Developer Withdraws Proposal Following Public Controversy over Affordable Housing

controversy over affordable housing

Image Credit: Google Maps

Phipps Houses withdrew its application for its ten-story, Barnett Avenue development following a lack of community support. On September 20, 2016, Phipps Houses, the oldest and largest not-for-profit developer of affordable housing in New York City, withdrew its Barnett Avenue development proposal—the day before its scheduled public hearing in front of the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. Phipps Houses had sought a zoning map change and two zoning text amendments to facilitate the construction of a new mixed-use development in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens.

The project would have created a seven- to ten-story residential building containing 232,237 square feet of residential space and 4,800 square feet of ground floor community facility space. The building would have contained 220 residential units and off-street parking for 101 cars at the rear of the site. All 220 residential units were marked for affordable housing: 20 percent of the units at 50 percent of the area median income ($40,800 per year for a family of three), thirty percent of the units at 100 percent of the area median income ($81,600 per year for a family of three), and 50 percent of the units at 130 percent of the area median income ($106,080 per year for a family of three).

Currently a 223 vehicle parking lot and a 200-square-foot cinderblock shed occupy the proposed site.

On June 2, 2016, Queens Community Board 2 voted 38-1, with one abstaining, to recommend denial of the application. The Community Board expressed concern that the affordable housing would not be affordable for Sunnyside residents, noting that 75 percent of the community’s residents had incomes below 100 percent of the area median income. The Community Board believed that the size and scale of the project was out of scale with the neighborhood and would place additional pressure on the services and transportation. Additionally, the Board raised concerns with the negative precedent the new development would set with for future speculative residential developers. Queens Community Board 2 suggested the inclusion of more, and deeper, affordable housing, a reduction in the size of the building, more community facility space and the relocation of the parking that would be removed could be added to alleviate their concerns. On July 5, 2016, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz echoed many of Community Board 2’s concerns, and recommended denial of the application.

On August 10, 2016, the City Planning Commission issued its report recommending approval of the project. The Commission believed that proposal would “facilitate the redevelopment of an underdeveloped site into much-needed affordable housing that is supportive of the character of the surrounding area.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the Sunnyside neighborhood, had been vocally opposed to the project, expressing concerns about the size of the structure and the affordability of the units for Sunnyside residents.

On August 16, 2016, the City Council rejected a similar proposal in Manhattan’s Inwood Community. Following the lead of City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez who was responding to community outcry, the Council unanimously rejected that project—rebutting the approval of the Community Board, Borough President, and City Planning Commission. For CityLand’s coverage of the Inwood proposal, click here.

At a press conference two days later, Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed his disappointment about the Inwood proposal. Looking forward to the Sunnyside proposal, the Mayor stated, “I am going to have a polite but firm conversation with [Van Bramer].” Referring to the Council’s practice of deferring to the local representative’s judgment on land use issues, the Mayor added, “Obviously, who knows the community better than the elected representative of that community. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule in every case.”

On September 20, 2016, the applicant, Phipps Houses, withdrew its proposal. This withdrawal represented a second major blow to applying Mandatory Inclusionary Housing to privately funded developments within a month.

“Let’s not mince words: This is bad for our city and for working families struggling to pay their rent,” Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, said following the withdrawal. “No community, certainly not one with 7,000 people wait-listed for affordable housing, should lose a development like this.”

On the same day, the Department of Homeless Services reported a record high intake for New York City. 59,734 people spent the night in a shelter. 23,576 of those were children. 13,018 families.

City Council: Barnett Avenue (N 160101 ZRQ; N 160102 ZRQ; N 160103 ZMQ).

By: Jonathon Sizemore (Jonathon is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2016).

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