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The NY Times Is Wrong On Affordable Housing

Dashed Arrow via Stefan Georgi / Flickr

Yesterday, the New York Times' editorial board adopted the position of a recent sardonic headline found on a local news blog. Poor Doors are necessary, the editorial states, because rich developers want them. Rich developers are our only source of affordable housing, "and that means cutting deals with developers," according to the collective conscience of Affluent Liberal Realists. "The rich will get richer, but the poor will get apartments." Bullshit.

The flaw in this line of reasoning—that we should all hold our noses and let developers build whatever glass-bound rent-gouging icicles they want so long as they toss us a few affordable housing units for our trouble—can be seen in the Times' own reporting on the subject.

According to a story on Poor Doors published in the paper on Tuesday, voluntary inclusionary zoning, the policy of giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to private developers through credits and other incentives, provided they make at least 20% of their units affordable, "has generated about 5,000 affordable units" since 2005.

The numbers in the mayor's own affordable housing plan show that the city actually needs 550,000 more affordable units than the 200,000 he's planning to build or preserve.

Assuming developers will do nice things with their tax credits doesn't work.

To this end, the mayor has promised that he will institute a policy of mandatory exclusionary zoning, and is still weighing what that percentage will be. But a Clinton-era federal law prevents the city from building more public housing, a state law from the 1970s prevents the city from enacting more stringent rent controls to preserve the affordable housing we have, and Albany's loyalty has essentially been purchased by the real estate lobby.

If we are beholden to the real estate lobby to build all our affordable housing, how stringent can we possibly be and still entice them to build? Presumably this is what the mayor is still trying to figure out.

Faced with such an intractable and dire issue, you might wonder why the country's most prominent and respected editorial board doesn't question why we are beholden to the real estate lobby for affordable housing. Or perhaps suggest new alternatives, like pressuring our federal and state representatives to reverse the effects of these laws, or calling for higher taxes on our richest residents. Or if we are totally resigned to relying on developers, at least advocating for getting the biggest affordable bang for our buck. Not so.

Not that hard bargains shouldn’t be driven. Zoning that mandates the inclusion of affordable units will keep builders from ducking their responsibility, and the city should always be pushing for the best split between market-rate and affordable units. The ratio may not be 50-50, as some are urging for East Harlem, but neither should it always default to 80-20.

Why not 50-50?

Half of the 1,000 housing units at Essex Crossing, the $1.1 billion development to be built on Delancey Street, will be permanently affordable, with 40% of them going to low-income tenants. This isn't a miracle, it's a real solution.

Two Trees complained when Mayor de Blasio demanded affordable housing for 31.8% of the units being built on the site of the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, but eventually the developer relented. Afterward, the the real estate lobby promptly gloated that their posturing proved "that the new mayor will not derail development plans or eat too far into the industry’s bottom line to achieve his affordable housing goals."

Are we "at the epicenter of an affordable housing crisis" or not?

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