Gothamist Critics: De Blasio's Zoning Plan Favors "Luxurious Market Rate Housing For The Rich" by Nick Pinto

Critics: De Blasio's Zoning Plan Favors "Luxurious Market Rate Housing For The Rich"
Nick Pinto


Protesters outside yesterday's public hearing (Gothamist)


After sweeping into office last year on promises to make New York a city where you didn't have to be a Russian oligarch to afford a roof over your head, a centerpiece of Bill de Blasio's housing initiative is off to a rocky start.

An ambitious city-wide rezoning plan, first sketched out in February, aims to modify the city's zoning laws to encourage affordable and senior housing and discourage the most hideous designs for new construction. The plan, "Zoning for Quality and Affordability," promises to "promote the creation of affordable housing and foster diverse, livable neighborhoods."

But while the plan has garnered some approving press, at the first public hearing on the plan yesterday, the affordable housing advocates, local community boards, and elected officials that packed the room were unremittingly critical.

They charged that the plan is likely to produce the opposite of what it promises and effectively amounts to a backdoor giveaway to private developers.

"The plan's proposed changes will only make for taller and more luxurious market rate housing for the rich, blocking light and air for the general public," David Holowka, an architect who lives in Chelsea, told Planning officials.

The mayor's plan calls for raising the height limits in many neighborhoods by 5 to 15 feet, and as much as four extra stories for buildings with affordable and senior housing components. It would also reduce setback requirements, and allow builders to build in back yard spaces where they currently can't.

The idea is to allow developers to build higher and with fewer hurdles to achieve their allowed floor-area-ratios. The hope is that these relaxed restrictions will encourage developers both to build more affordable units and to design buildings that are more attractive and liveable than an ugly box designed to squeeze as much floor area as possible from within the allowed footprint and height.

Even in the plan works perfectly, said City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, most new buildings under the proposed zoning would be 80% market-rate, and thus unaffordable. "If it was all affordable housing, I could go back to my community and we could try to figure this out," Mendez said. "But it's not going to be affordable housing."


Row houses in East New York (Sustainable Communities: East New York)


The proposal is particularly frustrating for housing advocates in neighborhoods that have spent decades fighting for "contextual" zoning, making major concessions to developers in exchange for height and massing limits. The proposed new zoning plan would sweep those hard-won limits away in one stroke, opponents of the plan say.

"We fought so hard and sacrificed so much for height caps. In exchange for giving up these height caps, we're not getting anything in return," said City Councilmember Ben Kallos yesterday, at a rally on City Hall steps against the plan.

Affordable housing advocates have worried for some time that de Blasio might have a cozier relationship with developers than his populist rhetoric would suggest.

Before taking office, the mayor supported Forest City Ratner's controversial Atlantic Yards development and the massive Toll Brothers project on the Gowanus, and its luxury project in the middle of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Real estate giants maxed out their donations to his mayoral campaign, and though what the mayor discussed at a closed-door meeting with the Real Estate Board of New York last year remains a mystery (de Blasio declined to provide a transcript to the press) the city's development barons evidently left the meeting feeling confident that the new administration's affordable housing goals won't rock their gravy boat.

A spokesman for the mayor pushed back on these critiques.

"The only noticeable changes to height apply solely to buildings with affordable and senior housing—and to suggest otherwise is just untrue," said Wiley Norvell, de Blasio's deputy press secretary. "Ultimately, these reforms mean thousands more affordable apartments and better quality buildings that add to our neighborhood fabric."

Meanwhile, a new report from NYU's Furman Center suggests that de Blasio's plan to allow developers to build towers in neighborhoods like East Harlem and East New York will likely only produce affordable housing units if the city provides developers with subsidies. Otherwise, "developers won’t be able to charge enough rent to justify construction costs."

The zoning proposal's winding path through the city's bureaucracy will take a while, with the completion of a draft environmental impact statement this spring, and public comment continuing through the fall. After that, the plan will be reviewed by community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission, and finally City Council.

You can read a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the proposed zoning changes here. A more detailed accounting of the plan is contained in the Draft Scope of Work for an Environmental Impact Statement.