On affordable housing, progressives should practice what they preach


In New York City, practicing progressives are harder to find than you think.

Take the City Council, a supposed bastion of the firebrand left. Two elected officials there, one an Occupy Wall Street fanboy and the other a leader among the body’s ascendant liberals, proclaim to be on the forefront of progressive change in an increasingly unaffordable city. Ask Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan or Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens if they want cheap housing in the five boroughs and they’re likely to answer in the affirmative.

Ask them to actually put some of it in their districts and you get a different answer.

Rodriguez, who was arrested at the Occupy protests in 2011, initially backed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious, if imperfect, quest to rezone large swaths of the city to build more affordable housing. But when it came time to support a rezoning in his own district that would have guaranteed cheaper housing in a project that otherwise could feature only market-rate apartments, Rodriguez balked, waffling between supporting and vetoing the Inwood development known as Sherman Plaza, before shooting it down this month.

Sherman Plaza, a proposed 15-story building that would have set aside 20 percent of its units for people earning 40 percent of the median area income, stirred understandable fear in upper Manhattan. Gentrification is a real and ongoing threat uptown and any new development will bring more affluent people into Rodriguez’s district. But Rodriguez, in bowing to misguided community pressure, gave a green light to the developers, Washington Square Partners and Acadia, to scrap affordable housing altogether. It’s not as if this single project was heralding gentrification in northern Manhattan anyway; the wealthy have been flocking there for more than a decade.

The project would have been the first under de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, since the developers wanted to raise the height of the building in exchange for building below-market units. Since they own the site, currently a parking garage, they can just put up a market-rate building under existing height requirements and rake in the cash. What’s Rodriguez’s plan for stopping that?

More egregious, though, is Van Bramer’s peevish opposition to a residential building with 100 percent below-market-rate units in his Sunnyside district. The Queens Democrat, an aspiring Council speaker – like Rodriguez – and current majority leader, is blocking the development of a 209-unit building that would be rented to those earning between 50 percent and 130 percent of the area median income. The developer, Phipps Houses, is including 4,000 square feet of community space and a 200-space parking lot.

Rarely do such generous offerings come along in hyper-capitalist New York. Van Bramer, schooled in the hackneyed art of NIMBYism, is against the building because, well, it’s slated to reach 10 stories, too tall for the surrounding neighborhood. It’s also replacing a parking lot and car-centric residents, whom the environmentally conscious Van Bramer is siding with, don’t want to lose their coveted spots. Van Bramer also complained that Phipps Houses hasn’t committed to building with union labor and claimed they’re a lousy landlord for an existing building across the street.

Over the past week, the Councilman has played his faux outrage card, a winner for any New York pol who hopes to end up in newspapers and Facebook feeds. After de Blasio said he planned to have a “polite but firm” conversation over Van Bramer’s opposition to affordable housing in Queens, the Councilman erupted with the kind of self-righteous fury that will play well among the civic association presidents and community board members egging him on. “The mayor can disagree with me but he can’t disrespect me,” he said on NY1. He added, “constituents are all over Sunnyside and Woodside stopping me in the street and saying, ‘Don’t let that man push you around.’” Last Friday, as he celebrated his birthday, he tweeted a picture of himself with a birthday cake, noting his staff was “firmly” in his corner.

De Blasio deserves blame for failing to cultivate putative allies like Van Bramer. Professorial and thin-skinned, the mayor has proved to be a tough man to get along with. De Blasio, however, is a progressive who understands that to make any kind of dent in New York’s affordability crisis – we’re a city that can barely house its middle class, let alone its poor – you have to increase the housing supply any way you can. That means bigger buildings, more density, and fewer paeans to preserving the “character” of communities, a nostalgic approach that will only fail future generations who want to live here.

If Council members like Van Bramer and Rodriguez want to celebrate the concept of affordable housing and oppose it in practice, they will get exactly what they deserve: an unaffordable status quo.

Ross Barkan is a journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in such publications as the New York Observer, the Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and the Harvard Review.