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Can Adams’ citywide affordable housing plan finally tear down the NIMBY wall?

(CITY) TIM MURPHY, JUNE 27, 2022

When deeply affordable housing is proposed for neighborhoods other than the poorest, locals shout it down. Is the city ready to plow over the outrage?

On the very hot morning of June 14, New York City Mayor Eric Adams – at times wearing opaque John Lennon-style sunglasses – stood on the roof of a 29-story Jehovah’s Witness Hotel, which had recently been turned into an affordable supportive housing complex in Dumbo, proudly announcing his ambitious new housing plan for New York City. It was a blueprint with a wide swath of promises – from facilitating homeownership to getting homeless people into permanent housing to building more affordable units – even if many housing advocates complained that the plan was short on benchmarks, and that the roughly $2 billion the city had just apportioned annually for the hydra-headed campaign over the next decade was only half of what was needed.

During press questions, Adams was asked why he was dismantling homeless encampments before the city had proper apartments to offer those residents. He said he would not allow encampments under any circumstances, and then pushed back with his trademark pugilism: “Some of the loudest voices for putting people in housing (say), ‘You’re wrong – we protest you.’” To which the mayor hypothetically responded: “OK, I’m going to put (housing) on your block.” He continued his imaginary back-and-forth: “‘Oh, wait, we didn’t say that. We want housing, but don’t put it on my block.’ So I want you to go to all the advocates and say who’s going to raise their hands first to allow Eric to build the housing he wants on their block? Don’t talk the talk if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

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Adams was in fact articulating the everyman’s version of a point that’s made in his housing plan: Not in my backyard is on its way out. “Our administration will advance an inclusive, citywide approach to encouraging new housing supply,” reads the plan, “that holds every neighborhood accountable for meeting housing needs and increases equitable access to opportunity.” (Even prior to unveiling the housing plan, he had announced, in his new pro-development “City of Yes” plan, a zoning text amendmentthat would pack in more units per project.)

And the data backs up the view that an equitable citywide distribution of affordable housing is currently but a dream: A new report from the New York University Furman Center showed that among the 185,000 new housing units built in the city between 2010 and 2020, the roughly 30% of them meant for low-income renters were built in low-income and heavily Black and Hispanic parts of the Bronx, Central Brooklyn, East New York and western Queens. The fewest low-income units, often below 100, were built in the relatively white, middle class and wholly or quasi-suburban parts of Staten Island, southern Brooklyn, northern Queens and the northeastern Bronx, with large swaths of posh riverside Manhattan not contributing much either.

Clearly, some neighborhoods more than others are supplying the hundreds of thousands of new affordable units needed to pull the city out of a profound affordable housing crisis. To some extent, the disproportionality is understandable: Land is simply cheaper in poorer neighborhoods, and they are often already zoned to accommodate big, blocky new affordable towers. Just walk around intensely urban East New York or the South Bronx, then stroll Queens’ picket-fence-y Middle Village or the Bronx’s Throggs Neck to understand that the first two neighborhoods are more amenable to colossal upzoning than the latter.

Who’s going to raise their hands first to allow Eric to build the housing he wants on their block? Don’t talk the talk if you’re not going to walk the walk.

NEW YORK CITY MAYOR ERIC ADAMS

But even in relatively sleepy neighborhoods, there are ample chunks of land that could accommodate affordable housing. Take, for example, 50 new units of deeply affordable housing that will be built over a new library in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park – a project touted in the mayor’s plan as a perfect example of tucking in affordable units wherever one can throughout the city.

But the reason why there are so few modest new projects dispersed throughout the city is not necessarily land cost. And in many ways zoning, which is often waivable, is merely a regulatory symbol for the root reason: Usually, most existing residents in such neighborhoods adamantly – even furiously – do not want new affordable housing. Following suit, their district council member may then oppose a project before the City Council, which traditionally defers to the council member and does not even bring the project to a vote. The project dies and 50 or 100 or 200 new units of affordable housing do not get built. Just one example occurred in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, in 2016, when developers finally pulled an application for a 10-story, 209-unit affordable housing complex in the face of years of community opposition.

Source: City State New York