(photo by Kavitha Surana)

(photo by Kavitha Surana)

City Council members pushed Mayor de Blasio’s new rezoning plan to prioritize deeper affordability during a hearing yesterday on a key pillar of his effort to add 200,000 new affordable units over 10 years. If passed, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing would require new constructions in certain neighborhoods to set aside 25-30 percent of the units as permanently affordable.

Many of the council members lauded the principle of MIH as a significant departure from any previous administration’s attitude. Bloomberg’s 2005 rezoning incentivized affordable housing on a voluntary basis, allowing developers to build 33 percent more square feet if they set aside 20 percent of units for affordable housing. But the program had disappointing results – developers often left height on the table, preferring not to deal with it. According to council member Brad Lander, between 2005 and 2013 less than 3,000 new affordable units were created.

But while a mandatory rule would ensure far more affordable housing stock in the future, council members said the plan — which was already overwhelming rejected by most community boards — needed to be more ambitious to have a positive effect for their communities. Determined to avoid another wave of Williamsburg-style development, almost every single one of the 51 council members grilled reps from the administration on the finer details and suggested changes.

Many questioned the limits of “affordability” in the system of averages outlined by the proposal. Affordable units would typically be set aside for families who, all together, make an average of 60-80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). (For context, 60 percent is about $47,000 for a family of three, and in some cases could even go up to 120 percent outside of Manhattan. Apartments might rent for around $1,150 to $2,350 a month, depending on your income bracket.

This averaging system was meant to be flexible so that people don’t fall out of the affordable bracket by a mere $1,000, as has happened in the past. A developer could potentially come up with a combination of 10 units at 20 percent and 10 at 100 percent to achieve that 60 percent average. But some council members worried that this was not a firm enough commitment to really help the neediest – instead of a spread across income brackets, the numbers could end up clustering around the average (ten 50s and ten 70s, for example), blocking out those with the lowest incomes. Many pushed for more units specifically designated for 30 percent of AMI and below.

Council member Antonio Reynoso from Bushwick said he couldn’t support MIH without more commitment to lower income brackets. He said 40 percent of Bushwick residents earn 40 percent of AMI or less. Under the current plan, even a good outcome might mean only seven percent of a new building would be set aside for those making around $31,000 or less a year. “I’m supposed to approve a plan that only seven percent of those mandatory inclusionary housing apartments are for the people in Bushwick?” he said. “I just don’t see that lining up.”

Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, replied that the commission was open to tweaking the averaging system to “more reflect, in a particular neighborhood, what needs to be accomplished to reach those lower income households.”

“MIH is setting a new floor, it is not the ceiling. We share your concern and commitment to make sure we are using our subsidies to target our most needy families in particular neighborhoods,” she said. “But without MIH we have less tools, less dollars, less opportunity to build affordable housing.”

Vicki Been, the commissioner for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, reiterated MIH is just one piece of the city’s package which also includes Section-8 subsidies and tax incentives for developers who build even more low income housing, as well as special rezoning plans for certain neighborhoods, like East New York. “It is a tool that makes developers pay for that seven percent, so that I can pay for much more, using my subsidies,” she said.

Reynoso, who wrote a longer reflection of his position on MIH last month titled “Lessons from Williamsburg and Bushwick,” also said he wanted new developments in manufacturing zones to be 100 percent affordable, and expressed opposition to provisions that allow developers to build the affordable units in a separate building off-site– similar to the much-hated “poor door” concept.

“Off-site is perpetuating discrimination in a lot of neighborhoods, especially in neighborhoods like Williamsburg– we are defining that not only by whether you’re rich or poor, but also whether you’re a person of color or not,” he said. “So [I] really want to have a conversation about what kind of city we want to live in and what it looks like– where an entire waterfront is mainly white and rich and an entire inland is mainly poor and people of color.”

Glen and the rest of the administration reps said that, legally, they needed to include an off-site provision, but the rules– as well as New York’s crazy real estate market– would make it difficult to construct buildings in separate locations. Based on current use of the option under voluntary inclusionary housing, she said they expected only 10 percent or less of new developments to actually use it.

Many council members — and the public advocate Letitia James — were also concerned about a possible “bait and switch” down the road, or loopholes that could be exploited by landlords. When de Blasio is no longer in office, how watertight will the provisions be if a new mayor has a different agenda?

Council member Stephen Levin, representing Williamsburg and Greenpoint, brought up his community’s long-suffering wait for Bushwick Inlet Park, promised during Bloomberg’s 2005 rezoning that brought lots of shiny towers to North-Brooklyn’s waterfront.

“What’s the plan there, and how does that experience inform how you’re looking at future rezoning? Because, obviously, that’s not a situation we want to be in 10 years from now, ” he said. “We need to, as a city, make good on all those promises, even under a prior administration, before we move on.”

Glen replied with some words about “restoring contract with community” and “delivering on promises” but no concrete steps regarding the park.

“We can’t guarantee in perpetuity, but we can set a framework and a new base case for what the city will look like,” she said. “Having the statutory framework now to ensure that at least 25 percent of those units are affordable– that is something that is a game changer, that far transcends any political point in time or New York administration.”

Later, Jens Rasmussen of the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park. took his righteous anger to the floor during public comments. “If this administration is willing to let the community of North Brooklyn live like rats in a maze because the agreements we made was with a previous administration, then what faith can current communities have that their hard-fought, hard-argued agreements will be honored in the future?” he said.

In general, the council seemed enthusiastic about the principle of MIH – the city will keep changing whether people like it or not, and this is a chance to harness the market for more permanent affordability. But it will likely take some serious tweaks and readjustments to get the proposal in shape over the next 50 days, when the council will decide.

Today the council will hear the other, much more contentious, half of de Blasio’s plan, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). This proposal would make MIH contingent on rezoning neighborhoods with strong air right protections, allowing developers to build taller and more densely. We hope they figure out that L train situation (and um…the rest of the MTA‘s nightmare problems?) before they go full force on this, or we really will feel like rats in a maze.

Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of the public advocate’s name.