Testimony to NYC City Council on Affordable Housing

 

Regional Plan Association testimony before the New York City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises  February 9, 2016, in support of the Zoning for Quality and Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposals

 

Good morning, my name is Pierina Ana Sanchez and I am the New York Director 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. I am here to testify in support of both Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability and recommend improvements for the Council to consider.

Both proposals 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.  

Our growing city 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. We can’t address the city’s large and growing need for affordable housing without revising outdated zoning guidelines or insuring that new construction includes housing for a wide range of incomes, and in a wide range of neighborhoods.

To put this imperative in regional context, we could see demand for nearly four million additional people who want to live in the New York metropolitan area 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 continue to grow if we don’t increase housing production. We believe these proposals also could provide a template for equitable development in areas throughout the region, helping relieve housing pressures in New York 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.

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

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) presents an ambitious approach to private market participation in the supply of permanently 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 across all parts of the city, both in currently underserved neighborhoods where mixed-income development will spur economic growth and investment, as well as in wealthier neighborhoods that already offer access to transit, quality schools, parks and other urban amenities.

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. But since MIH is designed to last beyond the current administration’s housing initiatives, it is a major opportunity to address the city’s most pressing and chronic housing needs over the longer term. The proposal would have an even greater impact if the following changes were made, with the goal of addressing the needs of the more than 40% of New York households earning 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 including LIHTC and LIHTC-related abatements to achieve deeper levels of affordability.
  • Additional options and flexibility should be added to the three MIH options in the proposal to permit deeper levels of affordability and address a wider range of market conditions. This would help achieve a more equitable city with a wider variety of mixed-income, livable neighborhoods.
  • The proposals should do more to encourage onsite rather than offsite affordable housing. While offsite housing in many cases is 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 market-rate developments.
  • Ensuring fully economically integrated buildings, including equal access to common areas and amenities for all residents, should be a goal of the legislation.

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 wouldn’t 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. 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.

Finally, while not the subject of these citywide zoning amendments, it will be essential to simultaneously implement neighborhood and infrastructure improvements as new housing is created.  Residents need to be able to travel to their jobs and schools, and transportation capacity will need to be increased. Children and adults need quality spaces in which to recreate and exercise, so access to quality parks and open space must be considered. Trash needs to be collected and streets cleaned, so the city should plan for sanitation infrastructure impacts as well. The $1 billion Neighborhood Development Fund that is to be used in conjunction with neighborhood rezonings is an important resource that will need to be allocated judiciously in consultation with community residents and leaders.  However, an infrastructure strategy that matches the mayor’s ambitious housing strategy is likely to require even greater resources through the city’s capital plan and budget.

We urge the City Council 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. We applaud the foresight of both the City Council and the administration in addressing affordable growth in a smart and sustainable way, and look forward to working to apply its lessons and principles to the region as a whole.