CUNY Forum Focuses On Affordable Housing Issues

The CUNY Forum held a panel discussion on affordable housing. (l. to r., REBNY President Steven Spinola, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer)  Image credit:  City University of New York

The CUNY Forum held a panel discussion on affordable housing. (l. to r., REBNY President Steven Spinola, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Bob Liff, Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer) Image credit: City University of New York

Elected officials and real estate professionals debate solutions and strategies to City’s affordable housing shortage. On October 1st, 2014 the City University of New York’s CUNY Forum series held a panel discussion titled “Affordable Housing and Social Justice in NYC”. The panel featured Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHoP Architects and Associate Professor at Columbia University, Real Estate Board of New York President Steven Spinola, and Council Member Jumaane D. Williams. The debate was moderated by CUNY Forum’s host Bob Liff.

The panel discussed a number of topics, including the “poor door” separate entrance for residents of affordable units in a planned Upper West Side building. Borough President Brewer called the door “frustrating”, stating the City Council had worked hard to ensure the building was fully integrated and no apartment was better or worse than another, but an overlooked provision in the inclusionary zoning law permitted the separate entrance. Mr. Chakrabarti spoke strongly against the door, calling it a “social abomination” and pointed to several affordable housing projects his firm is developing with no poor door. “One of the great things about our city is that executives and custodians take the same subway to work every day.”, said Mr. Chakrabarti. Mr. Spinola argued the poor door happened because of changes to the 421-A tax abatement program in 2007, eliminating tax break certificates for builders of luxury housing that build affordable housing off-site. “The decision was made by the previous administration that they wanted to get rid of the certificate program, but at the same time they would still like to take advantage of the luxury condo market and let them subsidize low-income housing.” Mr. Spinola went on to argue for the current system because low-income and luxury housing are now integrated in the same block.

The panelists later discussed regulatory and economic hurdles to building affordable housing. Mr. Spinola stated the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has an extensive backlog of developer applications, saying “You cannot get your financing and plans in place, go to HPD, and wait almost a year before someone even looks at your application.” Mr. Spinola praised new Housing Commissioner Vickie Been’s announcement that HPD would allow developer self-certification of building plans subject to audits, and strongly agreed violators of the self-certification system should be punished harshly. When asked about higher labor costs in projects done with union labor, Council Member Williams said unions have come to the table to discuss ways to reduce the labor cost. “The same charge for building the type of affordability we want to see built, hopefully with union labor if we can, can’t be what’s charged for other projects.”   Mr. Chakrabarti argued modular construction is the solution to labor costs, and held out the planned Atlantic Yards apartment tower as an example, emphasizing the construction is done with union labor. Modular construction is a process where a building is built piecemeal at an off-site plant, and the pieces – called “modules” – are then transported to the final building site and assembled into one complete structure. Mr. Chakrabarti acknowledged recent setbacks with the tower, but reiterated once the system was worked out, modular construction would lower costs by a dramatic percentage even with union labor. “This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game,” he said. Borough President Brewer emphasized an advantage of union workers in their safety program. “I find that when you’re in the union, the workers are trained. We have to remember that safety comes first.”

The largest point of contention among the panel was rent regulation. Mr. Spinola argued strongly against regulation, stating it was designed to solve a temporary shortage in housing after the Second World War, and has done nothing in the years since to ease the housing shortage in the city. “We can pretend that rent regulation is going to solve the housing shortage, it is not. We need to figure out other solutions.” Mr. Spinola stated REBNY believes rent regulation has discouraged significant new housing from happening, and pointed to an uptick in construction in Boston following their repeal of rent regulation. Mr. Spinola also stated there are currently 40,000 rent-regulated apartments in New York City occupied by tenants earning $150,000 or greater. Mr. Chakrabarti sided with Mr. Spinola, mentioning economic studies showing that imposing rent controls only increase housing costs across a city.

Borough President Brewer and Council Member Williams both argued in favor of rent regulation. The Borough President said repealing regulation would damage communities, forcing out the middle-income tenants that were the “civic backbone of the neighborhood”. “My neighborhoods in Manhattan, all [a repeal] would do is up the rent to over $2,500, and then you’d only have students or people there for a short period of time.”

Council Member Williams spoke strongly for rent regulation, calling it “the largest affordable housing program we have”, and supported the repeal of the Urstadt Law that gives control of City rent regulation to the state legislature. The Council Member opposed Mr. Spinola’s arguments, claiming that barring rent regulation would have worsened the housing crisis both postwar and now because many elements that contributed to the crisis then still remain. The Council Member also took issue with Mr. Spinola’s statement about high-income tenants in rent regulation, arguing that the 40,000 he spoke of was from a total rent-regulation apartment population of 1.1 million. “[The argument] makes for great optics and great reading, but it doesn’t address the large majority of people who use rent regulation.” The Council Member also spoke to the non-economic protections of rent regulation, such as requiring landlords to offer tenants lease renewals, and said all tenants deserve that kind of protection regardless of income. “[Non-economic protection] is never in the debate because we’re focused just on the rent, which we should be, but the protections go along with it.”

By: Michael Twomey (Michael is a CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2014.)

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