Pratt Center

November 14, 2016

East Harlem housing plan misses mark: Our Op-Ed in the Daily News

Originally published by the New York Daily News

By Elena Conte and Adrien Weibgen

Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a promise to end the tale of two cities, but his proposal to expand real estate development in East Harlem tells a different story.

The rezoning of East Harlem is intended to promote affordable housing by requiring its inclusion in most new developments — addressing an urgent need in an area with a median household income barely over $31,000. But by excluding the wealthier, whiter parts of the neighborhood from the plans, the city is missing a major opportunity to create affordable apartments and integrate our city.

A year-long community planning process shepherded by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents the area, involved hundreds of residents, businesses and community leaders and covered every block east of 5th Ave. and north of 96th St.

Participants were therefore shocked and disappointed to see the outlines of the Department of City Planning’s proposal released last week, which excludes the area between 96th and 104th Sts., adjacent to prosperous Upper East Side — a stone’s throw from enclaves of luxurious apartment buildings close to Central Park and along the East River that signal the area’s attractiveness to developers.

This move to exclude the most marketable pocket of East Harlem contradicts the basic logic of de Blasio strategy known as mandatory inclusionary housing, an essential piece of his plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing.

Inclusionary housing works like this: The city permits bigger, taller apartment building development in a specified area — and simultaneously requires that between 20% and 30% of apartments there rent below market rate, depending on their tenants’ incomes.

This two-part formula creates affordable housing at especially low rents in neighborhoods where real estate goes for top dollar, because high rents on the market-rate units effectively subsidize affordable apartments in the same building. For example, an apartment renting for $5,000 a month covers the cost of one priced at $510, in the price range of a single mother earning $25,000 a year.

To ensure such low-income tenants could benefit, the City Council added to de Blasio’s inclusionary housing plan a formula aimed at setting aside 20% of apartments for them, which is feasible in luxury developments. The idea is not only to provide housing but to make neighborhoods more economically and racially diverse, by creating a foothold for lower-income people in places they could not afford to live in otherwise.

But so far, the mayor’s plans are not making the most out of this potential. The majority of neighborhoods targeted for inclusionary housing by the city — not only East Harlem, but places like East New York in Brooklyn, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and Far Rockaway in Queens — are areas where market rents are so low that housing affordable to low-income people can be created only with significant sums of public subsidy. The same is true in the northern part of East Harlem, where inclusionary housing is unlikely to create such deeply affordable units without taxpayer funds.

In contrast, in the southern part of the neighborhood, near the Upper East Side, the model could yield new affordable housing while still allowing for developers to make a financial return, because rents there can be almost double those in the northern part of the neighborhood — $3,000 a month, compared to $1,500. In fact, the mayor’s own economic study on inclusionary housing highlighted the southern part of East Harlem as ripe for the effort.

This area sorely needs affordable housing. But as of now, the mayor is planning to leave this area out of the rezoning, ignoring the economic realities of his housing program, his professed desire for integration and the will of the community.

To stem the tide of displacement that is drowning the city, the administration should reconsider the boundaries for the East Harlem rezoning and add higher-rent areas to its growing list of neighborhoods slated for a building boom.