Gotham Gazette

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Development

Hotels in New York



The Plaza Hotel where workers are protesting a plan to convert 650 hotel rooms into luxury condos.

Three years ago, the notion of building a 14-story luxury hotel in a neighborhood once known for transvestite prostitutes and dangling cow carcasses seemed like a particularly risky investment.

Still, despite the attacks of September 11 and the economic decline that followed, developers of The Hotel Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District forged ahead, believing that a rooftop swimming pool with underwater music, a club named "G-Spot," and a lobby decorated with eel-skin and mohair was exactly what the city needed.

Apparently it is. Today, less than a year after opening, business is booming at the Hotel Gansevoort.

"We attract the hip, affluent, under 40 crowd," said Michael Lindenbaum of the Hotel Gansevoort, sporting a Hugo Boss suit, the mandatory uniform for hotel staff. "We're a South Beach/L.A. kind of property, a property with personality."

Rooms, which range from $395 to more than $5,000 a night, are booked full of business executives, fashion models, and celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Jay-Z, and even hotel heiress Paris Hilton (who could presumably get a room at one of the four Hilton hotels in Manhattan).

But one of the best things about the rooftop of the Gansevoort, those in the know say, is the chance to peer into the even more exclusive Soho House hotel across the street, which has a $2,000 a year membership fee.

These trendy hotels owe their success to more than just celebrities and eel-skin; the entire hotel industry in New York is stronger than it has been in decades.

Last year, New York City drew more tourists than ever before - 39.6 million visitors, according to the mayor's office. Hotel occupancy rates are at the highest level since 1969. And dozens of new hotels are currently under construction across the city, including Harlem, where developers last week broke ground on the first hotel in the neighborhood in 35 years. (See related article Criticism of New Harlem Hotel Lingers.)

For all that, some see a hotel industry threatened by a net loss of rooms and jobs. Some of the city's most recognized historic hotels may also be heading for extinction. And with new hotels springing up around the city, more of New York's neighborhoods are in danger of becoming tourist attractions.


The Hotel Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District.

A PLACE TO SLEEP IN NYC

The first building built in New York specifically as a hotel was the City Hotel in lower Manhattan in 1794 - one of the first hotels in the nation. By the early 1900s, there were approximately 700 hotels in the city. Coming to New York to stay in a nice hotel and shop is a tradition tourists have enjoyed for more than a century.

New York's hotels have often reflected the prestige and danger of the city.

In the 1920s, the Algonquin Hotel was a center of theater and literary life. Eloise, the precocious little girl who lived at The Plaza, gave millions of readers a glimpse (although fictional) into upper-class hotel life in New York. And punk rocker Sid Vicious killed his girl friend Nancy Spungen at the The Chelsea Hotel.

The city's hotels have not only been for the rich; they have also housed the middle-class and even the poorest city residents. Neighborhoods like the Bowery were once overrun with welfare hotels and "flop-houses." City government has used hotels to house homeless people, preferring to pay nightly rates, rather than build permanent housing.

The turning point in New York's modern day hotel industry, many say, occurred in the early 1990s, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani reduced the city hotel tax and the state eliminated its hotel tax as a way to stimulate the local economy. At the same time, the city's crime rate dropped, Wall Street boomed, and many began to rediscover New York as a place to visit.

"The repeal of the [state] tax signaled, in my judgment, the start of the resurgence of New York," Joseph Spinnato, president of the Hotel Association of New York told the New York Times.

In the months after September 11, 2001, the hotel industry, like any business related to tourism, took a huge hit. Hotel vacancy rates declined 10 percent and the average price of room decreased by as much as $50 a night.

The recovery has been quicker than many expected.

The hotel business is again thriving thanks to the low crime rate, positive image among people around the world, and a weak U.S. dollar, which has lured more foreign visitors who spend four times more than domestic travelers.

Today, there are approximately 70,000 hotel rooms in the city, the most of any city in the country. Of the 39 million tourists who come to the city, about two-thirds live in the northeast, within 250 miles, and many make day trips. But the other third - people from across the nation and around the world - are looking for a place to spend the night.

Experts predict that the average room rate in New York will rise to $236 next year, compared to the next most expensive city, Honolulu, where the average rate is $143 a night.

"All indicators point to 2005 as another watershed year for New York City's visitor industry," said Cristyne Nicholas, president of NYC and Company, the city's tourist bureau.

NEW YORK'S NEWEST HOTELS


Design for the Marriott Hotel in Harlem at 125th Street and Park Avenue.

Related in Community Gazettes:
• Criticism of New Hotel on 125th Street Lingers

• Ground Broken on $236 Million Hotel on 125th Street

• Harlem Marriott Is a Go

"The hotel industry is so strong right now, you could develop one almost anywhere and make it successful," said John Fox of PKF Consulting, a company that specializes in the tourism industry.

In the coming years, dozens of new hotels will test the strength of the hotel economy.

Last week in Harlem, developers began building a 34-story, 280-room Marriott on 125th Street, the first hotel to be built in the neighborhood since the Hotel Theresa closed in 1970. (See related story about the Harlem Marriott)

At Columbus Circle, the new Time Warner Center includes the 250-room Mandarin Oriental Hotel, complete with $2,400 a night suites.

Hampton Inn is opening new hotels in midtown, the financial district, and near La Guardia airport.

In downtown Brooklyn, the Marriott at MetroTech recently announced it was expanding its hotel by 280 rooms.

Jason Pomeranc, who owns the trendy 60 Thompson in Soho, has new hotel planned for the Lower East Side.

And Andre Balazs, the owner of The Mercer Hotel in Soho is planning two new hotels in the city, including one called the QT, which will feature hostel-style bunk beds, each with its own flat screen TV.

But the hotel business in New York is about more than just providing a roof and a bed - it is about service, marketing, image, and style. Like the discos of the 1970s, stylish entrepreneurs have become trendsetters, who draw as much public attention as the celebrities they attract to their establishments.

"Hotels are great public living rooms where the combustion of celebrity, drinking, and sexiness of seeing and being seen can be very theatrical," Donald Albrecht, author of the book "New Hotels for Global Nomads" told the New York Times.

LIVING IN A HOTEL

New York City's real estate market is so strong that many hotels are converting part or all of their space into residential apartments - and hoping New Yorkers will want to live there.

Hotels like The Mayflower, Helmsley Windsor, Delmonico, and Empire have all been sold in recent years and will be at least partially converted into residential buildings.

The Plaza is the most high profile example of this trend.

Beginning in April, The Plaza will convert 650 of its 800 hotel rooms on the upper floors into luxury condos, which will sell for between $2,500 to $3,000 a square foot. The Plaza will still maintain 150 hotel rooms (none of which will have Central Park views) and historic spaces like the Grand Ballroom, Palm Court, and the Oak Room will remain.

"Today, people are really buying a lifestyle, and owning [an apartment] at The Plaza will be like living in a hotel, but you own it," Dottie Herman of Prudential Douglas Elliman told the New York Post.

Financially, putting apartments in a hotel makes sense for owners and developers. Purchase prices can potentially generate even more annual income than nightly hotel rates, and it is easier to finance hotel construction if part of the building will be sold to apartment owners.

Despite all of the new hotel construction in the city, the number of hotels converting a portion or all of their rooms to apartments means that New York may actually have fewer hotel rooms, according to tourism industry experts.

"It is not an indication of weakness in the hotel industry, but the strength of the residential market," said Fox. "We could actually see a net loss of hotel rooms in the city."

HOTEL JOBS

Last week, when the new Marriott Hotel in Harlem hotel broke ground, Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised it would create 1,000 permanent jobs, half of which have been promised to local residents.

"Harlem's renaissance is moving forward at full speed," the mayor said.

The hotel industry is considered by many to be a good source of jobs.

Many hotel jobs are unionized and come with benefits. The average annual salary is approximately $40,000 a year. And hotels provide good entry-level positions for people with limited skills or education. Immigrants comprise more than half of the hotel and hospitality workforce, according to the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

Still, it is a comparatively small industry; only about 38,000 - or 1 percent of New Yorkers - work at hotels. Job growth in the industry has been slow in recent years, increasing by only 1.4 percent in the last five years.

Unions say that changes in the way hotels are owned and operated are making it more difficult to protect workers.

About a quarter of all hotel rooms in the nation are owned by four companies - Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, and Hyatt - and labor agreements in less expensive cities can set difficult precedents for negotiations in New York.

Also the trend of more hotels converting to residential apartments has workers worried.

The plan to convert hotel rooms to condos at The Plaza will mean a loss of 900 jobs. Union leaders, trying to stop the plan, have parked a giant bus in front of the hotel emblazoned with the words "SAVE THE PLAZA."

"We think the continued closure of hotels eliminates the best jobs in the city for blue-collar people," said Peter Ward of the hotel union. "And the city can't afford that."

NEW YORK'S HOTEL FUTURE

In an effort to create more tourism-related jobs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has outlined an aggressive plan to double the Jacob Javits Convention Center and create a new convention, sports, and business district on the West Side of Manhattan.

Although the fate of the proposed West Side stadium for the New York Jets is still uncertain, the State Legislature and governor have approved the plan to expand the convention center , which includes a 1,500-room hotel on 42nd Street and 11th Avenue and millions of new square feet to develop hotels in the surrounding area in the future.

The hotel and tourist industry has been a key proponent of the expansion of the Javits Convention Center.

New York's convention center ranks 18th in exhibit space nationwide and is too small to accommodate about a quarter of the largest trade shows. According to officials, the city has lost 800,000 hotel room nights over the last five years when trade shows chose to go to other cities with larger convention centers.

"Expanding the Javits Center is the number-one priority for New York City's hotel industry," said Spinnato of the Hotel Association of New York City.

In order to help pay for a larger convention center, the industry even agreed to a $1.50 per key per night tax, a sharp turn-around from a decade ago when the hotel industry blamed high taxes for sluggish business.

But some question if a new convention center will really pay off for the hotel industry.

More than 40 other cities across the country have either recently expanded their convention centers or are planning to do so. And since the convention industry has not grown significantly in recent years, each city will be competing for a share of a limited business.

While high average hotel rates in New York are good news for hotel owners, some argue New York will likely lose future convention business to other less expensive northeast cities like Philadelphia or Boston.

"New York has had a hard time attracting out of town conventions because of the high cost of hotels," said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future. "Hotel costs are one of the top considerations and it will always limit significant new business."

HOTELS AND NEIGHBORS

While some New Yorkers fear the loss of historic hotels like The Plaza, others fear trendy new hotels may overrun their neighborhoods, bringing buildings that are too tall and out of character with the rest of the area. They also fear noise, traffic, and high real estate prices.

In Harlem, seven teams of developers are competing to remake the Loew’s Victoria Theater on 125th Street. The property, just a few doors down from the Apollo Theater, is owned by the state, which is evaluating various proposals, including several that call for massive, modern hotels that would rise above smaller buildings on the block. Starwood Hotels and Resorts has proposed a $103 million W hotel with 156 rooms and 58 condos. Another proposal calls for a B.B. King jazz club and a five star, 304-room hotel.

On the Lower East Side, even young, stylish New Yorkers feel they are being driven out of the neighborhood by developers like hotelier Jason Pomeranc, who is planning a 22-story hotel on Allen Street and was quoted as saying that he looked forward to "the opportunity to not only impact the skyline, but to begin creating it." Residents of Soho have frequently complained about noise at Pomeranc’s other hotel, 60 Thompson Street. Last year, City Councilmember Alan Gerson called the hotel the "worst violator we’ve seen in the neighborhood."

And in the Meatpacking District, properties like the Hotel Gansevoort, the Maritime Hotel, and the Soho House (and soon The Standard, another hotel proposed by Andre Balazs) have helped transform the neighborhood into a tourist attraction.

“This year was the first time I saw a couple of British women walking around with a guidebook, saying `Is this the Meatpacking District?’ which is both an advance and a huge step back,” said Michael Musto, nightlife writer for the Village Voice. “Once you’ve gotten into Fodor’s, the writing is on the cobblestones.”

Related Links

Hotel Association of New York

NYC and Company

New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association

Curbed.com - website covering development in NYC

Hotel Chatter (news of the industry)

 

 

Not Ready for Wal-Mart


The buzz around town is that Wal-Mart is perched to devour Gotham, the last big city to be attacked by the global king of discounting. Walmart is proposing a 132,000 square foot store in Rego Park, Queens and scouring the rest of the city for giant holes to fill with its corporate flea market. The company calls this city of world-class sidewalk shopping “the next retail frontier.”

The reaction to Wal-Mart by organized labor is understandable. The company is the largest employer in the United States and the world’s biggest retailer, with annual sales of $256 billion. While dozens of suburban-style malls have crept into the outer boroughs in the last couple of decades, Wal-Mart is known as the industry’s supreme cut-throat, the mother of all anti-union mallers. (See Wal-Mart Watch ) We’ve all heard how they ban unions, cut wages, make their employees pay for their own health insurance, and drive out local businesses. According to Brian McLaughlin of the New York Central Labor Council, "Wal-Mart has deployed ruthless intimidation tactics while driving down wages and benefits in the retail industry and beyond.” Others hail the virtues of local retailers in creating viable communities.

The reaction by community activists is also understandable. There is fear that Wal-Mart’s bullying tactics will make it hard for neighborhoods to control their own destinies. Already groups in Queens and Brooklyn are building up the opposition army. At recent City Council hearings, some floated the idea of a moratorium on all new superstores.

These reactions feed a growing concern that Gotham’s great cosmopolitan culture will disappear. “Is America’s greatest city succumbing to ‘burbism?’” wonders Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation. “Is the nation’s most vibrant urban nexus substituting suburban sprawl for the pulsating vitality of its neighborhoods?”

Wal-Mart Supporters

There are also many voices cheering Wal-Mart on. Most of them talk about the bargains and choices Wal-Mart offers. New Yorkers who love to shop on Orchard Street and Canal Street know what that’s all about.

Other voices welcome all superstores because they say they bring dollars into the city. The mayor and City Planning Department claim that opening the way for these giants will keep shoppers from crossing the city line to shop in Long Island and New Jersey. Never mind that corporate retailers take their profits out of the city while local retailers tend to spend them locally.

Inadequate Land Use Regulations

True, this isn’t just a Wal-Mart matter. This is especially obvious when we take a look at the regulations the city has at its disposal to deal with big box stores in general. What we find is a very weak set of land use regulations that poorly equip city government and neighborhoods to deal with big box projects. First of all, most neighborhoods don’t have any plans that show what they want preserved and developed in the future, including what kind of retail space is needed and wanted. The City Planning Department doesn’t work with neighborhoods to create positive visions of what their neighborhoods should look like, so local residents and businesses usually find themselves forced to react defensively and negatively to proposals by developers.

Secondly, the city’s zoning covering large-scale retail facilities doesn’t regulate very well the things that local neighborhoods care most about, even those who might want to welcome big retailers. In 1996, the City Planning Department proposed zoning changes loosening restrictions on the siting of big box stores, but they were turned down by the City Council. The failed zoning changes didn’t address demands from neighborhoods and professionals to tighten up the rules so that mega-stores emulate our grand tradition of downtown department stores rather than copy Minnesota’s Mall of America. It also opened up new opportunities for big box stores to go into vibrant industrial areas, drive up rents and drive out good jobs.

The main thing wrong with the zoning is that it allows developers generous amounts of parking. This guarantees that the stores will function like suburban-style malls. Traffic and air quality problems neighbors fear the most will become a reality. The mandated environmental impact studies usually lead to a few traffic management changes that only open the way for more traffic. In a city that has a great mass transit system and a relatively low level of car ownership, surely the suburban model featuring acres of asphalt doesn’t belong. If Home Depot can open up a store in Manhattan without parking, it can be done in the outer boroughs too. There, developers and neighborhoods would have to come together to figure out how big retailers can fit into existing neighborhoods and act as anchors to reinforce local businesses instead of undercutting them.

Another problem with the city’s zoning is that there is very little control over building design. Too many giant stores can open up in New York as-of-right, without the public review that just about every suburban store has to undergo. Superstores can assault their new neighbors with ugly, windowless concrete walls on three sides. These blank facades kill all street life, the very thing that makes New York an exciting place to be. No one has yet quantified how many suburbanites who now flock to the city on the weekends would stay home and go to their own malls if what we have to offer them is the same as they already have in their own backyards.

So maybe a moratorium is a good first step so we can have a public discussion about how to change the zoning and how to plan in the long-term. Right now, nobody’s looking at the long-term. For corporations, the horizon has to be the bottom line or their stockholders would cut and run. And since global corporations have to keep growing in order to survive, they’re always looking at their new markets, not the old ones. Like most corporate retail giants, Wal-Mart will cease being profitable when it runs out of choice new markets where it can expand its global network. They’re finally getting around to central city markets like New York because they’ve run out of green fields in suburbia. But even if they can gobble all of us up, what could be next? It’s hard to believe that among all its achievements Wal-Mart has discovered the formula for eternal profitability. What will happen to its elephantine consumer meccas when the next trend in retailing hits (which could be back to Main Street)? Will they go belly-up like Woolworth and A&P did in a previous shift in trends? What will happen when China starts charging more for its merchandise? When energy costs shoot up and start emptying more malls? Lots of neighborhoods may be stuck with giant sores that will be much more difficult to heal than the tiny spaces left over when little mom-and-pop operations close up because the owners move to Florida.

Stay tuned. The latest news out of Canada is that Wal-Mart is closing down its first store ever to prevent it from going union.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Summit Calls For Community Planning Reform


When William Johnson became mayor of Rochester, New York, he made a bold change in the way that city did its planning: “I had to learn to listen.”

He listened, that is, to people who lived in Rochester’s neighborhoods. “We divided up the city into districts and asked citizens to envision their futures, look at their assets and help revitalize the city.” Then he made another bold change, in the budget: “Now we allocate funds for neighborhood priorities.” Rochester’s program is called “Neighbors Building Neighborhoods.”

Johnson spoke at the Summit on Community-Based Planning in New York City, held late last month at the Municipal Art Society, where about 100 planners and community people in attendance heard Johnson’s story of how he turned over responsibility for community planning to neighborhood-based groups. Then they dreamt that New York City would do the same.

Summit participants broke out into workshops where they hammered out proposals for community planning in New York City, taking up Johnson’s challenge to “think big.” The starting point seemed to be a consensus that the system is broke and needs to be fixed. Over and over and again people testified that there is little support by city officials and agencies for community planning. Fourteen years after the City Charter was revised to give the city’s 59 community boards explicit authority to prepare their own plans, only seven have been approved. Many more are slowly wending their way through the cumbersome review process. Some people told stories of how they had spent years of volunteer time to develop proposals only to have the Department of City Planning pick them apart and take out whatever it did not like, leaving a plan that few were satisfied with.

Once the plans are approved, city agencies, and the planning department itself, treat them as “only advisory,” which means they get filed away and forgotten, confirming everyone’s worst prejudices about the futility of planning. And in at least one case cited by some conferees – the Greenpoint and Williamsburg plans in Brooklyn – the planning department responded to the neighborhoods officially approved plans by promptly making its own zoning proposals that violate the basic premises of the neighborhood plans. Earlier this month, Community Board One in Brooklyn, which covers Greenpoint and Williamsburg, turned down the planning department’s zoning proposal.

The ideas for changing this state of affairs facing community-based planners ranged from the immediate and mundane to the visionary. They included, for example, giving more technical and financial resources to community boards and community-based organizations, to both plan and to implement their plans. One panel called for the city to fund every community board so they can contract their own planners, as called for in the City Charter. It was also noted that the average board serves 135,000 people, larger than whole cities like New Haven, Connecticut, but with a tiny budget of only about $200,000 and miniscule professional staff. Some participants wanted to see community boards have more than advisory powers, bigger budgets, more professional staff, and more of an ability to bring city agency representatives to the table as partners in decision making. Many proposed that the city provide training for community board members and staff, and one panel wanted city schools to orient students to community board functions. There was also a recommendation that community boards be able to propose legislation.

While the call for the city to support its community boards was clear, there was also some sharp criticism of community boards for not being representative of their diverse constituencies, inclusive and accountable. There were stories of community board members who didn’t seem to understand what they were voting on and others who were too powerful and appeared to have life-long positions. At least one workshop called for uniform guidelines for board membership and procedures across the city, greater outreach to constituents, and oversight of board members and those who select them. Many felt that community planning should be an option for all community-based organizations, not just community boards.

Many of the ideas generated in the summit came out of the Task Force for Community-based Planning, a three-year-old coalition of community and professional groups that sponsored the recent event. With staff support from the Planning Center of the Municipal Art Society, the Task Force developed the first-ever collection of community-based planning efforts in the city – the Briefing Book, available at the Municipal Art Society Website, and on Gotham Gazette’s Community Gazettes.

What It Will Take

If we look at other cities in the United States, such as Rochester, Seattle, and Baltimore, where community planning is widespread and institutionalized, there appear to be three central ingredients to make it work. In New York City, a city of hundreds of neighborhoods with many experienced and sophisticated local activists, none of these elements are in place.

First, there has to be the political will. The executive and legislative branches (mayor and city council) have to want genuine community empowerment. That doesn’t mean just letting people participate in public meetings – the community boards can already do that. It means letting neighborhood people make decisions about government priorities, and that means influencing the city’s budget and service delivery. It also means that the mayor and city council have to be prepared to accept some local decisions they may not agree with.

Secondly, there should be a broad strategic plan governing the city as a whole This will help ensure that neighborhood-based decisions don’t contradict city-wide policies or enact exclusionary measures. In the other cities with community planning, there are city-wide plans that form the groundwork for local plans. In Rochester, for example, the backdrop for neighborhood-level planning is the Rochester 2010 plan.

Third, the city has to put its money where its mouth is. Neighborhoods have to have the money they need to do the planning and to implement their plans. Every plan should have a budget and its priority proposals should find their way into the city’s capital and expense budgets. Seattle, for example, has a Department of Neighborhoodsthat every year funds neighborhood priorities.

At the summit on community-based planning, the elephant in the room was the Bloomberg administration, the latest in a long line of imperial administrations preoccupied with planning for giant downtown projects, blind to outer borough needs, and ready to give lip service to community planning. Maybe the snoozing giant will wake up as elections approach next year, but among this crowd there seemed to be little faith that (if you’ll excuse the mixed zoological metaphors) the leopard will change its spots.

In the meantime, City Council member Bill Perkins, who introduced Mayor Johnson, announced that as chair of the Council’s Government Operations Committeehe would be holding hearings on community boards and community planning on Tuesday December 14, 2004. In his introduction, Perkins said that “there are those who think that since the community boards are just advisory we needn’t pay attention to them. I disagree….Maybe we have to make the boards more than advisory….Maybe we have to change the nature of community boards.”

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bloomberg's Development Strategies: Who Benefits?



Mayor Michael Bloomberg's development plan will remake neighborhoods like Long Island City, Throgs Neck, and downtown Jamaica.

Articles in this Feature:
• Developing Affordable Housing and Jobs by Brad Lander
• Create Conditions for Business to Thrive by Sandy Hornick
• Reform the Building Code by Julia Vitullo-Martin

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has launched development strategies in over 20 New York City neighborhoods to create new offices and new housing. At a recent forum at the Milano Graduate School, three experts gave their views on how the city's development strategies can best help New York.

Create Conditions for Business to Thrive by Sandy Hornick
An outline of the city’s plan to revive lower Manhattan, develop the west side of Manhattan, and strengthen business districts in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

Developing Affordable Housing and Jobs by Brad Lander
The Bloomberg administration is the first to create an urban planning policy around economic development, but the mayor’s plans also present considerable costs and risk.

Reform the Building Code by Julia Vitullo-Martin
The most important thing the city can do to secure its future in housing and development is to bring down construction costs.

 

Developing Affordable Housing and Jobs



Mayor Michael Bloomberg's development plan will remake neighborhoods like Long Island City, Throgs Neck, and downtown Jamaica.

Articles in this Feature:
• Developing Affordable Housing and Jobs by Brad Lander
• Create Conditions for Business to Thrive by Sandy Hornick
• Reform the Building Code by Julia Vitullo-Martin

When we consider Mayor Michael Bloomberg's development plans, we must ask questions like: Who is the development for? Who benefits from it? And what kinds of jobs are created? And the city's new development must be seen in the context of the decline and resurgence that New York City has experienced in the last 40 years.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, New York City experienced a dramatic decline, as manufacturing declined, business decentralized, middle-class white families moved to the suburbs. Sprawling suburban development became the norm, and many of the city's neighborhoods were abandoned.

Yet despite these deep negative trends, New York City has by many measures experienced a remarkable comeback. One component of the resurgence began in the 1980s – the rise of finance, business services, and cultural production as key elements of the city's economic base. Other trends, such as escalating land prices and a rising population, did not become fully evident until the 1990s.

The problem is that now we now have a much more unequal economy. Add in raising property values and housing costs, you have an even greater income divide between those at the high end of the salary scale and those at the low end.

The Bloomberg administration is the first to recognize economic development and create an urban planning policy around it.

The mayor's plan features a host of benefits. It would create recreational and open space. It would bring jobs, especially the short-term construction work - 18,000 construction jobs on the Far West Side, 15,000 to build the Nets Arena Complex, 10,000 for lower Manhattan redevelopment. It would create housing, particularly high-earning residents, who would likely otherwise live in the suburbs and generate the property, sales and income tax revenues for the city.

But there are number of costs and risks that I think must considered.

While it is true that city has an aggressive housing plan, but these rezoning and redevelopment initiatives build almost only market-rate housing. In lower Manhattan, about 6,000 of the apartments that have been authorized or financed, only about one percent are affordable.

Another concern is preserving the manufacturing jobs we still have. In 2000, about 250,000 manufacturing jobs remained in New York City. This is still a lot of jobs, and industry should not be written off. And the manufacturing jobs we are losing today are due in large part to high real estate prices.

In its effort to strengthen the office economy, the development plan ignores opportunities to use development to benefit the city's working-class and middle- and low-income residents, especially in neighborhoods of color. We have an increasingly segregated city by income and race. We should be conscious about that and make investments in those neighborhoods as well.

There are also environmental concerns. In a growing city that is going to have new office space and housing, we need to generate new energy and we are going to produce more waste. We need to think about this over the next 50 years in order to make the investments so certain neighborhoods aren't dumped on.

Brad Lander is the director of the and Pratt Institute Center for Community Environmental Development. His remarks are based on a report called Remaking New York City: Can Prosperity be Shared and Sustainable? (available in .pdf format)

 

The City's New Housing Subsidy


The city has run out of Section 8 vouchers, the federal rent subsidy that has been its main weapon in fighting homelessness. City officials have proposed a new subsidy program, to be financed by city, state and federal money, to replace Section 8, which will be called Housing Stability Plus. Homeless advocates are not impressed.

The drying up of Section 8 vouchers and the new subsidy were the focus of a heated public hearing of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee on December 1st.

The Section 8 rent subsidy program helps working poor people pay their monthly rent. People on Section 8 are expected to spend a third of their income on rent; the subsidy covers the difference up to “fair market rents” determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

About 120,000 New Yorkers are on Section 8, which is primarily administered by the New York City Housing Authority. About 150,000 people are on the waiting list for Section 8, which has been closed for about a decade.

Warning signs that Section 8 would run out have been evident for more than a year. In October, the city sent letters to people in the process of being certified for the assistance informing them that they would have to use their vouchers by December 19. But that date turned out to be wrong. The vouchers apparently ran out just before Thanksgiving.

“The city has broken its promise to these people,” Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, told the committee. “They took away the relocation program without anything up and running.”

Many of the homeless families who saw their Section 8 vouchers evaporate would likely end up in New York City Housing Authority apartments, the housing authority’s general manager told the committee. But city officials had few concrete answers for these people except to wait and see about the new proposed subsidy.

The people were seething at the committee hearing, particularly women in domestic violence shelters who are awaiting housing placements. Those shelters allow women to stay for only a limited time.

The city’s proposed subsidy to replace Section 8 is still being negotiated, although city and state officials told the committee that all of the major issues relating to it had been ironed out. The officials said the city is continuing to press the federal government for renewed Section 8, but by creating a new subsidy, some advocates questioned the mayor’s and governor’s commitment to New Yorkers.

“We urge the city not to give up on Section 8,” said Lauren Bholai-Pareti, executive director of the Council on Homeless Policies and Services. “The mayor and the governor should come together to assure we get that assistance.”

Without Section 8 to help place homeless families in permanent housing, city officials said the city would face a huge financial burden putting or leaving people in shelters without some sort of subsidy program. The city pays about $90 a night to house homeless families, or almost $3,000 a month, and its homeless services budget, much of which goes to pay for shelter, has nearly doubled since 1999, to about $700 million.

“Without this (subsidy), the shelter system would quickly grow,” Linda Gibbs, the city’s homeless services commissioner, told the city council committee. “Our hope is that in a matter of days we will see approval. The major issues have been resolved.”

Councilmember Bill de Blasio, the committee’s chairman, said the city’s proposal was a positive step, even if flawed.

“Before Washington cuts us off, you put something into play that is sort of an inoculation against that,” he said. “I appreciate that.”

The subsidy, Housing Stability Plus, would cost about $58 million annually, city officials said, money that would simply be shifted in the city and state budgets for public assistance.

“The state can cover it,” said Robert Doar, commissioner of the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. “It takes time to review all the aspects of the plan. We’re getting close to an agreement on what this will cost.”

But advocates rejected the new subsidy. It significantly differs from Section 8, they said, in very negative ways.

Unlike Section 8, recipients of Housing Stability Plus assistance would have to be on public assistance and the subsidy would decline by 20 percent annually until it ran out after five years. Gibbs told council members that the decline was intended to encourage poor families to become self-sufficient. But asked what the families would do if they could not pay what in effect would be a 20 percent increase in their rent, she said the agency was hoping they could pay it.

“We’ll make changes as needed,” she said. “The focus is making it work. We’ll figure out how to make it work.”

But she said people who could not become self-sufficient would have to look elsewhere for help: “This program may not be for them,” Gibbs said. “There are other service systems” that would help them.

But decreasing rent for families on welfare would not encourage self-sufficiency, said Paige Sayle, director of community relations and advocacy at the Partnership for the Homeless. People who receive public assistance have their benefits cut if they earn too much money. So, the families would likely “turn down jobs or take low paying jobs in order to keep their rent subsidy,” she said.

Decreasing rents could also discourage landlords from accepting the subsidy, advocates said, a point one landlord acknowledged.

“If someone’s homeless and doesn’t have a job then you know their income is going to be an issue,” said Frank Anelante, president and CEO of Lemle & Wolff, which manages over 300 buildings in the city. “That’s a problem.”

Gibbs assured the council that landlord partners of the homeless services department had said they would accept the subsidy.

It was unclear at the hearing what would happen to working poor families who do not qualify for public assistance. It was also unclear whether landlords would accept the subsidy that, unlike Section 8, offers no incentive payment to landlords for taking homeless families and declines each year.

“There are a lot of questions,” said Councilmember Gale Brewer. “We’re all wondering how this will work. And we wonder about the priorities.”

The new subsidy would pay lower rents than what Section 8 pays, another flaw advocates pointed out. Gibbs said the proposed maximum rents the subsidy would cover, based on family size, were still competitive. A family of four that qualified could rent an apartment at $925 a month in the first year of receiving Housing Stability Plus. A family of six would receive up to $1,176 a month in the first year.

“There has been a constant issue with the fair market rents,” said Steven Banks, the Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-chief. “This is even lower.”

Added to the financial issues, the new subsidy also differs from Section 8 in what quality of apartments it would pay for. While Section 8 has famously rigorous standards that disqualify apartments with violations, the new subsidy would not impose standards that are as strict. Advocates said the city would end up putting homeless families in unsafe and unhealthy apartments under the new subsidy.

The flaws in the subsidy were somewhat beside the point, advocates said. That the city had clear warning signs that Section 8 would run out and did not do enough sooner was an indication of the wrong priorities, they said.

“There has been a 63 percent increase in homelessness since 1999,” Banks said. “That reflects need. The city needs to spend money on housing. It’s all about rent. That’s the flaw in the current proposal.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

2 Columbus Circle And The Need To Preserve Preservation


On the brink of its fortieth birthday, the landmarks preservation law – created two years after New Yorkers were shocked at the needless demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station in 1963 – has preserved more than 1,100 individual landmarks and 22,000 properties in 81 historic districts across New York City. Thanks to the law, and the efforts of the city’s preservationists, New Yorkers and visitors to the city can enjoy brownstone-lined streets of Brooklyn, garden communities of Jackson Heights and such indestructible-seeming architectural monuments as Grand Central Terminal, all of which might not otherwise exist.

Today, preservation is a proven tool for stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhoods, maintaining a record of New York’s architectural and cultural history, and creating a tangible link between past and future generations.

But while 40 years of landmark preservation is indeed cause for celebration, many preservationists are not in any mood to pop open the champagne. Communities throughout the city are increasingly frustrated by the agency created by the law, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which seems out of touch with our concerns.

A coalition of civic organizations has produced a report, Problems Experienced by Community Groups Working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, (in pdf format) that cites nine problems with the commission and proposes several avenues for reform. The report was submitted to the City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses, which scheduled a special oversight hearing for November 29 at 10:00 AM.

Among the host of reasons for communities' concern is the commission’s failure to hold public hearings on such buildings as 2 Columbus Circle and St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, both imminently threatened with destruction or a destructive alteration. These two -- one a mid-century Modern icon by one of America’s most progressive Modernist architects, Edward Durell Stone; the other a work of both architectural and spiritual importance to the Harlem community -- are what Penn Station was forty years ago: igniters. This time, however, the city has a Landmarks Law. The question is, why isn’t it being used?

One reason is money. At just over $3 million, the Landmarks Commission’s budget is the smallest of any city agency, and it has fallen precipitously over the past decade, with the staff being cut back significantly. Meanwhile, the commission’s workload has increased by volumes. In any given year, it receives close to 8,000 applications for alterations ranging from cornice replacements to entirely new construction. And with each designation of an individual landmark or district, the workload increases.

But, while money is tight, the city cannot afford in architectural and cultural terms to force the agency to scale back its efforts. The mission of the agency is to protect the city’s historical and architectural heritage. Once this heritage is gone, it is gone forever.

Another reason the landmarks law isn't being used is politics. The decreased funding for the Landmarks Commission is not merely a symptom of across-the-board municipal belt-tightening. It reflects the city’s priority list, with the real-estate development lobby right at the top. The bias towards large-scale development, which promises quick fixes to perceived urban problems, versus preservation, which can be a slower, more organic renewal process, has an impact not only on the budget but on the political dynamics determining which buildings do – and do not – get considered for landmark protection.

Although 2 Columbus Circle is by no means the only source of preservationists’ concern (why else would dozens of groups in communities as varied as St. George in Staten Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan have leapt to endorse the coalition's report?), it provides a useful case study.

The Case For 2 Columbus Circle

Robert A.M. Stern is one of the most vocal supporters of preserving 2 Columbus Circle. His credentials go beyond his role as foremost chronicler of New York’s history (Stern is the author of New York 1960, New York 1880, New York 1900, New York 1930, and a forthcoming volume entitled New York 2000). He is one of the most famous architects in the United States, the former director of Columbia University’s acclaimed graduate program in historic preservation, and the current Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. When considering whether to designate a particular resource as an individual landmark or as part of a historic district, the Landmarks Commission frequently cites Stern’s opinions as proof of the resource’s significance. In terms of New York City landmarks, he is clearly an authority.

The campaign to save 2 Columbus Circle began in earnest in 1996, soon after the building turned thirty years old and became eligible for landmark designation, when Stern drew up a list of “35 Modern Landmarks-in-Waiting” that was published in the New York Times. Two Columbus Circle, the former Gallery of Modern Art built in 1964 to house Huntington Hartford’s art collection, was included along with the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Holding a public hearing to consider 2 Columbus Circle’s merits for landmark designation should have been a no-brainer for the commission. Yet, while the commission has moved to designate a few of Stern’s 35, it has determinedly ignored him on 2 Columbus Circle. It has also ignored the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation League of New York State, both of which included 2 Columbus Circle on their latest “Most Endangered” lists. It has ignored New York Times architecture critics Herbert Muschamp (“The refusal of the New York City Landmarks Commission to hold hearings on the future of 2 Columbus Circle is a shocking dereliction of public duty”) and Nicolai Ouroussoff (“Stone’s design, and the people of this city, deserve more respect than this”). The commission appears unmoved by the signatures collected from over 1,000 individuals and every single major preservation organization in the city, including the Municipal Art Society, the Historic Districts Council, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, calling for a hearing – not official designation, just a hearing.

These advocates are the Silenced Majority, ignored while the new Museum of Arts and Design plans a renovation of the now-vacant 2 Columbus Circle that would destroy many of its distinctive features. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has described those features in this "unorthodox" building as "a marble skin, porthole windows and a street-level arcade that critics have likened to a row of lollipops." But even some critics of the building question the Landmarks Preservation Commission's refusal to give it a hearing.

Recognizing the commission’s delinquency on 2 Columbus Circle as part of a larger pattern of negligence, Stern recently issued a statement urging the City Council to exercise its oversight power, “a move necessitated by the continued failure of the city agency to fulfill its important duties.” He went on, “while reasonable people can disagree over the merits of designation, the reluctance of the Commission to simply hold hearings in the face of sustained, vocal, widespread, and indeed unprecedented demand, including the recommendations of two former Chairs of the Commission, is, frankly, inexplicable.”

The former chairs to whom Stern refers are Beverly Moss Spatt, a planner who served from 1974 to 1978, and Gene A. Norman, an architect who served from 1983 to 1989. Both have written to the commission to call for a hearing for 2 Columbus Circle, as has Anthony M. Tung, a preservation scholar and former Landmarks Commissioner. Tung wrote, “Simply, in the 26 years of my involvement in preservation matters, beginning with my appointment as a commissioner by Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1979, I have never seen the commission turn its back on such a widely supported and substantive argument for a hearing…Have all of these people suddenly grown ignorant? Entered senility? Gone blind? Or is the commission being arbitrary and capricious?”

Arbitrary and capricious behavior by city agencies is grounds for legal action. The report points out that, early in its history, the Landmarks Commission was peppered with lawsuits brought by property owners and developers seeking to overturn the Landmarks Law. Today, a number of lawsuits have been brought by owners and community groups who believe that the commission should have applied higher standards to protect the city’s historic resources. Somewhere along the line, the Landmarks Commission was cast (by its leadership and real estate-lobbied mayoral administrations) in the role of back-room negotiator, transforming what was once a participatory decision-making process into a bureaucratic maze that thwarts meaningful public dialogue. The agency’s ability to determine the future of over 23,000 historic properties throughout the five boroughs has been seriously undermined.

The problems experienced by communities seeking to work with the Landmarks Commission reflect both an economic and a cultural shift in the agency’s operations. To try to debate which shift caused which is fruitless. The point is that the commission’s lack of transparency and responsiveness stymies community-based preservation efforts and leads directly to the loss of irreplaceable historic fabric. This loss and the growing chasm between the commission and its natural allies – the citizen-stewards of the historic city – must not become the legacy of our generation.

Kate Wood is executive director of Landmark West!, a community group currently leading the effort to preserve 2 Columbus Circle.

 

New Homes for the Arts


It has all the appearances of an arts boom.



Barry Grove: The Manhattan Theater Club Revamps a Legendary Theater

Paul Kellogg: Seeking a New Space for the New York City Opera

Glenn Lowry: The Museum of Modern Art's New Home

Linda Shelton: Creating a Center for Dance in Lower Manhattan

The Museum of Modern Art opened its new space last week, to widespread media attention, most of it laudatory. Building the new museum cost $425 million, took more than two years and will boost the price of museum admission to $20.

But MoMA is not alone among the city's art institutions in seeking new quarters to meet changing demands of artists and audiences.

 

  • The Dia Arts Foundation opened a large exhibition space in Beacon New York to display its contemporary art.
  • Last month, the Rubin Museum of Himalayan art moved into what had been Barney's in Chelsea
  • The Brooklyn Museum of Art last spring revealed its revamped museum, complete with a fountain and grand new plaza in front.
  • A $75 million Visual and Performing Arts Library is planned for downtown Brooklyn, near the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
  • The Joyce Theater will get performance space downtown as part of the plans for rebuilding Lower Manhattan.
  • Also in Lower Manhattan, the Signature Theater will open a performing-arts complex of three theaters, a bookstore and a cafĂ©.
  • The New York City Opera, which also wanted to move downtown, was rebuffed and is now seeking another home that will enable it to leave its current quarters in Lincoln Center.

 

But, despite the building boom, the past few years have presented challenges to cultural groups in New York City. Leaders of arts institutions speak, albeit gingerly, about declines in attendance and tightening budgets since September 11, 2001. "Since September 11, 2001, there seems to have been a seismic change in audience patterns," said Paul Kellogg of the New York City Opera. "Subscriptions are down across the country, even the world. Single ticket buyers are not buying ahead and they are attending fewer performances."

At a recent breakfast sponsored by Crain's New York, leaders of four top cultural institutions described their efforts, despite such difficulties, to expand and change for the 21st century.

Barry Grove: The Manhattan Theater Club Revamps a Legendary Theater
Paul Kellogg: Seeking a New Space for the New York City Opera
Glenn Lowry: The Museum of Modern Arts' New Home
Linda Shelton: Creating a Center for Dance in Lower Manhattan

 

The Filtration Plant Deal in the Bronx: Flawed Planning, Environmental Injustice


The City of New York is planning to write a fat $243 million check for parks in the Bronx. But before park lovers uncork the champagne, take another look. This is a payoff for the city's plan to dig up nine acres of Van Cortland Park so they can build an underground water filtration plant. But the million dollar deal is deeply flawed as public policy and the project is the latest in a long line of environmental injustices, having a negative impact on the neighborhood of Norwood.

Gotham Gazette's Anne Schwartz recently raised questions about the filtration plant proposal and park swap.

A memorandum of understanding signed by the mayor and city council in September of this year appropriates an unprecedented amount of city funds to fix up Bronx parks. "This is something we want to praise," says Christian DiPalermo, Director of New Yorkers for Parks, "even though the process used for making the decisions wasn't inclusive."

But the most troubling part of this deal is that most of the funds will get sprinkled around the Bronx like fairy dust while the neighborhood of Norwood where the filtration plant is to be located gets all the truck traffic, noise, and pollution. "In most cases where parkland is taken," says DiPalermo, "funds are spent in the affected area. While the project is in Van Cortland Park, most of the money will be spent elsewhere." In addition, "city money is going to the state, for Roberto Clemente State Park" while the state already gets more taxes from the city than it spends.

Another problematic part of the deal is the $6 million allocated for McCombs Dam Park. This park is located right next to Yankee Stadium and is the proposed site for a new stadium. Details of the stadium plan haven't been made public, but presumably the McCombs Dam Park would be relocated somewhere nearby. Even if that's the case, says DiPalermo, the parks money should go to parks, not "a deal to keep the Yankees." But then sneaking subsidies to stadiums seems to be one of this administration's nasty habits.

In the discussion about where to spend the money, the point of departure for planning ought to be the recreational needs of residents, not the deficits in the Parks Department budget. The city's planners don't systematically track recreational needs, so they don't even have the basic information they need to do that. No one even asked what kind of recreational facilities are needed in Norwood. Planning for parks is increasingly driven by the logic of big projects, private conservancies, and one-time infusions of largesse. Many of these big projects - stadiums, arenas, and private concessions - make millions of people passive spectators while a handful of athletes entertain. They reinforce chronic syndromes such as obesity that cripple people young and old. Recreation they're not.

Norwood and Environmental Injustice

The proposed plant is anything but a good deal for the 30,000 people who live in Norwood, the majority of them people with low-incomes and people of color. According to the local youth group The Cove, "The construction of a water filtration plant will cause a negative recreational, educational, ecological, health and life-threatening environment for the most precious resource, our children."

While every New Yorker may benefit from cleaner water (though there are still some questions whether filtration is needed in the first place), and lots of people in the Bronx will have their parks fixed up, the people who lose are all in one Bronx neighborhood. They will lose their parkland, suffer through up to a decade of heavy construction, and get only a fraction of the $243 million. Of all the neighborhoods surrounding the park, they have the largest youth population and greatest need for recreational facilities. Their closest green neighbors are a golf course and a cemetery.

While the city's giant environmental impact study claims the plant will have no significant negative effect on the surrounding neighborhood, to those familiar with the city's policies for siting major infrastructure it raises the specter of environmental injustice.

Why choose the Van Cortland Park site over a similar site in Eastview, in Westchester County, on land the city owns and has been planning to use for years to build the filtration plant? Why did the city decide they would instead relocate a perfectly fine golf driving range, blast 80 feet into bedrock, fill the hole with a filtration plant, then put the driving range back on top - when they could have just built an above-ground building in Eastview? The city claims that at the Van Cortland site they wouldn't have to build as many tunnels as Eastview. Yet the costs for construction at the two sites, and the projected operating costs, are pretty much the same.

Norwood activists want to know what the project's planners had in mind when they made the decision so these questions can be answered. But what we may have here is a classic case of "color blindness" - a failure to even consider the disparate impact of facility siting on low-income communities of color.

One of the reasons for the emergence of environmental justice claims by city neighborhoods over the last couple of decades has been the professed color blindness of city officials when they locate such facilities. The preferred sites are usually those where the land in the surrounding neighborhood is cheapest and, thus, where the impact on land values and property owners will be least. The planners are blind to the people who live and work there.

The environmental impact study for the Van Cortland plant appears to have come after the siting decision was made. It includes a section that is supposed to consider the disparate impact on "minority" communities. But these declarations are usually after-thoughts and often not taken seriously. The study notes that the neighborhood near the site is 75 percent "minority" (this term is from another epoch when people of color were a minority of the city's population, and to continue to use it only sows confusion). They even state that the area around the Eastview site is 60 percent "minority," making it appear that the two neighborhoods are comparable.

But what they don't consider important is that there are only about 3,000 people within a half-mile radius of the Eastview site, and these "minorities" appear to be very rich, even richer than the Westchester average. (However, one neighborhood activist points to a prison near the site and believes that's where the "minorities" are). The folks around the Eastview site had a median household income of over $77,000 at the last census, over a fifth higher than the Westchester County figure and more than twice the figure for Norwood. Race isn't the only factor in environmental justice claims; it's the intersection of race and economics that makes color blindness so damaging.

The other thing that is never mentioned by the project planners is the rapidly rising land values around the Eastview site, spurred by large-scale commercial and retail development in the area. Were the city's planners thinking more like real estate developers than guardians of the public trust when they selected the Van Cortland site? This fits the approach now taken with parkland: save the choicest pieces for income-generating activities and dump on the rest.

Norwood activists worry that if the filtration plant is built in their neighborhood the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) won't do a good job of maintenance. They worry about the storage of chemicals and daily truck traffic. If the surrounding land and people are seen as having little value, why should those charged with maintenance be careful? Remember the department's lousy performance with their sewage treatment plants in West Harlem and Greenpoint that led them into intense court battles? More recently the department pleaded guilty in federal court to discharging mercury-contaminated water into an upstate reservoir for two years, and is still under the watchful eyes of a court monitor. Who will watch them in the Bronx?

For Norwood residents, the only section of the park that's accessible to them on foot is the one where the plant is proposed. Almost all of Van Cortland Park's facilities are on the west side, near Riverdale, where much wealthier, more mobile households can reach them by car. The Riverdale side of the park stands to get $18 million from the city's deal. It's bad enough that more land in city parks is getting handed over to paying concessions like golf courses. But the city shouldn't dump on the rest, then reward the parks that are backyards for the rich.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Housing Problems Of Immigrants


Illegal immigrants are probably the most vulnerable people when it comes to housing. They are easy targets for exploitative landlords who threaten reporting them to immigration authorities if they try to assert their rights. Unaware of laws that set standards for apartment conditions – and intimidated by landlords – they hesitate to complain, and often live in miserable conditions, going months without heat or hot water.

If they do actually find themselves in Housing Court they often face a double whammy: They do not understand the language being spoken, and they also do not understand the legal system they are dealing with – a system that regularly confounds English-speaking legal citizens who do know something about the law. Like most tenants, they represent themselves at the court, and their opposition is an attorney, highly educated and well-versed in the language of the court.

These problems have inspired advocates from immigrant organizations and housing organizations to come together. Responding to a call from the New York Immigration Coalition, advocates are searching for answers to the housing problems immigrants face. Comprising 40 percent of New Yorkers, immigrants’ housing problems are substantial.

But there are few easy answers. Consider the case of West African immigrant Safiatou Diallo, a slight woman with three children. She was in the Housing Court recently trying to figure out if she could continue living in the two-bedroom Bronx apartment she has called home for the last three years. It was doubtful.

Although the apartment was rent stabilized, a status that offers tenants many protections, Diallo was never on the lease and only distantly related to the man who was. He disappeared about four months ago and Diallo, who occasionally earns some money braiding hair in Harlem, has only a fraction of the back rent the landlord was seeking and makes not nearly enough to pay the $888 monthly rent.

Diallo does not speak a word of English. In the village in the Ivory Coast where she grew up, housing conflicts are resolved by the village chief and almost never would result in someone becoming homeless.

“Maybe I can find a roommate,” she said in her native language, as she considered her options. “I have nowhere to go otherwise.”

But with no right to the apartment and the landlord’s attorney unwilling to even consider giving her a lease, Diallo’s idea was a non-starter.

The coalition’s project was launched after focus groups comprised of immigrants identified a variety of housing issues. The groups varied by nationality, gender, age, immigration status and area of the city, from senior citizens in Chinatown to undocumented West Africans in Harlem to Arabic-speaking women in Brooklyn.

“What was interesting was that although there was a unified voice for affordable housing, there were unique issues for each group,” said Ben Ross of the New York Immigrant Coalition.

“In the South Asian, Arabic-speaking community, there was a lot of landlord harassment and discrimination,” Ross said. “In the undocumented Mexican community, there were a lot of people who did not know their rights and did not have the materials to provide housing assistance.

“In the communities that were more established, like Chinatown and Dominicans in Washington Heights, they knew a lot but had language access barriers.”

Since then, Ross has organized meetings that have included a wide variety of groups working with immigrants and others working with tenants. Just connecting these groups was a step forward. At the first meeting, advocates exchanged business cards, probably as important a step as the discussion of problems for immigrants and tenants.

“We need to link the two advocate worlds,” said Monica Tarazi, New York director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “The immigrant rights community has not really focused on housing issues and the housing advocate world has not really focused on immigrant rights. If they have, we have not really worked together.”

The expertise, connections and experience of advocates in both worlds will be extended as a result. Already, housing advocates are setting up training workshops on tenant rights. And immigrant advocates are helping housing advocates recognize the problems immigrants face, such as language barriers at Housing Court.

As much as the advocates’ collaboration will help immigrants understand their rights, however, many have already learned that that may not be enough. Housing advocates are hoping that helping organizations that help immigrants will bring more people out to rally for better housing code enforcement, more just enforcement of housing laws, creation and preservation of affordable housing and strengthening of the rent stabilization law.

Manuel Castro, the environmental and housing organizer at Brooklyn’s Make the Road by Walking advocacy organization, said his organization already recognized that more could be done by uniting immigrants under the housing banner as well as informing them.

“We’ve been working on trying to put up legislation and working with different groups,” he said. “We are in agreement with HPD on inspections – we need more comprehensive inspections. But even though people get inspections, that doesn’t mean repairs are going to get made.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.

 

 

Rezoning Proposals Squeeze Out Affordable Housing From Both Ends


Changes to the city’s zoning code are now helping to put affordable housing in a double vise. On the one hand, new zoning is keeping affordable housing out of well-to-do homeowner neighborhoods that have plenty of space for new housing. On the other hand, new zoning is pushing affordable rental housing out of neighborhoods where it already exists. Soon there will be no place to live in New York City for anyone making less than $100,000 a year. The city will be a wealthy enclave, like a medieval fortress protected from incursions by those who live outside the walls. Is this the vision behind the zoning policies of our billionaire mayor, or is it just the work of the city’s planners? No matter who is responsible, we should all take a look at what’s happening if we want to stick around.

Zoning to Preserve Neighborhoods

Jamaica Hill is a quiet neighborhood of one- and two-family homes in Queens. The homeowners want to keep it that way. They are afraid that speculators will see their rising property values, move into the neighborhood, buy up homes and convert them to apartments. Loose zoning regulations have produced just this scenario in many Queens neighborhoods.

So the Department of City Planning came to the rescue. In their Jamaica Hill proposal, the city’s planners warn that without a zoning change “existing single family homes can be replaced with attached, multifamily structures that would be out of context.” So they propose to tighten up those loose zoning rules, meaning the speculators will have to go somewhere else.

Jamaica Hills is the latest in a string of lower density rezonings in the outer boroughs to protect neighborhoods from unwanted development. “Contextual” zoning rules aim to ensure that the size and scale of new development is consistent with the existing neighborhood. To the homeowners it makes a lot of sense.

The Department of City Planning is currently rezoning selected homeowner neighborhoods all over the outer boroughs to preserve what they call the “neighborhood character.” For example, the city’s planners propose to strengthen the Special Natural Area District, which applies to portions of Staten Island, Riverdale in the Bronx, and a piece of northeast Queens. In North Riverdale, the planners proposed to rezone a homeowner neighborhood to help preserve it, and Bronx Community Board 8 unanimously concurred; the rezoning is expected to pass the land use review process shortly. Because they reduce the density of potential new development, these changes are called “downzoning.” Conversely, zoning to increase density is called “upzoning.”

The Neighborhoods Not Preserved

The agency is not so quick when it comes to preserving neighborhoods with renters, industry, and lower-income people. Preservation seems to be a privilege reserved for exclusive upper-income neighborhoods of homeowners. If you look at the ethnic makeup of the privileged neighborhoods it should not be surprising that most, though not all, are lily white.

The planning agency’s double standard on preservation also applies to community plans. The city’s planners are moving quickly to implement a community plan done by upscale homeowner neighborhoods in Queens, Riverdale and Staten Island, while at the same time they are overturning the community plan of an older working class neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn have seen their plans turned upside down by the Department of City Planning. These two adjacent neighborhoods completed plans for revitalization of their East River waterfront land that were approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council only a few years ago. The plans called for a mixture of residential and small industrial uses on the waterfront at a scale consistent with the existing neighborhood of two-four story row houses. Both plans intended to make it difficult for noxious industrial uses like waste transfer stations and power plants to locate on the waterfront but wanted to keep non-polluting small-scale industries that provide jobs for many local residents.

Just like the folks in Jamaica Hills, the community planners in Brooklyn wanted to preserve the “neighborhood character.” They also wanted to open up opportunities for new affordable housing that wouldn’t jack up property values so much that current residents would be forced to move.

Instead of following the plan that the city approved, the Department of City Planning has now proposed a massive upzoning of the waterfront, going from the medium density R6 to a high density R8. In addition, they want to allow new residential development in upland zones that now permit only industry. The inevitable effect of this in a neighborhood now undergoing severe gentrification will be to chase out existing industries and make the neighborhood another monolithic upscale bedroom community. The rezoning began the official land use review procedure on October 4 and is now under consideration by Brooklyn’s Community Board One.

When you put these two rezoning strategies together, new affordable housing will be banned both from low-density homeowner neighborhoods and from more centrally-located neighborhoods. So where will the “affordable” housing promised in the mayor’s housing plan be built? It will have to be tucked away in the corners of the giant real estate schemes for Midtown West, lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, and Queens West, so small they will be unnoticeable

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.



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