January 13, 2016

The Pitfalls in de Blasio's Affordable Housing Plan and How to Avoid Them 

By Ronald Shiffman


In creating affordable housing, New York City government is dependent on its own revenues, its ability to leverage private financial resources, and the limited powers that State government grants it. Zoning is one of those powers. That’s why the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio is pursuing a policy of “mandatory inclusionary zoning.” It requires that in particular areas developers set aside fixed percentages of proposed residential units for low- and moderate-income families. Rents of the remaining units would be increased to subsidize them; developers would also be allowed to build more units under “bonus” provisions. The City Planning Commission will vote on the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary zoning proposal, as well as a package of proposals rezoning areas of the city for greater housing density, next month. If they approve the plans, they’ll then go to the City Council for approval.

New York City, under de Blasio’s leadership, has one of the most progressive City administrations in decades. All of the City’s citywide elected representatives plus the most diverse and representative City Council in our history are collectively focused on and supportive of progressive and affordable housing efforts. Nevertheless, the City’s housing initiatives tend to rely primarily on the market, with all of the constraints of that approach. In particular, the unintended consequences of the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary housing proposals as they now stand will, I believe, lead to land speculation, harassment, accelerated displacement of manufacturing jobs, and the loss of low- and moderate-income housing unless they are aggressively refocused to meet the needs of the diverse neighborhoods of the city. This has to be done without compromising the mayor’s stated objective of expanding the supply of very low-, low-, and moderate-income housing, and with acceptance of the idea that “no action” is not an alternative.

The mayor’s plan results from a neo-liberal public-private partnership with the real estate establishment, and has some genuine benefits for lower-income families. But it also entails unintended consequences that are already playing out. It has triggered waves of speculation, harassment, displacement, and gentrification in anticipation of larger-scale development opportunities than presently allowed. And because the proposed zoning changes apply primarily in predominantly low- and moderate -income communities of color, it has accelerated the “sorting out” and segregation of communities based on class and race. 
When mandatory inclusionary housing becomes principally a tool to build market-rate housing in these areas, it leads to displacement of low- and moderate-income residents; after all, only 25-30% of units to be built will be economically accessible to existing residents. At present, the City also has not proposed mandatory inclusionary housing in predominantly white areas; that means that black and Latino areas will be integrated but segregated white communities will be left as they are. This is, in short, a prescription for displacement and economic apartheid, rather than being a tool for integration –a serious unintended consequence of a staunchly progressive mayor’s initiative.
Fear of displacement, of losing one’s home, is palpable in every community I work with and visit. The auto repair shop, the bodega, the small factory are all facing displacement to make way for the mall, corporate chains, and high-rise, predominantly market-rate housing. These issues are compounded by the fact that while housing and real estate costs have increased dramatically, wages and wealth creation for many New Yorkers have remained stagnant.
What is to be done? The mayor’s proposals for affordable housing have, in fact, opened the door for addressing these complex and critical issues. The administration correctly recognizes the fact that if the market is left to its own devices, widespread displacement will continue apace. And many progressive community-based development and environmental justice groups, community economic development advocates, and others are ready to partner with the mayor to address these complex issues.

The de Blasio administration needs to take a number of steps – some of which augment ideas it has already proposed – to bolster such a progressive partnership.  They include:

  • A comprehensive anti-displacement, anti-speculation initiative, including enhanced legal assistance, advocacy, and community organizing;
  • A commitment to community-based planning that precedes zoning and to making community groups partners in development as well as in planning. Permanent affordability and dedication to continual use in the public interest should be a prerequisite for receiving City-owned land and other resources; and
  • A combination of direct and deeper financing of low- and moderate-income housing with a citywide zoning text amendment for mandatory inclusionary housing, one not limited only to areas to be rezoned.

Low-income New Yorkers and their community-based organizations dared to develop and advocate for changes that reversed the decline New York City faced in the 70s. Now, in no small part because of their successes, they face the specter of displacement.
That’s why I believe the administration needs to spearhead development of a progressive coalition of frontline housing and community organizations. It should summon the courage and creativity to set aside today’s false partnerships and piecemeal interventions. It should address community-building and housing affordability challenges through approaches leading to “human-scale development” and the satisfaction of community needs. In the process, by recognizing each community’s assets, and respecting their identity and unique qualities, we can build a diverse, equitable, and exciting city.

Click here for the full version of Shiffman’s Community Building and Housing Affordability in a Diverse and Equitable City.

Ron Shiffman, the founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development at the Pratt Institute, served as a mayoral appointee to the New York City Planning Commission from 1990-1996.
In 1983, he and Paul Davidoff led a talented team of planners from Queens College and Pratt Institute that proposed development of a “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program and Housing Trust Fund” for New York City. Mayor Koch appointed a committee to review the proposals, which were subsequently rejected by the City. The team was comprised of Mary Brooks, Brian T. Sullivan, Phil Tegeler, Eva Hanhardt, and Frank DeGiovanni.