Testimony on Zoning for Affordability

Regional Plan Association testimony before the New York City Planning Commission on December 16, 2015, in support of the Zoning for Quality and Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing zoning text amendments
Christopher Jones, vice president for research & Pierina Ana Sanchez, associate planner for New York

Good morning, my name is Christopher Jones and I am Vice President for Research at Regional Plan Association, which aims to improve the New York metropolitan region’s economic health, environmental sustainability and quality of life through research, planning and advocacy.

Both zoning text amendments under consideration are critical to the goal of expanding New York City’s supply of affordable housing while improving quality of life in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.  The Zoning for Quality and Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposals strive to strike a balance between these two imperatives. However, the input from residents, community boards, civic organizations and elected officials throughout the review process has highlighted a number of ways in which these actions could be improved and that the commission should address prior to approving the amendments.

The reasons for these zoning changes are sound and compelling. We can’t address the city’s large and growing need for affordable housing without revising outdated zoning guidelines or insuring that new construction includes housing for a wide range of incomes.

We also have a growing city that needs to find ways to welcome new residents—the children of existing residents, a rapidly expanding senior population, immigrants who renew the city’s vitality, and young adults who are increasingly drawn to dynamic cities like New York. For the New York metropolitan region as a whole including the counties surrounding the five boroughs, we could see demand for nearly four million additional people who want to live here by 2040. Because New York City will get a significant portion of this growth, housing pressures for families and individuals at different income levels will only continue to increase if we don’t increase housing production to meet demand. These proposals could also help the city by providing a template for equitable development in areas throughout the region, helping relieve housing pressures in the city while reviving stagnating suburban economies.

But building enough housing is only the start. Creating mixed-income neighborhoods with a high quality of life will require a range of actions, from preserving existing affordable housing and preventing harassment and displacement of existing residents to providing the necessary transit, schools, parks and other infrastructure. In fact, as these zoning changes are implemented, it will be essential to simultaneously implement the neighborhood and infrastructure improvements needed to improve quality of life for both existing and new residents.

The two amendments are important parts of this larger set of actions, and with further changes could be even stronger.

Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) includes incremental, practical changes to outdated code that would help the city create new affordable housing and mixed-use development through more flexible design, modest height increases in limited situations, and lower parking requirements in areas well-served by transit. Among its most positive features are policies that will make it easier to provide more affordable housing and affordable senior housing and care facilities, encourage more vibrant streets and quality retail space, and reduce parking requirements in areas with low car ownership levels. The amendments would not prevent developers from putting in additional parking if the market demands it, but would lessen restrictions that overestimate need and substantially raise the cost of development.

While the changes included in ZQA are modest, the provision as a whole is complex. The comments from community board and public officials indicate a legitimate need for City Planning to more fully explain how the changes would affect individual communities, and particularly how ZQA will work in tandem with Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, proposed neighborhood rezonings and related city initiatives. Among the changes that have been recommended, two warrant particular consideration:

  • The text should make clear that the additional bulk allowed for senior housing would be made permanently affordable. This is consistent with the intent of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposal and a basic tenet of the administration’s housing policies.
  • The lower parking requirements could be refined with a further analysis of origin-destination patterns and actual transit use. It may be possible to go even further in some communities, while others may be found to be inadequately served.

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) presents an ambitious approach to private market participation in the supply of permanent affordable housing. If adopted, MIH would be the most rigorous inclusionary housing requirement in any major U.S. city. The challenge is how to shape a program that works in vastly different market contexts and that supports the larger policy goal of creating mixed-income neighborhoods. It’s important to recognize that MIH is only one tool to address the city’s affordable housing needs, and can only work where there is a private market to support new development. The text could be improved to address the needs of the more than 40% of New York households earn less than 60% of the region’s average median income:

  • The City should clarify how it proposes to combine MIH requirements with existing affordable housing incentives such as 421a and LIHTC to achieve deeper levels of affordability.
  • Additional options should be added to the three MIH options in the amendment to permit deeper levels of affordability and address a wider range of market conditions. This will also help achieve an equitable city with a wide variety of mixed-income, livable neighborhoods, including currently middle- and upper-income neighborhoods.
  • The amendments should do more to encourage onsite rather than offsite affordable housing. While offsite housing may in many cases be more economical to build, it comes at a cost. It is less likely to be close to transit, good schools and economic opportunities, and often is less well-maintained than units that are physically part of the market rate developments.

We urge the Planning Commission to amend and approve both zoning text amendments, which are vital to the city’s larger goal of providing livable, affordable neighborhoods for its growing population.