The City Council just made a real mistake about rezoning a block in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s not the biggest project, but it is nonetheless significant for the message it sends and could be a harbinger of things to come.
Council had the opportunity to bring 85 housing units to a neighborhood in desperate need, a neighborhood struggling with rapidly rising rents. The lack of action on this project was particularly infuriating. He had overwhelming support from the Community Board, he was mixed income, and he was going to provide affordable housing with no additional investment from the city.
Yet days before the vote, at the request of the local councillor, the council’s land use committee drastically reduced the number of housing units that could be built under the plan. This is despite the fact that the local community council voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bid. So now there will be fewer (or maybe even none) affordable units being developed there.
It’s not clear to me who wins in this scenario. But clearly New Yorkers who need affordable housing in one of the tightest real estate markets in our history are losing out.
It’s basic math. If you want housing to be more affordable, you need to build more housing. And use all the tools in the toolbox to build as much affordable housing as possible, even if there isn’t a 100% absolute deal. The crisis is too urgent to let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.
Having fewer apartments is not good for any community, unless the goal is to keep it exclusive and unaffordable.
This particular neighborhood is in desperate need of housing. The council’s 39th district – represented over the years by Bill de Blasio, then Brad Lander and now Shahana Hanif – has produced just 253 affordable homes over the past seven years. That’s one-fifth of the city’s average of 1,227 per district, according to New York Focus and The City.
This rezoning request was good. First, he applied for permission to build mixed housing. Second, the sites are within a block of the recently adopted Gowanus rezoning, which allows buildings to be eight to 17 stories tall, so the requested density was contextual.
We know that mixed-income communities are more financially stable and provide better access to economic and educational opportunities for low- and middle-income families. That’s why the de Blasio administration has made the provision of permanent affordable housing a precondition for approving the creation of a new residential development.
In this case, private developers were on board to build nearly 90 homes, 22 of which would have been permanently affordable. This means they did the math and concluded that the project could support the affordable units required by New York City’s mandatory inclusive housing policy – and do so without a city subsidy.
Instead of encouraging this, the city council blocked it.
When high-income neighborhoods like Gowanus, where the median income is double the city average, block housing development due to “quality of life issues,” let’s not mince words about what is happening. It’s NIMBY-ism, pure and simple.
At a time when there is finally a movement away from the toxic all-or-nothing housing policy towards more pragmatic approaches, it was truly disappointing to see our generally progressive Council being used by NIMBYites at the old to support the status quo.
From now on, we have to do things differently. Although the city council member for this district received an extraordinary amount of heat for the rezoning change, the truth is that she did nothing different than many other council members did. She heard concerns from people she believed were acting in good faith and responded with what she thought was a fair compromise.
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It is difficult for an elected leader to dismiss what may appear to be legitimate community concerns. And I know there are some sophisticated NIMBY advocates who do a really good job of making it look like they care about their community, even though they push to extend the development when it serves their economic interests.
The production of affordable housing is a collective responsibility. And that collective responsibility also includes promoting more housing development in affluent neighborhoods, not just approving its development elsewhere.
The right thing here is for the Adams administration to veto lightened rezoning and send the message that New York truly is the “yes city.”
More generally, individual board members and leaders need an overall strategy in terms of how they analyze the feasibility and market dynamics that will drive the development of mixed housing in the private sector.
This is not a problem. Elected officials from all walks of life must be willing to work with private developers to build unsubsidized mixed-income housing or we will never solve this problem. And we can do this while supporting the city’s broader affordable housing agenda and fighting for more public resources.
It is a pragmatic progressive policy.
Glen, a former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development under Mayor de Blasio, is founder and CEO of MSquared, a real estate investment firm.