Manhattan developers try evasion tactics on affordable housing

by Cameron Orr

Application of an affordable housing plan in New York City leaves questions for tenants, working people, and many community advocates about whose interests it is intended to serve.

A decision of key importance to the people of New York City will be made by New York City Councilmembers in the next ten days. It will determine whether Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) rules are used in the interests of all working people and tenants, or whether the new policy will be another tool in the hands of real-estate developers to disrupt working-class communities, especially communities of color.

The real-estate developer Acuity Capital Partners is looking to build on a parking lot in Chelsea, Manhattan. A NYTimes article announced Acuity’s plans to build a “17-story, 62-unit condominium project on the lot, incorporating an adjacent four-story tenement and five-story loft building, home to Adorama, the venerable camera shop.” Acuity, a Chicago-based corporation, approached the New York City Council with an offer to make a voluntary contribution to a housing fund that would go towards building affordable housing units in other parts of the city. In exchange for making this contribution, Acuity would receive a special permit to build new housing without having to follow MIH rules. It would not have to include any affordable housing in the Adorama project.

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is a zoning tool which, within the limitations of private, for-profit housing construction, is purported to ensure that the benefits of urban development are shared. MIH was praised by Mayor Bill de Blasio and many City Councilmembers as “the biggest and most progressive affordable housing plan in the nation.” However, it was passed by the city council above the protests of many tenants and community advocates.

Initially, the plan mandated that 25% of new units be affordable for families making $47,000 per year. Many working families earn less than half of that. In response to their organized struggle in resisting the limitations of MIH, the plan now states that a small percentage of apartments must be made available to families making around $31,000 per year. However, many families in New York City struggle to get by on less than $20,000 per year. Currently, outside of what public housing and rent-stabilized apartments remain in New York City, no housing protections exist for families living below the federal poverty line in New York City, even though the costs of living are higher than anywhere else in the United States.

Working-class communities of color have mainly been targeted for the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) rules that operate in conjunction with the MIH rules to increase private housing development. This includes the construction of luxury apartments. East New York has been the first neighborhood under the de Blasio administration to be rezoned for increased private development. More than one-third of all families make $23,350 a year or less in East New York. Deeper affordability has been put into effect there as a result of community pressure from groups like the Coalition for Community Advancement, but the housing plan still only makes 10% of new housing affordable for these families. 89% of its residents are Black and Hispanic, and the city has failed to support the neighborhood for decades.

In every single neighborhood where the city has attempted to rezone, there has been resistance on the part of tenants and local community organizations. In the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, the tenant organizations Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale/Alto Manhattan No Se Vende and Metropolitan Council on Housing blocked a proposed spot-zoning on Sherman Plaza. On Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, tenants are fighting in conjunction with community organizations such as CASA, Picture the Homeless, Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision and many others against proposed rezonings (a hearing is being held on September 29th). The Flushing rezoning plans have been paused in response to community pressure. Residents of Staten Island have also indicated their fear of the rising rents as a result of the Bay Corridor rezonings, which additionally involve privatization of public lands.

While MIH is severely limited in securing real affordability options for working New Yorkers, it provides many legal options for private real-estate companies seeking to make a profit from housing construction. Among the options that would fall within MIH regulations would be making 30% of the new units affordable, on average, to families making around $93,000 a year. Acuity finds this to represent an unreasonable compromise to their own profit margins. The corporation’s owners would rather fund new development projects in less affluent neighborhoods which remain especially vulnerable to the ongoing gentrification process. The voluntary contribution towards new developments in working-class neighborhoods would ultimately boost the profits of Acuity Capital Partners and other real-estate corporations which have done everything in their power to write New York City’s housing laws. Far too often, these efforts have been successful.

Chelsea, a once working-class neighborhood in Manhattan, has in the last three decades experienced several waves of displacement, fueled by landlords and developers in pursuit of profit. What diversity remains in Chelsea is a result of the public housing and a few rent-regulated apartments that still exist in the neighborhood. Every new higher rate apartment in any neighborhood creates an incentive for nearby landlords to drive existing tenants out of their rent-regulated units and rake in the same profits as their competitors. The practical effect of MIH, in the way that the city has so far sought to implement it, would be the introduction of luxury apartments into working class neighborhoods. The struggle over the Adorama project is highlighting another question: whether MIH will also enable working people to move into more affluent neighborhoods. Resistance on the part of the de Blasio administration and some Councilmembers to apply Mandatory Inclusionary Housing rules to affluent neighborhoods like Chelsea are a troubling indication that MIH is only intended to work one way.

Following an explosion that occured five blocks from Adorama, the world’s attention is on Chelsea with questions of security on their minds. In the wake of the tragedy, many people have been left injured and shaken, especially communities who are automatically targeted as suspects as a result of the violent War on Terror which has destroyed millions of lives and redirected hundreds of billions of dollars away from public services. It is imperative in times such as these to highlight the fact that for working people, security means more than safe streets; it also means fair wages, strong communities, and access to quality housing.

City Councilmember Corey Johnson, who was elected to represent the people of Chelsea, has made it clear he is willing to cut the deal with Acuity. He has tried to say that the MIH is not legally binding in the case of the Adorama Special Permit. However, Eric Edward Stern of Community Board 5, Met Council and Community Board 5 member Samuel E. Meller, Esq., the Urban Justice League, State Senator Liz Krueger, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have backed the inclusion of affordable housing in the Adorama project with the full strength of their legal expertise and experience. Aspects of the MIH law clearly state, “[w]here a special permit application would allow a significant increase in residential floor area, MIH must be applied.”

“I’m the only borough president who supported the inclusionary housing plan, and special permits are what convinced me it was worth it,” Gale Brewer wrote in a piece for the Daily News. “Now the City Planning Commission looks likely to approve a special permit for a new building in Chelsea without the affordable housing required. That would set a dangerous precedent, undermining the creation of affordable housing in neighborhoods throughout Manhattan.”

Carl Weisbrod, who was appointed by Bill de Blasio as director of the New York City Department of City Planning and as Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, is also taking the side of the development corporation. The executive bodies over which he presides represent both the initial and final steps in the review process for new development projects in New York City.

After reviewing an application from a developer, the Department of City Planning forwards the application to the Community Board. The Community Board forwards the application to the Borough President and the Borough Board. The Borough President and Borough Board then send it to the City Planning Commission. This is the last stage of the review process before new development is either approved or denied by the City Council and the Mayor.

In the case of the Adorama special permit, Community Board 5, which handled the case, made a resolution: “No special permit unless MIH is included.” This was sent to Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, who determined the same thing. After being sent to the City Planning Commission, three people abstained from the vote, but it was passed anyway. It had been determined all along by City Planning, under the direction of Weisbrod, that MIH would not apply to this specific case.

The Metropolitan Council on Housing, a progressive grassroots housing organization, is fighting this deal. The next stage of the fight is to prevent the Adorama special permit from being passed by the City Council. “This is a fight up to the last minute and now is a critical time because Corey Johnson thinks that he can get away with this,” said one Met Council member.

Met Council is calling on all New Yorkers to contact their City Councilmembers and tell them to “Vote, ‘No’ on the Adorama special permit unless MIH is applied.” A flier they have put together states, “If the City Council approves the project without MIH, it will set a dangerous precedent for all future special permit applications whereby discretionary land use actions like these are simply developer giveaways – rather than affordable housing opportunities.”

All New Yorkers are also being encouraged to email the same “Vote NO” message to Corey Johnson (district3@council.nyc.gov). As Samuel Meller said in his presentation to Met Council, Johnson “wants to cut a deal so developers can make a voluntary contribution to an affordable housing fund. This contribution will be much lower, by millions of dollars, than what they would be otherwise required to do.”

According to the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, Ava Farkas, “The Committee on Land Use, that goes ahead of the whole City Council, is supposed to vote on Tuesday, and then the full City Council is supposed to vote on the 28th of September.”

“If Corey Johnson is not going to apply MIH, the special permit has to go down, because we can’t let city planning get away with breaking the law,” said Samuel Meller. “Now is the time to make our voice heard and say that we should get the affordable housing that we were promised.”

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