New School Hosts Panel Discussion on Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing

The New School hosted a panel on affordable housing and historic preservation, featuring (l. to r.) Rachel Meltzer, Nadine Maleh, Harvey Epstein, Rosie Mendez, and Gale Brewer. Image credit: The New School

The New School hosted a panel on affordable housing and historic preservation, featuring (l. to r.) Rachel Meltzer, Nadine Maleh, Harvey Epstein, Rosie Mendez, and Gale Brewer. Image credit: The New School

Elected officials, affordable housing advocates, and preservationists speak on historic preservation’s impact on New York City’s affordable housing shortage. On September 16, 2014, The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School hosted a panel discussion on New York City’s affordable housing shortage and historic preservation. The discussion was co-presented by the Historic Districts Council and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The panel featured Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Council Member Rosie Mendez, Harvey Epstein, Director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, Nadine Maleh, Director of the Inspiring Places program at Community Solutions, and Rachel Meltzer, Assistant Professor of Urban Policy at The New School. The discussion was moderated by Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The panel began with Leo Blackman, President of the Historic Districts Council. Mr. Blackman stated the discussion would highlight the real relationship between preservation and affordability. “For years now, the Real Estate Board [of New York] has waged a PR campaign trying to bamboozle the deBlasio Administration by laying the lack of affordable housing in New York at [preservationists’] feet.” Andrew Berman agreed, stating in many instances, the people that claim preservation causes unaffordable housing are the same that argued preservation led to economic stagnation and job loss. “Now that that canard has been so clearly disproven, they’re seeking other arguments to undermine our system and process of preservation protections.”

The panelists then spoke on the affordable housing shortage. Council Member Mendez criticized the 421-A tax abatement for building high-cost housing in the city, saying the abatement was created by former Mayor Ed Koch to keep people from leaving the city. “That was in the 1970s. Why in 2006 do I have to vote to give tax abatements to individuals who are building luxury housing?” Council Member Mendez also addressed weakened rent regulation, claiming her district lost thousands of rent-regulated apartments. She contended weakened regulations were the fault of the Republican-controlled New York State Senate.

Mr. Epstein argued the City could build affordable housing rather than incentivize developers to do it, pointing to previous administrations investing in private development projects. “Atlantic Yards, we spent money and [used] eminent domain to build a stadium. (See previous CityLand coverage here.) In Willets Point Queens, we used eminent domain to take over land to build a mall. (See previous CityLand coverage here.) We’re using $100 million in the Bronx for FreshDirect because we want them to have a facility in the Bronx. (See previous CityLand coverage here.) This government makes clear choices about its resources. The question is ‘What are we investing in?’”

Borough President Brewer spoke against the ban on new single-room occupancy (“SRO”) housing. “I know families who grew up in SRO’s. I know you’re not supposed to, but they did, and they are doing really well.” She went on to question how the micro-unit project proposed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg is allowed to go forward, labeling it as “a very expensive SRO” and argued in favor of building traditional SRO units. (See previous CityLand coverage here.) She also proposed some existing SROs receive a tax abatement to keep current tenants in place, claiming single-rooms are going for $3,700 in the West Side.

Ms. Maleh spoke against demolishing buildings for new affordable housing stock, arguing it is “one hundred percent possible” to build permanently-affordable housing in landmarked buildings. She went on to claim that landmark tax credits helped bridge a gap in financing, and held out projects like the Times Square Hotel as catalysts for improving community quality of life. Professor Meltzer followed up with a Furman Center report that landmarked buildings could barter air rights in exchange for developers committing to provide more affordable housing. Council Member Mendez claimed the Real Estate Board feeds a misconception that landmarking and affordable housing are incompatible, and pointed to Westbeth Artists’ Housing and 505 LaGuardia Place in University Village as disproving the Board.

The panelists later disagreed on mandatory inclusionary zoning. While everyone supported the idea, Professor Meltzer and Council Member Mendez argued implementation on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, while Borough President Brewer and Mr. Epstein argued for citywide implementation. Professor Meltzer cautioned the appeal of inclusionary zoning is it can be targeted to community needs, where a citywide approach would negate that. Council Member Mendez argued mandatory inclusionary zoning would have to be contextual and spoke of the how developers during the Lower East Side and East Village rezoning initially refused inclusionary zoning bonuses because the resulting buildings would be too high. (See previous CityLand coverage here.)

In contrast, Borough President Brewer supported a citywide plan, stating she had already advocated it with Mayor Bill deBlasio. She did admit building taller in Manhattan was a concern her fellow borough presidents largely did not share, given their extra space. Mr. Epstein strongly advocated a citywide plan and that what each community could change were the percentages of affordable housing units and the acceptable area median income. Mr. Epstein argued a citywide plan would preserve neighborhoods long-term, letting residents stay in their homes as the community gentrifies around them. Mr. Epstein also pointed out that any mandatory inclusionary zoning plan ought to be a fifty-fifty split between market-rate and affordable housing as opposed to the current eighty-twenty split.


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

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