New York City’s five borough presidents all agree: More housing is needed.
“There is no getting around the fact that we have not been building enough housing and especially not enough affordable housing,” Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said Wednesday at a panel hosted by the Real Estate Board of New York. “That has created this furious competition for those new apartments that become available. Local people are not going to win those competitions.”
He and his fellow borough presidents shared their visions for the future of development within their boroughs, pointing to promising signs ahead and warning developers against ignoring local voices and charging into communities with plans that will harm vulnerable residents.
During the panel, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso urged developers to bring housing projects to wealthier parts of the city instead of continuing to rely on Black and brown communities that “have already done their part.”
“It’s almost like the burden of building us out of this (housing) hole falls on Black and brown people,” he said. “Where are you guys when it comes to white, affluent areas in New York?”
The city’s housing crisis has been building steadily for years. Rent prices have soared, residents have been displaced from their neighborhoods and the number of people experiencing homelessness recently hit record highs. With the COVID-19 pandemic having exacerbated many of the city’s underlying issues, the consensus has grown among elected officials that more housing is needed – and fast. Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams both recently released ambitious housing goals that would bring hundreds of thousands of new units to the state over the next decade. New York City leaders have also called for every neighborhood to do its part to address the crisis by making room for new housing developments. Public sentiment too has shifted in a more pro-housing direction – particularly when robust affordable housing proposals are on the table – although individual rezoning proposals often remain controversial.
As various stakeholders roll out proposals and identify new places to build, the city’s borough presidents are eager to be part of the process. They’ve released plans, identified solutions and enlisted local organizations and constituents to figure out what’s needed. While borough presidents don’t vote on housing proposals, their support can be a critical part of winning over residents, thus expediting the often lengthy development approval process.
“I know I sit among fighters here – each and everyone of these borough presidents has shown that,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said. “We are not here to be ceremonial. … Every unit counts and we have to move with a sense of urgency, but we cannot do that alone. When we say we want to be a coalition with you or we want to build with you, we really need you to come in, listen, absorb what the community is saying and let’s get these projects across the finish line.”
Reynoso, who is a year into his first term as borough president, has frequently criticized the city’s approach to planning, and he was a fierce advocate for more community-driven rezonings as a member of the City Council. Now at the helm of the city’s largest borough, he has continued to stress the importance of comprehensive planning and community involvement when it comes to land use decisions. He wants to direct the rezoning and development process away from the political considerations of the City Council into a broader boroughwide “comprehensive planning framework.” The continued development of his plan, which puts public health outcomes at the center of the decision-making, is ongoing. His office plans to release a draft recommendations report this spring. He has also expressed support for legalizing basement apartments.
“When you come to Borough Hall, we’re going to have a more holistic conversation with you about where you are developing and the needs that it has comprehensively and how we address those issues during your development,” Reynoso said.
Levine, a former City Council member, hasn’t shied away from stepping into the housing fray. Having long heard that there is little space to build new housing in Manhattan, he and his team decided to look into the matter. The result was a housing plan released about two weeks ago that identified 171 sites across the borough where he said there was room for more than 73,000 homes to be built, around 40% of which could be affordable housing.
While following through on his plan would require a significant amount of effort, identifying additional room for housing in a borough as congested and packed as Manhattan is necessary as rents have soared to new heights. According to a new report from brokerage firm Douglas Elliman and real estate appraisers Miller Samuel Inc., median rent last month was the highest it’s ever been in January at $4,000 for a one-bedroom apartment and $5,532 for a two bedroom.
“Nurses, bus drivers, teachers cannot afford to rent an apartment in this borough. Young people growing up in this borough in neighborhoods from Harlem to the Lower East Side don’t really have an expectation that they are going to be able to live here as adults and get their own place,” Levine said. “That’s not the future that I want for Manhattan.”
Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, also a year into her first term, has been notably pro-development. Since taking office, she’s approved Uniform Land Use Review Procedure applications for hundreds of apartment units, including backing the Throggs Neck and Bruckner Boulevard rezonings in her borough, which would bring a swath of new residential units – many of which will be reserved for low-income residents. Gibson has also called for a “reimagining” of the vacant Kingsbridge Armory, which is currently in the midst of a community engagement process aimed at determining how to renovate the sprawling structure. She’s also been a big advocate for expanding public transportation and supported a surge of new developments along the waterfront in the South Bronx by Brookfield and RXR Realty.
“For a borough that’s been underserved, ignored for many years, we are now at the cusp of a new renaissance. We are looking at creative and innovative approaches working with many of you developers on housing and opportunity,” Gibson said. “For us it’s about looking at the beauty that the Bronx has always had that nobody has seen. We always were attractive, but now we get to our beauty.”
Following months of debate, the City Council approved Innovation QNS in November, paving the way for what will be the borough’s largest private affordable housing project in its history. The $2 billion development will bring 3,200 apartments to Astoria, nearly 1,500 of which will be below market rate. While Richards initially opposed an earlier iteration of the proposal, citing affordability concerns, he ultimately pushed City Council Member Julie Won to approve the project. Speaking about the project during the panel, Richards said he will continue to ensure that more housing projects move forward. He also played a role in City Hall’s recently unveiled plans to build a New York City Football Club stadium and thousands of new affordable housing units in Willets Point. Still, despite approving a range of projects, he urged developers to “truly engage” with communities about their plans.
“You’ve seen the temperature shift a little bit, but let’s not take that for granted,” he said. “Don’t think it’s just an automatic because the temperature is moving in a different direction. We still need to have those conversations.”
For years, many economic development projects have languished on Staten Island’s waterfront like the New York Wheel project, the shuttered Pier 1 and the Lighthouse Point project in St. George. Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, also in his first term, pointed to the stretch of land that had been planned for the now failed Ferris wheel project as a potential location for more housing.
“If I were to plant the seed in any of your heads, I would say look at the North Shore waterfront,” Fossella said.