Opinion: Don't Sell The Future Of Affordable Housing Cheap

If developments, like NYCHA, sell their air rights, that means they sell their ability to build higher buildings, writes Cathy Rojas.

Opinion: Don't Sell The Future Of Affordable Housing Cheap

By Cathy Rojas, candidate for NYC Mayor. Photo by Jeroen Stevens.

Last week mayoral candidate Eric Adams announced his support for the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan. Approximately 82 blocks around the Gowanus Canal are slated for rezoning to allow the construction of new high-rises. This will amount to about 8,000 new units, of which around 3,000 will be “affordable.”

Pushing the rezoning process ahead, Adams tied his support of the plan to millions of dollars needed by NYCHA housing in the area: Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens. Adams gave a ballpark estimate of $274 million needed for such repairs, and if the city cannot come up with this money, Adams suggests maximum heights of 145 feet for the rezoning developments, unless developers purchase NYCHA air rights.

The reality of this Gowanus rezoning is vastly different. Typically, the zoning laws in a neighborhood allow for a certain number of floors to be built.  If developments, like NYCHA, sell their air rights, that means they sell their ability to build higher buildings. If a developer is building near an NYCHA development, they can buy the NYCHA development’s air rights and can now build a high-rise, which is where the money is. This simultaneously limits NYCHA from building higher buildings with more affordable housing units. The end result? High-rises are reserved for market-rate units and speculation, not for poor people.

To base NYCHA repairs on height limits or purchasing of air rights is a smokescreen. Money for NYCHA repairs should always be on the table as a central priority for the city. Construction for truly affordable housing units that poor and working people can afford needs to be protected and existing units need to be upgraded. Any plan that speeds up gentrification and displacement needs to be stopped in its tracks.

The corporate media, including the NYT, claims that the Gowanus rezoning would create more racial diversity. What the media fails to mention is that properly cleaning the toxic Gowanus Canal is necessary before moving ahead with any construction. The media also fails to mention the past history of rezonings in NYC of displacement and back-room deals with real estate developers. These are the lessons from East New York, Inwood, and East Harlem.

In the proposed rezoning, only about 30% of the 8,495 new apartments will be accessible to at least those living at 80% Area Median Income (AMI). It is unclear whether the units will be available at all to those below 80% AMI. And the much-touted claim that Gowanus will become more racially diverse with the development is based on misleading data. As explained by members of the Voice of Gowanus group, the demographics included in the “Racial Equity Report” by Columbia professor Lance Freeman include a much larger geographic area, including more affluent Park Slope and Cobble Hill. Gowanus’s most densely-populated areas are less than 35% white and with a median household income of less than $50,000. These numbers do not line up with the numbers local politicians use to justify diversifying Gowanus.

So why are establishment politicians pushing this rezoning when the environmental issues and benefits to long-time, less affluent residents have not been resolved? City Council Member Brad Lander, who is a strong advocate of the plan, claims to have not taken any real estate money since the start of Gowanus “community planning conversations,” but in 2017 he took $130,000 from real estate interests including those who profit from the rezoning. Eric Adams was the Democratic mayoral candidate who took the most donations from developers. These are clear conflicts of interest I, Cathy Rojas, do not share with establishment politicians.

The Rojas campaign is not funded by big corporate interests. We are a fighting campaign that’s accountable to the struggles of everyday New Yorkers. This is why we demand: End racist developer-led rezoning, which leads to negative impacts for our communities, including fast-tracking gentrification and displacement. Prevent more construction of luxury developments priced above the means of the community. Require more affordable units at existing developments. We believe housing is a human right!