In New York, every affordable housing fight in recent memory has followed roughly the same script. One side wants to increase the inventory of affordable housing units across the city while the other worries that development will inevitably increase prices in the neighborhood and push existing residents out. With this as the backdrop to any conversation, how can developers and communities work together to build affordable housing?
Communication is king, says Ydanis Rodriguez, a city councilmember from Upper Manhattan. When the city’s proposed rezoning of Inwood, which Rodriguez supported, faced fierce opposition among his constituents, Rodriguez stuck to one basic message: the rezoning will bring millions of dollars in investment to the neighborhood. He also enumerated the community benefits the city agreed to provide as part of the plan, including a new library, new access to the waterfront, and $50 million worth of improvements to the George Washington Educational Complex, which houses four small high schools.
Michele de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee and a member of the city planning commission, said she divides community feedback into three categories: fear, misunderstandings and legitimate concerns. Legitimate concerns deserve thoughtful responses, she said, while it’s important not to let fear and misunderstandings take over the conversation.
Jeffrey Levine, founder and chairman of Douglaston Development, says introducing new competition into a neighborhood can bring tangible benefits. He offered the example of a local bodega that overcharges its local customers until a Pioneer Supermarket comes in with better prices. Levine, who lived in public housing for a time as a child, also noted that zoning is hyperlocal and recognizing that is key to building a partnership with a community.
Rafael Cestero of Community Preservation Corporation recommended being realistic when extolling the virtues of development. In fact, Cestero said he wished he had figured out a way to deal with the demand side of housing rather than just the supply when he was commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Bloomberg. A low-income tenant may be able to afford $500 a month in rent, he explained, when it costs a landlord more than that just to keep the lights on. “We’re going crazy trying to figure out how many units we can squeeze out of developers but that’s really just at the margins,” he concluded.
The decision-making process around any development project is bound to have some friction — de la Uz remarked that every neighborhood in New York City is its own distinct real estate market. Still, in a city as dense as New York, it’s hard to escape the fundamental issue of housing supply. Vacancy rates throughout the city have ticked up a bit but still remain extremely low. Unless the island of Manhattan gets bigger, partnerships between developers and communities are the best way forward, even if we’re only working around the margins.