David Yassky, a second-term council member known for his unswerving commitment to affordable housing, may be losing his status as the “golden boy” of District 33.
At a May 17 community board meeting, many of his supporters said they were shocked and angered to hear Yassky defend developer Louis Kestenbaum's plans to build a large luxury apartment building at 184 Kent Avenue along the Williamsburg waterfront, a project with no affordable apartments. Ketsenbaum is seeking a zoning variance for the project, which is on a formerly industrial site.
“I was very disappointed that our young, smart legislator, who has identified his support for affordable housing, would cast his political vote with selfish people just looking to make huge profit on projects that do harm to this neighborhood,” said Felice Kirby, a local business owner.
Yassky, a Princeton and Yale-trained lawyer, has won the trust of his working-class constituents by fighting hard to keep rezoned Williamsburg affordable to the families who live there now. And, Yassky argues, sometimes compromises are necessary to achieve the goal.
In exchange for writing a letter to the city's zoning review board in support of a variance request for 184 Kent, he got the developer to agree to contribute $355,000 into a fund managed by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development that supports affordable construction in Williamsburg.
“Variances go through all the time and the community gets nothing,” explained Yassky's press secretary Evan Thies. “David knew he wasn't going to stop it from going through, so this is a creative new way of using existing government programs to try to get something for the community.”
The pragmatism defense carries little weight with his constituents. Deborah Masters, a member of the community board, argued that this is a moment for bold action, not piecemeal agreements with individual developers. “He's put himself forward as a leader on the housing issue, and now he's undermined his own efforts by making that deal,” said Masters. “How does it look for him to approve a project that has not one unit of affordable housing?”
Others board members questioned the $355,000 payment. “It doesn't sound like a lot of money to me,” said Teresa Toro. “You can't build anything for a few hundred thousand dollars.” Besides, she pointed out, the 19-year-old affordable housing fund Kestenbaum would pay into already has $2.6 million sitting unused because nonprofit developers have had trouble finding affordable land.
A number of other elected officials weighed in at the hearing as well. Assemblymember Vito Lopez and Councilmember Diana Reyna both opposed the variance on the grounds that this application does not meet the criteria for getting a variance and, moreover, that this is an important moment for affordable housing advocates to take a symbolic stand against pure market-rate developments.
“I came from Albany to be at the meeting because I wanted to send a strong message about affordable housing,” said Lopez. “You can't come in project by project and give a little carrot like $350,000-it's a sham.”
The community board itself recommended against the variance request by a vote of 24 to 13, but it now goes to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which makes the final decision. In the meantime, Yassky may need to do some fence-mending. “Had has so much to prove now to the community,” said Masters. “I don't know why he went down that road.”