In The Zone

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A citywide effort to require affordable housing in new, market-rate developments came one step closer to fruition in November, with the introduction of a key zoning amendment. Filed by Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky and Community Board 1, which encompasses several North Brooklyn neighborhoods facing redevelopment, the amendment would enable the creation of “Affordable Housing Zoning Districts” throughout New York City.

The new designation would apply to any housing development of 10 units or more on land being converted from manufacturing to residential use or upzoned for higher densities. The percentage of units required would depend on their level of affordability, which could be anywhere from 50 to 120 percent of the area's median income. Unlike existing incentive plans, providing below-market units within an AHZD would be mandatory.

This “inclusionary zoning” approach, already in use in cities such as Boston and Sacramento and in voluntary programs in parts of New York, would help ensure that neighborhoods in transition maintain some affordable housing.

That's a major concern for residents of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which have industrial waterfront areas the Bloomberg administration plans to rezone [see “The Growth Dividend” September/October 2003]. The city's proposal opens the door to high-rise residential development that the city contends will include housing for all income levels, but activists say it does not do enough to protect those at the low end of the spectrum. “It's been a mixed-use community, but what attracts people is the diversity of ethnicity and class, and that will disappear,” says Neil Sheehan, a longtime Greenpoint resident who serves on a CB1 task force responding to the city's redevelopment plan.

Their core complaint is that the city's plan relies on goals rather than guarantees, employing a raft of incentives announced by the mayor last year to encourage affordable housing. While the mayor's goal is laudable, Yassky says, developers are unlikely to cooperate if they don't have to. “In this hot housing market, the city cannot assume that developers will use government subsidy for affordable units, when landowners can make so much more by building market-rate housing,” he says. “It's a risk Greenpoint-Williamsburg residents can't afford to take.”

It's unclear how the Department of City Planning will handle the AHZD proposal. When Yassky pushed for inclusionary zoning in Park Slope last spring, the city balked. Department press secretary Rachaele Raynoff would not comment on the AHZD specifically, but voices skepticism that inclusionary zoning is fiscally viable. “There has to be a sustainable value that you can charge to offset subsidies for affordable units,” she says. She stresses that affordable housing is an “absolute priority” for her agency, but that the city already has “existing tools that we believe will generate affordable housing”–namely, the mayor's incentives.

But without guarantees, potentially lucrative development on the waterfront may price out working class and poor residents, says Sheehan, who also coordinates the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Clergy Cluster, an advocacy network of 11 Roman Catholic parishes that is backing adoption of an AHZD.

“Without it, we become what? Soho or some urban gentry community,” Sheehan says. “Hispanic and Polish Greenpoint is gone, Hispanic Williamsburg is gone.”

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