CityViews: Critics of Zoning Changes Ought to Give De Blasio More Credit

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Mayor Koch's Ten-Year Plan, Mayor Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace initiative and Mayor de Blasio's Housing New York blueprint are different in many ways but face similar criticism.

Pat Arnow, mayoral photography office

Mayor Koch's Ten-Year Plan, Mayor Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace initiative and Mayor de Blasio's Housing New York blueprint are different in many ways but face similar criticism.

Since Mayor Koch, New York City mayors bold enough to commit to a housing plan each have been subject to the criticism that their plan didn’t create or renovate enough housing, didn’t do it fast enough, didn’t reach the right populations (not enough for our poorest residents, not enough for the middle class), and that it negatively affected our existing neighborhoods with inappropriate scale, different building typologies, and unwelcome changes to the demographic makeup of the community.

We should not therefore be surprised that some of these same issues have predictably arisen in response to Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York plan. That is not to say that it is unfair to complain that 200,000 units of preserved and newly constructed housing over 10 years in a city of our size is perhaps not enough. This is New York City, after all, a place where nothing that government does is ever enough and our greatest by product is disagreement. It must be acknowledged however, even by his critics, how significant the mayor’s plan is and that it represents a massive commitment of city financial resources that must be welcomed.

And while it is always fair for advocates on behalf of particular segments of the housing market to ask for more, we should not lose sight of the fact that the housing shortage cuts across all incomes and household sizes and that the city must take everyone’s needs into account if it is to continue to grow, prosper and expand the supply of housing while protecting the housing stock that we have. And it is important to remember that while the households served in any individual project may vary , 78 percent of the housing the plan will provide will be set aside for households making 80 percent of median area income or less.

The mayor has also made a commitment to preserve our most scarce resource of public housing despite the ongoing withdrawal of federal resources. New resources have been added to provide direct legal representation to tenants threatened with eviction, a commitment that was a long time in coming. In addition he has recently announced 15,000 units of critically needed supportive housing – housing with a proven track record of success in ending homelessness amongst individuals and families with special needs.

And while these are all good reasons to support the plan, the land-use and zoning reforms now being undertaken by the administration may in fact—over time—prove to have a greater impact on our housing shortage than the commitment of 200,000 units.

Although the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) changes (and the companion zoning changes to create a mandatory inclusionary requirement in certain areas) are quite modest they have been controversial—but for all the wrong reasons. The changes in height and the bulk and shape of buildings under ZQA are in fact small despite the oversize reactions in some quarters. The benefits under ZQA of improved design and new opportunities to create housing that’s already permitted but constrained by existing restrictions on the building envelope are significant. Further, the ability to create affordable housing for seniors and more supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers should not be overlooked.

Finally, the elimination or reduction of parking requirements for affordable housing is a welcome relief for those in dire need of housing who enjoy access to mass transit and have little need for cars. Putting the parking of cars ahead putting a roof over peoples’ heads is simply a trade-off that makes little sense.

While the debates around these changes are still ongoing as this is written, perhaps some of the strongest reasons to pursue zoning and regulatory reform in housing are actually found in the recently released Economic Report of the President, presented to Congress in February. In it, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors strongly states that housing and land-use regulations are contributing to the rise in housing costs, decreasing housing affordability and exacerbating inequality. The report estimates that in high-cost areas like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, housing prices are 40 percent above the construction costs largely thanks to “constraints due to land-use regulations such as minimum lot size requirements, height restrictions, and ordinances prohibiting multifamily housing…”.

The mayor’s plan squarely tackles some of these intractable problems that are adding unnecessarily to the high cost of housing in the city. It may well be his most important contribution to improving access to affordable housing. It is all the more remarkable because unlike new construction starts or announcements of large-scale preservation deals, land-use and zoning reform are not nearly so sexy, don’t translate into great news stories (unless they create public conflict) or make for exciting photo ops (no giant scissors cutting ribbons across 400 pages of the Zoning Resolution text) and take a great deal of patience to even get through.

Zoning reform is, however, precisely the issue that is gaining much more traction around the country in expert-level housing debates and should be taken more seriously here in New York where the cost of housing is driving the increasing problem of affordability.

The arguments for more housing must include support for reforming zoning and land-use regulations. These changes are hard to capture in a sound bite and are easily overlooked in relation to the larger aspects of the mayor’s housing plan. But in the end his leadership on this issue will have real and lasting impact to help us reduce housing costs, increase access to affordable housing and make room for our growing population.

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Jerilyn Perine served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. She is currently the executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council.

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