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New York Daily News

 

A Path Forward For Affordable Housing

May 01, 2014

By Howard Husock

De-emphasize social engineering and increase supply as much as possible to help New Yorkers striving for better lives

New mayors often start administrations with signal actions. Mayor de Blasio has had several, including attempts to limit charter school growth and raise taxes on the wealthy to expand pre-K education.

He had one in housing policy, too: an ultimatum requiring the redeveloper of Williamsburg's former Domino Sugar refinery, now derelict on the Brooklyn waterfront, to either increase the number of apartments set aside at below-market prices — or see the redeveloper's previously-approved, $1.5 billion, 2,000-plus unit project nipped in the bud.

All this is part of a goal about which de Blasio has said he's “deadly serious”: building or preserving 200,000 affordable units to supplement the city's current total stock of 3.3 million housing units.

The plan will be unveiled any day now.

The Domino Sugar decision made clear his prospective approach focuses on large developers and buildings, as well as using so-called “inclusionary zoning” (which allows taller and denser projects, so long as a percentage of apartments are set aside for those of median income or less). Significantly, de Blasio vowed during his campaign that such a policy would be mandatory for major new residential real estate projects made possible by rezoning.

But if the mayor's goal is to spark the production of more, less costly housing for a growing city, mandatory inclusionary zoning is the wrong approach.

This is not to say that inclusionary zoning is an altogether impractical policy. Since 2009, voluntary inclusion has led to permits for 1,883 such units. Yet a mandatory approach would be counter-productive.

Indeed, that was the conclusion reached by NYU's Furman Center in a 2013 paper, released under the leadership of then-director Vicki Been (since named by de Blasio to head the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development): Mandatory inclusionary zoning might, warned Furman, “render potential projects less profitable or completely unprofitable” such that “the development would not be built at all.”

One alternative, the Bloomberg administration's so-called “land lease” plan — which would bring inclusionary zoning to the construction of new apartments on now empty land (mainly parking lots) from the lower East Side to Harlem — is a way both to advance de Blasio's housing goal and help the city's troubled public housing system.

The New York City Housing Authority faces two big problems. First, it's in desperate need of funds for repairs (some $13 billion over the next 5 years). Second, NYCHA has at least 11,400 “extremely under-occupied” households (mainly units with empty bedrooms inhabited by the elderly).

Building on empty land could help address both — through lease payments to NYCHA, for the right to build on the land, and by including new affordable units, into which the over-housed elderly could move.

Still, it's not an approach that will, on its own, yield de Blasio's 200,000 affordable units goal. The mayor should thus pair it with another policy change: giving legal status to what are now illegal, accessory apartments.

It's an idea that has, in fact, long enjoyed the support of leading City Council progressives, notably Deputy Leader for Policy Brad Lander. A 2008 study, co-commissioned by the Pratt Center for Community Development (then headed by Lander), plausibly estimates that, between 1990 and 2000 alone, the city added some 114,000 informal accessory units — mostly basement apartments in immigrant neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

The formal code violations of such units are often minor — below-grade windows, for instance. Yet the apartments are certainly affordable: two-bedroom units for, say, $900, three bedrooms for $1,200. Renovations, to make them safe, meanwhile, can cost under $30,000.

In short, the right guiding principle for truly affordable housing is this: de-emphasize socio-economic engineering in favor of increasing housing supply as much as possible, while aiding neighborhoods filled with strivers of modest means. De Blasio's announcement will reveal his priorities.

Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/path-affordable-housing-article-1.1774735

 

 
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