Can Adams’ citywide affordable housing plan finally tear down the NIMBY wall?
When deeply affordable housing is proposed for neighborhoods other than the poorest, locals shout it down. Is the city ready to plow over the outrage?
On the very hot morning of June 14, New York City Mayor Eric Adams – at times wearing opaque John Lennon-style sunglasses – stood on the roof of a 29-story Jehovah’s Witness Hotel, which had recently been turned into an affordable supportive housing complex in Dumbo, proudly announcing his ambitious new housing plan for New York City. It was a blueprint with a wide swath of promises – from facilitating homeownership to getting homeless people into permanent housing to building more affordable units – even if many housing advocates complained that the plan was short on benchmarks, and that the roughly $2 billion the city had just apportioned annually for the hydra-headed campaign over the next decade was only half of what was needed.
During press questions, Adams was asked why he was dismantling homeless encampments before the city had proper apartments to offer those residents. He said he would not allow encampments under any circumstances, and then pushed back with his trademark pugilism: “Some of the loudest voices for putting people in housing (say), ‘You’re wrong – we protest you.’” To which the mayor hypothetically responded: “OK, I’m going to put (housing) on your block.” He continued his imaginary back-and-forth: “‘Oh, wait, we didn’t say that. We want housing, but don’t put it on my block.’ So I want you to go to all the advocates and say who’s going to raise their hands first to allow Eric to build the housing he wants on their block? Don’t talk the talk if you’re not going to walk the walk."
Adams was in fact articulating the everyman’s version of a point that’s made in his housing plan: Not in my backyard is on its way out. “Our administration will advance an inclusive, citywide approach to encouraging new housing supply,” reads the plan, “that holds every neighborhood accountable for meeting housing needs and increases equitable access to opportunity.” (Even prior to unveiling the housing plan, he had announced, in his new pro-development “City of Yes” plan, a zoning text amendment that would pack in more units per project.)
And the data backs up the view that an equitable citywide distribution of affordable housing is currently but a dream: A new report from the New York University Furman Center showed that among the 185,000 new housing units built in the city between 2010 and 2020, the roughly 30% of them meant for low-income renters were built in low-income and heavily Black and Hispanic parts of the Bronx, Central Brooklyn, East New York and western Queens. The fewest low-income units, often below 100, were built in the relatively white, middle class and wholly or quasi-suburban parts of Staten Island, southern Brooklyn, northern Queens and the northeastern Bronx, with large swaths of posh riverside Manhattan not contributing much either.
Clearly, some neighborhoods more than others are supplying the hundreds of thousands of new affordable units needed to pull the city out of a profound affordable housing crisis. To some extent, the disproportionality is understandable: Land is simply cheaper in poorer neighborhoods, and they are often already zoned to accommodate big, blocky new affordable towers. Just walk around intensely urban East New York or the South Bronx, then stroll Queens’ picket-fence-y Middle Village or the Bronx’s Throggs Neck to understand that the first two neighborhoods are more amenable to colossal upzoning than the latter.
But even in relatively sleepy neighborhoods, there are ample chunks of land that could accommodate affordable housing. Take, for example, 50 new units of deeply affordable housing that will be built over a new library in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park – a project touted in the mayor's plan as a perfect example of tucking in affordable units wherever one can throughout the city.
But the reason why there are so few modest new projects dispersed throughout the city is not necessarily land cost. And in many ways zoning, which is often waivable, is merely a regulatory symbol for the root reason: Usually, most existing residents in such neighborhoods adamantly – even furiously – do not want new affordable housing. Following suit, their district council member may then oppose a project before the City Council, which traditionally defers to the council member and does not even bring the project to a vote. The project dies and 50 or 100 or 200 new units of affordable housing do not get built. Just one example occurred in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, in 2016, when developers finally pulled an application for a 10-story, 209-unit affordable housing complex in the face of years of community opposition.
And Sunnyside is a relatively urban neighborhood. In the leafiest, NIMBYest of neighborhoods, developers don’t even try to bring affordable housing, because they remember the early 1970s, when the city forced a small amount of low-income units on Forest Hills, Queens. The project, in which then-lawyer Mario Cuomo put himself on the map by brokering a downsized compromise, created such local uproar that many think it quashed the presidential ambitions of then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay.
“It was a pivotal moment that has shaped subsidized housing location policies ever since, keeping it out of middle-class areas,” said Nicholas Dagen Bloom, professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College. “Almost all the affordable housing developed in New York City since has been either in working class or poor areas or, if in more affluent areas, in small amounts through … mixed-income strategies in individual market-dominated buildings.”
And that’s why "nobody talks about putting affordable housing in Maspeth or Bayside," said Moses Gates, a housing specialist at Regional Plan Association, a century-old nonprofit research, planning and advocacy group. "But then again,” he said, “you don’t know if it really can be done if you don’t try."
Adams has at least said he’s going to try. How much muscle will he throw behind his effort by leaning hard on the City Council to stop deferring to council members who echo to their constituents, “Aw, hell no!” every time a proposal comes calling?
A controversy currently raging in Throggs Neck is the perfect setup for that question.
A chunk of the northeastern Bronx that juts into the East River and faces northern Queens, Throggs Neck is a longtime working- and middle-class redoubt – home to cops, firefighters and teachers – that is now about 44% Hispanic, 28% white and 22% Black. In 2019, the median income was 12% less than the citywide median of $73,000, and in 2021, the median list price for a one-family home was about $600,000, according to Realtor.com. Single-family and duplex homes give much of the area a quasi-suburban feel, and in fact, the area has been zoned for low density since 2004, which has restricted growth.
But along a stretch of Bruckner Boulevard, a truck route and service road to the Bruckner Expressway, is a decidedly nonleafy commercial and light industrial strip. There, a battle is playing out that may determine just how far the Adams administration is willing to go in terms of forcing affordable housing into enclaves that have largely avoided it. A handful of developers, including two brothers who are the owners of the local Foodtown, are pushing for an upzone that would encompass four sites – ultimately leading to not only an upgraded supermarket but some eight-story buildings that would mix market-rate apartments with nearly 200 units that are income-restricted for veterans, seniors and families.
Peter Bivona, one of the Foodtown brothers, said the main reason they were pushing the project was because, with their property taxes hitting $250,000 a year, they can no longer afford to run the supermarket as is and need to revamp the site to bring in new revenue so they can continue with the grocery business and pass it down to their kids. However, Bivona was aware that the package they proposed was in line with the kind of little-bit-here, little-bit-there called for in Adams’ affordable housing plan.
“Look at the good we’re doing,” he said. “Veteran housing, senior housing, affordable housing. You come out of college, and you can get an apartment here. If you work for the city, you can afford to live here. We’re creating jobs and new opportunities.”
But most people who live on the residential side streets off of Bruckner don’t see it that way. Since at least last summer, they have gathered on the street and at community meetings to denounce the project. Some, like resident Denice Szekely, said it was because the neighborhood infrastructure – sewers, the new public school across the street – can’t accommodate the growth. The council member who represents the district, Marjorie Velázquez, has told the Bronx Times she opposes the project for the same reason.
“My uncle, who lives in the area, said ‘What happens when 1,100 people wake up and flush their toilet at the same time?’” Szekely said.
But residents have also said they oppose the project because they fear that eight-story towers containing affordable units will be an eyesore, court crime and lower their own homes’ property values. “You’ll be turning around and selling your $700,000 house for $300,000 … hell, no!" said a resident at a street protest last summer.
The tension allegedly has bubbled over into outright menace. Velázquez told the Bronx Timesshe didn’t attend a recent community meeting about the project because she had received threats of violence on various community forums. James Cervino, one of the developers, has made the same claim.
Certainly, the meetings have been unruly and hostile, with video showing the few who spoke in support of the project – including a young woman who said she could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood where she had grown up – being shouted down, booed and heckled by a roomful of largely white, older people. In one video, as a project opponent speaks, a man in the back said, “Why don’t we just strangle them all?” before realizing he’s caught on video.
Will the city flex its muscles?
If the Throggs Neck rezoning doesn’t pass, the property owners have the right to build whatever they want there within the given zoning, which is conservative. But Bivona didn’t see many options that could raise the revenue to support his keeping the supermarket open. “If we’re forced to close, we’ll give the property to brokers and maybe it’ll become an Amazon hub or a storage facility,” he said. “That is what the city is doing to us.”
Of course, the city – that being the City Council, leaned on by the mayor – could reverse historical precedent, overrule Velázquez and approve the rezoning. It would send a strong message that Adams is serious about, basically, imposing a certain amount of affordable housing on every neighborhood in the city, regardless of what they currently look like or how they’re zoned.
That’s what’s being hoped for by William Thomas, executive director of Open New York, which advocates for the very citywide approach to affordable housing that the mayor is now espousing. (In fact, Thomas was the one speaking in support of the Bruckner project at the meeting where the man made the strangulation remark.)
“The housing market doesn’t stop at neighborhood lines,” he said. He added that, contrary to the heckles of the crowd at the meeting, some who spoke in support of the project, such as community activist Michael Kaess, live if not in the district per se then at least in the same ZIP code. “The mayor’s setting out a citywide approach is a step in the right direction.”
And, he added, it wasn’t merely Archie Bunker enclaves like Throggs Neck or much of Staten Island that would be asked to bear the burden. More urban areas like Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village have all built very little new housing, including affordable housing, he said, compared to the 10 areas – including Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Long Island City and the Central Bronx – that have built half of all new units citywide in the past decade.
“They all have to be building something,” he said.
He added that he hoped the mayor would make every community board in the city pin down a metric goal for new units. “In the interest of fairness,” he said, “every neighborhood should get a number.”
Will the mayor go that far? Asked that question, a spokesperson for the mayor replied via email: “We’re looking to change up the rules and allow a wider range of housing types and sizes to accommodate all kinds of households across the city. The overarching goal: build more housing across the city and change the rules to enable it starting now. That’s what we mean when we talk about a city of yes.”
In the meantime, the bitter dispute in Throggs Neck grinds on as the zoning review process continues. On one hand, it could be merely the latest in a long history of upzoning projects that were nixed in the wake of a community outcry. Or, depending on how serious the mayor and City Council are about a new era of citywide affordable development, it could be a turning point.
“Obviously,” said Szekely, the Throggs Neck resident, “if (the) City Council overrides our council member, then we don’t have a choice. But as someone who’s lived in this area practically my whole life, it feels very much like the government just coming in and saying, ‘We’re going to build this, and I hope you can still get on your bus or your basement doesn’t flood.’”
But infrastructure pearl-clutching is what denizens of every neighborhood do when they don't want new construction, said Bloom, the Hunter College professor.
“This whole idea that neighborhoods can’t handle it – I mean, come on,” he said. “We’re in a housing crisis, and there has to be a reckoning for any community that is well served by transit – from Kew Gardens to Staten Island, which has its own railway now.”
He pointed to the recent rezoning of SoHo/NoHo to allow for dramatic new construction, including many affordable units. “There was plenty of pushback, and guess what? They moved forward. If you asked someone 10 years ago if there was a chance that SoHo would be rezoned for affordable housing, they’d have said ‘no way.’ What’s politically possible is constantly being reshaped by changing demographics, who’s running the city and the push for social equity.”
Tim Murphy is a Queens-based freelance journalist focusing on health care, housing and LGBTQ issues.
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