|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
How is it that diversity of all kindseconomic, racial, intellectualis promoted as an ideal in New York except when the debate turns to public housing? The moment a proposal is put forward to reform or remake public housing in any significant way, many housing activists abandon arguments for the virtues of diversity in favor of arguments for economic segregation. No one calls it that, of course. It's called protecting low-income households from gentrification or preserving the low-income housing stock. Maintaining public housing as exclusively lower-income becomes the rallying cry. Witness the T-shirts worn by public housing residents at a recent City Council hearing: "Keep public housing 100% affordable" (affordable being the new euphemism for subsidized). Nonetheless, the New York City Housing Authoritythe largest landlord of low-income housing in the countryhas this week triumphantly shepherded through the city's land-use review process a mixed-income new development that will include market-rate apartments.
Helpful as a market-rate component will be in strengthening NYCHA's fragile finances, its true importance lies in its promise to repair the fabric of New York neighborhoods, rent by decades of urban renewal, demolition, clearance, and massive projects.
A HISTORIC STEP AT HARBORVIEW
Even though the project is far from perfect, permitting NYCHA land to be used for mixed-income housing should establish a precedent that will help NYCHA ease its serious financial problems and allow it to put up more attractive buildings on its sites while promoting economic diversityrather than economic segregation. As opponents point out, the money is not enough to erase the deficit while enhancing services. But it helps.
In obtaining the council's approval, NYCHA faced difficult opposition both from elected officials and activists. Only the executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council, Jerilyn Perine, testified in favor of the Harborview project, saying, "Here is an opportunity that should not be missed. No project can meet every need. However, this one comes awfully close. It is in effect a creative use of NYCHA property, government subsidies, and private investment that creates the outcome of the federal Hope VI programcreating mixed-income areas with housing opportunities for NYCHA residents. But unlike HOPE VI, which is predicated on the demolition of public housing, here it is preserved, and additional affordable housing is created."
Her remarks prompted a reprimand from Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-West Side), who criticized NYCHA's ineffective use of Hope VI in the Arverne and Edgemere projects in the Rockaways, in Queens. But her reprimand tended to reinforce Perine's point: NYCHA never before committed itself to mixed-income development, even when the federal government encouraged it to do so. Both Arverne and Edgemere were slightly improved (better lighting, signage, and landscaping) with Hope VI funds but remained utterly low-income in defiance of the mixed-income mandate of Hope VI. NYCHA's was hostile to Hope VI partly because it didn't want to demolish any buildings, but also because it didn't want to be involved in market development. Now it's ready.
Several witnesses before the council urged the city to increase its subsidy to the new buildings from $40,000 per unit to $90,000. But why should city taxpayers be expected to take on this burden when a simple market-rate solution would do not merely just as well but better? Harborview sits on prime Manhattan real estate capable of generating, as Perine noted, cross-subsidies. Profits from market tenants can help subsidize the "affordable" rents. This technique, which has been implemented successfully in several other jurisdictions, most notably Atlanta, is well worth trying here.
COMMUNITY BOARD OBJECTIONS
On this matter, the parties negotiated long and hard to come to an agreement that limits the inclusionary benefits. The developer of Harborview will not be allowed to sell inclusionary bonus development rights (the certificates) usable on any sites within the Hudson Yards or West Chelsea, or the sections of 11th Avenue that are now being considered for rezoning. Councilmember Brewer notes that the district extends all the way south to 14th Street, providing plenty of sites where the bonus rights can be exercised. But CB4's conceptual contentionthat development on publicly owned land should not be eligible for an inclusionary-housing bonus because it amounts to a land-use form of double dippingis unresolved. The issue will emerge again in future projects.
PUBLIC HOUSING'S REMNANTS
How ironic that just as the Bloomberg administration is preparing to require private developers to provide parking places for bikes, NYCHA's developer will build two new garages for automobiles. In the future, NYCHA and Bloomberg officials need to tackle HUDís destructive policies before a development moves too far along to be modified.
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