Regarding the Willets Point Redevelopment Plan
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the proposed Willets Point Redevelopment Plan. I am Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, an university-based non-profit organization that aims to create a more just, equitable and sustainable New York City, by assisting low and moderate income communities in planning for and realizing their futures. We are a member organization of and provide support to Queens for Affordable Housing, a coalition of more than a dozen Queens-based community groups that is working to ensure that new residential development in the borough creates housing that is truly affordable to a diverse mix of Queens residents.
We have come before on many major rezoning and development plans in recent years, when we believed that the interests of low and moderate income people -- their need for good jobs, affordable housing, more open space and schools and community centers -- and the overall planning needs of the city, were being ignored in pursuit of the mayor's goals of high-rise luxury condos and new office buildings. And in many cases, you have succeeded in making those projects better, or at least a bit less wantonly serving the interests of developers.
But Willets Point is a special case. First, because the project begins with a more fundamental harm—the proposed displacement of 1,700 blue-collar jobs, at a moment in our city's economic history when we need jobs for working people, that are not dependent on Wall Street, more than we need new condos. Second, because the original plan here was especially ill-conceived. Third, because the project sits between several working-class immigrant neighborhoods, which it has thus far essentially ignored. And finally, because it is very difficult to believe, given the state of the credit markets, that anyone would finance, build, buy or rent the market-rate condos, office space, or convention center being proposed, for many years to come.
We therefore urge you to reject this project, unless it is profoundly altered:
- to do right by existing workers and businesses, including not only dramatically better relocation, training, and placement efforts, but also a commitment that those businesses who choose to can remain as tenants on the site until the developer that would displace them is designated, has full financing and approvals in place, and is truly ready by build;
- to make most of the housing affordable to a range of low, moderate, and middle income families, in light of the Bloomberg Administration's well-document shortchanging of low-income housing in Queens (the borough has nearly 24% of all households in the city earning less than $50,000 per year, it has received less than 4% of the subsidized housing units that those families can afford); and
- to create good jobs, targeted to local workers, with a far better first-source hiring plan for community residents for the permanent jobs that would be created on the site.
In the spring and summer of 2007, Queens for Affordable Housing, along with ACORN, sponsored a community-based planning process that engaged community members, business owners and workers, and union members in a process to evaluate the plan proposed by the Economic Development Corporation and to define the necessary principles of what responsible development at Willets Point would look like. These recommendations are described extensively in the report, Making Willets Point Work: A Plan for Neighborhood Success, published in February 2008.
The top priority that emerged from this process was the great need for substantial percentages of housing at the development that would be truly affordable to Queens residents at a range of incomes, including the average Queens household as well as the most vulnerable among the borough. Additionally, participants were unanimous in their analysis that any redevelopment at Willets Point must treat fairly the workers and small businesses that currently occupy the site, with strong guarantees for the relocation of interdependent businesses in clusters and compensation packages.
Specifically, the community came to the conclusion that the Willets Point redevelopment should not proceed unless it is dramatically altered to meet the following goals:
Requirement #1: Do right by existing businesses and workers.
- Businesses that depend on their relationships with neighboring business in Willet Point should be relocated together in clusters to a permanent home. If coordinated relocation is not possible, then some area should be reserved for existing businesses within the plans for Willets Point. Special attention needs to be paid to those businesses who rent their space. While businesses who own the land the occupy have at least some leverage in eminent domain proceedings, the majority of businesses who rent their spaces -- and the workers they employ -- have been treated very badly by the Bloomberg Administration, which has denigrated them, refused to reach out to them, and done nothing to help them.
- Existing workers should be able to choose among a range of good options: such as (1) relocating with their existing employers (with relocation assistance), (2) City-funded job training and placement, in fields of their choosing, and (3) first priority placement in new jobs at Willets Point, in construction and permanent positions. Additional efforts should be made to ensure that the most vulnerable workers have the choices described above
- One critical new idea: We urge you not to approve this rezoning unless a commitment is made that those businesses who choose to can remain on the site as tenants, until the developer who would displace them is not only designated, but has all of their financing and approvals in place, and is truly ready to build.
- We are very concerned, given the state of the credit markets, that even if approved this project will not proceed for many years, and perhaps not at all. It is very difficult to believe, given the state of the credit markets, that anyone would finance, build, buy or rent the market-rate condos, office space, or convention center being proposed, for many years to come. There is a real danger, therefore, that the existing 250 business and 1700 workers will be displaced, the site clear, but nothing new will rise, and in the name of blight we will have traded jobs for nothing at all.
- To address this very real concern, the Economic Development Corporation should commit in writing that businesses that wish to remain on the site can do so, until the development of the phase of the project that would displace them is truly ready to go. As we are seeing at Atlantic Yards and elsewhere, that may be a very long time. There are many precedents for this type of action -- at Harborside in Sunset Park, in the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning, and the Red Hook Stores building, and many other places. It can be done in a way which would not impede development, if and when a developer has been designated, full financing is in place, the necessary approvals have been given, and demolition, remediation, and construction are truly ready to proceed.
Currently, despite a few high-profile deals, the futures of the businesses and the more than 1,700 workers that they employ are no clearer or more secure than they were when the planning effort was undertaken.
Recommendation #2: Make most of the housing affordable to wide range of low, moderate, and middle-income families.
The Independent Budget Office recently released a report which makes plain what community-groups in Queens have known for a while: the Bloomberg Administration's New Housing Marketplace has dramatically shortchanged low-income families in Queens. While the borough has nearly 24% of all households in the city earning less than $50,000 per year, it has received less than 4% of the subsidized housing units that those families can afford. This inequity is so profound that it probably cannot be fully addressed.
Willets Point represents one of the few opportunities for you to right this injustice. We therefore believe that the project should not be approved unless most of the units are affordable. You have heard from some that it is simply too expensive in this climate to make the units affordable. But if the plan is to use eminent domain, displace 1700 jobs, and spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the project to create mostly luxury housing, then we simply should not do it.
The Queens for Affordable Housing affordability plan is as follows:
- At least one-third of the units should be affordable to genuinely low-income families -- a households earning less than $25,000 a year.
- At least one-third of the units should be affordable to low- to moderate- and middle income families, using multiple income tiers to ensure affordable to low-to moderate- and middle income families, using multiple income tiers to ensure affordability at a range of incomes.
- Additionally, the project should guarantee that the housing created is genuinely accessible to immigrant families, include a dedicated senior housing component, and be permanently affordable.
Currently, EDC has indicated that 80% of the units on the site will be market-rate housing, and that 20% of the units will be subsidized at a level that will be affordable for a family of four earning $61, 450. Yet the median annual household income in Queens is $10,000 below that, the median incomes of Queens Community Boards 7, and 3 are below the Queens median income, and in Board 4, the median income of families is $20,000 below the income limits in the few subsidized units being proposed. The current plan for “affordable housing” at Willets Point equates to 0% affordable for the surrounding communities, which are in dire need of additional housing.
Over half of Queens households (51.5%) pay more than 30% of their income for rent (the federal affordability standard). Almost 9 percent of all occupied housing units in Queens were classified as severely overcrowded, with the neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights suffering the highest rates of severe overcrowding at 17.5%. Senior citizens, Latino, African-American, and Asian residents carry the highest rent burdens in Queens.
Recommendation #3: Create good jobs targeted to local residents and workers.
- Require that developers and employers, for both the construction and permanent phases of the project, pay prevailing wage and benefits packages for all jobs
- Ensure that both displaced workers and local residents are able to connect to the newly created jobs, and advance along career paths, by requiring developers, contractors, and employers to hire locally, and by investing in job placement and training programs.
Currently, the first part of this recommendation has been met, and we credit the City for its efforts to reach an agreement with labor that requires prevailing wages and benefits.
However, there are no firm goals or guarantees for hiring within the local community. To be honest, the workforce plan announced by the Queens Borough President and Deputy Mayor Lieber is a joke, and they should be embarrassed by it. It contains absolutely nothing about the priority for local residents to get permanent jobs on the site, or training for those jobs.
Making Willets Point Work goes on to describe additional recommendations for the creation of physical and social infrastructure at the site and well as ways to respect and connect to the surrounding neighborhoods, some of which EDC has included in their plans for the site, and some of which remain unsatisfactorily addressed at this time.
Taken in sum, EDC's plan for Willets Point fails the community standard for responsible and accountable development for the site, and given the extraordinary proposed expenditure of public dollars, and the pain and displacement slated for the more than 250 businesses and 1,700 workers, it cannot be justified in its current form. We urge the City Council to reject this plan, unless these requirements are met.
Thank you for this opportunity to testify.