Affordable housing is one of the pillars of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. And the proposed rezoning at Astoria Cove, that skated through the City Planning Commission and is now reaching the City Council for debate, is the administration’s pivotal moment for putting that policy into place.
But as it stands, the administration has failed to rectify one of the most glaring shortcomings of Bloomberg era housing policy: that “affordable” units aren’t actually attainable for the New Yorkers who need them most.
A lynchpin of de Blasio’s housing policy released earlier this year was to bolster the number of units created and preserved for extremely low income New Yorkers who often fell through the cracks under Bloomberg.
For New Yorkers making 30 percent or below of the Area Median Income (AMI) ($25,150 annually for a family of four) the housing plan promised to up the amount of units created and preserved to 8 percent -16,000 units over the next ten years.
Only 3 percent the affordable units built under Bloomberg were for families making 30 percent or below of AMI despite the fact that a whopping 36 percent of the city’s population falls into this income bracket.
So how many of these units will Astoria Cove generate as the plans stands? Zero.
“I don’t understand how we even get to this place,” Councilman Antonio Reynoso said before a rally on the steps of city hall Tuesday. “This is the definition of the minimum requirements, the definition of the least we can do.”
Reynoso and a handful of other council members joined community members and advocates to call attention to the shortcomings of the Astoria Cove development. With billowing banners and tee shirts from the organizations they represented – Local 79, Vocal NY, Make the Road NY and Community Voices Heard – the small crowd chanted “Fight, fight, fight. Housing is a right.”
“Real Astorians have to be able to look at that development and not see it as a castle with a moat around it,” Costa Constantinides, the council member who represents Astoria in the City Council said.
Under de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary zoning policy, developers will have to provide a threshold of subsidized units without any kickbacks, meaning that the structure of who pays the subsidy has shifted from state and federal governments, to developers themselves.
“You can’t build one unit unless you build your percentage of affordable housing,” City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod explained at a N.Y.U. Law breakfast in September. “It’s the beginning of a new era.”
But so far, for rent burden families scouring the city for affordable housing, this “new era” looks remarkably similar to how it would have under Bloomberg.
The City Planning Commission approved mandatory inclusionary zoning with the same restrictions as Bloomberg used under the voluntary inclusionary zoning program. The gist of both plans is that twenty percent of the units have to be subsidized for people making 80 percent of the AMI or below. That’s an annual income of $67,100 for a family of four.
And there’s a caveat that allows developers to build units for families that earn as much as $138,485 if the developer carves out 25 percent “affordable” units.
While developers and City Planning are quick to emphasize the “or below” part of that equation, there’s a catch.
“It’s not that the city is consciously excluding a family at 50 percent AMI from units,” Barkia Williams the Deputy Director at the Association for Neighborhood Housing Developers said. “It’s the double bind. They can’t approve a new tenant that they know will be rent burdened.”
Federal laws prohibit developers from rent burdening potential tenants, so units end up going to families within a range of just around 5 percent below the AMI listed at the development.
While the level of AMI and the amount of affordable units are still up for debate in the City Council, it’s unclear why City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod failed to flex his policy making muscles before approving the rezoning.
It might have to do with the very real concern that asking too much of developers, could thwart construction all together. At N.Y.U. Weisbrod had voiced this apprehension saying that the mandatory inclusionary zoning model needed to be “delicately calibrated.”
“If it’s too oppressive then a developer’s not going to build anything,” he said.