Opinion

New York City housing policies need deeper affordability

William Alatriste

Over the next few months, the New York City Council will consider two proposals that could have a real impact on our city’s severe housing crisis and dramatically affect the lives of millions of New Yorkers: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality Affordability.

Despite their nuanced differences, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability are inextricably linked. The latter will adjust zoning standards and make changes to the use of building envelopes, essentially allowing taller buildings and potentially increasing developer profits. The former will provide guidelines when re-zoning entire neighborhoods. These changes will encourage developers to build in areas previously seen as unprofitable and undesirable. If executed well, it would be integral to achieving the ambitious goals laid out in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing plan. If not, it could ensure that development happens at the expense of our communities and the people who desperately need assistance.

As written, the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposal fails to meet the affordability needs of too many New Yorkers and largely ignores our most vulnerable communities. We will lose a great opportunity to address our housing crisis if we fail to include deeper affordability for working families and the lowest-income New Yorkers in the final plan.

Neighborhood residents considering a rezoning rightly ask themselves one question: affordable for whom? Under the current proposal, an apartment renting for about $1,300 a month is considered “affordable,” despite being too expensive for close to half of all New Yorkers. In fact, half of New York City residents earn less than the $51,800 in household income that  would allow them to qualify for one of these units. Those are the families who most often have the heaviest rent burden and need affordable housing the most. If the rent levels proposed by the de Blasio administration don’t make sense for half of the city, neighborhood residents assume the rezoning isn’t meant for people like them and justifiably fear displacement.

At best, the current proposal will create a small amount of “affordable” housing that is priced too high for most New Yorkers. At worst, it will create the appearance of affordability while continuing to further displace our communities. The City Council can and must change the proposal so it actually addresses the housing needs of our neighborhoods and city as a whole. Specifically, I am calling for the final Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy to provide deeper affordability for low-income households.

All new housing developments in re-zoned areas must have a mandatory minimum number of units at 30 percent of the Area Median Income – about $29,500 for a household of four. In line with our goal to ensure meaningful affordability, we must also eliminate one of the options that would allow all "affordable" units in a building to be offered at 120 percent of AMI, or a monthly rent of $2,517 for a family of four making more than $100,000 annually.

To be clear, I believe all of the rezoning options should require a mix of income levels. Our city is economically and racially segregated to a shocking degree, and a range of income levels in new developments would help create much-needed socioeconomic and racial diversity. Middle-class families are struggling to find housing as well, further signaling the struggle of families who find their path to upward mobility obstructed.

I also support the call to fix other important policy details, including the “off-site inclusionary housing” formula, which, in its current form, could end up further segregating our neighborhoods by relegating much of the affordable housing in new developments off-site to the poorest parts of each community. To avoid income segregation, affordable apartments must be mixed throughout the building. Similarly, the final inclusionary housing policy must ensure all building residents, affordable and market-rate, are treated equally, fairly and with the dignity they all deserve.

Finally, we can’t ignore the impact new construction has on the workers who build our city. And, we must incentivize companies to provide living wages and hire local workers. Up until now, we have not given enough attention to the effects of local hiring on community morale and unemployment.

Much credit is due to Mayor de Blasio for making affordable housing a priority and taking the bull by the horns by proposing these policies. The administration’s proposal is an important step toward addressing New York City’s housing crisis. An effective inclusionary housing proposal can be an important new tool to create much-needed affordability.

Now, we must work together, find compromises and create an inclusionary housing policy that supports all New Yorkers. Then, and only then, will it be a plan we can all support.

Jumaane Williams is a New York City Council member representing the 45th Council District in Brooklyn. He serves as the chairman of the Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings.

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