City Council Demands Lower Income Apartments, Union Labor for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing

City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been testify about Mandatory Inclusionary Housing during a hearing on Tuesday.City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been testify about Mandatory Inclusionary Housing during a hearing on Tuesday. photo by NYC Council

The City Council held its first day of hearings Tuesday on mandatory inclusionary housing, a major citywide policy that will mandate affordable units in all new developments planned on rezoned land. Several council members grilled Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, HPD Commissioner Vicki Been, and City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod on the program, railing about the lack of low-income units and union labor and demanding better protections against tenant harassment and displacement.

“We hear economic diversity, but our residents are worried about displacement,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat and the chair of the zoning subcommittee running the hearing. At least a dozen council members said the plan didn’t offer enough apartments that residents in their neighborhoods could actually afford. Under the lowest income tier of MIH, developers only have to rent to families who make 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), or $46,620 for a family of three.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso, a Democrat who represents Bushwick, said that nearly half his constituents make less than $31,000 a year (40 percent AMI). Council members Jumaane Williams, Vanessa Gibson, Inez Barron, and Mark Levine all said that apartments for families earning $20,000 or $30,000 a year should be included in the policy, as did Public Advocate Letitia James.

But the top housing officials didn’t budge. If the city makes affordability rules too strict, it could choke off development in marginal areas like East New York, eastern Queens and much of the Bronx. “If we push too hard, we get zero housing,” said Been. “30 percent of zero is zero.”

That’s why they’ve created some escape routes for builders who might not be able to include affordable units in the same building as market-rate ones. Those measures include a hardship waiver from the Board of Standards and Appeals, which would allow developers to reduce their number of affordable apartments, or in some cases, build entirely market-rate. And developers will have the option to build affordable apartments at a different location. Also, buildings with 10 units or less won’t have to include below-market units at all.

Richards and a few other pols wondered how the city will regulate projects where developers choose to build their affordable apartments off-site. Builders who develop in newly rezoned areas like East New York will have to rent at least a quarter of their apartments at below-market rates. They can put those units in a separate building, either on- or off-site, to satisfy the requirements for MIH.

“Off-site is only justifiable if you’re getting considerably more units,” said Councilmember Mark Levine, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side and West Harlem. “Now that we’re living without 421-a, won’t that open the flood gates to off-site development?”

Glen responded that only 10 percent of affordable units were built off-site under the Bloomberg administration’s voluntary inclusionary housing program. She explained that developers rarely used it, but the administration had to include it for MIH to “pass constitutional muster.”

Several members wondered about what would happen if the 421-a tax abatement was really dead. (Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, even said so in an email on Monday.) But Glen tried to reassure the council, explaining that “a 421-a like exemption that will surface as we go through the legislative process.” The city needs a tax break like 421-a to encourage developers to build rentals rather than condos, she added. 

Union groups and their allies have pushed for the revamped 421-a program to require that builders use union construction workers in exchange for getting the tax break. Since those 421-a talks in Albany have failed, politicians from union-heavy districts in Queens and the Bronx want a prevailing wage requirement to be written into the text of MIH.

“A living wage can’t be built into housing regulations,” said Glen, because courts won’t consider it constitutional. 

The City Council will hold a second day of hearings on Wednesday on its other new zoning initiative, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). The Council will vote on both policies next month to wrap up the six-month-long public approval process. Most community boards voted down both proposals, as did the Borough Boards. The City Planning Commission has already greenlighted the two zoning initiatives, and the City Council vote will be the final step before they become law.

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4 Comments on "City Council Demands Lower Income Apartments, Union Labor for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing"

  1. Klaus Kirschbaum | February 10, 2016 at 10:29 am |

    This proposed wholesale rezoning of the city is unwarranted and unnecessary, especially since it includes ample loopholes that REBNY and its ilk will no doubt exploit to the fullest possible extent – and then some. Even when NYC real estate developers work out a “good faith” deal with community groups and other stakeholders, the developers manage to go beyond the agreed to terms thanks to loopholes and fine print (as in Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park). Moreover, the de Blasio rezoning comes barely a decade after Bloomberg rezoned large swatches of the city which was at least based on a great deal of community input and inclusion. The Bloomberg rezoning led to upzoning along avenues and downzoning and more appropriate height restrictions on midblocks, and this was done precisely because it was already evident 10 years ago that a development boom was on the horizon — at least for much of brownstone Brooklyn.

    Given the immense opposition from the community boards who know their local districts best and are closer (than de Blasio and his administration at least) to the needs and desires of their residents, it seems amazing that de Blasio can honestly think he won’t eventually pay a price for pushing through against the wishes of most NYC voters this hubristic, greedy rezoning which — like so much of what he does under the guise of “progressiveness” and “concern for the needy” — is nothing more than a gift to real estate developers and payback for his major donors (most of whom are REBNY members).

    Unfortunately, if this rezoning goes through, the rest of us will bear many of the associated costs of overdevelopment with doubtful expansion of affordable housing and likely displacement of a greater number of the poor even if de Blasio and his administration get booted out of office at the next election. No doubt de Blasio is counting on having a huge war chest of real estate donor money for his re-election, but even Bloomberg with his bottomless pockets almost lost the election for his third term in what was billed at the time as the most money ever spent in an election.

  2. ZQA strips down the nursing home and health related facilities ( supportive housing) oversaturation protections found in ZR 22-42 and ZR 74-90 and will result in the further commercialization of residential minority neighborhoods.
    Crown Heights is becoming Homeless Heights when you look at who the affordable housing goes to.
    The high holidays was supposed to be twice a year, not every day.

  3. staten islander | February 10, 2016 at 12:43 pm |

    This just gets more complex and muddled. Maybe the best deal would be to allow off-site construction of the affordable units in neighborhoods where the land is cheaper. Or permit builders of market rate apartments to contribute into a fund to build those off-site affordable units. NYC construction costs are so high in prime areas that the off-site options might make the most sense. I still have doubts that mixed-income buildings will be able to be successfully marketed to middle-class renters.

  4. Well, there is the fact that without building more the prices can only go up. Housing is a scarce resource in the city, thus highly valued. The idea behind increasing density is simply to accommodate more people per square mile.

    Doing nothing is not an option because it will lead only to displacement without density: the worst of two worlds.

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