Affordable housing advocates protesting last fall (Photo: Nicole Disser)

Affordable housing advocates protesting last fall (Photo: Nicole Disser)

Bushwick council member Antonio Reynoso was among the many who challenged Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan last week, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to shoot it down entirely. Upzoning (i.e. rezoning certain areas to allow for higher buildings) is one of the more controversial aspects of the the mayor’s plan, and something that Bushwick residents have vehemently protested against in recent years. But in a report released earlier this month, Reynoso concludes that the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which would require a share of those taller buildings to be permanently affordable, represents the chance to address “missed opportunities” in North Brooklyn housing development.

The report, “Lessons from Williamsburg and Bushwick,” plainly demonstrates that if MIH policy had been in effect in the areas of Williamsburg and Greenpoint that were upzoned back in 2005 under Bloomberg’s tenure, “thousands more families would have affordable housing today, and fewer longtime residents would have been displaced.” Which, in a way, duh, but the report stands out as a voice of reason amidst a contentious, and sometimes uproarious debate about the efficacy of the Mayor’s proposal. Reynoso’s study clearly shows that any MIH policy is better than none.

The likes of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have advocated for upzoning in the Bushwick area– in Adams’ case, he’s called for such a plan to cover Broadway from Williamsburg through Bushwick and East New York. But nevertheless upzoning has long been a concern for residents across the city, from people living in long-gentrified neighborhoods like the Lower East Side to East New York, where people feel that change is just on the horizon. Some residents and housing activists believe that bringing in any sort of private development could result in gentrification and thus displacement. Even researchers at the Furman Center, NYU’s urban policy center expressed doubts about the benefits of upzoning and “mandatory inclusionary zoning policy” (which is reliant on market forces) in a report released last year that presented potential tradeoffs and drawbacks– namely that low-rent areas were not likely to see the benefits of such a policy. And, as we heard from council members at last week’s hearing, there are the inevitable transportation issues resulting from upzoning– taller towers mean greater density, which means more people packed on that L train (assuming it’s even running in a couple of years).

And then there are people who worry that towering developments would threaten the very fabric of Brooklyn neighborhoods known for their rows of squat brownstones and unimposing Pre-War buildings. As the Times reported, the mayor has acknowledged these concerns and is seeking to settle them. “We are not embarking on a mission to build towering skyscrapers where they don’t belong,” he said, citing “a duty to protect and preserve the culture and character of our neighborhoods.”

The City Council’s own report on the MIH plan argued that it “needs further adjustment” but conceded that “with improvements, this proposal has the potential to be the strongest and most ambitious in the country.”

But Reynoso’s report is unique in that it takes a closer look at the potential impact MIH would have on his particular district. “We’re having a lot of internal conversations in regards to what this looks to us,” he explained. “No other community has embarked on this type of effort where we’re having these conversations, we’re making these decisions, we’re going to present it to the City and hope they take it into consideration.”

As his report points out, the current zoning in Bushwick allows for tall buildings but “includes no provisions for affordable housing development.” And it has remained in place since 1961 when the neighborhood was a vastly different place, neglected by the city and riddled with poverty and violence. While Bushwick has boomed since then and seen a number of improvements, the vast majority of the neighborhood nevertheless must contend with “the intense pressure of an unrelenting real estate market” along with business development, new housing, and an influx of new residents. Reynoso writes that his constituency is concerned about plans for “out-of-scale towers” and the arrival of luxury residential developers, not to mention fancy hotels like the BKLYN House, which opened at the end of January.

Reynoso uses the example of Williamsburg, where Bloomberg’s housing plan was enacted, as a “cautionary tale.” The “large-scale upzoning” in 2005 put in place affordable housing incentives that developers could opt into voluntarily and receive a density bonus in exchange. Since 2005, just over 9,000 new housing units have been built or are going to be built within the rezoned area. But just 16 percent of those units are affordable (and only 13 percent permanently so). Reynoso’s study figures that if an MIH policy had required 30 percent of the units in the rezoned area to be affordable, we’d have almost twice the number of permanently affordable apartments.

Of course, displacement has become a concern in Bushwick more recently than 2005. So Reynoso figures that since 2010, just over 2,300 new units have been created (1,400 of those just inside of 2015) and only 12 percent are affordable. Reynoso estimates that, had an MIH policy been in place, instead 29 percent of those units would have been affordable ones.

Still, despite the support for MIH in general, Reynoso reiterated his major beef with the mayor’s plan at the hearing last week. He argues the proposal sets aside a pitifully small portion of affordability for people earning $31,000 or less, who are the most desperate when it comes to housing stress. (The median income for Bushwick residents hovers around $40,000.)

The Mayor has boasted that his program is the most progressive in the nation– with permanent, mandatory affordability within areas slated for rezoning– and is only a portion of his larger promise to add 80,000 affordable units to the city’s housing stock. But critics say the benefits to middle-income brackets are outsize. Make the Road, a Bushwick-born non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of immigrants and low-income residents, is among many housing activist groups that have expressed disapproval of this arrangement.

“We remain deeply concerned by the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan and its failure to deliver real affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers that extends to New Yorkers earning 20-30 percent of Area Median Income,” the group announced in response to the Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s State of the City speech last week.

The City Planning Commission has approved Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning plan. But most of the city’s community boards rejected it, and about a third of them “expressed concerns that the income levels targeted by the program were not low enough to meet the affordable housing needs of their district or the city in general.” Meanwhile, the Borough Boards issued a series of recommendations for amendments.

As B+B reported last week, Reynoso argued at the hearing that, as is, the plan sets aside just seven percent of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing apartments for the Bushwick residents who qualify as median- income earners. That position hasn’t changed, however, Reynoso acknowledged that “the community went through a process by which they decided an upzoning makes sense in some cases.”

Brooklyn Paper dubbed Reynoso “Dr. Change-Love” for having a “change of heart” from “the pol who was
championing downzoning as a way to stop luxury towers from taking over the neighborhood two years ago” to an advocate for upzoning. The article stated that he’d learned to “stop worrying and love upzoning.”

However, in a phone call with B+B, Reynoso painted a different picture, defending his approach to rezoning and affordable housing as a holistic one as opposed to black-or-white. “In the past I’ve always said I wanted to engage in a community-based process as to what Bushwick would look like– I don’t want to go up or down, I want the people to decide,” Reynoso said. “There are parts of Bushwick that can go up and there are other parts we want to preserve.” He emphasized, “I’m doing the community’s bidding– it’s not so much that I stopped worrying.”

The report, he said, was a way of “putting things back in perspective.” Instead of there being a great deal of rhetoric dividing camps into “for” and “against” the Mayor’s plan, it seems better to look at the plan as progress no matter what, and to instead focus on pushing through as many tweaks as possible, including gaining more affordable housing for lower-income earners. “We’re making sure it’s still legally viable,” Reynoso explained. “And we’re trying to achieve whatever’s legally possible.”