tale of two cities

Mayor’s Affordable Housing Program Struggles to Integrate New Yorkers by Income

The new Tres Puentes development for seniors in Mott Haven, The Bronx — part of the city's largest concentration of apartments for the city's poorest.
The new Tres Puentes development for seniors in Mott Haven, The Bronx — part of the city’s largest concentration of apartments for the city’s poorest. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

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A new City Hall push to break down barriers preventing low-income New Yorkers from living in neighborhoods throughout the city highlights an “obligation to remedy the scars of discrimination, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”

A top goal of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Where We Live” plan: “The City of New York must ensure that its residents have realistic options to live in quality, affordable housing in a variety of thriving neighborhoods.”

But when it comes to its own Housing New York development programs to build 120,000 new affordable apartments, the administration has so far spurred new affordable housing in patterns that reinforce existing divides — most often steering the poorest tenants to the poorest parts of the city, an analysis by THE CITY finds.

Neighborhoods with high poverty and high unemployment rates within The Bronx have the biggest share of units available to the lowest income group, currently defined as less than $28,830 annual income or less for a household of three.

One in five of the lowest-income units built since 2014 are concentrated in a cluster of The Bronx — stretches of East Tremont, West Farms, Mott Haven and nearby neighborhoods. In those areas, 30% of residents live below the city government poverty line, versus 20% citywide.

High-poverty East New York, Brooklyn, has gained more Housing New York program apartments than any other part of the city, with 3,595 new units.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the city’s affordable housing set aside for middle-income households, earning between $115,321 and $158,565, is in increasingly desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, data from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development show.

The upscale or gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Park Slope and Prospect Heights — where 14% of residents live below the poverty line — are home to one in five of the apartments set aside for middle-income tenants, earning as much as $158,565 for a household of three.

And big swaths of the city have seen little new affordable housing: One-fourth of community districts have gained 96 affordable units or less.

“It furthers the tale of two cities,” said Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst at Community Service Society, a non-profit advocacy group for low income New Yorkers.

Waters said the city’s affordable housing plan reflects preferences of developers, who tend to rely on subsidies to build affordable units in less affluent neighborhoods.

“Poor people should have more choices on where to live,” Waters said.

Living in a high-poverty neighborhood comes at a high price, said Emily Goldstein, director for organizing and advocacy for Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, a consortium of nonprofit development groups.

“These neighborhoods have suffered from decades of disinvestment, and people in those neighborhoods don’t have fair share of parks, schools, infrastructure investment,” she said.

“Even with new housing, people in the neighborhoods still don’t have access.”

The argument over who gets to live where in New York City is building to a fever pitch in SoHo and NoHo, exclusive Manhattan neighborhoods going through a city-led rethink of complex rules that limit who can live there and what can be built.

There, many residents are resisting calls to allow any new development, including affordable housing.

‘Harness the Private Market’

Eric Kober, who retired as a Department of City Planning official in 2017 after four decades with the agency, also found affordable housing largely confined to poorer areas when he zeroed in on an element of de Blasio’s Housing New York plan.

“Mandatory inclusionary housing” requires new buildings to offer affordable apartments when their owners benefit from expanded development rights. City consultants projected the model would best thrive in high-end neighborhoods, where rent from luxury units could pay for a required 25% or 30% set-aside of affordable apartments.

“The goal is to harness the private market,” Vicki Been, then HPD commissioner and now deputy mayor in charge of the affordable housing effort, said in presenting the concept to the City Council in early 2016.

In a report released last week by the Manhattan Institute think tank, Kober found that the bulk of de Blasio’s inclusionary apartments have been built in lower-income areas, particularly in The Bronx and eastern Brooklyn, with the help of government subsidies.

“As a member of the administration, I didn’t go around yelling in public, but it was certainly obvious that the flaws were built into the program,” Kober told THE CITY.

Housing Commissioner Louise Carroll.
Housing Commissioner Louise Carroll. Photo: Department of Housing Preservation and Development

HPD Commissioner Louise Carroll strongly objected to the report, calling it “disingenuous” given that mandatory inclusionary housing is still a new effort. As for the use of public dollars, she added: “We never, ever promised that units would be produced without subsidy.”

Carroll said that 7,000 applications are pending from developers to build mandatory inclusionary housing. HPD has not responded to a request for the locations of those applications.

Asked about Kober’s findings Thursday, de Blasio dismissed the report as “ideologically driven” and said: “I’m not going to accept that the numbers are accurate.”

SoHo Battleground

De Blasio’s Department of City Planning, along with Councilmember Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, this month unveiled recommendations for the future of SoHo and NoHo — where the median household income is about $145,000 a year, according to their consultants’ analysis.

A Jan. 8 hearing on the proposal got heated, fueled in part by a debate on whether rich neighborhoods would shoulder their share of low-income tenants.

Activists from the pro-development civic group Open New York implored locals to embrace expanded development and the affordable housing that would bring.

“You need to build affordable housing at densities sufficient to support it, and you need to get rid of outdated regulations from the 60s and 70s that make that impossible,” said Ben Wetzler, a Manhattan district leader and member of Open New York. “If we want to support affordable housing and if we want to be the progressive city that New York City is, we have to do that.”

Someone from the tense crowd piped up: “No we don’t.”

Open New York has put forward a proposal that would allow for the construction of at least 700 affordable apartments in the area, along with thousands more at market rates.

It’s a drop in the bucket in a city of 8.6 million, but Kober said the move would represent something “extremely important.”

“A commitment by the city to build housing not only in poor neighborhoods, for which they’ve been criticized, but also in wealthy neighborhoods,” he said.

“Where We Live” acknowledges that neighborhood opposition has stifled income integration in upscale neighborhoods.

The draft plan recommends: “Explore opportunities to accelerate land use review and remove obstacles to the approval of affordable housing development, particularly in amenity-rich areas with limited affordable housing options.”

In response to tweets about the SoHo/NoHo meeting, Been appeared to cheer on the pro-development crowd: “Affordable housing advocates connecting the dots between resistance to change and the lack of affordable housing.”

Stifled Development

Been last week told Crain’s New York Business it’s unlikely the de Blasio administration would reach its goal, first set in 2014, to rezone 15 neighborhoods to spur affordable housing.

A judge last month blocked Inwood’s rezoning after local residents sued, citing concerns over  potential tenant displacement, while Bushwick, Brooklyn, leaders rejected City Planning efforts to increase development.

Among neighborhoods where affordable housing requirements never got off the ground is Long Island City, which has seen the arrival of thousands of luxury apartments.

Kober called for the mayor to step up to make sure SoHo, Long Island City and other former manufacturing areas open up to new affordable housing.

“Creating affordable housing in high-income communities is more than just a moral obligation, it’s an economic one,” said Aaron Carr of the Housing Rights Initiative, who has endorsed the Open New York plan for SoHo.

He notes a national study of poor children whose families used housing vouchers to move to wealthier neighborhoods, which found that as grownups they earned 31% more than the peers they left behind.

“Think about all the lives Mayor de Blasio would change if he mustered the courage to create deeply affordable housing in the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York City,” said Carr. “It would be transformational.”

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