De Blasio’s Housing Agenda Clears Council Hurdles

Mayor Bill de Blasio rallies for his affordable housing plan.

Mayor Bill de Blasio rallies for his affordable housing plan. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to rewrite the city’s zoning laws to maximize affordable housing construction sailed through another round of approvals—all but ensuring that developers will have to set aside a sizable percentage of new apartments for below-market rate tenants.

The twin proposals, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, sailed through the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and Committee on Land Use today, with little of the outrage and outcry that that characterized the early debate over the sweeping changes. Earlier this week, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her colleagues released a series of alterations to both programs they had negotiated with the administration.

“This mandatory inclusionary housing policy is the most aggressive, most ambitious in the country,” said Queens Councilman Donovan Richards, chairman of the zoning subcommittee. “I can assure you that other cities are going to look at this now and go back to the drawing board again, and say ‘we should be moving in this direction.'”

Under the original de Blasio proposal, MIH would have changed zoning laws citywide to obligate developers to price apartments for middle and lower-middle class tenants in new buildings. When reviewing a new project, the Council would choose what amount and level of affordability to mandate from a menu of options. The first option would require the builder to allocate a quarter of their new units to people making 60 percent of the federally-set area median income—meaning the apartments would be priced for a family of three making $47,000 annually.

The second would require the developer to set aside 30 percent of their new building for people making 80 percent of the area median income, or $62,000 for a family of three. The third—which troubled several council members—would allocate 30 percent of the apartments in a project to people making 120 percent of the AMI, or $93,000 for a family of three.

Community groups, community boards and borough presidents had protested before that these pay ranges excluded the poorest New Yorker. In response, the Council-negotiated plan creates a new menu option that would require the builder to set aside 20 percent of the new units for tenants making an average of 40 percent of the AMI, or $31,000 for a family of three. In addition, the deal would tinker with the third option, reducing the income bracket to an average of 115 percent of the AMI, and requiring that the developer price one-sixth of the affordable units for families making 70 percent of the AMI, and another six for families making 90 percent.

The remaining balance of affordable apartments under the third option would be more expensive as a result, in order to average 115 percent AMI.

One of the few dissenting voices today, Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, lamented that the plan still allows council members to effectively block lowest-income tenants from moving into their districts. The Council typically defers to the local representative when making zoning decisions on any project, and a councilman or councilwoman from a middle-class or wealthy neighborhood might refuse to consider the new option.

“We should not pass a plan which allows communities to avoid including any low-income options, further segregating this city,” Mr. Williams said. “It ignores a fundamental issue about mandating affordability in neighborhoods that have historically resisted economic integration and are unlikely to choose deep affordability.”

The mayor’s original ZQA plan would have relieved existing subsidized senior housing units of their burden to maintain parking lots, and encouraged them to build new buildings on the space, yielding as many as 2,000 new assisted living units.

Mr. de Blasio’s proposal would also have eliminated the requirement that new senior buildings create new parking, or slash the car accommodation obligation by 90 percent, depending on whether the facility is in a “transit zone”—that is, an area where relatively few seniors drive. To increase the stock of subsidized elderly housing, the mayor’s iteration of ZQA would also have loosened height restrictions to allow for an additional one or two floors of low-income senior housing in higher-density areas of the city.

The new plan eliminates or reduces the height increases in several of the zoning districts across the city, and forbids developers to build any market-rate units on the former parking spaces.

Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, chairman of the land use committee, called today’s votes “truly historic.”

“This program represents a huge step forward,” Mr. Greenfield said. “This is literally the best affordable housing plan of any city in the United States of America.”

The mayor’s plan will now proceed to a full Council vote, virtually assured of passage.

De Blasio’s Housing Agenda Clears Council Hurdles