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Testimony: City Planning Commission Hearing on the Zoning for Quality and Affordability Proposal and the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Proposal

Delivered December 16, 2015 by Mike Ernst, Director of Planning

Good evening. My name is Mike Ernst and I am Director of Planning with the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), a 123-year old organization that fights for intelligent urban design, planning and preservation through education, dialogue and advocacy.

Housing affordability has reached crisis levels in New York. Citywide, 55% of renter households are “rent-burdened” and 30% are “extremely rent burdened.” The situation only worsens as average rents have gone up dramatically in the last decade, while incomes have not risen to match. We applaud the City for attempting to address the housing crisis through the proposed Housing New York Plan.

We support the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposal (MIH) as an important step toward addressing the city’s housing crisis, though we think it should be expanded to provide deeper levels of affordability.

The Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposal (ZQA) includes a number of worthwhile elements that would update outdated rules concerning parking, while creating better streetscapes and more senior and affordable housing. However, we are unable to support ZQA in its present form. We hold concerns that the proposal doesn’t fully consider the impacts of increased massing and height on historic and contextual districts. Additionally, we believe that the City could draft a bolder proposal that creates affordable housing, strengthens unique neighborhoods, and reinforces the urban fabric.

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing

Creating new, permanent affordable housing in the city is essential to New York’s continued economic success and livability. We support MIH as an important instrument in leveraging the market to create an appropriate housing mix:

  • Creating housing that meets the needs of a broad range of city residents. By requiring that affordable housing be a component of rezoned neighborhoods and private rezoning applications, MIH would produce housing units for income bands that the market fails to serve.
  • Creates permanently affordable units. Units created through the MIH program would not expire, providing a sustainable stock of permanently affordable housing.
  • Additional public review. Because MIH only applies in neighborhoods that are being rezoned or individual special permit applications, we feel confident supporting it on principle, as any application of MIH will be subject to full public review.

However, the proposal can go further, and we recommend the following:

  • Provide housing for very low-income residents. The proposal should be expanded to meet the needs of very low-income residents. We recommend the City incorporate additional options to encourage the production of units for this demographic.
  • Further incentivize on-site affordable units. Even with the proposed rules that restrict off-site housing to the same community district or within a ½ mile, this provision may result in housing that is not as accessible to the same transit, quality schools, or economic opportunity as the sending site. Previous examples suggest that on-site affordable units have a more direct relationship with the granting market-rate units, ensuring a higher standard of maintenance and continued investment over time. We recommend the City further incentivize on-site affordable units in parts of the city where high land values with high density allows, while working to develop legal structures, ongoing funding strategies, and other mechanisms to ensure the long-term maintenance of off-site affordable units.

While the MIH proposal is an important step towards meeting the goals of the Housing New York Plan, and we support this initial effort, we hope to work with the administration on revised proposals that increase affordable housing, enhance community character, and create vibrant neighborhoods.

Zoning for Quality and Affordability

ZQA calls for a number of positive changes which MAS supports, including:

  • Promoting more affordable housing. As New York continues to face an affordable housing crisis, incentivizing the production of more affordable units is critical.
  • Promoting more senior housing. New York City is expected to add over 360,000 seniors in the next 15 years. The proposal makes necessary changes to help provide for more affordable senior housing to accommodate that growing population.
  • Reducing parking requirements for affordable housing. Minimum parking requirements force developers to build parking spaces that residents don’t need, often at the expense of additional housing units. Eliminating these requirements for affordable development projects is a smart change.
  • Encouraging more vibrant streetscapes. The proposed amendment will allow for more flexibility in the design of ground floor units, to help encourage retail storefronts in areas where commercial uses are permitted, while also allowing more privacy for ground floor residences.

These are all important measures that better reflect current demographic trends and market needs. However these changes also present other impacts – principally height and bulk increases for new buildings. There are still a number of concerns that need to be addressed, namely:

  • Increased height and bulk in contextual districts. Many neighborhoods obtained contextual zoning after years of negotiation with the City, and therefore should have more involvement in the proposed changes. MAS recommends that the administration provide a more targeted approach for each neighborhood.
  • Increased height and bulk in historic districts. We have reservations about the current proposal as it applies to historic districts and think further study is warranted. While new development in historic districts is subject to review, the burden of regulating bulk and height should not fall solely on the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
  • Incomplete analysis of impacts. It is difficult to appreciate the benefits of this proposal without clear projections about the number of new units – senior, affordable and market-rate – that would be generated under ZQA. It is also important to examine whether certain neighborhoods would experience greater impacts on transit, streets, schools, and parks.
  • Going further to eliminate parking requirements. MAS strongly supports the City’s proposal to eliminate unnecessary parking requirements for affordable housing, but the proposal should do even more. Declining rates of car ownership are not limited to low income or senior households, but cross all income and demographic spectrums. According to NYCEDC, household car ownership rates in the city are some of the lowest in the country, particularly in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Parking requirements should reflect this growing trend. MAS recommends mandatory parking requirements for all new development be significantly reduced.
  • Need for permanent senior housing. We are concerned that the senior affordable residences generated under this proposal would not be permanently affordable, even as increased height and bulk is retained for a building’s lifetime.
  • Distinction between narrow and wide streets. Height limits in the proposal should be refined to better account for differences in street widths. Height limits for narrow streets should be reduced.

During the scoping hearing in March, MAS asked the City to better explain what the proposed changes would mean in architectural terms, on a neighborhood basis. We were pleased when DCP released detailed summaries for each community district with much-improved graphics and maps. However, elements of the plan still come across as piecemeal, and it continues to be difficult to determine the real world impact on neighborhoods. Thus, we cannot support this proposal in its current form. We ask the City to think more boldly about the creation of affordable housing, working towards complete neighborhoods that provide the services and amenities both current and future residents need.

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