust to demographic shifts and technological developments that drive and are driven by changes in the economy. The space needs of so-called “classic sector” jobs, like finance, the arts, even some manufacturing, are different in the new economy of online shopping and changing consumer preferences.

Lago believes having the ability to shift land use regulations from generation to generation is essential for the city’s long-term economic viability. “Powerful as zoning is, it can’t stop the tide of a changing global economy,” she said.

One of Lago’s focuses is updating the city’s mid-century zoning of manufacturing districts outside of Manhattan that place limits on height and density and require a high degree of space dedicated to parking. DCP is looking for opportunities to reduce parking requirements in those districts that have public transit options, she said, “to provide a wider array of permitted densities that will allow manufacturing business to grow vertically and also to give more flexibility to the envelopes of buildings.”

“Sometimes the best thing that the city can do is to get outdated, overly-proscriptive zoning out of the way of businesses that want to construct space for jobs,” said Lago.

But the city’s existing zoning already allows for a high degree of flexibility to meet existing construction demands. As-of-right development is the “workhorse of producing both housing and space for jobs,” Lago said Friday. As-of-right development refers to proposed construction or repairs that comply with existing zoning requirements. They don’t need approval from the City Planning Commission and City Council to proceed, meaning they do not have to go through the city’s extensive land use review process (ULURP).

The city over the last decade has relied on as-of-right development to produce a significant proportion of its new housing stock. According to Lago, 80 percent of the new housing built since 2010 -- housing approximately 300,000 New Yorkers -- has been as-of-right.

“If we were like San Francisco, where practically every single development project has to go through discretionary project review, we would be producing far less housing, thus becoming increasingly unaffordable,” she said.

But in some cases, Lago is hoping to insert flexibility on a broad scale through new zoning instruments.

Climate resiliency has become a significant focus of city planners in the seven years since Superstorm Sandy left entire neighborhoods in need of repair and reconstruction. The city planning department is pursuing changes to land use requirements throughout the city’s floodplain to make it easier for home- and small business-owners to mitigate flood risk.

Currently, elevating buildings along the waterfront, a common response to flood risk, often violates building height requirements and moving mechanical equipment from basements to higher floors takes up valuable residential square footage, according to Lago. For the past seven years, DCP has had in place temporary emergency zoning regulations that remove some of these requirements and encourage better flood resiliency construction.

Under a new plan called Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, DCP hopes to codify the temporary regulations. Lago said the new amendments will go into ULURP early next year.

“We’ve now had seven years of living with these temporary regs and we’ve learned a ton by reaching out extensively to neighborhood residents in the city’s various types of flood-prone areas,” she said.

When DCP feels zoning regulations need to be changed, it is common for the agency to try to harness the demand of private sector stakeholders. Rezoning, and especially upzoning -- zoning for added building height and/or density -- is often a negotiation between the city and the private landowner seeking to benefit from added capacity on the land.

Under the mayor’s signature housing policy, which is intended to create or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years, the city instituted Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) to ensure the creation of affordable housing in exchange for upzoning. MIH, which became law in 2016, is a permanent change to the city’s zoning code that requires a portion of housing units in newly upzoned plots or neighborhoods to be made permanently affordable. One of the criticisms of the plan is that the affordability standards in many cases are not truly affordable to local residents and do not reflect the demographics of the city.

Lago said housing production is essential to making the city affordable, even as it causes gentrification and displacement. “I think that we have to acknowledge that the fear of displacement and the fear of gentrification is real,” she said. But, “we also have to put the lie to the claim that if we build no more housing that somehow the city will become more affordable. That just is not true.” But in her prepared remarks she did not address the middle ground between those two thoughts, which is where one major critique of the de Blasio administration’s neighborhood rezoning and affordable housing policies resides: that they are not as helpful as they could or should be in addressing the city’s affordability crisis for the many New Yorkers who feel its crunch most acutely.

Asked about “actual” affordability in reference to this criticism during the question-and-answer session that followed her remarks, Lago cited programs administered by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development that create set-asides for extremely low-income people, the seniors, and formerly homeless people. In terms of the zoning regulations DCP and CPC have influence over, Lago defended the affordability tiers in many of the rezoned neighborhoods, which create “workforce housing” serving the needs of middle-income professionals like teachers and firefighters.

Data-Driven and Regional Planning
On Friday, Lago emphasized the importance of “community-informed, fact-based” city planning. She discussed recent examples of research-based analysis, which DCP has undertaken to inform its work.

This summer DCP released a study on retail-store vacancy that examined over 10,000 storefronts in 24 pedestrian-oriented shopping corridors across the five boroughs. The report found that the vacancy rate of storefronts was not uniform city-wide and the reasons for vacancy varied from neighborhood to neighborhood, according to Lago.

“This research that we have done is going to inform our neighborhood planning work and I hope the work of other policy-makers who may have non-zoning tools to address the needs of small-businesses throughout the city,” she said.

DCP has also used, Lago said, quantitative research to confirm what it had long-believed: that in a city with limited space and as many transit options as New York, tall buildings are essential for creating dense housing stock. It also reveals information about what range of building heights the city can allow to create the level of density needed to house the growing population, she said.

Lago described a study of new residential buildings completed by DCP in 2017. The study found one-to-six story buildings represented 87 percent of new buildings constructed that year but only a quarter of new units. By contrast, 22 percent of new housing units fell into just 18 high-rises above 40 storiess (one percent of the new residential buildings completed that year). The remaining half of units were in mid-rise buildings of 13 stories or more, all of which are in neighborhoods Lago considers “transit-rich.”

But the measurements are not always complete.

At a City Council oversight hearing in May, representatives of DCP and the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination revealed that the city has no procedure for assessing the accuracy of Environmental Impact Statements -- required when a proposed rezoning could potentially change the neighborhood -- after a project is complete. Council Members and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have introduced a number of bills to improve this, including requiring a racial impact study to accompany rezoning proposals. The bill will mandate reporting on the potential effect the proposed rezoning would have on the racial make-up of the area.

Lago wants to see data-driven approaches to zoning expanded to the regional level by continuing the work of DCP’s regional planning office started by Weisbrod. The regional planning office is partnering with DCP counterparts in municipal governments throughout the New York City metropolitan area with the understanding that housing affordability depends on the supply of housing outside the five boroughs and that the city is the job center for the region. Lago says she hopes to continue to leverage regional data to inform the work and partnerships of local governments.

“In the city we understand that housing affordability is a major challenge, but we also have to be aware that the region as a whole is falling woefully behind on housing production,” Lago said. “Historically, the suburbs to our north and east have been affordable alternatives to city living, but for years these jurisdictions have allowed extremely restrictive zoning to curtail their housing production."

“Our goal is to bring regional knowledge to bare in our and in other governments’ local planning efforts,” she added.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Planning Chief on De Blasio Administration's Zoning for Growth, and the Need for More Housing in the Suburbs Sun, 06 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City's Physical Landscape - Part II: 'Chunky and Funky' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8741-assessing-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-of-new-york-city-chunky-funky-ferry https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8741-assessing-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-of-new-york-city-chunky-funky-ferry mbdb ferry

Alicia Glen cristens a ferry (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Jump to part one here.

Part one of this series focused on Glen's style and leadership broadly, as well as her legacy on housing, including the de Blasio administration's massive affordable housing plan, neighborhood rezonings, public housing, and more. This part deals with economic development, transit, and more.

‘Chunky and Funky,’ Utilizing City Space and Expanding the Transit Network
In spearheading economic development, the other half of her former title, Glen put her preference for “mixed-use” into practice, creating what she calls “chunky and funky” buildings.

“Maybe because I’m a little chunky and funky, I like to sort of think about the built environment in my own physique,” she joked. Unlike the traditional supertalls that have sprouted in Hudson Yards, for example, her approach involves different types of architecture to create new developments that can house offices, light manufacturing, retail and commercial space. In a very de Blasio lens, she’s also focused on utilizing publicly-owned land.

A prime example is Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 675,000-square-foot building being developed by Boston Properties and Rudin Development. 

“I think that as we started to get much more serious about growing the five-borough economy, I really wanted to think about what that would look like being respectful of and being able to experiment with different kinds of building typologies and the way in which neighborhoods work,” she added.

The city had made mistakes with rezonings in the past and lacked any real sense of mixed-use zoning, she said, necessitating new thinking about density and design. “I think there was real openness and excitement at [the Department of] City Planning and at [the Economic Development Corporation] and other places to do that, particularly because there had been 12 years of a very particular kind of planning director and design, not saying good or bad but it was a good opportunity to step back and say, huh?”

And she employed her approach in areas around the Queens waterfront, at places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the Bush Terminal (now known as Industry City) in Sunset Park. These projects have aimed to revive old and out-of-use public assets -- particularly three massive geographic areas in Brooklyn -- and work with private companies to create thousands of jobs by encouraging new manufacturing and commercial uses in hubs of economic activity. Then, look at building housing around the edges of those areas.

Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a leading business group, had particular praise for the city’s investment in Brooklyn Navy Yard, which she called “arguably the best economic development project in the country.”

“At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you've got a whole advanced manufacturing industry cluster that didn't exist before that has an impact throughout the city, where companies from throughout the city are partnering with them, whether it's the forefront of 3D robotics, AI, the Internet of Things. That's all happening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” Wylde said.

“That’s been our five-borough economy plan. You want to preserve these really great and unique spaces like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, like Brooklyn Army Terminal, like the Bush Terminal, like some of the other industrial parks but make sure that what’s going on there isn’t too limited so you can really ensure job intensification,” Glen said, also referencing projects in the Bronx and Queens. “So then again you don’t have a hub-and-spoke economy anymore. You want people to work and live in multiple mixed-use communities.”

Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and former city planner under Mayor Bloomberg, said Glen’s “chunky and funky” building approach moved towards the diversification of office space and encouraged, especially in many of those projects in Brooklyn, the creation of what he calls “com-dustrial space that basically is a kind of a bridge-building between what's traditionally understood to be commercial space, and industrial or light manufacturing space.”

“And I think Alicia was very focused on that, because that's about diversification of the economy, it's about creating a broader range of jobs for the city of New York,” he said.

Other projects with similar goals include the Early-Stage Life Sciences funding initiative, a $150-million public-private partnership meant to launch a number of ventures by next year to spur growth of the life sciences industry in the city, and the 21-story Union Square Tech Training Center, where construction began earlier this month.

Dulchin of ANHD has a different take. “The problem with the Bloomberg administration’s approach to economic development was that it almost exclusively privileged creating high-paying professional level jobs and exacerbated the economic divide in the city. And the de Blasio approach has not been different enough,” he said. Advocates like Dulchin want more investment in promised but stalled job training programs that will benefit people from New York City who went through the city’s schools and perhaps public higher education, but need skills for middle-income jobs.

A crucial project, perhaps the most complicated that Glen negotiated, was the East Midtown rezoning, aimed at upgrading office stock in a crumbling 78-block section of Manhattan with ample opportunity and need for growth, particularly in terms of modern office space. It had failed under the Bloomberg administration but Glen got it over the finish line by finagling a deal that allows landmarked buildings to sell air rights, and mandates that developers make improvements to public transit and outdoor space.

“I witnessed up close her navigating the Midtown East rezoning through the political and urban planning, and economic environments,” said Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the New York Tri-State Region for CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm and chair emeritus of the Real Estate Board of New York. “It had to serve a lot of different purposes. And sometimes, when you try to make real estate serve too many purposes, you end up with something that's a watered down version of what it should be. And in fact, I think she not only got a great outcome for the community, but I think she ended up doing something that is really important for the business community, and the commercial real estate owners of Midtown. She managed to make all our constituents come out ahead. How often do you see that happen?”

There are, of course, a number of both flashy and more muted projects that were achieved under Glen’s tenure. A conspicuous example is One Vanderbilt, a gleaming 73-story glass tower being constructed on the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue and set to be completed next year, right near where projects born of the East Midtown rezoning will soon proliferate.

There are the two apartment buildings in the Pier 6 development in Brooklyn, which include affordable housing and provide revenue for Brooklyn Bridge Park. “So not only do we have affordable housing in the fanciest, nicest part of New York City, Brooklyn Bridge Park is financially sustainable now in perpetuity. How about that for a victory?,” Glen said.

There’s the far-less remarked upon Landing Road Residence in the Bronx, which marries affordable housing with shelter for homeless people in the same building, using federal subsidies that would normally go to hotel rooms to place homeless people. “How about that as an unbelievable legacy?,” Glen asks. “And that building is up and gorgeous. That’s the only one in the country that’s ever been done and we’re going to do more of them. I’ve been working on that for 10 years. I’ve been trying to figure out how to leverage homeless housing subsidies to cross-subsidize affordable housing and we did it. So what are the critics gonna say about that?”

She rattles off a number of other initiatives. Funding the Delacorte Theater and the Lasker Rink in Central Park. The Universal Hip Hop Museum and the Hunts Point Food Market in the Bronx. The Garment District rezoning in Manhattan.

“The Lower Concourse deal in the Bronx, that’s gonna be a real game-changer because a lot of the other stuff that’s happening along the Bronx waterfront is a lot of market rate stuff, guys speculating,” she said. “But I said wow, the Lower Concourse project is really an opportunity for us to put our stamp on what we think mixed-income, mixed-use looks like.”

“Let’s just say that the hip hop museum’s going to be really great, but it’s not exactly the most profitable use on the planet, but we made those choices,” she said. “This is about community and what it looks like and what neighborhoods look like and celebrating the diversity of neighborhoods.”

Taking Transit Chances
It was Glen who thought of launching the city’s new ferry service, which now connects a variety of stops on several routes around the city’s waterfront, from Rockaway in Queens all the way to Soundview in the Bronx. It’s been popular, and is, as de Blasio likes to say, largely a whole new system of moving groups of people, but it has its fair share of criticism.

Though the mayor has pitched it as a “mass transit” alternative, it has relatively low ridership numbers and, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, the subsidy for each rider fare is currently $10.73, and could be as much as $24.75 for a new route between Downtown Manhattan and Coney Island. There are also concerns that the system is a vehicle for economic development along waterfront communities – notably, it is run by the Economic Development Corporation rather than the Department of Transportation – that will be a government-funded boon for real estate developers friendly with de Blasio and Glen.

While there are questions about the choice to focus on a ferry network, the subsidies, and the beneficiaries, there is no doubt that the system is also a key part of the Glen legacy on the physical landscape of the city.

“The ferries are going to be among the most visible things that you're going to see from her legacy,” said Chakrabarti. “And I know, they're controversial because of the subsidy levels, but you know, that's an age-old debate. All mass transit requires some form of subsidy...In order to expand the playing field, you've really got to change the way transit works. So by standing up a ferry system, expanding the Citi Bike network, that gives you far broader opportunities in terms of where new affordable housing can go, and where new jobs can go.”

Weisbrod said, “I think that was a very bold move. We are a waterfront city...and launching a citywide ferry system is no mean feat. I hope it becomes part of our transportation network for now permanently.”

Criticisms notwithstanding, within the next two years, there will be new ferry stops added to the system by expanding to Throggs Neck in the Bronx, connecting St. George on Staten Island with the west side of Manhattan, and linking Coney Island with Wall Street.

Glen also advanced the idea of a new streetcar running along waterfront communities between Brooklyn and Queens. Though the proposed $2.7 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), first announced by de Blasio in his 2016 State of the City speech, has only moved in fits and starts, she’s confident that the project will eventually be a reality, even if it is delayed past its original timeline and now requires federal funding under revamped city plans.

The streetcar is also under the auspices of EDC, which moved ahead with the environmental review process for the project in April. That review is a precursor to the longer land use review procedure, which will likely be a far more complicated battle. But if it moves ahead, the BQX will eventually be a major new feature in the city landscape, and, if successful, could lead to other streetcar routes around the city. If those are built based on Glen’s BQX plan, the city’s streetcar system would be traced to her legacy.

Along with worries about its cost, there are also questions that the streetcar is redundant, considering existing subway and bus lines that run along the proposed route, and that one method used to finance its construction – capturing a slice of increased property taxes in its immediate vicinity – is tied to speeding along gentrification and more of a boost to real estate owners and developers than the commuting public. Concerns have also been raised about the BQX being added in areas prone to flooding.

Another piece of the Glen-de Blasio approach to expanding the transit network, is more bike share. It was in her time at Goldman Sachs just prior to joining the de Blasio administration that Glen first put together the funding for the Citi Bike deal, which created the first bike-share program in the city. Citi Bike docking stations are already major new features of the city’s physical landscape in any neighborhoods, as are the blue bikes dotting city roadways and bridges on many days.

Glen saw it as more than just a transportation alternative; like the subsequent ferry and BQX plans, it was also meant to spur economic growth and create jobs. After its launch in 2013, the bike network has expanded to more than 12,000 bikes with 750 stations located across the city.

In July, the city announced a massive planned expansion of the system, making 40,000 bikes available by 2023. By next year, there will finally be stations installed in the Bronx, while an expansion is underway further into Brooklyn and Queens. This was just after the program faced intense criticism: a report commissioned by New York Communities for Change and conducted by McGill University’s School of Urban Planning found that it currently disproportionately serves richer, whiter neighborhoods while ignoring low-income communities of color and transit deserts.

Women and What’s Next
Another economic development initiative with a physical manifestation that Glen launched is women.nyc, a mostly online resource center aimed at empowering women. Under its banner, Glen created She Built NYC, the campaign to install statues dedicated to women, especially important historical figures, and address the vast imbalance of those physical memorials across the city (of the 150 statues in public spaces across the city, only five are of women).

The first of those statues, of Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, will be erected in Prospect Park. Six others have also been announced – to be completed by 2022 – with the ultimate goal that 50% of all city statues represent women.

“The way you experience the world as a woman is very much informed by the built environment,” Glen said, recounting an anecdote about walking past a building with a construction sign that read, “Danger! Men Working Above.”

“And it took me a second to realize, why did I think that was so weird. I’ll tell you why that’s so weird. So what, women don’t know how to wash a f***ing window? Women can’t be dangerous and working above?” she said. “How do think that feels? How do you think that feels to be in the completely marginalized 51% of this city where almost every signal in the built environment is about men? So I’m having none of it.”

It’s why she believes the press has been tougher on her and other women. “I think you’re all incredibly biased about the way you cover women. I think women who are opinionated and powerful and trying to push something through are demonized,” she said. “And I think it’s a really holistic problem. That’s why I did women.nyc, it’s why we have to have women, women, women, women, women, women everywhere. Not one and done.”

She even left her stamp on Hudson Yards, a project that began under the Bloomberg administration and she has criticized (“It's not my personal favorite place. It's not a 'neighborhood' as they are characterizing it.”). Glen helped rename the public park at the development in honor of Bella Abzug, the former U.S. Representative and leader of the women’s rights movement.

In her new role at the Trust for Governors Island, Glen intends to continue that work. “I would certainly think that our public art and our statuary on Governor’s Island will certainly have a women’s bent,” she said. And that’s where she thinks a gondola from lower Manhattan could go.

Glen has also said she’ll continue working on She Built NYC and women.nyc in the months and years ahead, though some of that involvement may depend on what exactly she does next, after some time off (she hasn’t ruled out a run for mayor in the 2021 election, telling Gotham Gazette, "this town needs a woman mayor").

Glen said she wants to continue to be involved in the giant redevelopment envisioned at Sunnyside Yard in Queens, a project that she put into motion.

“People learned a lot of things from Battery Park City, learned something about the good and bad with the way that Roosevelt Island, Hudson Yards were done. To me, Sunnyside Yard is an opportunity to do large-scale planning with a mix of uses. It’s much more inclusive,” she said. In past interviews, she’s drawn a distinction with the more “male” architecture of Hudson Yards, something she’d avoid in Sunnyside. “Yeah, I’m not interested in having a lot of phallic symbols all around a statue that looks like a uterus,” she said, referring to the Vessel that sits at the center of the supertalls at Hudson Yards. “To me, that’s not really where I would go with this if I were running this town.”

Glen has few regrets about her time in the de Blasio administration. Though the vaunted Amazon deal fell through, and with it a massive Queens campus with 25,000 promised jobs and billions in expected revenue, she chalked it up to the tech firm’s mistakes rather than the administration’s. “I got it under my belt,” she said matter-of-factly of the deal.

The one failed land use deal that does continue to bother her is the site of the Long Island College Hospital, which is now on its way to becoming as-of-right market-rate luxury condos without affordable housing (at a site key to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign), which she blames on opposition from City Council Member Brad Lander, who represents the district. “I’m really mad about LICH, I think that was a huge lost opportunity. I’m really mad about some of the local politics,” she said, echoing a previous point she’s made that led to a testy exchange with Lander.

More broadly, Glen said she worries the city is headed in an anti-growth direction that could be harmful. “What’s keeping me up at night right now is this sort of swing to equating all development with this very negative connotation around gentrification,” she said. “What keeps me up at night is that a small majority of people could overly influence an agenda that starts to bake in anti-growth.”

This is part two of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Jump to part one here.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City's Physical Landscape - Part II: 'Chunky and Funky' Thu, 15 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City’s Physical Space - Part I: 'We have completely changed the housing landscape' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8740-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8740-alicia-glen-impact-physical-landscape-new-york-city Alicia Glen

Alicia Glen (photo: Paige Polk/Mayor's Office)


This is part one of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Find part two -- on economic development, transit, and more -- here.

It’s the year 2026 in New York City. Hundreds of thousands of new units of rent-restricted apartments have been added to the city’s housing stock as the population continues to grow. Ferry boats cruise in the East River and on the Hudson. Gleaming office buildings rise in East Midtown. Downtown Far Rockaway is bustling. Construction of an entirely new neighborhood at Sunnyside Yard in Queens is well underway. Formerly decrepit industrial spaces along the Brooklyn waterfront house light manufacturing companies alongside co-working spaces, retail stores, and commercial businesses. A statue of Shirley Chisholm stands in Prospect Park. And perhaps, a gondola links the city’s financial center with the former military base on Governors Island.

This is the future Alicia Glen wants, the future for New York City -- where she was recently Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development -- that Glen designed. Rent-regulated apartments, ferry landings, modern midtown office space, a film production campus, monuments to female historical figures – they are all physical manifestations of the massive portfolio that Glen was given, crafted, and ran for nearly five-and-a-half years under Mayor Bill de Blasio before stepping down in March.

“I’m a built-environment person,” said Glen, in a recent hour-long interview at a coffee shop in Chelsea. “I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker and I’ve been working in the built environment and community development and real estate my whole life.”

A former Goldman Sachs executive, where she led the Urban Investment Group, who also worked in city government in the 1980s and ‘90s, Glen spearheaded the city’s affordable housing program, neighborhood rezonings, job-creation efforts, new ferry system, and planned light rail project; oversaw the city’s public housing authority and public parks department; and led the launch of an initiative to create monuments to prominent women; among a myriad of other duties.

The policies and projects that Glen initiated are already transforming the physical landscape of the city, and will continue to do so for generations to come, as is the case with each mayoral administration and the “built environment” legacy of its chief executive and top deputy for the elements of her portfolio.

As with the Bloomberg administration and other predecessors, many of Glen’s contributions will only be seen and gauged over time. The Bloomberg era saw almost 40% of the city rezoned, meaning new land use rules were adopted, often to spur more development, and brought sweeping changes to the city’s skyline. It gave the city the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, the latter two of which didn’t see a grand opening till well after Bloomberg was out of office.

A born-and-raised New Yorker and overtly optimistic if at times sharp-tongued booster for New York City, Glen prides herself on what she believes is a transformational record, to be fully revealed over decades, even if it comes with its share of critics and naysayers.

The housing plan may have the largest “affordable” units goal in city history, but critics say it doesn’t do nearly enough for those at lower incomes and people experiencing homelessness. The New York City Housing Authority’s operating budget may have been stabilized, but a deep backlog for maintenance and repairs remains, and a lead paint scandal erupted on her watch. The ferry system may be a new transit alternative for waterfront communities and millions of annual riders, but it’s heavily subsidized, serves a more affluent crowd than other “mass transit” options, and isn’t linked to the MTA fare system.

Glen was brought into the administration to translate de Blasio’s vision of equity into programmatic and built reality, blending her perspective as a builder and a real estate executive with the mayor’s socioeconomic mission, which she largely appears to share as a self-professed Upper West Side liberal. Much of the de Blasio-Glen model followed both of their prior work, leveraging the private market for public good; utilizing public space to broad economic benefit; taking a “balanced” approach to policy to keep developers in the game, businesses in the city, and the middle class in affordable homes.

To some critics, their pro-growth policies and strategic decisions -- from which neighborhoods they rezoned to launching the ferry program -- seemed to contradict the “tale of two cities” rhetoric that got de Blasio elected to office. Many on the left who were hopeful about de Blasio’s tenure use his appointment of Glen, and her Goldman Sachs background, as emblematic of a mayoralty far more moderate than envisioned and far too cozy with big real estate developers.

The de Blasio-Glen approach put into place a framework for long-term inclusive growth, some say, that eschews the grand, glitzy legacy projects for many inflection points toward a more fair and equitable city. “A lot of what I understood her to do was actually not necessarily something that would be superficially magnificent, but really was thought out right and it will have this lasting impact,” said Rachel Meltzer, chair of the urban policy program at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at the New School. “Because it is about how you integrate some of this stuff so that it becomes part of how the city works and operates...In that regard, I would hope it would be long-lasting. I think that's a smart approach.”

Glen explained that she was given immense responsibility, and leeway, by de Blasio to advance her vision.

“You have to remember, I was handed over a third of the government in a day, OK? And also the mayor, and I think he’d be the first person to admit this, he is not a person who focuses on the built environment,” Glen said. “That has never been his interest. I mean, he’s always been pro-development and thoughtful about development and the built environment, but he would always say he is much more interested in policy, service issues, education, however you characterize all that...One of the reasons why he chose me, and…we were very simpatico, was because I’m a person who has a track record of actually building things and getting things done in the built environment.”

Affordable Housing, Development & Neighborhood Change
One of the most prominent aspects of Glen’s legacy is the massive de Blasio “affordable housing” program that she took the lead in designing and implementing. The plan originally aimed to create or preserve 200,000 units of rent-regulated housing by 2024. It has been retooled twice, first to target more low-income housing and later expanded to a goal of 300,000 units by 2026. (Glen’s successor as deputy mayor, Vicki Been, formerly the housing commissioner under Glen, is expected to announce another new iteration of the plan in the coming months.)

In January, the administration announced that had already put $5.05 billion directly into the housing plan, and another $8.12 billion in bond financing; money that helps subsidize and incentivize the building and preservation of rent-capped units, which are available to tenants with a wide variety of incomes depending on individual city deals with landlords and developers.

On July 30, the city announced that it financed 25,299 affordable housing units in the just-completed 2019 fiscal year, meeting the annual goal but a drop from the 32,244 affordable homes that were financed in the previous fiscal year. The city said, though, that a record amount of housing was financed for the most vulnerable residents – homeless people, seniors, and those who need supportive services – part of a developing response to ongoing criticism about the plan’s designs.

According to the latest numbers from the city, the de Blasio administration has over five-plus years so far funded 43,930 new “affordable” (meaning rent-regulated in some way, though thresholds vary widely) homes and preserved another existing 91,507 “affordable” units into longer-term regulation, for a total of 135,437. In comparison, the Bloomberg administration built and preserved 165,000 “affordable” units over his 12 years in office.

But to the lay New Yorker, the affordable housing program isn’t always conspicuous. “I think some of Alicia's most important legacies may be somewhat invisible,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, associate professor of practice at Columbia GSAPP, founder of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, and a former city planner under Bloomberg. “Housing preservation...that's a policy issue where you don't really see the physical legacy as much as her extension of the Citi Bike network. A lot of these things, I think, are issues that are going to be hard to see even though I think it's a very impactful legacy.”

Glen said she came into her job aiming to avoid “endless analysis paralysis” and to obtain actionable results. “I was very clear that I wanted to have really concrete measurable impacts so that New Yorkers today and New Yorkers of the future can be like, ‘yeah, we’ve changed the blueprint of New York City,’ and that’s what I set out to do and I would argue we did it,” she said in discussing the affordable housing program.

The first major step in achieving that goal was wonky and technical, but essential -- the passage of two amendments to the city’s land use laws: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). Under MIH, the new regulations mandated that developers seeking to build taller, denser buildings than existing zoning allows -- thus in need of city approval to do so -- would have to include a certain percentage of units at specified caps on the rent. Importantly, this would also apply to rezoned neighborhoods, where the city changes land use rules for a larger geographic area than when, in most cases, a developer seeks a zoning change for a specific plot of land.

ZQA updated zoning and building design standards to encourage the creation of affordable senior housing and mixed-income housing, and to promote the growth of commercial and retail space.

The zoning changes allowed the city, under Glen’s leadership, to pursue rezonings in several neighborhoods targeted for greater housing density, as well as new retail space, park land, school seats, and other varied built-environment additions. The first of those was approved in East New York in April 2016, followed later by rezonings in Downtown Far Rockaway and East Harlem in 2017, and then the Jerome Avenue Corridor in the Bronx and part of Inwood in 2018.

Each of the rezonings will have significant long-term influence over what the neighborhoods involved look like, the make-up, functionality, and benefits of specific communities across the city. But while each also clearly offers certain community upgrades and potential for more, they also come with questions around enticing or accelerating gentrification, and whether communities of color are mainly those expected to welcome increased density as the city grows.

The East New York rezoning covered three main corridors: Atlantic Avenue, with a stretch of semi-industrial businesses but few residences; Fulton Street, a shopping corridor with two- to four-story buildings with stores and housing; and Pitkin Avenue, which contains two- to four- story residential buildings. Low-scale row-houses, semi-detached homes and small apartment buildings line the side streets. Under the rezoning, the character of those side streets will be preserved, while allowing mixed-use growth along the main corridors, including rent-restricted and mixed-income housing, moderate density industrial growth, and new retail and commercial space. That will mean taller buildings with new retail or community facilities on the ground floor: 6-8 story buildings on Liberty Avenue and Fulton Street; 8-10 story buildings on Pitkin; and 12-14 story buildings on Atlantic Avenue. And new residential development where earlier only manufacturing facilities could be located.

In East Harlem, the rezoning was meant to stave off market-rate development that threatened to accelerate displacement of existing residents already happening in the gentrifying neighborhood. The final plan established limits on building heights and density (owing to the City Council) while expanding residential development and promoting new commercial and industrial space.

On the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, a slew of development is expected to take place, most of which will be mandated to include affordable housing. There’s the 14-story building at 1331 Jerome Avenue, with 255 units, including supportive housing. There’s the 17-story mixed-use building at Jerome Court, with 63,000 square feet of residential space, 52,000 square feet of community facility space, and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

Similarly, in Downtown Far Rockaway, the city is financing several projects that will lead to mixed-income and affordable housing, while also creating new commercial and public spaces. At 1414 Central Avenue, construction has begun on 140 new units of affordable housing, 2,500 square feet of commercial space, and a new building to house the Community Church of the Nazarene. The city has also engaged the nonprofit developer Phipps Houses to redevelop Far Rockaway Village, to replace a shopping center with 450 units of affordable housing, 92,000 square feet of commercial space, and 23,000 square feet of public space. Another developer, The Community Builders, will create 224 units of affordable housing on a city-owned site, as well as 24,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 8,000 square feet of community space.

“I think it's something that's really not only the envy of other cities in the United States, but other places around the world, which are all struggling with the issue of affordable housing,” said Carl Weisbrod, the former head of the Department of City Planning and currently senior advisor at HR&A Advisors, of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. “Most successful cities are struggling with that issue,” said Weisbrod, who worked closely with Glen on many issues and projects, including the passage of MIH.

“I think that the housing program is just so large and central to the city's future, that that will be the centerpiece and a lot of these other accomplishments will help support that legacy,” Weisbrod added.

While each of those rezonings was focused on creating and preserving thousands of units of new affordable housing, they also came with a spate of prominent community, economic development, and infrastructure investments. In East New York, the city has already broken ground on a new 1,000-seat school, begun work on park expansions and new playground sites, and landmarked the Empire State Dairy Building.

In Downtown Far Rockaway, a new two-story 18,000-square-foot library is being built. The Jerome Avenue corridor will have two new elementary schools serving over 1,000 children, and new parks and playgrounds as well. Inwood will receive a library with a new universal pre-kindergarten facility, a youth STEM education center, a cultural and job training center, and two new waterfront parks.

The housing plan and the rezonings undertaken to help achieve it have earned de Blasio and Glen a significant amount of both praise and criticism.

Most of the criticism has come from the left, saying that the self-described progressive mayor has not really had a truly progressive approach to housing development. While some favor the new rules that make it obligatory for developers to build affordable housing, others say that rezonings have exacerbated gentrification and displacement in low-income communities of color and that the housing program does not sufficiently address the lowest-income New Yorkers, including many of the existing residents of the rezoned areas.

While some want to see more housing density in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, others believe de Blasio and Glen have been too pro-development in general.

“I think the ramifications of Alicia Glen's impact on the city are going to be felt for decades to come, in a very similar way that, you know, how Robert Moses reshaped the city of New York and not in a good way,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “Her policies to rezone low-income neighborhoods in New York City to allow developers to build luxury condo towers and unaffordable apartments for everyday New Yorkers is going to have lasting, lasting impact of displacing people of color and communities of color across the city, and I think it's going to actually further segregation across the entire region.”

Glen has faced the Moses comparison before, though she somewhat embraces it. “Well I’ve always said, that’s a complicated topic,” she said. “Someone once joked to me, ‘What do you think you’re Roberta Moses?’ Well sure If I can be a better, kinder, gentler, more inclusive, feminist city builder, yeah I’ll take that. Put that on a t-shirt. That’s fine.”

Westin said the focus on community rezonings effectively threw gasoline on the city’s gentrification crisis. He insisted the administration should have instead worked to sculpt smaller rezonings to maximize affordability and to ensure that housing goes to the families living in those neighborhoods. The result of the current approach? “Communities will definitely get richer and whiter, but entire communities will be displaced. East New York will not be East New York in ten years. A lot of those families will be gone. I think the same is true of Harlem and the same is true of the Bronx,” he said.

“You know what, in ten years, when you go to those neighborhoods, in the old days, sure you’d see development there but you wouldn’t see any sort of comprehensive neighborhood infrastructure being done because that wasn’t the way the city was doing business,” Glen said of such criticism. “So yeah, I feel pretty good about the fact that when I walk down the street, I see a lot of new buildings going up. There’s affordable housing in those buildings. That didn’t use to be the case. That’s not visible to the human eye but I know what I did and the brutal battles that we took on to get MIH, to get 421-a done. I didn’t sleep for six months. I mean, totally worth it.”

“We have completely changed the housing landscape in New York City in the most radical way,” she said of changes to the zoning code, “which is what’s allowing all the radicals to say it’s not good enough. So that’s great.”

Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, is more ambivalent, noting that the effects of the rezonings may not be known for years. MIH, he said, created “the strongest-in-the-nation floor for what the private sector’s obligation is to affordable housing when the city upzones. And so that was really an important step that she played a key role in.”

But he noted the concerns about the neighborhoods the administration chose, where displacement pressures already exist. “The way that they have focused on rezoning as a way of harnessing market forces may do more harm than good,” he said, cautiously.

Glen is not defensive, but rather defiant and self-assured in the face of critics. “We broke every record since records have been kept, and there are hundreds of amazing projects that are now fully occupied or out of the ground,” she said.

She continued: “I think that the vast majority of people, the real issue is, even with everything we’ve done, it’s not enough. Right? And that’s a true statement, sure. But what’s the alternative? To do nothing? To not try to make a big dent? So that’s why, yeah sure, we need more affordable housing. OK. I challenge anybody to tell me how you can do more and leverage resources and do anything at scale that we haven’t been able to do. I challenge anybody.”

She conceded that it’s a “fair position to take, that everything should be for the lowest income people, every dollar should be putting into serving the lowest,” but she disagrees with the notion.

“It’s everything we fought against. Everything we learned about the mistakes of the ‘60s and ‘70s where people were really stigmatized and very low-income people were crowded together,” she continued. “Most social scientists and urban economists and urban thinkers would agree that real mixed-income buildings and neighborhoods are much healthier ecosystems. The buildings themselves are healthier and certainly neighborhoods are healthier. So I’ve never believed...that the city’s sole role in development and housing is to serve only the lowest income. I just disagree with that philosophically, as does the mayor.”

“I think her primary legacy is really accelerating the process of gentrification and overdevelopment in New York, running roughshod over the wishes of local communities, and helping to turn City Hall into a pay-for-play revolving door for lobbyists and real estate interests,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in a phone interview.

Berman has particular contempt for the administration’s record on historic preservation. “This has been one of the most preservation-unfriendly administrations in New York City in a very, very long time,” he said. “The only time the administration seems to show any interest in landmarks is when they can come up with a way for them to sell air-rights in order to increase the size of development in surrounding areas, sometimes at the expense of other landmarks.”

For preservationists like Berman, Glen had a rebuttal ready. “We landmarked more buildings in five years than the entire Bloomberg administration did in 12 years. So I don’t know what they’re complaining about,” she said. While Glen's point about a better record on landmarking than Bloomberg was correct, her timeframe was not. In de Blasio's first term, the city landmarked more buildings and sites than any other mayor in their first term other than Ed Koch. And in an apples-to-apples comparison with Bloomberg's administration, at this point in de Blasio's tenure, his administration has landmarked about 4,988 buildings and sites, 45% more than the 2,248 that Bloomberg did in the same time, according to a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

“I’m not worried about being unpopular,” Glen said at one point in the interview, “because it’s not junior high school and I’m not running for prom queen. Everything I’ve ever done has been about doing something that’s good for New York. That’s been my only agenda, what other agenda could I have had. Why would I have given up all these other jobs?”

When it comes to the complicated issue of public housing, Glen’s legacy is far more shrouded. She inherited problems at the authority -- which she is quick to remind is under federal and state auspices, as well as city control -- that had been decades in the making but seemed to reach their zenith under the de Blasio administration. While she is not as readily associated with NYCHA, perhaps because it is an authority rather than a city agency, than her signature plans and projects, Glen acknowledges NYCHA was under her purview, wants credit for some of what has gone right there over the last five-plus years, and knows the crises are immense.

NYCHA faced a nearly $17 billion capital need in 2011, but that quickly grew to about $32 billion last year. Through various tools, including by turning over developments to private management, the administration has a plan to cover about $24 billion of that need, but it was only launched in December 2018, an updated version of a 2015 NYCHA plan Glen helped design.

Despite their putting more emphasis on and resources into NYCHA than their predecessors, conditions for the authority’s residents continued to be plagued. Major problems and scandals with basic building maintenance, crumbling roofs, lead paint, elevator breakdowns, heat and hot water outages, and more have made NYCHA a blight on the de Blasio-Glen record, even if those problems have been decades in the making and federal and state aid have been extremely limited.

Glen is hopeful that key elements of the NYCHA 2.0 plan, including new private housing development on underutilized NYCHA land that will provide revenue for the authority, will bear fruit.

This is part one of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" in New York City. Read part two -- dealing with economic development, transit, and more -- here.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Glen's comments on the de Blasio administration's preservation record compared to the Bloomberg administration were not entirely accurate. Additional context has also been provided.  

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Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City’s Physical Space - Part I: 'We have completely changed the housing landscape' Wed, 14 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part II - Deep and Complex Inequities https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8713-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-ii-classes https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8713-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-ii-classes maybdb rem

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here. (Skip to part three - The City's Bottom Line - here.)

Elected officials and their critics alike have decried the complexity and inequality of the state’s property tax system. They say it is layered and non-transparent, and produces disproportionate tax burdens for various populations because of technical factors that are difficult for taxpayers to understand. These can lead owners of similarly valued properties in different parts of the city to pay drastically different annual property taxes.

The rising value of a homeowner’s property can belie the struggle they may face to stay afloat and keep their homes when property tax payments also climb. For those who own rental property, when the tax burden goes up it is often passed on to renters in the form of higher rents and fees on apartments that are not rent-regulated.

The Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform was emplaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both Democrats, in 2018 to examine these issues and develop recommendations to reform the system, which could implicate both city and state policy, without reducing the city’s largest revenue stream.

On the table are aspects like the way different properties are classified and assessed by the state, how statutory restrictions on tax rate growth interact with market forces, and how the city sets the tax rate. These factors have had consequences for communities of color, low-income New Yorkers, seniors, and residents in some, but not all, boroughs.

As it was in 1981, when the current system was wrought out of practices that extend to the early days of the American republic, the issue today is a political flashpoint. Property taxation affects every resident in the state, and members from nearly every interest group and political party have called for its overhaul. But some of the most outspoken critics of the system, especially certain homeowners who see their taxes go up every year, may end up responsible for an even greater share of the levy if changes are made.

Four decades ago, in Hellerstein v. Assessor, Islip, the courts found New York’s property value assessment methods, which had been in practice for roughly 200 years, to be in violation of state law. Homes were being assessed with great variability on a fraction of their sales price, while business owners were footing a much larger bill for their commercial properties. Rather than adjusting practices to assess the full value of homes, lawmakers in Albany changed the rules to allow government assessors to continue favoring certain types of property over others.

Reflecting the old order, the current system divides properties into four classes, each to be assessed and taxed differently. Statutory caps are in place to ensure property taxes payments remain stable even if market values jump. To help account for variables like income, location, and the condition of housing, tax abatements and rebates are available. As a result of the classification regime’s disparate assessment methods, discrepancies exist among residential properties, with cooperatives and condominiums greatly undervalued for tax purposes compared to other homes despite at times being worth far more.

One- to three-family homes are in Class 1 and are assessed based on comparable sales prices; in Class 2, apartment buildings, as well as co-ops and condos, are taxed based on a market value derived from the annual income earned in rent by similar, nearby units, which is usually lower than the market value based on sales price, according to property tax experts. Even within the classes, statutory caps on assessed value growth have led, more recently, to uneven tax burdens across the five boroughs because of the way the housing market has exploded in some neighborhoods more than others.

An Unfair System
Attempts have been made to address property tax inequities in New York City since the current system was adopted nearly 40 years ago, but they have failed to produce transformative results. The most notable review was led by Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.

Dinkins, a Democrat, empaneled a commission to study the issue, which released a report just days before his term ended. Its most salient recommendation was to bring the treatment of co-ops and condos closer to Class 1 properties, but years of negotiations under his Republican successor, Rudy Giuliani, led only to a temporary tax abatement for apartment owners, according to an Independent Budget Office report. (A piece in the New York Times from 1994 provides an alternative account in which the Dinkins commission made no recommendations because it could not come to a “consensus on objectives,” using the words of one of the commissioners.)

The issue has become a recurring political motif. De Blasio discussed it during his first campaign for mayor and a year later, in 2014, his Commissioner of Finance, Jacques Jiha, said he would undertake a comprehensive analysis before making recommendations to the state for change. Yet it appears the Advisory Commission empaneled in 2018 is conducting the first such review of the mayor’s tenure.

“Fairness” is at the core of the commission’s mission, largely a response to a number of related policy consequences that have become apparent over the years.

>>Property Tax Classes
Legislators in 1981 created a system that would benefit small home owners by placing them in Class 1, maintaining the relatively low assessment rates they had enjoyed for so long, while leaving commercial properties, including apartment buildings, in Class 2 with a larger share of the levy.

At the time, co-op conversions, which started in New York City in the 1920s, had begun to take place at a very rapid rate; between 1978 and 1988, roughly 242,000 rental apartments in more than 3,000 buildings had been turned into tenant-owned cooperatives, according to a New York Times report published in 1988. In order to prevent assessors from considering the value of apartments if they were to be converted, lawmakers placed co-ops and condos into Class 2 and inserted language into the state law requiring they be assessed on the net income they would earn as rentals, as opposed to their sales value.

More recently, however, in an era of acute gentrification and concentrated market value growth, the low rates on co-ops and condos has become a new variation on the unequal assessment theme that sparked the Hellerstein case. As the price of homes in booming neighborhoods has skyrocketed, taxes assessed on co-ops and condos have become an increasingly smaller proportion of their sales value.

Tax Equity Now New York, a coalition of homeowners, renters, and business groups, led by former city Department of Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, filed a lawsuit in 2017 challenging the state laws that lead to disproportionate rent burden. The group claims the neighborhoods with the greatest burdens are less affluent and more likely to be the home of large populations of people of color.

By state law, taxes for homes in Class 1 are assessed on 6 percent of what assessors believe to be their market value, while co-ops and condos in Class 2 are assessed at a rate of 45 percent of potential rental income. But the way the city Department of Finance (which is responsible for calculating market value based on formulas set by the state) arrives at that value for the two property types is not consistent.

For Class 2, city finance officials compare co-op values to the income of nearby rental properties, vastly undervaluing what the property would be worth if sold. Because of the age and location of many co-ops, their taxes are often assessed based on comparisons to rent-regulated buildings, exacerbating the value discrepancy. 

Ana Champeny of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the fiscal watchdog, gave an example: “You look at the value that [Department of Finance] determined based on state law and it’ll be something like...$600,000, but when you look at how much the person paid when they bought that unit, they would have paid something like $3 million.”

To help address this inequity, CBC argued when it testified before the Advisory Commission in November, simply put condos and co-ops in Class 1 where they belong, and assess them based on sales prices. This would also help New Yorkers understand the system’s complex arithmetic and the outcomes it produces. Because now-distant beginnings created the fractional assessment practices established by the property classification system, the particular tax-related burdens New Yorkers face often feel arbitrary.

“I think that creates a lot more mistrust, too, in the system. Which is why we said you really should put all these homes into one class and you should value them based on sales,” Champeny told Gotham Gazette.

There were a number of bills in the Legislature related to condos and co-ops that lawmakers were apprehensive about taking up because of uncertainty about changes to the classification system, according to Assemblymember Galef.

“We want to see where the commission comes out on that one so those bills won’t be addressed this year,” Galef told Gotham Gazette in May before the legislative session ended. (The Legislature passed, and the governor has yet to sign, a two-year extension of a property tax abatement program for co-ops and condos, but nothing to address the structure of the real property class system.)

When everyone is a stakeholder, though, upsetting the long held fractional assessments would mean some people will have to pay more, and that is likely to include the high value co-ops and condos now enjoying low rates. As in the past, this will inevitably be a difficult pill to swallow.  In a letter to the Advisory Commission in May, City Council Members Steven Matteo, Joe Borelli, and Justin Brannan -- who represent parts of southern Brooklyn and Staten Island -- urged, “First, do no harm to Class 1 and 2 homeowners.”

Responding to a co-op owner who worries about rising taxes year after year, Mayor de Blasio said, “I want to be...really honest with everyone that we cannot end up with a system that reduces our revenue substantially, unless people want to see a change in the services provided by city.”

>>Renters
For residents, the weight of New York’s property classification system is harder to bear the further you are away from the mitigating effects of ownership, which can put serious pressure on renters who can’t cash in or pass on tax burdens to tenants. In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of African-American and Hispanic renters, the real estate law firm Newman Ferrara claimed that the way the state classifies different types of property has resulted in a disproportionate tax burden being passed on to renters in large residential buildings.

According to a CBC analysis, as of December 2016 one- to three-family homes made up roughly 48 percent of the total market value of New York City property, but were taxed only about 15 percent of the total levy. By contrast, Class 2 properties -- apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos -- made up approximately 25 percent of the market, but were taxed significantly more: nearly 38 percent of the total.

Most of that burden falls on apartment buildings because owners of co-ops and condos often pay such a small percentage of their property value in taxes. To maintain their profit margin, landlords often redistribute the tax burden to tenants (the same is true for commercial tenants, which can put a strain on small business). The 2014 suit alleged, since large apartment buildings are predominantly occupied by African-American and Hispanic tenants, the uneven tax burden they experience is a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The property tax burden on one- to three-family home owners can be mitigated by the lower share they pay on the property’s value; the tax burden on co-ops and condos is not great because they are assessed on a fraction of their sales price; and much of the tax burden of big landlords can be passed on to tenants. But renters, who make up two-thirds of all occupied units, according to 2017 U.S. Census data, have no outlet to spread their burden.

(Homeowners who pay a significant portion of their income in property taxes and cannot immediately benefit from the rising value of their homes without selling them, are also put in a precarious situation as taxes rise annually and the costs of maintaining aging housing stack up. The city’s Third Party Transfer program, which seizes buildings from landlords who are behind on taxes and other fees, has recently come under fire for taking the homes of lower-income, minority property owners.)

The 2014 Newman Ferrara suit was dismissed by a state Supreme Court, which rejected the notion that property taxes could be shared more equitably among the classes as “speculative.”

Short of revamping the city’s entire property tax system, the push to improve conditions for many tenants was a major point of contention in Albany this year, as state rent regulations affecting the city and surrounding suburbs approached their expiration date in June. A concerted push under the new Democratic governing reality resulted in a landmark package of tenant reforms aimed at strengthening protections and closing loopholes in rent regulations like reforming the major capital improvement program, ending vacancy decontrol, and eliminating the vacancy bonus, among others. These regulations affect roughly 2 million tenants in 1 million apartments.

“We made a commitment that the new Senate Democratic Majority would help pass the strongest tenant protections in history,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement after the package passed both houses of the Legislature. “The legislation we passed today achieves that commitment and will help millions of New Yorkers throughout our state.”

>>Income
While statutory caps were put in place to keep homeowners’ property taxes from rising too quickly, they have still tended to outpace the growth in household incomes, creating a disparity in tax burden across income levels. A report by the city Comptroller’s Office from September found that between 2005 and 2016 annual property tax revenue grew an average of 6.4 percent a year, while the household incomes of small home, co-op and condo owners rose only 2 percent per year. As a result, the share of income that goes to pay property taxes on those types of homes has risen significantly and is most pronounced among the lowest earners.

The comptroller’s report shows that households making less than $50,000 -- largely retirees whose incomes had been higher when the homes were purchased -- had property tax payments increase from 6.6 percent of household income in 2005 to nearly 13 percent in 2016 (the study does not take into account social security earnings and other non-taxable income for seniors, meaning its findings for this group may be higher than seniors’ true property tax burdens).

“For households at this income level, where there is little or no discretionary income, these increases impose significant constraints and sacrifices on household budgets,” the report reads. By contrast, homeowners with income between $250,000 and $500,000 paid only 2.9 percent of their income in property taxes.

Some advocates have proposed what are known as “circuit breakers” to deal with property tax burdens on lower-income New Yorkers.

A circuit breaker essentially provides a tax rebate for lower-income property owners by reducing state income taxes if property taxes exceed a certain proportion of income, or simply by capping property taxes as a percentage of income. Hellerstein was a proponent of implementing circuit breakers, as was Governor Carey, who included them in his own 1981 proposal, which failed. In November, the CBC testified about the benefits of circuit breakers before the city’s Advisory Commission.

But mechanisms like circuit breakers, which create indirect relief through income tax reductions -- as well as various other kinds of exemptions, abatements, and rate limitations -- when piled on to triage the discrete consequences of New York’s property tax system (exacerbated by the city’s complex housing portfolio), also contribute to the opacity of the system -- one of the main problems the Commission aims to address.

“Homestead exemptions, or elderly or disabled or veterans exemptions...tax abatements and rate limitations and assessment limitations and assessment increase limitations -- it becomes a very complex system and ultimately non-transparent,” John Anderson of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy noted before the Advisory Commission in February.

But exemptions and other forms of relief are popular among property owners in distress and are something that can be enacted by the city, making them attractive to local politicians trying to court voters. (Borelli introduced a bill to the City Council in 2018 that would give a tax exemption to veterans of Cold War conflicts.)

Disparities exist despite tax credits and other programs intended to ease the burden on lower-income New Yorkers, and they are likely to get worse.

The increase in tax burden identified in the Comptroller’s report was tempered by the rising value of property assets and declining interest rates over the past 20 years, which kept mortgage payments low, according to its authors. But the report notes interest and mortgage payments have begun to rise while property value growth has subsided in many neighborhoods, and phase-ins on co-ops and condos (like statutory caps on small homes) mean that property taxes can continue to rise even after the market stabilizes.

Changes in state and local tax deductions from Washington, D.C. last year mean taxpayers who itemize their deductions may no longer be able to deduct the amount of their property taxes from their federal taxes.

>>Geography
Last September, Citizens Budget Commission released an analysis showing that homeowners on Staten Island and in the Bronx have a higher effective tax rate than the rest of the city, meaning they pay a higher percentage of their property’s market value in taxes despite owning homes that are worth less.

This, the report notes, is the result of statutory caps set in state law on the rate by which assessed values can grow. There are different caps for different categories of property; for small homes the cap is set at 6 percent annually, or 20 percent over five years.

The growth rate cap, intended to insulate homeowners experiencing rapid market growth from dramatic property tax increases, has the effect of shifting the tax burden from booming neighborhoods to ones with more stable housing markets, regardless of the overall value of the homes. The CBC analysis finds only 5 percent of the city’s single-family homes are assessed at the 6 percent target ratio because the caps keep most assessments lower. But Staten Island and Bronx homeowners do not seem to be the beneficiaries of this dynamic.

Council Members Borelli and Matteo, who represent districts on Staten Island, in a 2016 press release said, “Staten Islander’s [sic] on average pay [property taxes on] 98.5% of their actual market values, while average Brooklyn and Manhattan class-1 homeowners pay 88.5% and 87.2% respectively.”

Politicians from Staten Island have been among the most vocal proponents of property tax reform. The borough has a large aging population on fixed income and roughly 70 percent of residents own their homes, according to Census data.

In 2016 Borelli and Matteo, both Republicans, called for a bipartisan commission to look at the economic burdens on one- and two-family homes, including the caps issue. They also called for the Department of Finance to use actual assessors, not statistical models, in order to account for a property’s actual condition (on Staten Island only a tenth of homes were built in the last 20 years). Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis, also a Republican, joined Borelli in calling for a property tax commission when she ran for mayor against de Blasio in 2017. (Property tax reform and relief was also a central pillar of Republican gubernatorial candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro’s 2018 campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who this year pushed through a permanent 2 percent cap on annual property tax growth, which applies everywhere outside New York City.)

To address the tax burden inequities, Borelli has called for the Legislature to at least change the law so that caps reset when a house changes hands. Borelli was the prime sponsor of a resolution, co-sponsored by 13 others in the 51-seat Council, calling for the change in January 2018, but it has not been adopted.

He repeated the proposal to the Advisory Commission in September, saying, “The cap is attached to the property, not the owner, and the result creates vast disparities between the city’s wealthy and middle-class homeowners, and among wealthy homeowners themselves depending on when their homes were built and the characteristics of the market.”

>>Race
Tax Equity Now New York, the coalition led by former city finance commissioner Martha Stark, has highlighted some of these inequities in its lawsuit filed against the city and state in 2017. The lawsuit, filed after long-running frustration with elected officials’ apparent unwillingness to act on property tax reform, alleges New York’s property tax system has a disproportionate negative impact on homeowners and renters in less affluent neighborhoods with large populations of people of color.

In a study conducted by the group, higher tax burdens, especially those identified in the Citizens Budget Commission analysis, were shown to have a disproportionate impact on neighborhoods where racial minorities make up a majority of the population.

At the crux of the issue is the claim that property tax assessments have not reflected true market values, resulting in neighborhoods predominantly of color being assessed 19 percent more than predominantly white ones, the group alleges. Tax Equity Now is seeking changes to the law, not compensation, but has not specified what those changes should be. The suit survived the city’s motion to dismiss in September but is now stayed, pending appeal.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part three - The City's Bottom Line - here. (Find part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here.)

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part II - Deep and Complex Inequities Thu, 01 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Leaving the REBNY vs NIMBY Doom Loop https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8708-leaving-the-rebny-vs-nimby-doom-loop https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8708-leaving-the-rebny-vs-nimby-doom-loop city planning manhattan brooklyn waterfront

(photo: NYC Planning)


This past week, amidst flooded streets, blackouts, overheated jails, and subway failures, New Yorkers saw the consequences that result from a failure to engage in strategic long-term planning for the future of our city. In the final decisions of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, we also missed a big chance to do something about it.

The dangers of failing to invest strategically in the infrastructure that sustains our city will grow in coming decades, as temperatures and sea levels rise. Meanwhile, even as our infrastructure strains, the city’s population continues to grow. So our housing affordability crisis is on track to get worse – exacerbating displacement, inequality, and the unfair imposition of our city’s burdens on low-income communities of color.

It’s clear that we need a better way to make infrastructure and land-use decisions that take climate change, affordability, and the challenges of growth seriously. Our piece-meal planning system is not up to the task. 

Currently, the process of developing a capital plan to invest in our infrastructure constitutes just making a big list – a list that is in no way informed by plans for rezoning or development. How can we plan which neighborhoods should get resilient infrastructure like levees and seawalls when land-use and growth decisions are happening elsewhere? Shouldn’t we include capital budgeting for infrastructure like transit and schools as part of the process of planning for the new residential growth that will require it?

Meanwhile, New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) is a reactive, project-by-project process for considering changes – bereft of strategic vision, shared values, or a connection to long-term infrastructure planning.

Codified in 1975 when the city’s challenge was abandonment rather than growth, ULURP has become reduced to a shrill, tug-of-war between the pro-growth forces of the Real Estate Board of New York (who profit on each development, and therefore rarely worry about which ones make long-term sense for the public good) and neighborhood activists whose Not In My Back Yard advocacy (rooted in a variety of motivations) leaves no way to figure out where and how the growth we need to address the scale of the housing crisis should take place.

The process ensures that decisions are driven by the interest group with the most powerful political connections, creating a planning rationale that reflects and reinforces systemic inequities.

If we are going to plan for the future that’s coming, like it or not, we need a way out of the REBNY vs. NIMBY doom loop. 

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission -- which last week issued its final decisions on ballot proposals to go before voters this November -- had the chance to plot a better course forward. The Charter Revision Commission heard more complaints about New York City’s land use process than any other topic. Commission members and staff acknowledged “a level of public disillusionment” and that “the somewhat scattered approach the Charter currently takes to its various planning requirements exacerbates this disillusionment and confusion.”

But, even with all the signs pointing to the need for better long-term planning, they failed to propose any meaningful changes. When we vote in November on charter changes, addressing our disparate and dysfunctional planning processes won’t be on the ballot, though 19 other proposals will be.

When the commission began its work last fall, we proposed a real step forward. Together with the Thriving Communities Coalition of community-based groups, affordable housing, environmental, and planning advocates, we asked the commissioners to require New York City to undertake a comprehensive planning process, in which we would work together to set a broader citywide framework for land use and infrastructure decisions.

The process would begin with data-driven, citywide analyses of our challenges. We would then have a public conversation about the values that should shape decisions -- values like fairness across communities, making sure people can stay in their homes, mitigating climate change, investing in resilient infrastructure, new modes of transit, and closing the Rikers Island jails. We could do it every ten years as they do in so many other cities, or every four years to coincide with our mayoral election cycles. 

Together, we would set a citywide framework for the tough job of balancing citywide needs and neighborhood preferences. Communities would get a real voice, but not a veto. The City Council would vote on this broader framework. After that, zoning actions, development proposals, and infrastructure investments aligned with the comprehensive plan would move more smoothly. Those that conflict with the plan would not (or, at least, would have to clear extra hurdles). 

We would plan for increased transit capacity alongside increased housing density, budget for new parks equitably across the city, and take a holistic look at where we need to take further action to plan for rising sea levels and more 100-degree days. Communities could be able to have confidence that promises made to them – for new parks, schools, libraries, or transit – would actually be kept.

Comprehensive planning is not a panacea, but evidence from other cities suggests that it is an essential component of fair and rational progress. As part of their process last year, our friends in the Minneapolis City Council voted to get rid of single-family zoning across the city, and upzone their transit corridors citywide to address their housing shortage (at the same time, they voted to strengthen tenant protections to protect renters from displacement as growth occurs).

Let’s be honest: there is no way Minneapolis would have done this with a process like ULURP, which goes one neighborhood or project at a time. What neighborhood would have agreed to be the first one to give up the privilege of single-family zoning? Not one.

By comparison, of the ten neighborhood rezoning processes initiated during the de Blasio administration, nine have been in low-income communities of color. This would not have happened if we had developed a comprehensive plan, with fairness across communities as one of its principles. 

The Charter Revision Commission failed to get the job done. But the heat wave and its impacts reminded us that, in the longer term, we really don’t have a choice. So in the coming months, we’ll be working in the City Council to do what we can through legislation. And in the coming years, we’ll try to make sure that the 2021 city elections focus on issues that matter the most, even if they don’t always make the daily news cycle. 

Comprehensive planning may not top the polls. But if we are going to meet the collective challenges of rising temperatures and sea levels, growing population, aging infrastructure, keeping people in their homes, and addressing deeply-rooted inequality, we’re going to have to start doing it.

***
City Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso represent parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @BradLander & @CMReynoso34.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Leaving the REBNY vs NIMBY Doom Loop Tue, 30 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo and Heastie Trade Comments on Anti-Poverty Efforts, a Closer Look at What They've Done https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8693-as-cuomo-and-heastie-trade-comments-on-anti-poverty-efforts-a-closer-look-at-what-they-ve-done https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8693-as-cuomo-and-heastie-trade-comments-on-anti-poverty-efforts-a-closer-look-at-what-they-ve-done albany gov cuomo carl heastie

Speaker Heastie & Governor Cuomo (photo: the governor's office)


Despite previously lauding the 2019 state legislative session as the “most productive session in modern political history,” Governor Andrew Cuomo went on to call the session “not progressive enough,” citing a need “to do more on poverty.”

At his celebratory, mostly upbeat end-of-session press conference on June 21, Cuomo was asked about what did not get done, and cited three issues he said he would work on next year: legalizing adult-use marijuana and paid gestational surrogacy, and expanding prevailing wage requirements on construction projects that receive state incentives. He did not mention poverty.

But just three days later during a radio appearance, Cuomo questioned whether the legislative session was “progresive enough,” and rhetorically asked WAMC’s The Roundtable host Alan Chartock, “what happened, doctor, to discussion of poverty and civil rights and the minority community?”

It was an apparently off-hand comment that seemed to catch many people by surprise, especially Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat whose district is in the Bronx, which is home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

While Cuomo has made significant strides with anti-poverty policies in the past, most notably the minimum wage hike he ushered through a split Legislature in 2016, the third-term Democratic governor did not push any landmark anti-poverty legislation or initiatives this session, which featured a long list of other progressive accomplishments with Democrats in control of both legislative houses for the first time in many years.

Soon after Cuomo’s comment about the session lacking a focus on poverty, Heastie was asked about it.

“If we’re talking about things like poverty, that necessitates putting more money in the budget,” Heastie said on June 25, appearing on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter. “If that’s the governor’s sentiment, next year we should see a robust poverty agenda in the executive budget,” he said.

When asked about the Assembly’s anti-poverty efforts, Heastie mentioned boosting community college enrollment and said such schooling can serve as a key stepping stone to the workforce.

“Every place has a different type of industry, and community colleges can put together training linked with local businesses,” Heastie said on Capitol Pressroom.

In New York, 2,908,471 people live in poverty, according to the New York State Community Action Association in its 2019 annual poverty report. That’s about 15% of the state’s 19.8 million residents; a rate just above the U.S. poverty rate of 14.6%. For white New Yorkers, the poverty rate is 11%, while it jumps to 22.5% for black New Yorkers and 24.4% for Hispanic New Yorkers. Of the 1.8 million adult New Yorkers with no high school diploma, 29% live in poverty.

Though they give both Cuomo and Heastie’s Assembly majority credit for significant steps toward fighting poverty in New York, advocates and other experts believe both have indeed been lacking in moving a number of anti-poverty measures.

Several proposed anti-poverty bills have stalled in the Assembly, and those that have passed the Assembly have not been signed into law by Cuomo, in part due to a lack of support by the governor, who was friendly with the Republican Senate majority that ruled the upper legislative chamber for all of the governor’s first two terms.

As Heastie indicated, some see the need for more state spending on anti-poverty measures, which may only be possible through tax increases, which Cuomo generally opposes. Some say a significant roadblock to many anti-poverty programs is the 2 percent cap on annual state spending increases that Cuomo has insisted on, though he has repeatedly broken that pledge. Still, Cuomo has largely kept state agency operational spending flat year over year and is loathe to add new expensive programs to the budget, especially those that don’t fit his carefully crafted agenda.

But while he has not supported key policies that advocates say would help fight poverty in New York, Cuomo has moved several significant anti-poverty measures, from the minimum wage hike to the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI), which provides state grants to localities to fund anti-poverty efforts, to the creation of the Child Care Availability Task Force, which is currently studying how to make childcare more affordable in New York.

Heastie said on Capitol Pressroom that the Assembly focuses on high poverty communities and tries to find ways to revitalize them, including through working with Cuomo to add localities to the ESPRI. Most parties point to the state’s high levels of local education funding as evidence of efforts to fight poverty through educational investments, but that focus has been criticized, even by Assembly Democrats, who believe the state owes billions in funding to poor schools, and Cuomo, who recently started saying he wants more state funding to go to poorer schools without corresponding increases to wealthier schools.

During Heastie’s four years as speaker thus far, the Assembly has pushed anti-poverty efforts, including as a key force behind the minimum wage increase and the paid family leave program that also passed the same year. But there are also some question marks.

In January 2016, Heastie announced an “Anti-Poverty Work Group,” with the goal of finding “ways to break the vicious cycle that forces people to focus on getting by and never allows them to focus on getting ahead,” he said in the press release. The work group consisted of 13 Assembly members, and was specifically tasked with coming up with ideas to improve nutrition, literacy, supportive housing, shelters, rental assistance, fair labor practices, and job training, and increase access to quality child care and health care.

However, little came of the work group -- there’s no other record of its existence in Assembly press release archives or on the Assembly website more broadly.

The work group was organized with the goal of breaking “down the silos we deal with in the Assembly,” Queens Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, who served on the work group and has chaired the chamber’s social services committee, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

According to Hevesi, when former Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle left the Assembly at the end of 2018, the work group “fell off the top of everybody’s radar.” But even that would have been nearly three years after the group’s creation, and Morelle did not serve as its chair. Hevesi said the group had only a “couple of meetings.”

Anti-Poverty Initiatives Left on the Table
There are a variety of anti-poverty measures that could be considered by the Legislature and Cuomo. For example, a proposed bill aimed at reducing homelessness would have created a homeless housing task force by each social services district in the state to “develop a ten-year homeless housing plan addressing short-term and long-term housing for homeless persons,” according to the bill. The bill has not moved in the Assembly social services committee.

Anti-poverty measures can be bipartisan. Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb is the lead sponsor on a bill to raise the state earned income tax credit (EITC) from 30 percent to 45 percent of the federal level. Currently, a family with three or more children can earn a maximum of $8,682 in their EITC, and a filer without children can earn a maximum of $701 in their EITC, including state, city, and federal credits, according to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Another Assembly bill would expand the EITC to include workers who are 18-24 years old, a demographic that is currently not eligible for the EITC. The state EITC was last raised by Republican Governor George Pataki in 2003.

Neither the Assembly nor the Senate took up state EITC expansion this year.

That Assembly Republicans are leading the fight to raise the EITC is “both ironic and shameful,” said Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “For the Assembly minority to be to the left of the governor on an issue like this really speaks to the fact that the governor is far more fiscally conservative than he paints himself,” he said.

According to data from the Fiscal Policy Institute, 85,345 young adult workers in the state that would be eligible for the childless EITC are currently excluded because they cannot be claimed as a dependent. These workers earn less than $15,270 as single filers or less than $20,900 as married filers.

Another proposed anti-poverty bill, championed by Hevesi, is known as Home Stability Support (HSS) and would increase rent supplements to families at risk of eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions. While the Assembly has pushed HSS for several years, it has not made it into the state budget, apparently due to Cuomo’s opposition.

HSS is widely seen as a way to prevent homelessness, and has many backers in both city and state government, as well as the advocacy community. According to data from the Assembly Committee on Social Services’ annual report, each year about 250,000 New Yorkers experience homelessness, and three of five homeless New Yorkers are school-aged children. In 2018, 23,000 more people became homeless, the report says. The number of homeless school-aged children has grown by 69% since 2011 (Cuomo’s first year as governor).

According to data from city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, over 10 years HSS could reduce the shelter population in New York City by 80 percent among families with children, 60 percent among adult families, and 40 percent among single adults. As Hevesi and others regularly point out, the cost of HSS subsidies are projected to be recouped in savings where governments spend less on shelters and other aspects of the social safety net.

HSS is projected to cost $9,865 per year for an individual in New York City, $7,320 per year for an individual in Westchester County, and $2,784 per year for an individual in Monroe County, according to data from the proposed plan. HSS advocates argue that the legislation would save the state money, as it would keep individuals and families out of shelters, which cost significantly more per individual per year to maintain. Providing an individual with temporary housing, or shelters, costs $25,925 per year in New York City,  $36,000 per year in Westchester County, and $10,950 in Monroe County, according to data from the plan.

The legislation has had support in both houses, but not enough to move it through both and to the governor. Neither majority appeared to make it a priority this year as the Legislature moved a long agenda of progressive bills.

“Home Stability Support will be a lifeline for thousands of New Yorkers to avoid falling into the cycle of homelessness, and it will also save millions of dollars for towns, counties and cities throughout the state,” State Senator Liz Krueger said in a press release supporting HSS.

Hevesi said that the reason the bill has never been passed is that Cuomo is against it. However, Hevesi said he is confident that the bill will get passed eventually, either legislatively or in the budget.

“It was in the Assembly one-house budget, Senate one-house budget, and the governor unilaterally stopped it,” Hevesi told Gotham Gazette.

HSS has been supported by a number of advocacy groups fighting poverty and homelessness in the state. Still, there was no clear, concerted effort by the Assembly and Senate majorities to push HSS over the finish line and into the state budget before it was voted through on April 1.

“Unfortunately over the past several years, in our advocacy to pass HSS, the governor has been one of the primary roadblocks,” said Helen Strom, a benefits unit supervisor at Urban Justice Center (UJC), an advocacy organization and think tank focused on bringing people out of poverty.

Hevesi accused Cuomo of profiting off of homeless shelters via Help USA, a nonprofit providing shelter that Cuomo founded many years ago and is now led by the governor’s sister.

“I don’t think he’s fighting homelessness,” Hevesi said. “I think he’s making money off of homelessness. Every policymaker in the state is for stopping the growth of the crisis except for him,” he said.

Via a spokesperson, Cuomo’s office pushed back against Hevesi’s accusation, calling it an “irresponsible lie” in a statement to Gotham Gazette, and saying the governor makes no money from Help USA.

Another issue some advocates and lawmakers raise around fighting poverty is health care, and while the state has very high rates of health care insurance coverage -- roughly 95% of New Yorkers are enrolled, in part due to robust government programming -- costs are still high for many. The Assembly majority had for several years passed the New York Health Act, which would create a universal, single-payer health care system in New York, but did not push the policy, which is opposed by Cuomo, this year, when it actually had a chance of passage in the newly-Democratic Senate. While most of the senators in the new majority had either co-sponsored the New York Health Act last year or expressed support for it during last year's campaigns, the legislation did not move in either house this year. Cuomo has said he believes single-payer health care is the best goal, but that it should be done nationally, that to do it in New York would be unrealistic given how much it upheaval it would require, including raising taxes on many New Yorkers and roughly doubling the state budget.

While advocacy groups agree in their criticism of Cuomo, “no one,” including Cuomo and the Assembly, has made anti-poverty measures “a real priority,” Deutsch said. “We can’t continue down this path any longer.”

Assembly Accomplishments
According to the Assembly majority, in March 2016, it successfully added municipalities to the governor’s Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI), though it does not appear this was a direct result of the anti-poverty work group given it had just been assembled and seems to have done little overall.

ESPRI invests money directly into 16 communities with high poverty rates. Among communities introduced by the Assembly to the initiative are Troy, Hempstead, Buffalo, Oneonta, Albany, Rochester, and Broome County. Upon being added, these communities became eligible to receive ESPRI funding, which began with a $25 million investment in 2015 and received $4.5 million in the 2020 budget.

ESPRI funding supports programs including financial literacy, job training, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and more.

While advocacy groups agreed that no substantial, explicit anti-poverty measures passed this legislative session, some programs that did move are likely to help fight poverty.

“Despite the state’s fiscal constraints, the Assembly ensured this year’s state budget invested in services for families struggling with the costs of housing, child care and after-school programs while restoring critical cuts to Medicaid and education,” Speaker Heastie said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Assembly Majority remains focused on advancing our Families First Agenda, which includes identifying ways to lift New Yorkers out of poverty,” he said.

The state approved a program to end cash bail in most instances, allowing most people accused of a non-violent crime to remain out of jail while awaiting a court date. In pushing for major limits on cash bail, one central argument was that the use of it criminalized poverty, essentially making it that poor people who can’t afford a few hundred dollars in bail would sit in jail, and risk losing their jobs and other community ties.

In Schenectady County, those arrested spend an average of 40 days in jail before they are charged, with some let go without being charged at all, according to Citizen Action State Organizing and Training Director Jamaica Miles.

“The people most likely to be sitting in jail are those that cannot afford to pay the bail or bond to get out,” Miles said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “You’ve made their lives more difficult before convicting them of a crime,” she said, if they are ever convicted at all.

Additionally, the state’s newly approved rent regulations, highly favorable to rent-regulated tenants, are expected to be beneficial to many low-income families.

“The hope is they won’t be evicted as easily as they are being evicted now,” Deutsch said.

Looking ahead, the Assembly will be re-introducing a package of bills that “overhauls” the public assistance system, Hevesi said.

With the current public assistance system, many low-wage workers can earn enough to work themselves out of the benefit and lose their vouchers, but when they lose public assistance they can no longer afford to live where they’re living, Strom said.

To remedy the system, the state can raise the eligibility income levels for public assistance or create a different income level for housing vouchers, so those receiving public assistance can retain their vouchers while they transition to being off of benefits and on an employment income, Strom said.

“As it’s currently structured it’s a trap. Once people are on public assistance they are trapped in perpetuity. We have an opportunity to break that system up and give people the incentives they need to get off public assistance,” Hevesi said.

The Assembly had a hearing on the overhaul set for the end of the previous legislative session, but it didn’t come together in time, Hevesi said. The bills have veto proof support in the Assembly, including backing of Minority Leader Brian Kolb, and are over the 32 vote threshold to have a majority in the Senate, but still do not have the support of the governor, Hevesi said. 

The Assembly also pushed the governor for the creation of 20,000 units of supportive housing for the chronically homeless, Hevesi said.

“After a several-year battle [Cuomo] agreed, but then stalled again when we had to force him two years ago to release $1 billion to get the first 6,000 units,” Hevesi said.

Cuomo’s Efforts
Until his June comments on WAMC radio, just after the end of the budget and legislative session in Albany, Cuomo had said very little directly about poverty in 2019.

He did not explicitly discuss “poverty” in any of his three major speeches (a December “First 100 Days” address, his January 1 inaugural remarks, and his State of the State speech later in January) that set the stage for this year in Albany, the first under full and functional Democratic control of both the governor’s office and Legislature in several decades.

Cuomo did mention several programs, both already passed and on his 2019 agenda, that relate to poverty, though, including the minimum wage hike, which has seen the wage hit $15 per hour in New York City, with other increases around the state.

In his December 2018 speech outlining his agenda for the “first 100 days” of his third term, Cuomo called the lack of affordable housing “a crisis,” and promoted what he says is the state’s largest ever investment in affordable housing, which appears to have meant continuation of an ongoing $20 billion program that requires new budget investments each year.

He also called for renewed rent regulations that would improve certain tenants’ rights, which ultimately passed in the Legislature and were signed by the governor to much acclaim by activists, advocates, and lawmakers.

In his inaugural address, Cuomo again avoided the issue of poverty directly, but touted the state’s accomplishments and agenda related to fighting climate change, ending cash bail, legalizing marijuana (which failed to pass during the legislative session), and investment in affordable housing.

In his State of the State address, Cuomo again did not explicitly discuss poverty, but he put forth budgetary and legislative proposals to alleviate burdens for those in or near poverty. Cuomo’s executive budget plan proposed providing more state aid to poorer schools and school districts, while moving ahead with planned funding for affordable housing and to fight homelessness, among other measures that stand to help people living in or near poverty, like cash bail reform and green economics.

In his State of the State policy book, Cuomo did include a short section on “Combating Poverty,” with two planks: one, further supporting the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) and establishing ESPRI representation on Regional Economic Development Council workforce development committees; and two, “reduce hunger and food insecurity.” Cuomo would “establish a goal to reduce household food insecurity in New York State by 10 percent by 2024,” the policy book reads, and will do so by “directing the following actions: create a food and anti-hunger policy coordinator; simplify access to SNAP for older and disabled adults; enhanced resources and referrals in clinical settings; participate in SNAP online purchasing pilot; and expand food access in Central Brooklyn.”

Asked about the governor’s anti-poverty record in light of his comments and Heastie’s response, the governor’s office highlighted a number of programs.

“New York State is leading the fight against poverty through a holistic approach, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and a $20 billion plan to combat homelessness and create or preserve more than 100,000 affordable homes and 6,000 providing supportive services,” Cuomo Press Secretary Caitlin Girouard said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

According to the Governor’s office, Cuomo’s poverty reduction programs include 2013’s anti-hunger task force, 2015’s $25 million ESPRI to address regional pockets of poverty across the state, and the $15 per hour minimum wage program that he ushered through in 2016, which is phased in over several years and sets different wages in different regions of the state.

According to data from the “Unheard Third,” a regular opinion poll of low-income households conducted by the nonprofit Community Service Society, half of low-income hourly workers in New York City say that the recent increases in the state minimum wage is making them better off.

The percentage of New Yorkers in poverty decreased every year from 2013 to 2017, from 16 percent of New Yorkers living below the poverty line in 2013 to 14.1 percent in 2017, according to data from Talk Poverty, an organization that tracks poverty levels in every state. Since the minimum wage has passed, 247,775 fewer New Yorkers are living below the poverty line, according according to data from Talk Poverty. (The aforementioned New York State Community Action Association in its 2019 annual poverty report estimates 15% of New Yorkers living in poverty, using recent Census data from 2013-2017.)

Moving ahead, Cuomo has said he wants to continue to invest in education, but with aid directed disproportionately toward poorer K-12 schools. When the new state budget passed in April, education funding increased to $27.9 billion, with over 70% of the increased funding going to schools in poorer districts, according to the budget.

The state has increased funding for higher education, too, which has a distinct budget of $7.6 billion, by $1.6 billion, or 27 percent, since 2012 (Cuomo took office in 2011), according to data from the Governor’s office. Still, Cuomo has faced criticism related to funding for CUNY and SUNY public higher education institutions, and how his signature Excelsior Scholarship program is working.

In December of last year, Cuomo announced the Child Care Availability Task Force, a group of experts assembled to develop solutions that will improve access to affordable child care. The task force examined “access to affordable child care, the availability of child care for parents with non-traditional work hours, statutory and regulatory changes that could promote or enhance access to child care, business incentives to increase child care access, and the impact on tax credits and deductions relating to child care,” according to a press release announcing its creation.

"We want to ensure that working families are provided with the resources for safe, accessible and affordable child care. By promoting and investing in child care, we know it can improve women's participation in the workforce and narrow the gender wage gap,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who is a co-chair of the Child Care Availability Task Force, in the press release. Hochul has said she expects its initial recommendations to help inform the Cuomo administration’s 2020 agenda.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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As Cuomo and Heastie Trade Comments on Anti-Poverty Efforts, a Closer Look at What They've Done Wed, 24 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New State Rent Regulations Complicate Inwood Rezoning Lawsuit Against the City https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8680-new-state-rent-reforms-complicate-inwood-rezoning-lawsuit-against-the-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8680-new-state-rent-reforms-complicate-inwood-rezoning-lawsuit-against-the-city city council inwood

Inwood (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


New York state government’s recent rent regulation reforms gave tenant advocates reason to celebrate, eliminating major loopholes that allowed landlords to raise rents and deregulate units among the roughly 1 million city apartments currently governed by the rent laws. One unforeseen consequence of the new Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, however, is how the strengthened regulations may imperil a tenant lawsuit against New York City government on the impacts of a recent neighborhood rezoning of Inwood, in northern Manhattan.

Community groups and business owners from Inwood filed suit against the city in December, alleging the de Blasio administration failed to study crucial impacts of a rezoning -- which in this and some other cases means changes to land use rules to encourage more housing density -- on their neighborhood. One of their central arguments was the city neglected to analyze how preferential rents, or rents lower than the legal maximum landlords of rent-regulated apartments are allowed to charge, put the roughly 12,000 preferential rent leased tenants in Inwood and Washington Heights at the mercy of landlords. They allege landlords would be incentivized by a rezoning to push rent-regulated tenants out and capitalize on the likelihood of a hotter rental market.

New rent reforms passed in Albany in June significantly altered how preferential rents are governed and, in turn, dashed a major argument against the city. Amy McCamphill, a lawyer representing the City of New York, sent a letter to the judge in the lawsuit earlier this month pointing out the community members’ argument is no longer relevant.

“Following the passage of this 2019 legislation, Petitioners' preferential rent claim is simply moot,” wrote McCamphill, in the letter. “Under this new law, New York State has ensured that tenants receiving preferential rent are no more vulnerable to rent increases than any other tenant living in regulated housing.”

Among other things, the new rent reforms specifically designate that tenants in rent-stabilized units paying a preferential rent, or a “sweetheart deal” lower than what a landlord can actually charge, will have the preferential rate cemented as their actual rent at the next lease renewal. What it means for tenants is landlords cannot raise the rents sky-high when it is convenient for them, like when a housing market gets hot, as the tenants are renewing their lease.

Lawyers representing Inwood residents feel they lost a strong argument against the city but are glad Inwood residents received some extra protections from landlords via Albany. 

“I’m really glad the rent laws passed. It’s a happy problem to have,” said Philip Simpson, an attorney who is a plaintiff in the case, which they are proceeding with.

“Landlords are still going to do what landlords are going to do to take apartments out of rent regulation. There needs to be better analysis from the city,” said Simpson. 

Additionally, the petitioners argued the city did not properly study the rezoning’s impact on minority- and women-owned businesses, congestion, and racial displacement.

In response to the lawsuit, the city said in a typical rezoning it studies potential direct residential displacement, direct business displacement, indirect residential displacement, indirect business displacement, and specific industries, according to Hilary Semel, director of the mayor’s office that plans environmental reviews, in a supportive court filing for the city’s argument. Considering all those categories and after the lengthy environmental review, the city “properly determined that the Rezoning would not lead to any significant adverse impact,” wrote Semel. 

The conflict over what the city should be studying also includes the type of tenants it is including in an environmental review. The city focuses “its displacement analysis on tenants living in non-regulated apartments,” according to McCamphill. She stated that the city mainly studied tenants living in non-regulated units because it was a legally satisfactory bar for the city to meet.

In a 2016 economic report of Washington Heights and Inwood conducted by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, however, his office found that “nearly three-quarters of the 71,410 housing units in Washington Heights and Inwood were rent-stabilized.”

Lawyers for Inwood community members believe their case will still be strong without the preferential rent argument, especially when it comes to the city failing to study the racial impact of rezoning (the city currently has no requirement for a “racial impact study” as part of environmental review, but Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has introduced legislation to mandate it) and congestion. They argue the demolition of the Inwood library and the potentiality of rising property taxes and rents will have a detrimental effect on minority groups in the neighborhood.

Plus, they say traffic will bottleneck due to new development and more people moving in, which creates negative livability and public health impacts. The lawyers allege the rezoning “promotes no plan to significantly improve infrastructure or public transportation options in Inwood to alleviate the burden imposed by more residents and more cars.” With the nearest hospital at the top of Broadway near 220th Street, the lawyers question what the bottlenecking could mean for emergency situations when EMTs need to go up the one major thoroughfare of Inwood.

State Senator Robert Jackson, who represents the neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights, came in with the new class of state Democrats who helped pass the rent regulations in Albany. He said he supports the rezoning lawsuit against the city. 

“The landmark rent reforms we passed in Albany this session will help mitigate the damage done by that rezoning to rent-regulated tenants, especially those with preferential rents. But fixing one symptom doesn't mean you've cured the disease. The other symptoms that predatory rezonings cause—undue pressure on family-owned small businesses, strain on already-crumbling infrastructure, health risks posed by out-of-scale construction on contaminated and flood-prone land—these are not going to go away just because we've ushered in a wave of tenant power in Albany,” Jackson said in a statement.

The Inwood rezoning, spearheaded by the de Blasio administration in conjunction with City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), was the fifth neighborhood rezoning under the de Blasio administration to move through the detailed land use review (ULURP) process. All five, and a sixth since, have been in neighborhoods with large communities of color and lower-income populations.

The rezoning plan came with $500 million in city investments, including building new waterfront parks and investing $50 million in school infrastructure. The city said it is upzoning land along the Harlem river to facilitate commercial and residential development, and projects 2,600 new units of affordable housing across the neighborhood as a result of the overall rezoning. The plan also promises to preserve and protect another 2,500 existing affordable homes.

Though there are not any official plans yet, the EDC said also it is replacing the current Inwood library with a “state-of-the-art” library that includes a pre-K facility. In addition, the agency promises to fund STEM programming in school and will build a center celebrating immigrant achievements and performing arts.

Some Inwood residents strenuously protested these changes during ULURP, despite the positive community investments, because they argue community displacement through development outweighs certain benefits to parks and schools.

The arguments by the lawyers for both the city and Inwood residents in the lawsuit will be weighed by the Manhattan Civil Court judge in the case on August 13. 

Overall, Jackson is both pleased with the rent reforms in Albany and pushing for the lawsuit. He said part of the work of the rent reforms was undoing the damage of the rezoning.

“That's why I still think the lawsuit is important, because it never was just about housing alone,” said Jackson. “It's about the ecosystem of a vibrant, working-class community of color being thrown out of balance to the detriment of many for the benefit of the few.”

***
by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette
  

Read more by this writer.

 

 

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New State Rent Regulations Complicate Inwood Rezoning Lawsuit Against the City Thu, 18 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000