Mayor’s affordable housing plan under attack

By SAEED SHABAZZ | 12/24/2015, midnight
The Staten Island Borough Board voted against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan by a 6 to1 margin Dec. ...
Homeless man in Harlem Bill Moore photo

The Staten Island Borough Board voted against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan by a 6 to1 margin Dec. 10, which was the last board to cast their vote.

“We have a long legacy of haphazard planning in our borough, leaving our infrastructure unable to accommodate the existing population—and we will not make those mistakes again on my watch. I will abstain from today’s vote because while we must address the real housing needs for people of all income levels, I do not see sufficient commitments from the city to give these rezoning proposals my full support,” Council Member Debi Rose told the board. Her office provided the AmNews with the complete text of her statement.

The de Blasio plan, “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability,” aims to build 200,000 affordable units in the next 10 years. The plan starts in East New York, Flushing, the Bronx and East Harlem. Movement for Justice in El Barrio has been quoted in the press saying it is a “luxury housing plan” with an apartment price tag of $42,620 to $62,500 for a family of three. According to the 2010-2012 U.S. Census, the current median family income in East Harlem is $33,666 a year.

East Harlem activists argue that the plan will see local mom and pop stores bought out by the larger chains while landlords push tenants out who would destroy the culture of Spanish Harlem, according to press reports.

East New York Assemblyman Charles Barron told the AmNews that the mayor is “in the pocket of the developers.” He calls the affordable housing plan “Jim Crowism in disguise.” “We rejected the plan right off the bat because it talked about building some 6,300 units in East New York with 50 percent of them at market value. Now the so-called affordable units were priced for a family of four making $34,000 a year. Only a small percent of us qualify under that, and 30 percent of our residents are making $23,000 a year,” Barron said.

Some observers say that the plan aims to shift the burden of building affordable housing from the government to the private sector.

A report released in March by the NYU Furman Center, “Creating Affordable Housing Out of Thin Air: The Economics of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning in New York City,” found that “a mandatory zoning policy in NYC has the potential to produce affordable units in neighborhoods that already command relatively high rents such as downtown Brooklyn. But the city’s low-rent neighborhoods—such as East New York in Brooklyn and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx—may not have sufficient market strength to justify high-density mixed-income development without other forms of subsidy.”

The report highlights some of the policy choices and tradeoffs that designing a new mandatory program would require. One such tradeoff is the tax abatement program known as 421-a, which gives real estate developers significant property tax breaks for building affordable housing, according to the Gotham Gazette.

The program, due to expire Jan. 15, 2016, must have an agreement between the Real Estate Board of New York and the various labor unions representing the building trades that would allow developers to pay below prevailing wages. Some analysts say that negotiations between the two parties have hit an impasse.

The Gotham Gazette reports that a de Blasio housing official believes the plan would go forward with or without an agreement that would extend the 421-a program. Spokespeople for both groups are refusing to talk to the press at this time, claiming they have no plans to discuss what is happening during the negotiations publicly.

Crain’s New York, a business magazine, notes that developers “insist” they cannot afford to build at all without 421-a—they can’t afford to pay union wages.

“That whole 421-a program needs to be radically changed or scrapped,” said Barron. “My concern is that even if the unions get prevailing wage, will they stand up against supporting the gentrification of our communities that is the bottom line of de Blasio’s plan?”

When all is said and done, it is the City Council that will cast the deciding vote.