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As a knot of outdated development rules in SoHo undergoes a public rethink, affordable housing advocates see an opening to make the richest district in the city more affordable for low-income New Yorkers.
The pro-development group Open New York, a local outpost of the national “Yes In My Backyard” movement, first suggested that exclusive SoHo could be ripe for new affordable housing.
Now it has an unlikely ally: Housing Rights Initiative, a pro-tenant watchdog that has opposed previous efforts to rezone neighborhoods — including in East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, East New York in Brooklyn, and around Jerome Avenue in The Bronx.
But HRI is making an exception for SoHo, said its founder, Aaron Carr. That’s because the area is ideal for spurring the creation of affordable housing, he noted — with sky-high property values to attract developers, as well as good public transit options and strong schools that could be transformative for low-income families.
“We think it’s important to create affordable housing in high-opportunity communities,” he said. “SoHo is, according to Property Shark, the fourth richest area in the entire country. If we’re not going to do it in SoHo, then where are we going to do it?”
Throwing the spotlight on SoHo are the Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and downtown City Councilmember Margaret Chin (D-Manhattan), who are leading a study that could lay a foundation for later zoning changes.
Affordable housing will have to compete for attention with the concerns of wealthy property owners. Some want to make it easier to bring retail to the area restricted by a 1970s-era manufacturing zone. Others look to update an onerous system that dictates only certified artists may live in the lofts for which SoHo is famous.
Meanwhile, many of those artists — legally certified and otherwise — fear new changes may push them out of the area.
In the months of meetings held earlier this year about a possible SoHo rezoning, affordable housing has been barely mentioned — and was met with skepticism when it was.
At a June presentation of recommendations, the possibility of affordable housing in SoHo was cited only in passing, with a focus on live-work space for local artists.
In a room filled with many longtime residents and artists, Pratt Institute professor and urban planning consultant Jonathan Martin addressed repeated fears about drastic changes to the historic neighborhood, much of which was incorporated into landmark districts in 1973 and 2010.
From the feedback his team collected, the recommendations focused on bolstering arts, culture and the “creator economy,” Martin said.
“If that disappears, then SoHo and NoHo become like any other place,” he said. “And nobody wants that.”
After Martin’s presentation, a member of Open New York asked for the city to consider allowing more development of affordable housing in SoHo. The crowd turned incredulous.
“Where are you going to do that?” one man shouted. “How?” a woman called out.
If Not SoHo, Where?
To Carr, the idea should be an easy sell for the de Blasio administration. Not a single unit of affordable housing has been built in SoHo since Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his effort in 2014 to build or preserve 200,000 such units. That goal was later upped to 300,000.
Still, options for development in SoHo are limited, no matter what the zoning. That’s because much of the area under review overlaps with SoHo’s historic district, where development restrictions work against large-scale new construction.
Open New York’s concept focuses mostly on un-landmarked blocks at the corners and edges of the neighborhood — in particular, the area northeast of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. Open New York’s analysis found space for 1,500 apartments — including 300 affordable units — outside of SoHo’s historic district.
But the group didn’t stop there: It also wants land use rules changed to allow nearly 2,000 units inside the historic district, paving the way for the development of new buildings that match the density of the tallest existing building on each block.
All told, the plan would allow for 3,484 new apartments in the area. Of those, 697 would be affordable units built through de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing zones, which apply to new buildings with more than 10 apartments.
Bracing for Controversy
Will Thomas, an Open New York board member, knows it’s a controversial proposal. At a meeting in April, he was “booed and cursed at,” he said, for suggesting Community Board 2 include support for affordable housing in a written resolution on the potential rezoning.
But he believes it’s important for the city to consider voices beyond residents of a neighborhood where land use changes may take place.
“The same kind of people show up to protect the character of the neighborhood, with very little consideration of how it impacts everyone else in the city,” he said.
Chin said in a statement she supports “any effort to create more affordable housing,” and was looking forward to reviewing the group’s plan.
A Department of City Planning spokesperson stressed it’s too early to weigh in on any one idea for the neighborhood.
“Housing and affordable housing are among several important priorities identified through the community engagement process for SoHo/Noho and we welcome the input of Open New York, as we do with any civic groups, members of the public or elected officials,” said the spokesperson, Rachaele Raynoff.
The department has not yet confirmed it will move forward with the reshaping of SoHo’s zoning rules. First, Martin will compile a final report on community input, due for release by the end of the month.
Carr of HRI thinks there is a “high likelihood” the neighborhood will be rezoned. If the city moves forward, he said, it should “use this as an opportunity to ensure upward mobility for the lowest income tenants in New York City.”
“We’re in an affordable housing crisis,” Carr said. “It’s time for our highest-income communities to open their doors.”
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