Zoning Currents Move East:
Queens Goes Inclusionary

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With a unanimous vote, City Council last week passed a large Queens rezoning package that includes the first-ever inclusionary zoning (IZ) provision in the borough. The bill, sponsored by Queens Councilmember Eric Gioia, focuses on western areas along Queens Boulevard in Maspeth and Woodside, and utilizes the voluntary program to encourage development of affordable housing. The vote provides final approval to a City Planning Commission plan to rezone 130 blocks in the area.

“By creating more middle-class housing in Woodside, we can create a neighborhood where the middle class can not only survive, but thrive,” Gioia told the planning commission at a hearing in the spring. They “can put down roots and make this great city their home, just as my family did in Woodside … 100 years ago,” he said.

According to the Council, 20 percent of the 301 new units resulting from the zoning change will be dedicated to low- or middle-income households whose incomes are below 80 percent of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development-designated Area Median Income (AMI) of $70,900 for a family of four. Under the terms of the Queens plan, participating developers can build as much as five times the area of the lot — known as the floor-area-ratio or FAR — though there is now a 125-foot building height limit.

Inclusionary zoning programs allow developers to build larger buildings than would normally be allowed by also agreeing to rehabilitate or create affordable housing units. Those units can be on or off the main construction site, but must be located within a half-mile radius.

Inclusionary zoning is even a cornerstone of Mayor Bloomberg’s 10-year housing plan. Last year Bloomberg expanded the use of IZ, proposing it be used in all boroughs and in conjunction with other kinds of subsidies. Its original incarnation was restricted to dense areas in Manhattan.

A key player in the push for IZ has been the Pratt Center for Community Development in Brooklyn. Director Brad Lander thinks IZ will work in New York because of the “powerful incentives” developers can potentially receive. “The density bonus and other subsidies … [offer] incentives that are better than … the market alone” to create affordable units,” Lander said.

He also praised the fact that IZ’s affordability requirement “is perpetual; it’s tied to the subsidized financing,” as opposed to the majority of low- or middle-income housing programs whose price restrictions expire after a set time limit.

Additionally, the flexibility offered to developers through the off-site option is a bonus because it can preserve a building already in the community and dedicate it to being affordable. “It’s an accrual of benefits to the people of the neighborhood,” he said.

But Phil DePaolo, community liaison for the People’s Firehouse Inc., a community preservation and watchdog organization based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been on a mission to “go out and warn” other communities about the hidden dangers of IZ.

“IZ isn’t bringing money into the city coffers and it’s subsidizing millionaires on the backs of communities,” says DePaolo, who has lived in Williamsburg for almost three decades. In the scorching-hot real estate market, “we don’t need incentives to develop. It’s just a crutch for development,” he said.

DePaolo doesn’t like the processes by which the city applies the program, and faults the use of a citywide AMI because it is skewed by Manhattan’s higher income levels. “The mechanism fails miserably [because] it leads to a net loss of affordable housing, displacing long-term commercial and residential residents. Since the zoning change [in Williamsburg last year], it’s like gentrification on steroids,” DePaolo observed.

He also doesn’t believe it’s an accident that the city is targeting specific neighborhoods for IZ, “in areas like Central Harlem, the Lower East Side, and in the Bronx … areas that are diverse, low- and middle-income and low-scale…areas that aren’t yet as gentrified so that they can build much larger buildings, 80 percent of which are high income.”

And DePaolo voiced concern that with all of the city-spurred development and thus extra housing capacity, we “may just hit” a 5 percent vacancy rate. As currently written, rent regulations could be nullified if that five percent threshold were reached.

That’s a concern Lander dismissed. “If the [projected] immigration rates and the growth rates are close to true, the likelihood of meeting the vacancy rate…there’s fundamentally no chance.”

Furthermore, DePaolo expressed skepticism about the permanency of the affordable units and questioned who would be in charge of their oversight. Lander conceded enforcement is “notoriously difficult” and that it would be “incumbent on HPD and involved not-for-profits to maintain the affordability.”

Both men agree, however, that creating affordable units through inclusionary zoning is not enough to fulfill the need for cheaper housing. Said Lander, “We still need rent regulations, that’s fundamental.”

DePaolo insisted the city must adopt a “multilayered” approach that ensures the protection of Section 8 and Mitchell-Lama housing programs; fights for the repeal of the Urstadt Law that cramps the city’s ability to make its own rent regulations; and cracks down on warehousing of low- and middle-income units by landlords. “We need more reforms to be made before rezoning takes place to preserve existing affordable housing,” he said.

Queens native Paul Graziano says his borough does need tools to keep the working and middle classes housed there. “In principle, inclusionary zoning is a great thing,” said Graziano, an independent urban planning consultant who successfully designed many of the recent down-zoning plans in the borough, including in Whitestone, Bayside, and College Point.

“Queens is better off [economically] than some boroughs—it’s traditionally across the board solidly middle-income, with an 8 to 9 percent poverty rate. Even with its revival, Brooklyn has a 25 percent poverty rate…and [is increasingly about] the haves and the have-nots,” he noted.

Of inclusionary zoning, Graziano added, “Is it a first step? Yes. It’s about time the city acknowledged the problem. But is it a correct acknowledgment? The idea that the more you build, the more the market will balance is not correct and it’s never been proved. The off-site [component] is the biggest problem with IZ. Mixed income, economically stratified neighborhoods tend to be the most successful,” he said, and Queens historically has had those in abundance.

– Jillian Jonas