As Housing New York continues to roll out, the city is poised to give precious public land to a developer for the construction of housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant that most residents of the neighborhood will not be able to afford, without meaningful public review.
According to an announcement published in the City Record, seven lots in Bedford-Stuyvesant will be sold for $1 each for construction of two-family houses to be owned by people who earn 60 to 120 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI)(“workforce” earners). Owners of each two-unit building will be allowed to rent out one of the units as long as they live in the other; the renters can make up to 165 percent of AMI. Specific details how the homes will be marketed are not available.
The city’s plan came to my attention through residents who have been advocating for the transfer of two of these lots from Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to NYC Parks for the creation of a community garden for the last several years. The hopeful gardeners, by making presentations to Community Board 3, gathering signatures from neighbors and local block associations and advocating for their vision with NYC Parks, have been subject to extensive public review.
But the plan to give the land to a developer to build on the site has not been presented to the community at all. The elderly couple who own the building next door and have been working towards creating a senior-friendly garden on the city lots have received only one notice of the city’s imminent disposition of the land: that notice simply tells them that excavation is due to begin next month. The day the notice arrived the group had actually been at the Brooklyn Community Board 3 general meeting asking for support for this vision. The presentation went well, and we made plans to return to speak directly with a committee of the board. But just hours later, I got a midnight phone call: “They’re going behind our backs!”
And it seems they are.
On Monday morning, the excavation that the notice said would start on or about July 5 actually began.
The administration is taking advantage of a wrinkle in our municipal law that allows the Mayor to dispose of public land for the construction of 1-4 unit buildings without any hearings held locally, without presentation to the community board or the borough president and without City Council approval—all of which would be required if the transfer was going through the City’s Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.
Instead, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services is holding a real-estate disposition hearing at the municipal building, which started last Wednesday June 8 and will continue on June 22. Neighbors of the sites and the community board were not notified of the first session. The disposition hearing itself is simply an opportunity for the mayor’s office to gather testimony to take under advisement. To wit: the hearing itself was scheduled after HPD filed applications for building construction on behalf of the developer and after that developer had already hired contractors to begin the work. I was the only one testifying and no one from HPD was in the room. HPD itself asked for the hearing to be continued on June 22, yet excavation work has already begun. If the give-away isn’t a done deal, it sure feels like one.
Using the 1-4 unit exemption for the Tompkins lots feels like a ruse. Current zoning permits 12,000 residential square feet to be built on the contiguous lots. That is enough to build a 24-unit cooperative of studio apartments for low-income singles using HPD’s criteria, a demographic that is poorly served throughout the city. Even if the project was all three-bedroom apartments, zoning and HPD criteria allow at least 12 apartments to be built here. If the city is building here and eliminating precious open space anyways, it could be building a lot more.
When HPD first announced that housing development might be coming to the Tompkins Avenue lots in early 2015, they identified them as a potential site of 15-30 units of rental housing. Developers were invited to qualify to build that housing. HPD assured communities that once qualified developers were selected for this site and others on the list, public review would begin (this is the same list that included nearly two dozen active community gardens).
Yet in the recent City Record announcement HPD calls the give-away of these seven publicly-owned lots “a proposed amendment” to a Bloomberg-era program, “New Foundations,” attaching the give-away to that program’s approval in 2008. New Foundations had a different design, different terms and these two lots on Tompkins Avenue were not included in it. Even if we are to believe that an eight-year old approval for selling public land for $1 to private developers under a different program is relevant, the proposed disposition of these properties was never considered even then.
It all adds up like this: The city is going behind the backs of its most engaged residents to facilitate the construction of a small number of units for people who make much more than average residents of the community. While average families of three in Community District 3 where the lots are located earn $39,168 per year, under HPD’s plan the developer will be allowed to sell these new buildings to two families of the same size that earn up to $97,920. The buyers will then be allowed to rent their second unit to a family of three earning up to $134,640 per year, nearly three times the local average.
When we make decisions about the fate of our precious public land, we need a public forum and process for that determination. If, through that process, New Yorkers determine that allowing developers to build housing is the best use of our land, I think we would at least ensure that the income requirements reflected the average in the neighborhood where that housing was being developed, that the housing would serve more than just a few families, and that the affordability that is being subsidized by free public land can be perpetual (which can be done via a community land trust, as Manhattan Borough President Brewer is advocating for, alongside the New York City Community Land Initiative).
Or, we might determine that public land should serve as many people as possible. We might decide that since—in addition to housing—New York needs precious community resources like gardens, parks and farms that serve the thousands of people who live in their communities, the Tompkins Avenue sites should be used to strategically create such a resource.
Whatever we decided in a public process, however, would be more legitimate than giving away public property without meaningful public review.
The de Blasio administration responds
by HPD Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies Daniel Hernandez
With unanimous support from the local community board and now the New York City Council, seven vacant lots in Bedford-Stuyvesant are being sold to make way for 20 brand new homes reserved for low-income families.
These city-owned lots will be used to build much needed affordable homes in this beautiful, iconic, and fast-changing neighborhood. These homes will help families who built Bedford Stuyvesant stay—and own—in their community. In the face of a deep affordable housing crisis, homeownership is a rarity in New York City, and it is an important part of the mayor’s Housing New York plan to make New York City residents secure at home. Despite Paula Segal’s misleading claims, these homes will stand as a clear bulwark against gentrification.
Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan sees a holistic and affordable New York with diverse neighborhoods that offer housing for our most vulnerable neighbors, and also janitors, secretaries, nurses, and firefighters. They are what New York is about—and what Bedford Stuyvesant personifies. The city’s housing plan is committed to serving New Yorkers at a range of low incomes—every single one of who is facing challenges paying skyrocketing housing costs.
These homes will be affordable for households earning between $65,250 and $106,080, for a family of three. Under HPD’s new NIHOP program, which aims to increase affordable homeownership opportunities if the new owners, who must occupy the homes, rent out a unit that rent must be affordable to families at the same income levels as the owners.
As a parks advocate, Segal is certainly aware of, but fails to mention, the de Blasio administration’s commitment to community gardens. In December, HPD, which sees gardens as an integral part of planning high-quality neighborhoods with residents, took 34 temporary gardens, each of them slated for housing development, and transferred them to the Parks Department, making them permanent open space. Indeed, the park advocacy group Segal represents, 596 Acres, praised the deal as a victory for gardens, for open space and for communities across the city.
The transfer was the largest addition of permanent open space by the city in more than a decade. Seven of the 34 gardens are in Bedford Stuyvesant, more than where made permanent in any other New York City community. Among the seven gardens is the Hattie Carthan Herb Garden, which will be adjacent to lots that will be occupied by the new homes.
Segal claims there has been no public review of this process. That is absolutely incorrect. The development of these lots has been through an appropriate and rigorous public land use review process. These developments received the support of the community board and Councilmember Robert Cornegy, a powerful advocate for affordable housing and for community parks, it was approved by the full City Council just last week.