New York State

Q&A: Building YIMBY support for affordable housing in New York City

A discussion with Annemarie Gray, executive director of the nonprofit Open New York.

Annemarie Gray, executive director of the nonprofit Open New York

Annemarie Gray, executive director of the nonprofit Open New York Image courtesy of Open New York

In late September, New York City Mayor Eric Adams released his City of Yes for Housing Opportunity report, calling for a variety of measures – including scrapping parking minimum mandates, eliminating zoning rules that restrict building and converting empty offices to homes – to create 100,000 new homes over the next 15 years. Subtitled, “A Little More Housing in Every Neighborhood,” the report calls for a wide variety of changes to do just that – many of which would have to be passed by city and state lawmakers. The report comes as the city’s long-standing affordable housing crisis worsens with a large influx of migrants, as the number of new affordable units in the city dropped by nearly half between 2021 and 2022, and as Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ambitious plan to build 800,000 new housing units statewide died in Albany earlier this year amid widespread suburban opposition.

One group that is trying to turn the tide on the widespread NIMBY sentiment that greets proposals of new housing in most neighborhoods is Open New York, formed in 2017 by a group of New Yorkers trying to build a YIMBY constituency in each city neighborhood to offset naysayers and pressure elected officials to pass pro-building measures. The group played a role in recent successful fights in NoHo/SoHo, Gowanus and Throggs Neck to push through new affordable housing.

Leading the organization over the past year is Open New York Executive Director Annemarie Gray, who prior to joining the nonprofit was senior adviser of land use in the New York City Office of the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Workforce Development and before that worked with the New York City Economic Development Corp. New York Nonprofit Media spoke with Gray about what she works on in a given day in her executive director role, what it’s like helming a small, fledgling nonprofit and what will actually have to happen if the city is ever to crawl out of the affordable housing hole. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by telling us how and why you landed at Open New York?

I came from City Hall where, for almost three years, under both de Blasio and Adams, I was a senior adviser covering land use and fair housing. I was on the other side of the work and I had a front row seat to it for the first nine months of the Adams administration.

In June 2022, Adams released a housing plan for New York City very similar to the one he released in late September. Has the city made any concrete progress on this issue since last year?

I’m really excited to see the newest announcement calling for lifting parking requirements and building a little bit of housing in every neighborhood. It’s proof of real pro-housing momentum.

But has there been material progress since last year?

In general, we need to see so much more action. The housing crisis is the No. 1 issue facing New Yorkers. Across the city and state, we need to be seeing every elected official standing up on this. We have seen the administration start a couple of the different rezonings. But a lot of the focus last year was at the state level, and rightly so.

Last fall, City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez, who represents the district including Throggs Neck, surprisingly reversed her stance and approved an affordable housing proposal in that area that had caused huge community opposition but that Adams very much wanted to happen. It was one of the rare times a council member has bucked their constituents on a NIMBY issue – and even if Velázquez had not, the City Council might have broken the tradition of deferring to the council member’s desires, so loudly is the mayor calling for new housing. Was Throggs Neck the tipping point of a new era in which city leadership is ready to override community opposition to meet this need?

It’s important to look back further to when I was in the administration and the Elizabeth Street Garden proposal for 100% affordable housing in the middle of SoHo was getting backlash. I was at the center of pushing for it (successfully), as well as for Gowanus. It was the first time we were saying that all neighborhoods have to be a part of the solution. So this momentum has really been growing rapidly the last couple of years. Throggs Neck was the first test of this administration in terms of whether that momentum was going to continue. It's been promising to see the mayor lean into that more and more.

So you don’t see Velázquez’s reversal as the start of a new era of council members being more for than against new housing in their districts?

I think none of this is really about any single project. You can’t solve this project by project. But we are starting to see it as untenable for a local elected to listen only to the oppositional whims of their constituents, especially in places that are really well-suited for new housing but haven’t built much.

I remember with the Throggs Neck community meetings, folks standing up for the development, including your Open New York predecessor, William Thomas, were woefully outnumbered by opponents. What is your plan to get more YIMBY types to these crucial community meetings?

(At many such meetings,) you’re not getting the voices of the people who are really struggling to live (in these neighborhoods) or not get kicked out – like the voices of young mothers who can’t come out to a community board meeting that decides the future of the neighborhood. The idea that all our public processes about this stuff are representative is false. That’s why Open New York, from its inception, has really focused on developing local chapters and having residents in that district show up and really support projects. We now have nine different chapters across the city and the region. And that’s especially focused on places where you’re not getting nearly a broad enough picture of who wants to live there.

How do you go about building these coalitions?

Open New York started about five years ago with a handful of people learning about housing issues. Friends brought friends, especially in some of the most well-resourced parts of the city, saying, “I think this is a good thing.” It was a ragtag group of passionate people appealing to a younger generation that was not seeing itself represented in discussions about housing opportunities. Since then, we’ve grown and really formalized a lot as an organization. We didn’t have paid staff members until 2021. Now we have five and will soon have six, and we have more than 500 members who learn about housing on their own or come to our social events. We organize a lot of ways to get and stay engaged. We had a bus go to Albany last year.

Your annual membership is $36. What does being a member entail or provide?

We have an extremely active Slack, (which is an online communications platform). Each chapter has member leaders and organizes in their neighborhoods. The work can range from making calls to state legislators or community board members to coming forth and proactively recommending projects. We started a working group of parents who have unique challenges not having enough (household) space.

Hochul’s statewide housing plan was really dead on arrival in Albany earlier this year. How do you soften that suburban ground for statewide building?

We’re working to change decades of exclusionary and restrictive land use policy. There’s no single solution. But New Yorkers are angry because affordability is a really top concern. We’ve done polling on this showing that putting medium-size apartment buildings near a train station is not that controversial. Other states have legalized (accessory dwelling units) so you can build your grandmother a place to live (such as in your backyard). It’s not nearly as controversial as it sounds. What it adds up to is politics. We definitely saw the state Legislature really not step up to the plate.

That’s because they know that most new buildings, especially for affordable housing, are hugely unpopular with their constituents.

With some constituents. This is an organizing problem. It’s our job to make sure there are consequences to inaction. It’s not sustainable for legislators to say they care about this and then not step up. We’re thinking about how to do more electoral work on this stuff and make there be consequences.

Which elected officials are you talking about targeting?

We’re doing a lot of internal strategizing about where we need to put more electoral pressure.

So what does a typical day like for you?

I just moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to have more space. I lived for most of the pandemic in a 350-square-foot studio with a dog and a partner, so housing pressures are personal to me. I’m an early bird. My brain works better in the morning. I drink my coffee and take my dog for a walk, ease into the day. We’re still remote now as a team, but we’re working on getting an office space.

Why, when the pandemic proved that they’re often not necessary and it’s a big expense for a fledgling nonprofit?

We want some space to work at least partly in person. We have so many meetings with members. Some are remote but there’s also a hunger to have in-person gathering space.

OK, so back to a typical day.

No day is alike but mainly, I’m just talking to people all day – city agency officials, staff, reporters, other advocate groups, our members.

How do you structure your day? Do you take breaks?

I wish I could say I remember to eat lunch more often! I try to meet people in person so I can bike around the city. I just got an e-bike. And yes, I try to break up my day with walks but I’m a housing nerd so I’m thinking, breathing and talking about that all day.

What are front-burner projects and issues for Open New York right now?

We’re working with other groups on a piece of state legislation we’re trying to make real.

What is it?

I can’t talk about it right now. We’re still working through it with some of the legislators who were better on housing last year. Hopefully we’ll announce something pretty soon. But we’ve also been organizing around the mayor’s proposal that just came out, going through it and seeing what’s strong and what could’ve been stronger. We formed a committee with volunteer members about it. This proposal is going to every single community board. Beyond that, we’re focused on, how do we have the strongest presence possible, where do we need to grow, what groups do we need to partner with more? (Mobilizing around the mayor’s report) is going to be a whole year of work.

So you might work tonight until when?

Six or seven. I take my dog to the park in the evening. I really love watching the sunset on the Brooklyn waterfront. I like cooking a lot. I just got a really good rice maker.

Do you have a signature dish?

No, unfortunately.

How do you relax?

I watch reruns of “The Office.” I also like to read and draw – I majored in architecture in college. On weekends, I like to go camping with my dog, Lila. As for reading, I’ve been getting into science fiction. It’s about how we organize society and think about big issues like climate and race, but through a more imaginative, freeing lens.

You worked in the public sector for up to nine years previously. How is heading a nonprofit different?

I don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of a government. Open New York is small, so how do we create momentum, noise, impact? It requires being entrepreneurial and creative and thinking about all the ways we can engage people.

I was listening to Brian Lehrer on WNYC a few weeks ago when he was doing a segment on the mayor’s new housing plan. Someone called in and said the city needs to spark more purely affordable developments and community land trusts, in which a nonprofit retains ownership of land and sells or rents housing built on it to lower-income households. But Vicki Been, the head of NYU’s Furman Center and your former boss when she was a deputy mayor, replied, “The math doesn’t pencil … the city has funded five community land trusts throughout the city, but the bottom line is that we need market-rate housing because it takes pressure off (the rest of the market).” What’s your take on that?

We need all these things. You’re not going to get the number of units we need without using the private sector. We’re not in a place right now to be picky – especially when you look across the whole state. Westchester and Long Island are some of the most exclusionary parts of the country (in terms of zoning).

How do you think the Adams administration has truly been on this issue so far? He talks pro-growth but could he actually be doing more?

I’ve not agreed with the mayor on a lot of things. His best press days have been when he gets out there pushing for more housing, especially in places that haven’t had it. I think his team behind this is very strong and hungry for people to see real solutions. But we have to make sure city leadership stays strong when more pushback inevitably comes.

Do you think Adams is out there talking about this enough aside from days when he releases a proposal?

It’s the most important thing he, and everybody, should be talking about. And it’s better than other things he’s talking about.

Oh – you mean like saying that the current surge of migrants is going to destroy the city?


So last year we saw in Albany the expiration of the 421-a program, which gave developers decadeslong tax exemptions in exchange for building a certain percentage of middle- or lower-income units in a new project. Some said the program is too much a gift to developers, but others said it was a necessary part of creating affordable housing. What do you think?

The root of the problem is a very broken, inequitable and regressive property tax system in our city. Other than that, we focus primarily on exclusionary and restrictive zoning as a central barrier, because small apartment buildings or accessory dwelling units don’t require tax incentives – and if we’re banning apartment buildings right next to transit in the suburbs, it doesn’t matter if you have a tax incentive. At the same time, 421-a has been an important Band-Aid to a broken system for decades. Letting it expire without some alternative doesn’t help build affordable housing in mixed-income buildings that we need to see in parts of the city. And nationwide, housing experts see programs like (421-)a) as necessary, but I think we need a better version of it.

What would a revamped 421-a project look like in terms of making it provide more deeply affordable units?

I’m happy to get back to you with some details but generally in terms of encouraging new, deeply affordable housing, there are better versions of the program out there. My bigger concern is that state politics are thwarting progress of any kind (on housing).

What have you learned in your first year of running a nonprofit about the most necessary skills?

Especially for a small startup nonprofit, being able to work with a wide range of people and figuring out how to break the work down into bite-size chunks so that we can celebrate small wins while we keep fighting in the long game. I have to be optimistic – what other choice do I have?

What are you most personally proud of in the past year?

That we’re growing our tactics and our focus areas to be both citywide and statewide – growing a lot of excitement and momentum.

But personally – what aspect of yourself are you most proud of?

I worked on the inside for so long that I wasn’t a very public-facing person. Talking to reporters has been something I’ve had to get comfortable with, but it’s a really important part of the job.

What aspect of the job has been the most frustrating?

Some elected officials who are very good at pretending that they care (about building more housing) but aren’t actually standing up the way they need to. That’s true of more of them than I’d wish. We don’t have time. People are hurting. This isn’t a game. It’s my job to make (those electeds) feel like there are consequences when they (don’t act).

What’s one concrete thing you’d like to have achieved by this time next year?

Something needs to pass to translate into policy change.

Name one of those things.

The proposal the mayor just put out needs to be passed without getting cut. Of all the projects I’ve worked on, over time the initial proposal gets cut and negotiated down as it goes through the public review process. That can’t happen.

Just point to one piece of the proposal.

One of the components the mayor announced was eliminating the requirement to have a certain amount of parking in new developments. That’s in the city’s control to change, and the state has the ability to do it statewide. We’ve seen this work across the country. Anchorage, Alaska, did it. Places with far less robust transit networks have done it. So that’s an example of something where it’ll be up to the City Council and the borough presidents not to negotiate that down.