That was the question at a panel on affordable housing hosted by Urban Land Institute New York last week.

In New York City, this question is unavoidable. Median rents here have risen 31 percent since 2010, and as much as 45 percent in particular rapidly growing neighborhoods. A report by the Furman Center found that the share of households it considered rent burdened increased over the past decade while the share of rental apartments that were affordable to low- and moderate-income households decreased.

In 2015, Mayor DeBlasio declared affordable housing to be a priority and committed to creating or preserving 300,000 affordable units citywide. But the politics of whether, where and how to build affordable housing are complex. There is perpetual tension between those who believe that our affordable housing policies are reacting to demand and those who believe our policies are responsible for driving that demand.

new york city skyline

One panelist at the ULI event was Michelle de la Uz, a member of the New York City Planning Commission and executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development corporation in Brooklyn. She noted that simply mentioning the name of a neighborhood in line to be rezoned can spur speculation and push real estate prices up. That can lead to displacement — exactly the problem affordable housing programs are trying to solve. Our strategies for growth and for affordability, de la Uz said, do not always align perfectly.

Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, described his experience with the tensions of the affordable housing debate. In 2018, the city council approved a significant rezoning for Inwood with Rodriguez’s support. The plan aims to create and preserve 4,100 units of affordable housing by upzoning an industrial stretch of 10th Avenue, building on the site of a soon-to-be-relocated sanitation garage, and creating new plots of buildable land by consolidating a few ConEd facilities. The new buildings would be required to set aside a portion of affordable units alongside market-rate housing.

Opponents of the rezoning worried that inviting developers into the neighborhood would drive prices beyond the reach of current residents and that an influx of market-rate tenants would accelerate the gentrification of the neighborhood. But Rodriguez asked them not to ignore the upsides: more units of affordable housing that would otherwise not exist, and a number of new community amenities funded by the city.

a photo of inwood, manhattan

Rafael Cestero, president, and CEO of Community Preservation Corporation agreed that the announcement of rezonings can lead to real estate speculation. Releasing a list of 15 neighborhoods in line for rezoning as the city did in 2015, he said, was not the right way to jumpstart affordable housing across the five boroughs. But Cestero cautioned that the causes of gentrification are much bigger than a single government program. Rents in Inwood were already increasing before the rezoning was announced, suggesting that an evolution of the neighborhood was already afoot.

In neighborhoods where prices are already heating up, rezonings present a critical opportunity to bake affordable apartments into the landscape. Failing to do so amounts to a serious missed opportunity. That doesn’t mean communities are without reason to be skeptical, though. Read on for the panel’s tips on how developers and communities can work together to build affordable housing that makes sense on the ground.

Look out for Part 2 of NIMBY or YIMBY coming to you this Friday, June 14!