Unions, housing activists begin push to sway New York City Council on zoning proposals

Unions, housing activists begin push to sway New York City Council on zoning proposals

Unions, housing activists begin push to sway New York City Council on zoning proposals
February 17, 2016

Now that New York City Council members have had a chance to recover from the more than 20 hours of public testimony given on zoning proposals last week, unions and activists are beginning to push their preferences in private. 

Both affordable housing advocates and a construction union trade group are promoting a third zoning proposal they said would ensure low-income residents are housed and workers are well-paid when developers benefit the most from building larger residences.  City Councilman I. Daneek Miller’s office is scheduled to host a City Council member briefing Thursday, where the Real Affordability for All Coalition is expected to explain how it would like to see the zoning template carve out protections for lower-income families. And the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust is slated to launch a public campaign to add training and safety standards to the zoning text as well.

The City Council has until the end of March 25 to approve two zoning proposals passed by the City Planning Commission. The first measure, called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, would allow larger buildings in rezoned neighborhoods as long as a portion of the residences are rented at below-market rates. The framework could be implemented via three templates. One would reserve a quarter of units for households with incomes that average out to 60 percent of the mean area income, a federal benchmark of the metro area that currently amounts to $47,000 for a family of three. Another would set aside 30 percent of apartments for those with incomes averaging out to 80 percent of AMI. And a third template available outside the Manhattan core would require that 30 percent of homes be filled with families earning, on average, 120 percent of the AMI. 

The second proposal, Zoning for Quality and Affordability, endeavors to support senior care facilities and mixed-income developments. It would allow taller homes for the elderly in low-density districts as well as reduce – and in some cases eliminate- the number of parking spaces developers are required to include while creating senior homes and mixed-income developments near subways.

Any modifications the Council proposes would be sent back to the City Planning Commission. The commission would then be given 15 days to ensure that the changes were sufficiently studied in the city’s prior review. Several Council members and sources said revisions eyed by the Council are not believed to need further city review, including adding in tiers that ensure some of the average AMIs are met through housing for low-income families, mandating that developers build more affordable units when they are constructed on a different site than market-rate counterparts, and replacing the third template targeting middle class families with one that aims to house lower- income residents.

But groups like the Real Affordability for All Coalition and the Greater New York LECET argue a shrewd study of the administration’s current plan shows it falls short. Both are pushing City Council members to adopt a Floor Area Affordability Bonus program, which would offer developers a bonus - or permission to build larger than authorized under zoning - provided that half of the homes created are affordable to current neighborhood residents.

The Real Affordability for All Coalition said every time a community is up-zoned, only part of the maximum allowed density should be automatically available. The remainder, it argued, should be doled out in bonuses that trigger mandates for cheaper housing and local hiring.

“This briefing is one of several meetings we're doing with City Council members and their staff to discuss sensible solutions to the affordability crisis that will help protect the most vulnerable residents,” Real Affordability for All’s Campaign Director Maritza Silva-Farrell said in a statement. “We're working with the City Council to advance a plan for using density in a smarter way to create real affordability in new housing and union construction jobs for low-income residents.”

De Blasio’s housing officials have said the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing text was intentionally drafted to be flexible so it can withstand various real estate market cycles and succeed in several parts of the city. In addition, an explicit goal of fostering economic diversity, rather than creating the most low-income housing possible, will bolster the program’s chances of overcoming a potential legal challenge, the administration said.

To ensure current residents can afford new units built in their communities, De Blasio’s team said it will use subsidies, exemptions and other tools.

The FAAB framework also calls for contractors to commit to hiring 30 percent of the construction force from the city and offering a state-approved apprenticeship program.  The Greater New York LECET Executive Director Pat Purcell said these would be pivotal to providing poorer residents a path to a middle-class career and, ultimately, a shot at living in one of the affordable units built in their neighborhoods.

“What this is simply saying is that building blocks for these communities, as they go under development, has to include three things: It has to include middle class jobs so people can buy the affordable housing; It has to include safety standards so people aren’t dying on the job; It has to include affordable housing, so that when these workers complete the job, and they can come home under the right safety conditions and with middle class wages, they can actually buy the affordable housing,” Purcell said, of the Greater New York LECET’s so-called Building Blocks NYC campaign, which includes a website and other promotional efforts.

Purcell added that the FAAB would also enact safety provisions and oversight needed to prevent wage theft, injuries and deaths on construction sites. He stressed that the state-approved apprenticeship program is available and has been used by both unions and non-union groups, so it would not give unions an unfair advantage in securing contracts.

The de Blasio administration has said zoning text like they have proposed cannot include labor conditions. It legally can only guide land use.. The administration has also raised concerns that a unionized workforce may make affordable housing prohibitively expensive.

Purcell, however, said the city’s own zoning literature says the code can work to protect the safety of the ommunity. He argued this means zoning may include construction site safety and training rules.

“The administration is starting to sound a lot like Marco Rubio with their sound bites,” Purcell said. “They absolutely are aware that they can do it – and it has been done before – so we just simply say that by throwing it all in this pot of “labor standards,” they are trying to get away from the argument that they know ultimately fails.”  

The administration pushed back on Purcell’s comments.

“We support good jobs at every opportunity, including in our affordable housing,” said de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell. “But the law is clear: these requirements cannot legally be put into zoning text. Doing so would mean no mandatory affordable housing at all, and luxury buildings could continue to rise across our city without a single required affordable apartment in them."

Meanwhile, unions supporting the mayor’s plan are stepping up pressure on the City Council.  At least three Council members’ offices said they have been contacted by 32BJ, a union representing building service workers, and the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council. Both unions have allied themselves with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and joined a coalition endorsing measures the mayor has called critical to his broader affordable housing strategy.

“32BJ members are reaching out to members of the City Council to let them know that we’re supporting these rezoning proposals because working New Yorkers are in desperate need of housing options across a variety of income bands,” 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said in a statement. “In fact, this is the first time that any mayor has prioritized affordable housing in this way and our members will be meeting with Council members to show their support for a plan that will create and preserve the housing that they and their families need.”


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Sarina Trangle