City Council fears broken promises, gentrification with de Blasio's rezoning plan

Sarina Trangle
New York City Council members Dan Garodnick and Donovan Richards.

City Council fears broken promises, gentrification with de Blasio's rezoning plan

City Council fears broken promises, gentrification with de Blasio's rezoning plan
February 9, 2016

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal asked the de Blasio administration officials what he should tell his East New York constituents who fear that a local rezoning plan would not come with enough subsidies to afford any of the new housing.

“Anything could happen – de Blasio could become vice president in two years … or funding could dry up,” Espinal said during the City Council’s Tuesday hearing at City Hall on one of two mayoral initiatives that would alter the rezoning process across the city. “How can I go back to my community, and say, ‘Listen, this money will be here; we will receive these subsidies to make sure that the [area median incomes targeted by the plan] reflect the East New York community?’” 

One by one, Espinal and other elected officials pointed to broken promises tied to prior rezonings and asked how Mayor Bill de Blasio could guarantee the pledges accompanying his affordable housing plan, such as housing subsidies and other new initiatives, regardless of who is in City Hall. City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez cited a news report that five buildings in her district were greenlighted even though the required affordable housing units were missing. City Councilman David Greenfield, the chairman of the Land Use Committee, said North Brooklyn residents were still waiting for the city to follow through on a promise to purchase a site to turn into parkland along with a 2005 rezoning. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James asserted “there were a number of promises” in a downtown Brooklyn rezoning she voted for as a councilwoman, but it was a “bait and switch” that resulted in a mass displacement.

Underlying many of the complaints was a fear that the administration’s ambitious plan for neighborhood rezonings all across the city would result in another wave of gentrification as long-term residents would find themselves displaced by rising property values. Those fears were echoed by activists, who interrupted Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen 30 seconds into her testimony with chants of “de Blasio’s plan ain’t affordable to me.”

The concerns confronted by de Blasios’s top housing officials came while they tried to make the case for the administration’s proposed Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, one of two major rezoning initiatives the City Council will vote on in coming weeks.

The MIH framework would mandate that at least a quarter of units be permanently affordable whenever developers are allowed to build with greater density. One option for developers would be to set aside a quarter of units for families with incomes averaging out to 60 percent of the area median income, or $47,000 for a family of three. Another would be to reserve 30 percent of a project for those with incomes averaging 80 percent of AMI. The third option, available only outside the Manhattan core, would earmark 30 percent of a site for families earning 120 percent of the AMI on average.

MIH is one of two key zoning proposals the administration wants to implement to reach its goal of building or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. The other, Zoning for Quality and Affordability, will be discussed by the City Council in a second hearing on Wednesday.

As the first hearing kicked off on Tuesday, a coalition of MIH supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall to back the plan, including the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the New York Hotels Trade Council, 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, DC37 and faith leaders.

Inside City Hall, Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said that the city was making a commitment to ensuring rezoned neighborhoods remain affordable. The bulk of the $8.2 billion committed for affordable housing has been written into the capital plan, she said, and city officials plan to establish a $1 billion fund for infrastructure and other improvements in upzoned communities.

Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been said the administration has ramped up enforcement, in part by working to establish better data tracking tools, and was drafting rules that would allow for swift penalties when MIH provisions are violated.

And Department of City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod said the suggestion by several Council members of starting a monitoring program and issuing reports on community commitments was “something we should do.”

But ultimately, the administration officials said, accountability also lay in the hands of the very elected officials questioning them. During future budget negotiations, City Council members could demand capital funds be put behind commitments, they said.

“We can only control what we control in the six more years that Mayor de Blasio will be here,” Glen said. “Then it will fall on the next generation of legislators, and people who care about these issues, to make sure that the money stays in the budget and that those political priorities are then manifest in the way in which we do our budgeting process.”

“Having the statutory framework, now, to assure that at least 25 percent of those unit swill be affordable – that is something that then is a game changer that far transcends any political point in time or any administration,” Glen added.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and several Council members expressed support for the principles behind MIH, but said changes were needed before the body decides to vote on it in coming weeks.

Responding to concerns that the plan would not help some of the poorest residents, administration officials stressed that using income averages would provide flexibility. The MIH framework, they said, would go through the typical land use review process every time it is applied in any neighborhood, which would give city lawmakers the chance increase subsidies to make new units more affordable.

Administration officials also said similar mandatory inclusionary housing policies in other parts of the country that have withstood legal challenges focused on fostering economically diverse communities, not creating as many cheap homes as possible in certain areas.

But City Councilman Stephen Levin suggested that if de Blasio should first make good on the prior administration’s commitments, like the Bushwick Inlet Park in Brooklyn, before making new ones.

“What’s the plan there?” Levin asked. “And how does that experience inform how you look at future rezonings?”

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Sarina Trangle