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The Zoning Implications of Mayor De Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan
On May 5, 2014 Mayor Bill De Blasio released his administration’s long-awaited affordable housing plan, “Housing New York, A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan,” which includes a long list of potential measures to preserve and build affordable housing over the next ten years. The plan begins with an assessment of the dire state of housing in New York City. There are fewer than 500,000 dwelling units within the price range of the City’s 1,000,000 low income households. Homelessness and use of city shelters has risen sharply in the past decade. And at least one-half of New Yorkers are “rent stressed,” paying more than 30% of their household income for housing. While former Mayor Bloomberg had an ambitious affordable housing plan of his own, it failed to keep pace with the massive exodus of apartments from the State’s rent stabilization program. Mayor De Blasio now proposes a package of aggressive financial incentives, infrastructure improvements, zoning changes and regulatory reform to create and preserve 200,000 affordable units to make up estimated shortfalls in affordable housing.
The plan is not highly specific about the zoning and land-use changes that will be used to achieve this ambitious goal. Immediately, developers seeking zoning changes and special permits from the City Planning Commission can expect to be pressed to include more affordable housing. The plan states: for “future rezonings that unlock a substantial new housing capacity, the City must require, not simply encourage, the production of affordable housing.” But since most development in New York City is “as-of-right,” this policy will have a limited impact on affordable housing.
The plan therefore suggests several other legal avenues for promoting affordable housing. The City will look for targeted zoning changes to ease parking requirements, height/setback regulations, restrictions on conversion of “obsolete” commercial and manufacturing buildings, open space requirements, and the 12 FAR (floor area ratio) cap applicable in most zoning districts (which will require amendment of the State’s Multiple Dwelling Law). One of the most innovative elements of the plan is the promise to undertake a “comprehensive study” of opportunities for using transferable development rights to spur the creation of housing. Under existing law, owners can transfer development rights to immediately adjoining properties. Landmarks can transfer development rights to immediately adjoining properties and across streets. And Highline Park can sell its development rights to developers in the West Chelsea Special Zoning District. These limited but successful programs could be expanded by allowing developers to move development rights around larger areas in exchange for building affordable housing.
The plan also hints at the two biggest tools for creating affordable housing on the scale that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. First, it implies that the City will look for targeted “upzonings” to ease controls on buildings sizes and allow greater density. But the plan does not begin to suggest neighborhoods for affordable housing, which are likely to include major thorough-fares rather than the many less-dense communities extensively “downzoned” by the City Planning Commission from 2002 to 2012. Recent statements from the Department of City Planning suggest that the Mayor has fifteen neighborhoods in mind for changes to zoning, including East New York.
Second, the plan pledges to “launch the Neighborhood Construction Program (NCP), an initiative to aggregate sites to develop affordable housing in order to achieve economies of scale….” The plan does not state, however, whether eminent domain will be used to create clusters of development sites on which a single developer could create quality, mixed-income housing at the scale that is likely to attract the biggest developers’ interests.
For more information concerning the matters discussed in this publication, please contact the authors, Christopher Rizzo (212-238-8677, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Karen E. Meara (212-238-8757, email@example.com), or your regular CL&M attorney.
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