The plan includes new tenant protections, repurposing government-owned land and isolated manufacturing parcels for housing, and a rezoning to generate both market-rate and income-targeted apartments.
Sunset Park has long been home to a high concentration of the industry and workers—many of them immigrants—who made New York City a titan on the world stage.
Now facing a housing crunch, the Brooklyn neighborhood needs a multifaceted housing plan including the repurposing of public space, according to a report released Thursday by a leading local nonprofit.
That plan includes new tenant protections, repurposing government-owned land and isolated manufacturing parcels for housing, and a rezoning to generate both market-rate and income-targeted apartments.
“For many decades, little to no investment in new housing development occurred in Sunset Park, even while the population of the neighborhood continued to swell to welcome new immigrants, particularly from the Latino and Chinese communities,” The Fifth Avenue Committee’s report, “2020 Sunset Park Housing Conditions: Recommendations for Development without Displacement,” says.
The report argues this mismatch is why Sunset Park has among the highest rates of severe overcrowding in the city, and why nearly 32 percent of local residents are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent—above city- and boroughwide rates.
“The neighborhood simply does not have enough apartments to support the influx of new residents and recent immigrants and to alleviate overcrowding,” Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) writes. “New solutions are required to address the current housing pressures and combat the threat of displacement.”
The predicament shows the shortcomings in two mayors’ planning strategies over 20 years. Mayor Bloomberg rezoned areas around Sunset Park in 2003, 2007 and 2009 to spur housing development but without any mandatory mechanism for generating affordable units. Mayor de Blasio did create such a mechanism—the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing rule, or MIH, which requires developers who benefit from a density increase to set aside a portion of units for specific income groups.
De Blasio’ approach to adding density, however, has been scatter-shot: His administration has rezoned a small number of neighborhoods, and done so in ways that exposed low-income communities of color to displacement risks while allowing wealthier, whiter areas of the city to avoid absorbing more residents. The de Blasio administration’s resistance to calls for comprehensive planning is echoing through the controversy over Industry City’s private rezoning application, which would impact Sunset Park.
Features peculiar to Sunset Park have worsened the mismatch between demand and supply, according to Matthew Murphy, the executive director of the Furman Center at NYU. For one thing, there’s no public housing in the area—which means there is less of a buffer against the general rise in rents.
For another, “Sunset Park stands out for its relatively low rate of housing production,” Murphy (who is no relation to the author), says. “We see that the number of housing units in Sunset Park actually fell by nearly 4,000 units between 2010 and 2018. In the last two years, only 160 units have been added. This is likely a contributing factor to relatively high rent increases as well.”
A Sunset Park solution?
The solution, according to FAC, is four-fold.
First, Sunset Park has a fair amount of government-owned land that could be used to create 100 percent affordable housing. “These properties range from empty lots to locations of government services like police precincts and firehouses that can be rebuilt to accommodate greater density, with municipal uses in their base and affordable housing units above,” the report reads. It’s unclear how many apartments those parcels could generate.
In addition, while the local industrial business zone (IBZ) provides a needed safe haven for manufacturing, “Sunset Park is home to a range of undervalued and underused industrial sites outside of the IBZ that no longer meet the demands or needs of the community, like the 4th Avenue and 39th Street corridors,” the report reads. “These sites should be identified and prioritized for rezonings that incentivize the creation of affordable housing or meet other community needs.”
FAC executive direct Michelle de la Uz, a member of the City Planning Commission, says these parcels now host gas stations, car washes and hotels. Under the plan, they would not be transformed into 100 percent affordable housing because of the delays inherent that approach.
“I think that one thing that gets lost in the legitimate cry for 100% deeply and permanently affordable housing (which FAC obviously supports) is that it takes years to assemble the subsidy needed to build 100% affordable housing,” de la Uz writes in an email to City Limits, noting that it took FAC four years to assemble the subsidies for a current 100 percent affordable project is it working on.
“As the report outlines, Sunset Park has been facing a crisis for years and we need to broaden our perspective on targeted strategies to address community needs especially when those strategies can contribute to the creation of truly and permanently affordable housing without the loss of existing affordable housing/displace current residents in the near term,” she continues. “The families that need affordable housing can’t wait.”
Rezoning and Right-to-Counsel
The converted manufacturing-zoned sites would be part of a larger rezoning of the Fourth Avenue transit corridor. “Mapping Mandatory Inclusionary Housing in areas along this transit corridor especially in areas that were not rezoned in the last 17 years, taking care to protect existing rent stabilized housing, is a vital step in promoting housing affordability in the community,” the report argues.
FAC’s strategy also calls for new tenant protections, like extending the Right to Counsel program, a city initiative that provides free lawyers to low-income tenants facing eviction in Housing Court, to Sunset Park.
It’s the rezoning, however, that will be the heaviest lift. Three of de Blasio’s rezonings—in East Harlem, Jerome Avenue and Inwood—encountered stiff community opposition, and in those neighborhoods as well as East New York, deep concerns persist about the impact of the land-use changes.
Those neighborhood controversies revolve around broader questions: Is New York City’s housing crunch chiefly a supply problem—resulting from low production of new housing—or an inequality problem, reflecting the inability of working people to afford the supply that’s been created? And if the answer is “all of the above,” meaning the crisis stems from both scarcity and inequality, can solutions like MIH that rely predominantly on market-rate production actually close the gap?
FAC nods to this political context:
While city-sponsored neighborhood wide rezonings in predominately low- and moderate-income communities of color have raised legitimate concerns about increased gentrification and displacement pressures given their broad impacts on the local real estate market, more limited land use actions that redevelop underutilized sites and result in the creation of deeply and permanently affordable housing units through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) without any taxpayer subsidy should be considered.
The report also notes that middle-class areas of New York need to be tapped to provide more housing capacity.
Whether the city pursues a Sunset Park rezoning in isolation, or approaches it as part of a comprehensive plan to address citywide land-use issues, action is unlikely to come during the remaining 15-and-a-half months of the de Blasio administration, which will be hard-pressed to complete the lone pending rezoning proposal, in Gowanus, before its tenure ends.