brown concrete structure under sunny sky
Photo by Brandon Nickerson on

On Monday, Mayor Eric Adams and the City Planning Commission launched the public review process for the second phase of the mayor’s City of Yes initiative, focused on affordable housing construction.

The mantra of “a little more housing in every neighborhood,” as reiterated by Commission Chair Dan Garodnick at a rally celebrating the formal launch, is the key to understanding this effort. Unlike some other city housing efforts, this isn’t really about any given development or series of developments, nor any specific zone or neighborhood redevelopment (think the post-9/11 Downtown revitalization push). It’s about shifting the way that housing gets sited and built citywide, with an emphasis on clearing the path to much more construction across income bands no matter the area.

Not all of this involves radically new ideas, and in fact there are some attempts to return to an era when the city’s housing code was less timid about construction.  For example, the ideas include allowing the construction of mixed-use buildings with stores on the ground floors and apartments above in relatively  low-density areas, a very common arrangement across the city that is nonetheless no longer allowed by the zoning code.

Speaking of low density, the plan roughly divides areas into low and high density and has separate proposals to target each. Lower-density planks include not just the housing atop retail but allowing so-called accessory dwelling units, which are essentially independent housing units located within an existing housing lot — think converted garages and basement apartments — and more density specifically near public transit hubs. On the high density side, the plan hopes to provide runway for the accelerating trend of office (and other non-residential) conversions to housing, one way to make lemonade out of the lemons of a collapsing office sector and the so-called “retailpocalypse.” It would also eliminate some parking requirements that are counterproductive in a city where the majority of people, especially in denser parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, don’t have cars.

The biggest idea is probably what’s being called universal affordability preference, or UAP, which is both very simple as an idea and has the potential to significantly impact the city’s housing stock: it would allow buildings to have up to 20% more housing space than would otherwise be permitted, so long as that extra housing falls into an affordability threshold of 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) or below. Basically, you get to build bigger if the excess is going to be affordable.

After all that ado, you might be a little surprised to see how relatively tame these proposals ultimately are. Parts of it might shift the appearance and obviously the density of certain parts of the city, but none of it would fundamentally reshape how housing works or how neighborhoods tend to look in NYC. Almost all of it has existed in some form or another already. Does this mean that it has a smooth road ahead? Absolutely not.

The city has 59 community boards, five borough presidents, and 51 City Council seats. Only the latter ultimately have a determinative vote, but opposition from the former two groups can go a long way towards swaying local council members. Remember that Governor Kathy Hochul’s ambitious statewide housing plan last year was left in a ditch, not due to any broad legislative opposition, but because a handful of NYC-suburb legislators vehemently opposed the modest housing increases it would bring.

Community boards in particular have been known to devolve into messes of recriminations and dysfunction over things like removing a few parking spaces from a community, let alone something that could put 70 units on top of a commercial strip. Expect there to be substantial and probably overheated discussion around these proposals, with boards both voting the initiatives down altogether and sending in significant proposed revisions, some of which would no doubt defeat the purpose. This can sway borough presidents, who can in turn lean on members of the council.

So there’s a long road ahead for these proposals. It’s unclear when exactly this final vote will come, but the City Planning Commission expects it to happen by the end of the year. Whatever pitfalls the effort might face, it’s at least an effort to reform a city zoning code that is not just outdated now, but was already outdated twenty years ago, and for that I have to give the mayor some credit. This political showdown is not strictly something that he had to do, and prior administrations have been content to tweak around the edges rather than reform how housing can actually be zoned in NYC. This will combine with some state-level changes, which I outlined a couple weeks ago, and are much more tentative than Hochul’s earlier proposals but will still have potentially wide-ranging impacts.

Mayor Eric Adams. Photo by NYC Mayor’s Office

I would say that there’s a cautionary tale for the Adams administration in the assessment of his immediate predecessor’s efforts. De Blasio’s Housing New York plan and its crown jewel of mandatory inclusionary housing definitely moved the needle, with below-target but still significant number of affordable homes built and preserved,  some 50,000 and 115,000 respectively. But, as some studies subsequently showed, a good chunk of these units weren’t ultimately that affordable for the city’s poorest or even working-class residents, in part due to reliance on somewhat blunt tools like AMI. As a result, residents of a given neighborhood couldn’t necessarily afford the supposedly affordable apartments built on their own block.

So, in its implementation, the Adams administration should take care not to focus too heavily on the number of units itself, but on how responsive they are to the actual need, which isn’t to say that there should only be very affordable apartments. Plenty of research establishes that having availability of higher-priced apartments also helps keep costs down across the board, as wealthier people aren’t necessarily competing for the same low-cost apartments. But having the real need of New Yorkers at various income bands should be a guiding principle.

To touch on a different side of the city’s housing regulation, the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), which sets annual rent change levels for the city’s roughly 1 million rent-stabilized units, a preliminary vote was held  yesterday setting its range of increases at 2 to 4.5%for one-year renewals to 4 to 6.5%for two-year renewals. These are often contentious meetings, and yesterday’s was no different, with the two tenant representatives on the board walking off in protest prior to the vote. The board’s two consecutive rent raises over the past two years have angered tenant groups, though they come after rents were basically held flat during de Blasio’s entire administration.

Tthe RGB generally falls within its pre-established range, while considering factors like inflation, cost of labor and fuel, and other factors that affect both landlords and tenants. The task of the board, in sum, is to balance competing priorities: the economic burden on renters, and the financial flexibility of landlords, who need operating income to make repairs, pay insurance and taxes, and otherwise finance the running of buildings. Adams, who effectively controls the board via appointments, was apparently displeased with some of the higher ranges, saying in a statement that a potential 6.5% increase was “far beyond what is reasonable.” A final vote will come in June 17, ahead of which there are multiple meetings.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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