On gentrification frontline, East New York pushes de Blasio for zoning promises

Surrounded by supporters in Foley Square last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the passage of a potentially groundbreaking zoning change that requires larger residential projects to include affordable apartments, proclaiming the measure was strong enough to temper gentrification.

Since the mayor has heralded the use of zoning to require the creation of affordable housing, some Brooklynites are now pushing him to use the same strategy to lock in additional commitments in East New York, the first neighborhood that is up for rezoning under the changes.

In the wake of the City Council approving Mandatory Inclusionary Housing – the zoning measure that will pave the way for larger residential buildings, but ensure that they include permanently affordable units – de Blasio will seek lawmakers’ approval to implement this new framework in some 15 communities. In East New York, City Hall proposes allowing taller apartment buildings as well as residences in some manufacturing areas. De Blasio’s team argues that expanding the housing stock and requiring the new buildings to include affordable homes will ease the community’s rent burden.

As the East New York plan proceeds, a group of local organizations and residents has suggested ways the city could use the zoning code to ensure a school is built, green space is created and other city pledges are heeded.

“What goes into the zoning text is obviously really important because that is in place long-term regardless of the mayoral administration,” said Adrien Weibgen, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center, which is providing assistance to the coalition. It’s the strongest long-term enforceable tool.”

The group, called the Coalition for Community Advancement: Progress for East New York/Cypress Hills, has proposed using special purpose districts, which require developers looking to construct large residential buildings to get a certificate from the city showing that there are enough schools, health centers and other community facilities to accommodate the new tenants. Alternatively, developers could provide an easement or restrictive declaration spelling out where these programs and services would be provided.

The city has used special districts in Staten Island to ensure an adequate number of public school seats and in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to pave the way for the Second Avenue Subway line. The East New York group said the city could pair special districts with a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) fund, where landlords in a targeted area enter agreements to receive property tax benefits, and the amount they are billed is not directed to the city’s general fund, but is instead reserved for local needs, such as legal services for those facing eviction or financing for homeowners looking to legalize basement apartments. The extension of the No. 7 subway line in the Far West Side was financed with such a fund.

De Blasio officials did not directly comment on the call for special zoning districts. But the administration anticipates the East New York housing market being unable to support market rate housing for the foreseeable future, which means it expects any development projects to receive city assistance – and therefore be 100 percent affordable – but not generate the tax revenue a PILOT fund would depend on.

“The administration has set aside more than a billion dollars to meet the need for new community facilities in growing neighborhoods like East New York,” de Blasio spokesman Austin Finan said in a statement, referencing a neighborhood fund meant to ensure projects written into the East New York and other rezoning plans are financed upfront. “And with a 1,000 seat school, parks improvements and upgrades to Atlantic Avenue in the capital, the city has made significant down payments on its commitments to infrastructure projects in East New York.”

A pledged 1,000-seat school in East New York is already in the School Construction Authority’s five-year capital plan, while improvements to a stretch of Atlantic Avenue are listed in the Department of Transportation’s project queue and the Department of Parks and Recreation has scheduled visioning sessions for promised modern play equipment.

Still, a history of poor enforcement that predates de Blasio has dogged his administration since he began peddling his housing plan.

In East New York, a couple from Williamsburg attended a community board meeting about two months ago and told a cautionary tale about the 2005-era rezoning of northern Brooklyn, according to a meeting attendee. At the time, the Bloomberg administration signed an 11-page points of agreement document, which committed to using voluntary zoning measures – rather than the mandatory approach de Blasio is taking – to create affordable housing, with the expectation of adding 3,548 such units. As of May 2013, less than 23 percent of the below-market-rate homes had materialized, according to DNAinfo

When asked about progress on the affordable housing in question, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development said it tracks units by community board, and since fiscal year 2006, Community Board 1, which includes the rezoned blocks as well as other areas, has financed 3,636 affordable housing units.

The rezoning included plans for a 28-acre park. The city spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying portions of the Bushwick Inlet Park, but it struggled to afford the rest after land values rose.

Left: Atlantic Avenue in East New York as it exists today; Right: How Atlantic Avenue would potentially look under an East New York rezoning.

Williamsburg’s experience does not bode well for East New York, said Alicia Boyd, who attended the community board meeting and recounted the concerns raised about Bloomberg’s broken promises. “If they didn’t get it, what makes you think it’s going to happen in East New York?” said Boyd, who now lives in Central Brooklyn but has been attending meetings about the East New York proposal because her daughter’s family remains there. “What’s different?”

Before approving the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing zoning framework, which aims to spur more affordable housing, lawmakers pressed the administration on how it can guarantee future mayors will keep commitments and questioned how far $1 billion will go if spread across 15 rezoned areas. Days before the vote in March, de Blasio wrote the council a memo noting that the Mayor’s Office of Operations would annually report how much progress has been made on initiatives tied to rezonings. He added that the Department of City Planning would launch a new unit – the Division of Capital Planning and Infrastructure – to work with budget officials on implementing rezoning plans. Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who represents most of the East New York area up for rezoning, have introduced legislation that would codify the tracking system suggested by the mayor. When asked how much teeth the tracking tool would give communities, Espinal said he would explore ways to strengthen it.

Bill Wilkins, who is part of the Coalition for Community Advancement, said the mayor has indicated he’s seriously studying the matter and is willing to compromise. De Blasio told the coalition in February that he would task senior staff with examining enforcement mechanisms, which Wilkins viewed as a positive sign. “Something will come about,” Wilkins said. “Will it be a special district? Will it be a new agency in the mayor’s administration? I think there’s a lot of ideas floating around, and as long as we have discussion on those ideas, then something will come out that is concrete.” Espinal echoed Wilkins’ assessment.

But others are less confident, particularly about whether the city’s plan will provide for locals. More than one-third of East New York’s residents earn less than 30 percent of the metro area median income, or $23,350 for a family of three. The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing framework targets four average income levels, none of which reserves apartments for those earning less than 40 percent of the area median income – or $31,080 for a family of three. Beyond what’s in the MIH text, the city has committed to using subsidies and other tools to ensure half of all housing built in an East New York rezoning is affordable for current residents. So far, the city has described arrangements for 1,200 such units that it says would be ushered in by the rezoning.

Technically, the city can’t compel any developer to accept a subsidy, and the mayor’s zoning changes don’t change that. Councilwoman Inez Barron, who represents a small portion of the East New York area up for rezoning, said she was sure the city would offer subsidies, but was less confident they would prove successful.

“That’s not to say that developers will come and want to build, especially because 421-a or something similar has not been put in place,” she said, citing the expiration of a state tax break that was once frequently used to spur the construction of mixed-income housing. “There are no guarantees in any of this.”

Editor's note: This post has been updated with affordable housing figures from city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. A prior version of this story inaccurately said the city's 2005-era points of agreement outlined plans for Bushwick Inlet Park, when in fact, this commitment was included in a rezoning of North Brooklyn.

East New York Rezoning Report by City & State NY

2005 Williamsburg-Greenpoint Rezoning Points of Agreement[2] by City & State NY