It’s (Past) Time for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing in NYC

It’s (Past) Time for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing in NYC
brad lander

Back in 2003 — well before I was elected to the City Council, before I directed the Pratt Center, when I led the Fifth Avenue Committee — the Bloomberg Administration proposed to upzone Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. We had a simple idea: mandate that developers include some affordable units for low- and moderate-income families (you can read our policy report here; it was derided as socialism at the time, but we called for much less than the de Blasio Administration is now proposing).

We lost that fight. Fourth Avenue was upzoned, and many hundreds of market-rate units now line the avenue — but not one single affordable unit. It was a tremendous lost opportunity for a more inclusive Park Slope. Our efforts did help to win the “voluntary inclusionary zoning” program that produced some low-income housing in Greenpoint-Williamsburg, and on Manhattan’s West Side. But as a 2013 study by my office showed, many developers did not “volunteer” — so only 13% of the units in voluntary IZ areas were affordable (and only 6% in voluntary IZ areas outside of those two neighborhoods).

That wasn’t actually the first fight for mandatory inclusionary housing in NYC.

In 1983, affordable housing advocates (led by Ron Shiffman at the Pratt Center) fought for a new policy to require units for low-income families in new high-rise, market-rate development in Manhattan. They did not win a mandate then, either. Instead, the Koch Administration agreed to create what we know as the (voluntary) “R10 Program.” Over the next 25 years, the “R10 program” created fewer than 2,000 affordable units, even as many tens of thousands or market-rate units were created in Manhattan’s R10 zones alone.

We can’t afford to miss another opportunity to guarantee affordable housing in NYC. We must not miss this chance to adopt a mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) policy.

That’s why I’m excited that the New York City Council will be holding hearings today and tomorrow on Mayor de Blasio’s MIH proposal, and the related “Zoning for Quality & Affordability” (ZQA) proposal. You can read more about the proposals, and the Council hearings here (on a Council web-page specially-designed for the hearing).

It’s no secret that these proposals have generated a lot of controversy.

Can we make them better, before the Council votes later this spring? Of course.

That’s why the Council has gathered the input & recommendations from every single Community Board & Borough Board on our website. It’s why the Progressive Caucus has made a set of recommendations to strengthen the proposal. It’s why the Council will be holding hearings and debating the plans over the next two months.

A few things I’ll be focusing on:

— Generating more deeply affordable units, so low-income residents of neighborhoods being rezoned will have a real shot at the new housing that’s created there.

— Eliminating or modifying the so-called “Option C” (for neighborhood-wide rezonings), which would allow developers to include no low-income units. We definitely want affordable units for moderate- and middle-income families; but every inclusionary neighborhood must include some low-income units.

— Supporting real community planning in targeted areas (like the work Speaker Mark-Viverito has supported in East Harlem, and the effort my office supported through Bridging Gowanus), and establishing a better framework to make sure that promises made to communities — for parks, transit, infrastructure, housing subsidies — are kept.

— How the “in-lieu” fee (an option for small buildings) is calculated, and how reporting and enforcement are handled (issues we examined in detail in our 2013 report), so we avoid creating loopholes.

I’ll be especially focused on how we can do more through MIH to permanently preserve existing affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, where families are understandably and correctly fearful of being displaced, just as schools & safety & stores are improving. There’s more we could do here:

— Require developers to obtain a “certificate of no harassment” before they get building permits for demolition or rehabilitation (as we already do in some place), so they can’t profit on ill-gotten evictions.

— Enable developers to meet their MIH obligations by permanently preserving at-risk affordable housing nearby (generally by purchasing it, and handing it over to a not-for-profit). Under this option, we could generate more affordable units, at lower income levels, and benefit existing neighborhood residents.

— Establish new programs to preserve affordable units in small buildings (like most of those in East New York), with innovative approaches to tax incentives and safe basement units (aka “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs).

I look forward to working with Speaker Mark-Viverito, Land Use Chair Greenfield, Zoning Subcommittee Chair Richards, and my colleagues as we prioritize amendments and work with Mayor de Blasio and his Administration to finalize and adopt the policy.

But let me be clear: we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the very good. Even as it stands today, Mayor de Blasio’s MIH policy is far better than what we have in place.

So the time is now to adopt Mandatory Inclusionary Housing in NYC (and ZQA as well, though that will require a separate post). Without it, gentrification will still continue apace; it’s just the affordable units that we’ll lose.

I understand — more than that, I share — the anxieties so many New Yorkers feel about development in our neighborhoods. We’ve seen families displaced from the homes they’ve rented for decades. We’ve seen hideous buildings mar our streets. We’ve lost some of our favorite small businesses.

But here’s one thing I’m sure of: growth and development and change are in NYC’s future (for better and for worse).

We need to do all we can to make sure it is well-planned, with attention to investing in new schools, parks, and transit; to preserving the character of our neighborhoods and protecting the things we love most from the wrecking-ball; and to preventing displacement.

But one idea is pretty simple: every time we rezone to allow for more development, we should mandate affordable units.

We missed our chance to do that in the mid-1980s. We missed it again in the mid-2000s.

Let’s not miss it again.