Commissioner Vicki Been on the de Blasio Administration’s Comprehensive Plan for Affordable Housing

Mark Ginsberg

Mark Ginsberg

At the CityLaw Breakfast on November 13, 2015 Commissioner Vicki Been outlined the de Blasio Administration’s recent actions and efforts to advance a coherent and far reaching housing policy for New York City, one that provides more affordable housing for low-income and working-class New Yorkers, strengthens neighborhoods, and at the same time protects those residents who are already benefiting from and have a continued need for affordable housing.

First Commissioner Been defined the problem:

The combination of an increase in population (8.5 million and counting, the largest population in City history), inadequate housing unit production (New York is at the bottom of housing stock growth, trailed only by Philadelphia and Chicago,) and stagnant wage and job growth for a large percentage of New Yorkers has created an increase in the rent burden (over the last ten years rents have gone up 15%) for all New Yorkers, but hitting in particular those with low and moderate incomes. This situation is set to worsen, as land costs are increasing rapidly (100% in Brooklyn and 50% in Queens over the last five years), and development projects have less of an incentive to provide non-market rate housing.

– Current supply of housing for low or extremely low income New Yorkers is inadequate. Almost 1 million households in New York City are classified as low or extremely low income (less than 50 per cent area’s median income of $43,150 for a family of four). The City’s current housing supply for this population (including NYCHA and all other housing that is affordable to this group) meets only half of this demand, based on the expectation of households should spend no more than one third of their income on rent.

– Those living in areas with increased development pressures are at risk of displacement and feeling out of place. Although academic studies demonstrate that displacement does not seem to be a major issue, this result does not correlate to what people are feeling on the ground. Low-income residents often feel insecure about their neighborhood changes. This is due, in part, to the differences in values and demographics between the longtime residents and new arrivals with longtime residents feeling less welcome.

Commissioner Been outlined how the de Blasio Administration is addressing housing challenges:

– Provide more housing: On track to produce and preserve 200,000 units in ten years.
– Rezone seven defined areas, with eight more to come, in order to provide additional retail, housing, and jobs/industry through increased density;
– Adopt the proposed Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) proposal which will provide additional ways to encourage affordable housing, housing quality and senior housing  that is produced in the rest of the country, but not in New York City;
– Adopt mandatory inclusionary housing and make voluntary inclusionary housing easier to use;
– Reform the 421-A real property tax abatement incentive to require the production of higher percentages of affordable housing units;
– Double down on efforts to preserve existing affordability in any neighborhood, making sure that affordable buildings do not become market rate;
– Provide that all new housing that receives any regulatory change or support by government must provide affordable housing;
– Develop more housing through subsidy;
– Strengthen rent regulations;
– Prevent harassment;
– Help local residents take advantage of new housing being created;
– Provide for neighborhood institutions to remain;
– Improve economic development and local hiring; and
– Execute NYCHA’s NextGen plan to preserve their irreplaceable affordable housing stock.

Why not go deeper i.e. greater subsidies for the very low income residents?

It is simple economics; the City would need more dollars or reduce the unit produced. The city is also hampered by what is happening in Washington. In particular, the federal government has drastically reduced the number and funding of Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers, a mainstay for assisting low-income residents with housing costs.

Commissioner Been argues that the de Blasio Administration has struck a reasonable balance. She emphasized that the housing program is part of a broader approach to work with communities so that what is invested meets their needs and what is promised is delivered: making investment serve the needs of the community.

The Plan is a Good Start

The Commissioner’s presentation showed how the de Blasio Administration is thinking holistically in developing its housing program as a part of neighborhood revitalization, while still protecting and enhancing neighborhoods for the existing residents.

Although one might question specifics in the Administration’s program described by Commissioner Been, the plan is clearly ambitious and well-thought-out, tying a number of different initiatives together to create a coherent housing program that is a community development plan that will also strengthen and make a more equitable city.

The Challenge of the Status Quo

Given the strength of the plan, why has the opposition been much louder and more visible than the support? Commissioner Been, in response to this question, observed that change is hard and the only thing people want more than affordable housing is parking. Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) proposals, have met strong opposition from most community board.  In Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx the waiving of parking requirements for affordable housing has not been well received while in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn the proposed additional height, largely for inclusionary housing has met stiff resistance.  I would also add, as Tip O’Neill observed, all politics is local. People are comfortable in the neighborhoods as they are and are scared of change. However, as Kenneth T. Jackson is attributed as saying: “The only constant in New York is change.”  These are in many ways complicated proposals with many small parts.  This coupled with a general distrust of government and a concern about change has created a very negative environment at most Community Boards.  There is an effort by housing, planning and design groups to be more vocal in support of the Proposals.  The City Planning Commission will hold a hearing on December 16th on the Proposals and then the City Council will take them up in January or February.

The de Blasio Administration needs our support.

Commissioner Been asked that we all help get the word out and talk to Community Board and City Council members to support the Mayor’s housing proposals. Those of us who support the importance of the City’s Housing Plan, particularly the zoning proposals that are now in the public review process, need to strongly support them. If the advocates for affordable housing, good design and community development do not make noise now, then the advocates for stasis will win to the detriment of us all.

-Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, LEEDAP

Mr. Ginsberg is a partner at Curtis + Ginsberg Architects LLP.

One thought on “Commissioner Vicki Been on the de Blasio Administration’s Comprehensive Plan for Affordable Housing

  1. The Mayor seems to have forgotten his campaign promise to tax vacant land to put it into production in order to help solve the city’s housing problem. Besides his own campaign literature talk about a Land Value Tax, there was this follow-up article in Crain’s in November 2013 – – which said in part:
    “Cases like that spurred Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in April to push for tax hikes on vacant land to force owners either to put it to use and build housing or to sell it to those who will. As mayor-elect, Mr. de Blasio is pledging to carry out his idea, which today would affect more than 10,500 lots in the five boroughs, with the largest concentration on Staten Island. The plan, after a five-year phase-in period, would hike yearly rates by an average of $15,300, according to estimates by the Independent Budget Office.
    As for the long-vacant Highbridge lot, the city property taxes on the large residential portion would balloon to about $180,000.
    $6.8K—Property taxes paid annually by Frank Fristachi and Suzannah Matalon on their Williamsburg lot $17K—Amount they would pay under Bill de Blasio’s plan By increasing the cost of inactivity to prohibitive levels, the hope is that more land can be put back into use and
    much-needed housing can be built. Many observers think it can work if the costs of holding land idle are driven high enough.
    “It would drive the price of land down and increase development, to the extent the tax increases are significant,” predicted Robert Knakal, chairman of Massey Knakal Realty Services. “The more expensive [vacant land becomes to hold], the less of it you will get—that’s Economics 101.””

    In fact, the NYC Dept of Planning says there is 6% buildable vacant land (it used to be on their website, until Vicki Been wrote me in response to an email I sent her asking where I got that figure from, and it was removed shortly afterwards). This land is often drastically under-taxed, as low as 1/10th the rate of built-upon land right next door, my group, Common Ground-NYC, has found.
    Additionally, the 421a program the Administration is so keen to preserve, has been responsible for $1.1b/year in lost taxes. This is money that could have been used to directly subsidize affordable housing, instead of providing vast mostly vacant apartments for globe-trotting billionaires.
    In the 1920-1931 period, a progressive Governor Al Smith, lifted taxes on buildings and kept them only on land. The result was a building boom 4X the national average and the great stock of “pre-war” housing that we still use to this day.
    Bribing developers doesn’t work; it only drains city coffers while privatizing the land rent that ought to go to those who live and work here, whose demand created the locational value in the first place.
    The revenue is literally beneath our feet, as Henry George first observed. It is in the Land.

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