Councilman Stephen Levin praises Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, for his "outrageously ambitious" plan.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration announced last Thursday that their ambitious goal of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing in ten years is both on budget and ahead of schedule.
According to city officials, the administration financed the preservation of 15,119 units and the creation of 6,844 affordable apartments in 2016, the most in the past 25 years. That brings the three-year total to 41,652 units preserved and 20,854 new apartments constructed overall.
With 62,506 units preserved or created, the mayor said that will be enough to help 162,000 New Yorkers “for whom the question of affordability is now answered.”
“Housing is the number one expense in people’s lives. If you can lighten the burden with housing, then everything else is possible,” de Blasio said. “If people can afford housing, they can afford to live here. If they can’t afford housing, the ballgame is over.”
The mayor delivered the updates at Monsignor Alexius Jarka Hall in Williamsburg, where a $19 million project will preserve 63 affordable apartments for seniors. The current residents there won’t pay more than $1,000 in rent for the next 35 years. The average rent in Williamsburg for a one-bedroom apartment is roughly $3,000 a month.
Meanwhile, the project will finance repairs to the building’s roof, exterior, plumbing, electrical system and each apartment’s kitchen.
De Blasio praised the seniors, sitting behind him and other government officials at the announcement, for sticking around through a darker period in the neighborhood’s history.
“Not long ago, in Williamsburg and in neighborhoods all over the city, people were leaving in droves, and those who were staying were fighting against crime and disinvestment and dealing with vacant lots and boarded-up storefronts,” he said. “Only to find that after all their hard work to bring the community back, they started to get priced out of their own community.”
De Blasio also told the story of his own neighborhood’s gentrification process. In the 1980s, when de Blasio arrived in Park Slope as a college intern, people were leaving and there were many vacant lots and empty storefronts.
By 1992, when he and wife Chirlane McCray moved in, the neighborhood had “stabilized.” In 1998, when they bought their first house, it was already “getting pricey.” In the 2000s, when they purchased their current home, the neighborhood was already “absolutely unaffordable.”
“We feel if we hadn’t bought our house, we would not have been able to stay in the neighborhood,” de Blasio said. “I saw with my own eyes how rapidly – with no rezoning whatsoever – a neighborhood could change and there could be intense displacement and that proceeded to happen all over Brooklyn.”
That’s how the mayor came to the conclusion that government intervention is needed to “maximize our change of controlling the situation more favorably” to create affordable housing.
He questioned the impact of a free enterprise system which, without regulation, would continuously displace people, he said. The mayor said that was already happening in communities like Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Prospect Heights.
“We’re going to go in and take every power we have to maximize the creation and preservation of affordable housing in place and ensure that development must include affordable housing,” de Blasio said. “If I had more powers, I would regulate it even more aggressively. If I had the power, some of the shiny glass and steel buildings would not be going up all over New York City.”
He gave two examples of neighborhoods – East New York and the Rockaways – that have been historically neglected and treated unfairly. East New York is currently undergoing a rezoning and $300 million investment, while Far Rockaway received $91 million in funding from the city.
“The Rockaways pre-Sandy was in an unacceptable situation. Sandy made it worse,” the mayor said. “All of those wrongs that need to be righted in the Rockaways, all of the community benefits they should have gotten decades ago, will come because we know rezonings are one of the fastest, most effective ways to bring things into a community.”
De Blasio said the message they wanted to deliver to New Yorkers was that “this is still your city.” Despite numerous protests by advocates who say the program isn’t affordable enough, the mayor touted that 28 percent of those units are for very low and extremely low-income New Yorkers.
According to the city’s numbers, the housing program has built or preserved 8,877 units for families making under $24,500, and another 8,369 units for families making between $24,500 and $40,800.
More than half of the affordable apartments will go toward families making between $40,800 and $65,250, which the city considers low-income.
Roughly two-thirds of the affordable units are preserved, while one-third are being created. So far, the city is falling short of its goal to create 40 percent of the new affordable housing apartments.
De Blasio defended the preservation method, which he said gets housing into people’s hands quicker.
“The preservation piece of this equation was always the dominant piece. It’s also the faster piece, he said. “A lot of times we are literally preserving people in place in their apartment or rehabbing them and having them come right back in.”
But he added that the state’s 421-a tax incentive program for developers will be needed to create more units. Unions and real estate interests are currently negotiating to bring back the program.
“I do think the absence of 421-a has been unhelpful to say the least,” the mayor said. “We need it and I am increasingly optimistic that it will be done soon.”
In terms of boroughs, Brooklyn will be home to 18,084 of the affordable units, slightly more than the Bronx but fewer than in Manhattan. However, there are only 4,801 affordable units being preserved or created in Queens.
The mayor commented on two Queens projects specifically – Flushing West and Sunnyside Yards. De Blasio said there were some concerns that came up with residents and Councilman Peter Koo about Flushing West that needed to be addressed.
With Sunnyside Yards, de Blasio said there were still differences to be sorted out with the state. He acknowledged neighborhood concerns, such as congestion and transportation, but still maintained the project would be a big help for Queens.
“We’re going to have to have more work done with the community and more work done with the state to get it to be a more immediate opportunity,” de Blasio said.
The mayor defended individual neighborhood rezonings, despite early signs that some neighborhoods would be resistant to change. Affordable housing developments were shut down in both Inwood in Manhattan and Sunnyside after significant community opposition.
De Blasio said neighborhood rezonings take “serious time commitments,” but they’re just “part of the puzzle” when it comes to affordable housing.
“Is every rezoning moving at the optimal pace? No, some go faster, some go slower,” he said. “You have to get it right and you have to listen to stakeholders, and we really believe that a great rezoning is when in the end people feel satisfied with the outcome.”
Councilman Donovan Richards added that Far Rockaway is one year into a community engagement process that is ready to enter the next stages of rezoning. The Queens councilman offered praise to the mayor and his administration for the $91 million investment.
According to Richards, 300 units of affordable housing are being built in the Rockaways.
“We have not seen shovels in the ground in the Rockaways for nearly two decades,” he said. “Thousands of residents have already applied for these units.”
The mayor also took a shot at the Bloomberg administration, which promised the north Brooklyn communities a completed Bushwick Inlet Park in the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning. It took more than ten years of community advocacy before the city purchased the last parcel to complete the park.
“We are not interested in some of the bait-and-switch approaches to rezonings of the past,” de Blasio said, also pointing to the affordable housing commitments that haven’t been met. “We believe that if we make a commitment, it has got to be ironclad.”
Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents north Brooklyn, said one of the affordable housing sites that came out of the 2005 rezoning was Greenpoint Landing. Out of 97 affordable units, they had 90,000 applications.
“The need out there is so huge that we have to be outrageously ambitious as a city to meet that need,” Levin said. “That commitment is so strong and so clear.”
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol also commended the mayor, who said has the “hardest job in America.”
“The housing market is so hot, especially in Brooklyn. How do you provide affordable housing for anyone when you have the prices of real estate soar through the roof?” Lentol said. “I don’t envy him or his team, but they are doing a great job. I can’t remember a mayor who has put up instead of shutting up in trying to provide affordable housing.”