Gotham Gazette

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Planning Commission Vote Will Send Zoning Proposals to City Council

greenfield city hall

Council Member Greenfield leads a press conference (photo: William Alatriste) 

The next ten days are an especially critical period for Mayor Bill de Blasio's housing plan. While negotiations around a new state-level program to incentivize affordable housing production continue and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to soon flesh out general affordable housing plans he announced during his recent State of the State speech, city-level changes being sought by de Blasio are on the move.

On Wednesday morning, the City Planning Commission is expected to vote through two major changes to the city's zoning codes being proposed by de Blasio. These adjustments to city rules for how land can be used are meant to set the stage for what the administration says will be more responsible development than the city has seen in the past, increasing density in neighborhoods across the city through the creation of tens of thousands of units of housing - including market-rate and "affordable" units - and adding community benefits.

Once passed by the Planning Commission, the proposals go to the City Council, which will hold two hearings on them next week.

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), as the two proposals are known, have been highly scrutinized and received a mixed reaction, including a large dose of negative feedback from many local community boards and praise from some city planners and advocacy groups.

Critics worry about gentrification, landmark preservation, over-development, loss of parking, and whether "affordable" units will be truly so for current residents of neighborhoods that will see major change. Supporters say the administration is taking a measured approach to development, insisting on affordable apartments from developers who benefit from rezonings, protecting tenants from predatory eviction, creating more affordable housing for seniors, and being mindful of community improvement as more housing is created.

The de Blasio administration is quick to stress that the two zoning changes set a new baseline for development in the city, but that city government has several other tools that it will use to create affordable housing and improve communities through neighborhood-specific rezoning plans.

While the City Planning Commission, which is chaired by de Blasio appointee Carl Weisbrod, is set to make some adjustments to the original proposals, they will move to the City Council largely as the de Blasio administration designed them. The Commission is looking at fairly minor changes such as lowering some of the new allowable building heights and the process by which a developer may become exempt from certain requirements.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, the Council is set to hold its hearings on MIH and ZQA. Council members have expressed concerns about the two plans, as have the Comptroller, Scott Stringer, and the Public Advocate, Letitia James. MIH appears to have significantly more overall support than ZQA - MIH is simpler, as it basically requires set amounts of affordable housing along with any development allowed through a rezoning. ZQA, on the other hand, is a complicated hodgepodge of changes to land use rules.

The Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and other Council members are generally supportive of the proposals, especially MIH. The extent to which the Council seeks changes to MIH or ZQA is yet to be seen, but by the city's process for zoning amendments, the City Council cannot make major adjustments to the proposals sent through by City Planning, only more minor ones that fit "within scope," as judged by the Planning Commission.

City Council Member David Greenfield is chair of the Council land use committee, a subcommittee of which will hold the hearings next week. "I think the hearings are going be very rigorous," Greenfield told Gotham Gazette during an interview last week after he had appeared on a panel discussion hosted by City & State NY.

During the panel, Greenfield explained some of the issues with the administration's proposals: "[T]he city has rolled them both out at the same time and so things got a little bit confusing," he said. "They're really two independent plans. The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program is very much focused on creating and actually mandating affordable housing in new development. And the Zoning for Quality and Affordability runs several hundred pages long and really varies on anything from building heights to reductions in parking to issues such as waivers for the development of senior centers. That's where it gets a little bit more controversial."

"[W]e've heard the overwhelming number of community boards and borough boards and borough presidents who have concerns," Greenfield said. "Although, when you separate those concerns, you realize that much of those concerns were really about Zoning for Quality and Affordability."

Echoing what Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the zoning subcommittee, and other Council members have said, Greenfield said he doesn't expect to pass the zoning amendments "as is."

"We expect that there will be significant changes at the very least and hopefully we come to a place where the Council can be supportive," Greenfield said. Richards recently wrote an op-ed column explaining problems he sees with ZQA.

Asked by Gotham Gazette whether the Council could move ahead on MIH and not ZQA, Greenfield said, "We have taken the feedback very seriously and our goal is to try to come to a place where folks are happy. If that's not possible, then we're going to look at plan B." He did not elaborate on what that could look like.

One of the major questions around MIH is the levels of affordability it calls for - in essence, how many affordable units will be set aside at what rents. De Blasio's plan would set a precedent, infusing the "mandatory" aspect of affordable units into developments given rezonings and insisting on 25-30 percent of units at certain rent thresholds. But, some say that the plan does not include enough units at low enough rents. "In terms of housing, the big question is 'affordable to whom?,' City Council Member Jumaane Williams said at the City & State panel. Williams said the plan is "not reaching the lowest of the income spectrum."

The de Blasio administration doesn't disagree - representatives note that while MIH may not create units for those living in deep poverty, the city has other housing plans to create affordable housing for those New Yorkers. This is where proponents remind people that MIH and ZQA are not the totality of the administration's "Housing New York" plan, which includes a variety of programs and a ten-year goal of 200,000 units of affordable housing at a combination of affordability levels. Officials are quick to point to major affordable housing subsidies from the city's Housing and Preservation Department (HPD).

As the zoning amendment conversation does indeed occur in a larger housing policy context, the movement on de Blasio's proposals comes with the backdrop of uncertainty in terms of a state-level program to incentivize affordable housing development in New York City.

A long-standing program, called 421-a, recently expired. It offered major property tax breaks to real estate developers in exchange for the creation of affordable housing units. The program was riddled with flaws, though, and in negotiations to finalize a new version, an impasse was reached, leading to its expiration.

The prolonged absence of 421-a, or something like it, could be a big blow to de Blasio's affordable housing plans. There are also some who say that Mandatory Inclusionary Housing should not move forward without a 421-a-like program. Including the New York City Bar Association, these analysts say that the tax abatement program is essential to the kind of rental housing development the city is counting on to leverage MIH into more units. De Blasio has called on Albany lawmakers to get back to work on a new 421-a program.

Council Member Greenfield brought up the issue of 421-a in yet another way when discussing MIH moving forward. "[O]ne of the concerns that we have, especially now with the collapse of 421-a, is the off-site housing, which is that essentially MIH allows you to build affordable housing off-site," he said, referring to developers having flexibility to create market-rate units and affordable units at different locations.

"So, as long as you had 421-a, those people who were utilizing 421-a, which we expected to be the majority of the folks, would be required under 421-a to do it on-site and now it's actually going to be a possibility where they can build affordable housing off-site," Greenfield said. "We don't want to create pockets of poverty."

As have many of his colleagues, Greenfield also pointed to the income levels that affordable units will be reserved at. While there are some who say the affordability doesn't go deep enough, others say that there are not enough units dedicated to middle-income New Yorkers. "There's folks who want more flexibility on the bottom end," Greenfield said, "and there's folks who want more flexibility on the higher end."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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