Last Tuesday, the NYCEDC released their long-awaited—and dreaded—master plan for development over Sunnyside Yards. In it they praise themselves for their “robust engagement efforts” and “inclusive, community-driven process”, and for making this $14.4 billiion project about human and community needs rather than the profit desires of developers. They position the act of decking over the yards as a necessary way of creating public land because, as NYCEDC’s head James Patchett states, “We’re running out of land..and it is harder and harder to find places for real affordable housing.”
However this statement, like many of the claims in the plan, are myths that NYCEDC is propagating to push this plan forward. Herein, we address five of them. This is not exhaustive, but it is enough. Decking over the 180 acres of these rail yards isn’t the answer to the challenges facing Queens residents. Better to consider dissolving the entity responsible for such a proposal.
The myth of “robust engagement”
NYCEDC claims they had hundreds of conversations, in interviews, workshops, meetings, and written comments, and that feedback was incorporated into the plan. Specifically they cite 3 public meetings ranging from 200-400 people in attendance, 4 public workshops, 1 digital town hall, tours and information sessions, group discussions with over 145 local organizations, and quarterly steering committee meetings with their 27 appointees. Liberally, let’s say this is 20,000 people. Likely it’s less; Many of us attended multiple public meetings and community workshops. But liberally, 20,000. This is about 5 percent of the 318,823 residents that live in Astoria, LIC, Sunnyside and Woodside. Five percent does not sound like robust engagement by any measure.
Even if that percentage were higher, the “engagement” they describe does not necessarily mean acceptance or even acquiescence for this project. The Justice for All Coalition, of which we are a part, are included in these numbers, and even one of the authors and another member are in at least one of the photos used in the plan — AND we are ardently opposed to development over the yards. In fact, JFAC opposes the project so much so that they coordinated with other grassroots groups to release a public statement, host a press conference, encourage steering committee members to step down, host a protest and teach-in at one of NYCEDC’s public meetings and more. What does “robust engagement” even mean in this context?
The myth of “100 percent affordable housing”
One hundred percent affordable housing as discussed in the plan is misleading, if not a flatout false idea. The affordability of a housing unit is contingent on one’s income. Housing that may be affordable for one person, may not be affordable for another. This is the case of the 12,000 units NYCEDC proposes for Sunnyside Yards.
First, the majority of units are not affordable to those most in need. Six thousand units will be allocated for homeownership through the Mitchell Lama Co-op program. As they say in the report, these units are targeted at middle-income households; not lower-income households. While income eligibility ranges, the low rung is around $50,000 for a single person, and $76,300 for a family of four. And really these would be special households who have a chunk of change set aside, because for the most part, mortgages are almost never an option. Also to note, Mitchell Lama Co-ops are not permanently affordable; buildings can opt out after 25 or 35 years and many do.
Of the remaining units, half or 3,000 are allocated for “very-low-income” households (31-50 percent AMI), while the other half for “extremely-low-income” households (< 31 percent AMI). AMI measures are notoriously flawed and tricky to interpret, but by the city’s standards, this means that only 25 percent of these new units would be affordable for a single full-time, minimum wage worker, or a family of four with two parents working full-time at minimum wage.
Second, the total number of units, even if they were all to be allocated for households earning less than $30,000, is completely eclipsed by the need. One Flushing, a “100 percent affordable” development in Flushing offers some insight: for their 231 units, they received 84,000 applications.
Beyond this, we can consider the realities of the crisis residents are facing: 63,000 residents sleep in city shelters every night, or more than 130,000 last year. It’s important to note that this doesn’t account for those that sleep on streets, in subways, in parks, doubled or tripled up with family and friends or in other inadequate shelter “solutions,” and so it only represents a fraction of the un-housed population. There are also half a million households living in deteriorating public housing buildings with hundreds of thousands more on the waiting lists. Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of residents in New York City allocate more than 30 percent of their housing to pay rent, with many, including one of the authors of this piece, allocating close to 50 percent or more.
Even if all 12,000 units were truly affordable, this would not even begin to put a dent in the need.
The myth of “needing” to create public land to build affordable housing
First the city has true affordable housing sitting on public land all over the city. Its called public housing, and right now, rather than investing this $14.4 billion in making that housing safe and healthy—which we should absolutely do—public officials are continuing to let conditions deteriorate while trying to sell most of it off to predatory equity firms whose desire for profit will displace residents.
Second, vacancy studies show that there is an abundance of vacant apartments and unsold condos in New York City. While some say there are 3 apartments for every unhoused resident, we can conservatively say there are enough units to permanently house every individual passing through the shelter system last year.
Third, if we wanted to build new, truly affordable housing on public land, why has the city been “selling” it off for the last 20 years? Since De Blasio took office in 2014, NYC sold 202 city-owned lots to developers for $1 a piece. As of 2018, there were 41 city-owned lots still pending final sale for $1.
Moreover, right now as we write this, the NYCEDC is brokering a deal to give away more public land and a publicly-owned building right next door to Sunnyside Yards, on Anable Basin. This is the same public land and infrastructure the City previously tried to give away to Amazon.
We absolutely don’t need to spend billions of dollars creating new public land; we need to preserve, and care for, and better utilize the public land we do have, and invest in and expand public housing.
The myth of economic development
The plan touts the future benefits of job creation and new opportunities for small businesses. “From 2010 and 2015”, they state, “the number of jobs in Long Island City has increased at more than twice the rate of New York City overall.” What they don’t mention is that during that same time frame, unemployment in Queensbridge and Ravenswood Houses has gone up as well. In part, this may be related to the untold and ongoing displacement of small manufacturers who have been pushed out of the area thanks to past city-led rezoning efforts.
Moreover, rezoning manufacturing areas to be either mixed-use or residential causes rents to rise precipitously, pricing out manufacturers, street cart vendors, auto repair shops, working artists and more. All of these sectors have a thriving history in Western Queens and none of them can afford the rising rents. Local landlords and developers are well aware of this. In fact, one of the authors of this piece is a working artist who had a workspace in LIC, but was displaced after receiving a 40 percent rent increase that her landlord admitted was a direct result of the luxury commercial development in the area.
In addition, the plan discusses this development as an opportunity for supporting and preserving small businesses. This is yet again a soundbite about opportunity with little meaning behind it. One of the biggest threats to small businesses today are rising rents driven by megadevelopment projects like this very one, and the unequal power that landlords have to determine the conditions of rental contracts and to raise rents. Small business owners and advocates and public officials know this, which is why there are two competing bills aiming to save the city’s mom-and-pops. NYCEDC’s plan provides no details on how they would address these needs so that new store fronts translate into new opportunities for small businesses.
The myth of addressing resiliency, infrastructure & transit needs
How does the creation of a new neighborhood with new resilient infrastructure address the needs of the existing community? Isn’t it more likely that spending a portion of the $14.4 billion directly—to repair sewers and shore up buildings and infrastructure in the floodplain—would be more effective?
Also, the plan claims to offer transit solutions for the Queens community. By NYCEDC’s own account, residents asked for improvements to ageing and congested transit and discussed the challenge of traveling within the borough. In recent years, specific requests have been made for improvements to the 7 line and adding more buses and bus lines to the roads. The new regional rail station which is the transit-oriented priority of NYCEDC’s plan addresses none of these concerns. The other ideas in the plan about adding a subway car, or creating a new subway line might, but 1) these are too far down in their timeline to take seriously, and 2) these overlook the easier, faster, and more cost-effective option of adding more buses and bus lines.
Decking over Sunnyside Yards absolutely should not move forward. As one of the authors has stated previously—moving forward with this project is, at best, irresponsible. At worst, it continues harmful, and exclusive state-led city-building policies.
Kristen Hackett is a doctoral candidate and fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Jenny Dubnau is a Queens resident and a working artist who grew up in New York City. She is active with the Western Queens Community Land Trust, and the Artist Studio Affordability Project. Both are members of the Justice For All Coalition, a group of LIC and Astoria residents fighting for dignified housing, good jobs and just development in Western Queens.