Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Unfortunately, New York has become accustomed to the ongoing housing crisis that is causing so many other community problems, including poverty, evictions, homelessness and racial segregation. Even with tens of thousands of people living in shelters, our city continues to waste time, money, and energy making even small efforts to increase the stock of affordable housing.
Last week, City Council members spent six soul-wrenching hours over the effort to build some 350 much-needed, affordable homes on the corner of Bruckner Boulevard and Crosby Avenue in Throggs Neck. On the same day, Mayor Eric Adams attended a rally on the steps of City Hall with members of the building and building services unions to push for the needed rezoning.
“The rent is damn high. We need to find places where the rent is affordable,” Adams said.
The Bronx project would include 168 lower-cost homes, 99 of which would be reserved for seniors and 22 for veterans, as well as a convenience store and recreation room for local children. The City Planning Commission has unanimously approved a zoning move that would move the business forward, with final approval (or disapproval) resting with the City Council.
A sticking point for opponents is that the proposed buildings would be 8 stories high in a neighborhood where most houses are half that height. “We have a beautiful community. We just want to leave it as it is,” said John Cerini, president of the Bronx Coalition Against Upzoning, which opposes the project.
The fight has gotten so heated that Marjorie Velasquez, the ward council member (who opposes the project), skipped a ward council meeting about the rezoning, citing “a series of threats against me on several community forums.”
Rallies, debates and public hearings are the beating heart of democracy and I am for them. But the scale and scope of the New York housing crisis requires a a lot of faster pace of development that doesn’t get bogged down in a political firefight over every little new project. Because while we argue and negotiate, the laws of supply and demand wear families down.
The average asking rent in Manhattan is now over $5,000 a month, followed by Brooklyn at $3,800 and Northwest Queens at $3,300. These are the highest prices in history. We see more available AirBnB units than vacant apartments in our city.
One reason for the price spikes is the time-consuming hassle of securing the zoning changes required to construct or expand residential buildings in New York. A recent Citizens Budget Commission report found that in the four years between 2014 and 2017, a paltry 107 applications for zoning changes were made to the Department of Urban Planning, and 40 percent of them were not approved. The plans, which went ahead, took an average of two and a half years to be approved — delays that add an estimated 11 to 16 percent to construction costs.
We will never solve the housing shortage at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, large swathes of the city have mastered the art of stymieing all forms of development and presenting a hostile united front to both for-profit and not-for-profit builders. The New York Housing Conference, a leading coalition campaigning for affordable housing, has created an online tracker that identifies specific communities where affordable housing is simply not being built. It includes neighborhoods such as Throggs Neck, Bergen Beach, Middle Village and the South Shore of Staten Island.
“The New York metro area lacks 772,000 housing affordable for very low-income households ($28,020 to $60,050 for a family of three). There are currently only 47 homes available for every 100 very low-income households,” read a recent conference report, which concluded that “political obstacles and policy choices blocking and thwarting new opportunities for affordable projects are significant have an impact. Opposition to new housing projects and zoning changes have constrained the development of affordable and marketable housing across the city.”
The conference calls on Adams, the city council and the five county presidents to create a broad, citywide zoning that would override neighborhood-level efforts to oppose affordable housing construction. The Citizens Budget Commission is calling for an overhaul of the land use assessment process to make new homes less expensive and time consuming to build. Both ideas are reasonable and worth considering.
But the key missing ingredient is political will. There is no shortage of well-paid leaders in New York who should be able to find ways to break us out of the current impasse – a recurring problem of democracy – between the economic needs of the many and the political preferences (and local veto power) of one party, but little .
But far too many politicians and community advocates confuse simplistic slogans with actual solutions. Housing is a human right, they say solemnly – and reject any reasonable suggestion to actually build anything. This is no way to end a housing shortage that is getting worse by the day.
Adams and the council, along with the state Legislature when it meets in January, must treat the housing crisis like the emergency it is. And that starts with creating as many affordable units as possible. Not here and there after endless bickering. now.