Mayor de Blasio's controversial rezoning plan for affordable housing seems ever closer to becoming a reality: earlier this week, some of the toughest critics of the plan endorsed it and the City Council added a fourth, more affordable option to the three already on the table. The council will vote on the plan on March 22nd, but not everyone accepts it as a done deal just yet. Though much of the conversation so far has focused on East New York, the first neighborhood slated for rezoning under the plan, residents of Inwood and Washington Heights gathered at a town hall meeting last night to demand that their representatives vote down the mayor's plan.
These neighborhoods are among the 15 that would eventually be rezoned to mandate that developers include a certain percentage of affordable units in new residential projects. The plan includes four options for developers: one calls for 25 percent of units to be set aside for New Yorkers who make 60 percent of the Area Median Income ($46,620 for a family of three); one requires that 30 percent of units be for people making 80 percent of the AMI ($62,150 for a family of three); one mandates that 20 percent of units be affordable for people making 115 percent of the AMI (about $89,000 for a family of three) while another 10 percent be reserved for those making 90 and 70 percent of the AMI; and the fourth, newest option would require that 20 percent of units be affordable for those making 40 percent of the AMI (about $31,000 per year). The option assigned to any new construction project will be decided by the councilmember for the district.
In Community Board 12, which comprises Inwood and Washington Heights, over 50 percent of residents make less than $50,000 per year, with 24 percent making under $20,000 and just 28 percent making over $75,000. As such, residents argue, the current plan doesn't accurately reflect the needs of the neighborhood. Addressing councilmembers Mark Levine and Ydanis Rodriguez, who represent the neighborhoods in question, residents urged them to only support a plan that would ensure that between 50 and 100 percent of new units are affordable for families making $25,000 a year.
"What the council has agreed to is not going to benefit our community," said Cheryl Pahaham. "We don't really have options that are affordable to people who live here. And the plan as it's proposed is really a plan that's going to lead to gentrification. It's a plan that's going to lead to displacement of people who live here."
Speaking at the town hall, Levine painted de Blasio's plan as the lesser of two evils, arguing that some mandated affordable housing is better than none at all and that if the council doesn't act on this plan now, developers will continue building market rate-only projects all over the city. But Northern Manhattan residents say that attitude isn't good enough, as most people they know won't be able to afford the housing that this plan would create.
"This community is a low-income community even for those people that are working, and on top of that, for those of us who are disabled our income is at 12 percent [AMI]," said Rita Perez, who has lived in Inwood for 36 years. "The lowest income I've seen in all these meetings is $35,000, and even our children won't get to that income."
Many residents also questioned why there is such focus on new development, arguing that the focus should be on preserving the neighborhood's rent-controlled apartments. Bennett Melzak, a lifelong Inwood resident, said that even with rent control his rent has crept up to $2,000 a month—a price he can hardly afford. Inwood and Washington Heights have the highest concentration of rent-stabilized apartments in Manhattan, but more and more units have become deregulated in the past eight years.
"I don't fully understand or appreciate the focus on new construction," said resident Jennifer Fox. "What I see as the threat in Inwood specifically is the market pressures that we're seeing...the systemic abuses that we see in frivolous [Major Capital Improvement rent increase] abuses, in landlords who charge preferential rents, and then, whoopsy daisy, four years after you can't challenge your rent, now you're up to what they claim is legal rent. I am frustrated with the fact that all of these rezoning proposals are only talking about the new construction and not talking about the preservation."
For over an hour, dozens of Levine's and Rodriguez's constituents took turns beseeching them to vote no on the current rezoning deal on March 22nd, with multiple residents asking for an explicit commitment to vote it down. After much hedging from both councilmembers, it became clear that neither intends to do so, as they see the plan as the best option currently available. Rodriguez said outright that he "will be voting for this plan," while Levine said that he "cannot in good conscience allow developers to get the kind of giveaways they've gotten…I want a mandate that if you build big in the city you must include affordability."
Opponents to the plan aren't giving up yet: there are actions planned across the city in the coming days, with rallies in the Bronx and Lower Manhattan demanding that the council vote down the current plan. To some, like Jeanie Dubnau of Washington Heights, any plan that relies on developers to provide affordable housing is doomed to fail.
"Honestly, this is what happens when you leave the development of new housing to real estate developers," she said. "They are interested in one thing, what is that? Money. Everybody knows it....In my humble opinion, the only way we're going to get really affordable housing is public housing to be built by the government."