Wednesday, March 18, 2015

City planning chief: only solution for affordable housing is region (duh); eminent domain off the table (interesting)

Carl Weisbrod, Chairman of the City Planning Commission, made some news yesterday talking about affordable housing.

As reported by Capital New York, To top city official, housing crisis is a regional problem, Weisbrod conceded--as critics have long pointed out--that the de Blasio administration's plan to build 80,000 new units of affordable housing and preserve 120,000 more in ten years won't help all that much:
“For all our efforts, even as we hit—even if we hit all our targets—we won’t fully solve the housing crisis in the next decade unless there is a radical change in federal housing policy—sadly, an unlikely occurrence,” Weisbrod said during a forum hosted by Crain’s New York Business. “So what else can we be doing? For one thing, we should be looking more broadly at the at the metro region.”
His statements are an acknowledgement of an idea being pushed by several housing experts: That by looking just at the five boroughs and not considering the regional nature of housing and jobs, the city is viewing the problem within a vacuum. 
If, for example, the New York City subway system were more like the Metro in and around Washington, DC, it would connect the city to suburbs and towns in other states. (Think what would happen if the PATH trains were integrated into the system, thus connecting Newark.)

Spinola says no?

Seth Pinsky, former president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation said that, beyond adding density, we must think beyond the boroughs. But Steven Spinola, president of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, scoffed at the likelihood of suburban towns signing on.

See this response from Stephen Smith of YIMBY:
Residents of Garden City, where Spinola lives, have access to two Long Island Rail Road lines, and within a few years will be able to ride the commuter railroad into Grand Central Terminal, thanks to the $10 billion-plus East Side Access project. (This isn’t to excuse the LIRR’s terrible off-peak service and high fares, which make it a pale imitation of full subway service. But these are issues that can and should be corrected, not used excuses for walling off Long Island to newcomers who can’t drop $1 million on a new house.)
Growth in leafy Long Island and Westchester suburbs also has the benefit of avoiding the gentrification issue entirely. The existing housing stock is almost entirely single-family detached, owner-occupied homes...But despite the transit access, infrastructure upgrades, and social benefits of encouraging more diverse housing options, Garden City has almost completely shirked its responsibility to build housing.
No eminent domain?

The AP article on Weisbrod's remarks noted:
“I don’t see us using eminent domain in a broad way,” Weisbrod told a real estate conference hosted by Crain’s New York Business. “I don’t believe that it’s going to be in our toolbox.”
Developer Forest City Ratner’s use of eminent domain to build Barclays Center and the development now known as Pacific Park stirred wide opposition in Brooklyn.
To be precise, in the case of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, New York State used eminent domain on behalf of the developer; private entities cannot take private property for (purportedly) public use, though they can benefit from it. New York City, while not the prime mover on eminent domain, certainly supported it.

What's interesting is that eminent domain is such a third rail. It is often clearly justified for truly public purposes (publicly-owned schools, roads, etc.). The challenge comes when it's used for a public-private partnership wherein the private partner seems to be driving the process.

In other words, if New York City plans any major affordable housing projects that are truly public--rather than the trickle-down example of many large projects, benefiting from rezoning or other density bonuses in exchange for some subsidized housing--it should keep eminent domain in its toolbox.

Workforce housing in gentrified neighborhoods?

At a different panel, as reported by Crain's, experts discussed the tension between providing subsidized housing in expensive neighborhoods--which mixes incomes in neighborhoods and benefits a lucky few--and using the money to produce more housing elsewhere:
But Josh Barro, a correspondent at The New York Times, who also spoke on the panel, questioned whether lawmakers and housing advocates are thinking about the actual cost of subsidizing rents in pricey neighborhoods, and whether it is worth that goal of income diversity.

As an example, there are several buildings in Chelsea with affordable units that have received 421a benefits. On an annual basis, those affordable apartments may rent for $75,000 less than what a market-rate unit would ask for.
"[That amount] could buy a lot of housing affordability for a number of families, rather than just buying it for just one," he said, noting that if you gave the family $75,000 in cash instead, they would likely use it for something other than paying high rent in Chelsea. "That's a trade-off that is often not fully considered."
That, of course, is part of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park equation.

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