The first rows of the City Council chambers were packed with red shirts yesterday. Members of the AARP were there to support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis and create 200,000 units over the next decade. But council members representing North Brooklyn aren’t so sure about the plan.
A hearing on Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the first part of de Blasio’s sweeping initiative, took place Tuesday. The second part of the plan, dubbed Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), would modify current zoning regulations in high-density neighborhoods. But its detractors claim that it would worsen parking and public transportation in overcrowded parts of the city.
ZQA’s most substantial and controversial provision would lift the height limits of subsidized buildings by as much as 31 percent so that developers can build more units for seniors and low-income residents. Some critics fear that this would alter the face of low-rise neighborhoods and undo years of zoning protection without improving housing quality or affordability.
ZQA would also change parking requirements in new affordable complexes, so long as they’re in areas well served by public transportation (so-called “transit zones”). Only 10 percent of the units located in these buildings would have to be provided with parking space.
Other aspects of the plan include the possibility of building “micro-units” of 275 square feet, a reduction in the waiting time for seniors to access affordable housing (currently, the average time is seven years) and an extension of the affordability period authorized by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. HPD can require a maximum of 30 years of affordability, but under ZQA the units would be reserved for seniors even after the expiration date.
Most City Council members recognized an urgent need to modify the zoning code given that the city will see a 40-percent increase in its senior population by 2040 (one out of five seniors currently live in poverty), but the specifics of de Blasio’s plan were up for debate.
Council member Antonio Reynoso voiced concerns about the elimination of parking space in his district, which includes parts of Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg. “The transit zones are a huge concern to me because Williamsburg is not transit-rich even though it has a lot of transportation lines,” he said. “The overcrowdedness and the lack of new transportation alternatives or infrastructures makes the [parking] argument very difficult to win.”
Reynoso added that “when you have to wait four or five trains before you can get on it, this [parking] issue works against it, not for it.”
Vicki Been, the commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, assured him that an “unprecedented commitment of resources” had been allocated to the MTA recently. But, together with Carl Weisbrod, the chairman of the City Planning Commission, she conceded that the term “transit zone” was a “misnomer” since other criteria (e.g. car ownership patterns, the rates of commuting via mass transit, and the availability of doctors and businesses) were also taken into account in the definition of a transit zone.
Stephen Levin, council member for Greenpoint and Williamsburg, said he feared that ZQA would jeopardize the affordable housing stock in his district as it would “allow incentive to possibly tear down rent-stabilized buildings” in areas such as Manhattan Avenue, and “replace them with newer buildings to maximize efficiency.” He wondered whether changes under ZQA will encourage developers to target existing low-rise structures housing regulated units for redevelopment.
Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan, was one of the most supportive council member. She described ZQA as a much-needed reform for “our seniors” who live in “unaffordable and unstable conditions.”
“I believe strongly in the stated goals of ZQA to make building affordable units and senior facilities easier by providing a flexible building envelope and reducing parking requirements,” she said.
Though 50 of the city’s 59 community boards, the five Borough Boards and the Borough Presidents voted ZQA down, the City Planning Commission approved it last week, slightly lowering height limits. The City Council now has till late March to vote on both MIH and ZQA.