De Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan Under Fire

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) -
File-This Dec. 29, 2014, file photo shows New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking during a New York Police Academy graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York. In the aftermath of last month’s terror attacks in Paris, New York City not only bolstered security but quietly stepped up outreach efforts to its Muslim community. It aimed to calm fears about any hate-filled retaliation while trying to extend government services to a community that often has felt neglected. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Bill de Blasio’s plan to create apartments for New York’s poor and middle class has come under fire from community leaders who say that what developers and the mayor call “affordable” still remains out of reach for those in need.

De Blasio, the first Democrat in 20 years to run the largest U.S. city, set an unprecedented goal of preserving or building 200,000 units of below-market-rate housing by 2025. He plans to offer developers more profitability by allowing them to construct bigger and taller buildings. The condition is that builders reserve 25 % – 30% of the units for lower-income renters, who, for these purposes, are residents earning 60% or less of the median income in the area – or $46,620 for a family of three. If builders agree to set aside a higher percentage of affordable housing, the income requirement is more lenient. The mayor also boosted funds for free legal services to protect tenants from evictions and illegal rent increases.

Yet, instead of praising de Blasio as their protector, most of the city’s 59 local community boards rejected his plan. In Brooklyn’s East New York, the board complained that the mayor’s definition of affordable would exclude more than half its residents. Several boards oppose new towers out of concern they would attract more people and better amenities, and improve neighborhoods so much that rents will soar.

For de Blasio, 54, who won control of City Hall thanks to his promise to favor the poor over the rich, the disenchantment carries high political stakes and has emboldened opponents as his term hits the half-way mark and he looks toward a 2017 re-election campaign. One such opponent is Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. This month, he led the Bronx’s 12 community boards in a unanimous vote against the proposals. While the panels’ role is only advisory, they influence the 51 council members who ultimately decide zoning issues.

“Achieving our city’s affordable housing goals cannot be accomplished in a vacuum,” Diaz told the city Planning Commission at a Dec. 16 hearing. “Will neighborhood residents even be able to get these new apartments?”

“Developers of new housing don’t want to build for the mere middle class,” said Sharon Zukin, a Brooklyn College sociology professor who has studied gentrification. “They want to build for the rich and the super-rich.”

The Planning Commission, an independent panel, is empowered to revise the de Blasio plan and will submit its changes within 60 days. The council will then consider the proposal no earlier than June.

“Market-rate units in higher-density buildings, even with a percentage reserved as affordable, will promote gentrification no matter how many subsidized units are included,” said Alicia Boyd, founder of the Movement to Protect the People, a group of self-described affordable-housing activists based in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn, a community near Prospect Park. “You’re actually incentivizing the development of luxury housing and the creation of unaffordable communities,” she added.

De Blasio says he is tuned in to the city’s current and future needs. Citing predictions that within 25 years, the city’s population will soar from its current 8.4 million to over 9 million, the mayor says that if his plan isn’t adopted, inexorable market forces will drive out everyone but the wealthy. “I don’t accept the notion of a neighborhood that is struggling or suffering and just let’s leave it that way,” he said during a Dec. 10 news briefing. “And I certainly don’t accept the notion that if we do nothing, everyone’s affordable housing will just stay the way it is. That defies everything we understand about market dynamics.”