Borough Presidents Tear Into de Blasio Housing Plan

Zoning changes for Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing plan are meeting resistance. (Photo: John Moore for Getty Images).

Zoning changes for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan are meeting resistance. (Photo: John Moore for Getty Images).

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz called on the City Planning Commission to utterly reject Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing proposals—while Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer criticized much of the plan even as she supported some parts of it.

Appearing before the CPC at the Museum of the American Indian auditorium in lower Manhattan, Mr. Diaz and Ms. Katz attacked what they perceived as the mayor’s boilerplate plan to rezone the entire city, and favored instead what they both called a “neighborhood by neighborhood” approach, even though they expressed sympathy with the mayor’s aim of building and maintaining 200,000 affordable apartments.  Mr. Diaz accused the administration of attempting to rush its plan through the community boards and borough boards that make up the first steps of the city’s rezoning process, arguing that the administration had given them just two months to digest the 500 page proposals.

“Our goal as a city should not be just to achieve a goal of 200,000 units, but to meet the individual needs of each and every community in this city,” he said. “Allowing just 60 days for our community boards to weigh in on these proposals is disrespectful to the boards, their members and the neighborhoods they serve, and goes against the spirit of progressive, inclusionary and transparent government.”

The de Blasio proposal consists of two parts: mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require all new construction to set aside a quarter to a third of its new units for below-market tenants, and “Zoning for Quality and Affordability,” which would spur senior housing construction, eliminate some local size and shape restrictions and waive the parking space requirements at such developments to maximize residential construction. Mr. Diaz argued that much the city’s infrastructure, from schools to sewers to parks, was unprepared to absorb an influx of new residents.

He also pointed to the 14 rezonings that have taken place in different parts of the Bronx during his six year tenure, which he argued had allowed for the construction of new affordable housing for people making both less and more than the range of incomes prescribed in the mayor’s plan. The pol worried that the de Blasio plan could wipe out those successes and damage the character and texture of unique neighborhoods.

“One size does not fit all. Local planning efforts reinforce the principles of inclusion and transparency, and can also mitigate displacement and preserve neighborhoods,” he said.

Mr. Diaz is a longtime rival and critic of Mr. de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, and a close ally of the mayor’s nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Ms. Katz largely echoed her Bronx counterpart, arguing that much of her borough had been rezoned over the years on an almost “block-by-block” basis in order to accommodate the desires of residents. The mayor’s proposal, with its emphasis and imperative on new construction, would erase those efforts.

“We have invested decades in time and effort to protect our communities. Literally decades,” said Ms. Katz, who formerly served as the chairwoman of the Land Use Committee in the Council, which oversees rezonings. “Allowing taller, bulkier buildings in our low density neighborhoods would negatively impact those areas.”

The borough president also pointed out that only a third of Queens has subway service, meaning many residents rely on cars—and parking. She also her echoed calls from organized labor for the city to include requirements for developers to use union labor in the plan, a proposal the administration has fiercely resisted.

“As we create these hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units, we also make sure they are done by qualified, professional programs and builders and workers,” she said, insisting that union construction is safer and of superior quality. “We want to make sure as all of these houses are being built, and however we end up at the end of the process, that those buildings are professional and well done.”

Ms. Brewer, normally a de Blasio ally, embraced the mandatory inclusionary zoning plan with major caveats: namely, requirements that would limit the tallest buildings to the widest streets, steps to preserve rowhouse blocks, a ban on any kind of segregation by income in the new buildings and expanding the program to encompass both more low and more middle-income earners. But she completely rejected the ZQA proposals, and suggested the commission only pass the mandatory inclusionary zoning proposal.

“It may be time to untangle and unburden MIH from ZQA,” she suggested.

The administration has insisted that the mandatory inclusionary zoning would grant considerable flexibility, allowing the local council member to decide whether to reserve either 25 percent of a given project’s housing for residents making an average of $36,000-$46,000 annually or 30 percent to those making an average of $48,000-$62,000. The mayor has labeled opponents of the plan “doubting Thomases.”

Each of the five borough presidents appoints a commissioner to the 13 member panel, but the mayor appoints the other six plus the chair, leaving it effectively in his hands. By contrast, the community boards across Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn which have large rejected the de Blasio plan are entirely appointed by the borough president.

The Council will make the final vote on the plan.