Builders Deconstruct Affordable Housing Strategy

The people behind major construction projects in New York City took off their hard hats and put on their suits for the New York Build exhibition March 7 and 8 at the Javits Center. While displays of the latest screwdrivers and lamps looked like any other trade fair, one panel addressed the struggle New York City renters in all five boroughs face.

On Tuesday, the last day of the expo, panelists briefly discussed the challenges with affordable housing from the perspective of construction companies and developers charged to build the units.

“We’re in the middle of a huge affordable housing crisis in the city,” said David Quart, deputy commissioner for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

From left: Gary LaBarbera, Paula Carethers, David Quart, Stephanie Cobleigh and James Lee discuss affordable housing.
From left: Gary LaBarbera, Paula Carethers, David Quart, Stephanie Cobleigh and James Lee discuss affordable housing.  (The Ink/Maya Earls)

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new affordable housing plan with the goal of creating 200,000 units in ten years. Two years after that announcement, Quart said his agency funded more than 40,000 low-income units. In 2015 alone, more than 7,200 units were financed for new construction, the largest number in one year since Quart has worked for the department.

While calling the mayor’s plan “incredibly ambitious,” Quart said there has been success.

“There’s a lot happening, and there’s a lot that’s going to happen,” said Quart.

New York is a renter’s city, explained Jolie Milstein, president of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing. Still, many households are rent burdened. According to the website for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 56 percent of city renters spend more than one third of their income on rent and utilities. With a low rental vacancy rate, Quart said the issue is really supply-and-demand.

“We’re not talking about building 40-story skyscrapers in outlying neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” said Quart. “We’re talking about adding a little bit more density across the entire city.”

Stephanie Cobleigh, director of construction with the Azimuth Development Group, explained how creating affordable housing has its own challenges. Construction companies are facing less funding and more red tape when starting a new contract, she said.

“I have absolute faith in all of us here,” said Cobleigh. “But it has to be said that times are not what they [were].”

Azimuth Development Group balances costs by also including high-end condominiums in their business plan. Other developers are working on their own solutions, but the past system of creating cookie-cutter housing units such as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village is over, they said.

“The machine is not there anymore, and it won’t be churning out those units,” said Cobleigh.

James Lee, vice president of construction management with Grosvenor Construction, assured the audience that his business works to lower the cost of construction without sacrificing quality.

“I will spend time talking to maintenance staff to see which product lasts the longest, which one has the longevity to endure the next 10 to 15 years,” said Lee.

For Quart, voluntary inclusionary housing is another aspect of affordable housing. Developers that set aside 20 percent affordable units can get a higher floor area ratio, allowing them to build larger buildings. Developers who participated also qualified for tax credits.

“We’ve had some success,” said Quart. “But admittedly marginal success with that program. It’s worked in some cases and not in others.”

The mayor announced a new proposal last year for mandatory inclusionary housing. Under the plan, builders in a zoned neighborhood would have to allocate a specific amount of units to low-income families. City Council determines the amount of affordable units per building based on a neighborhood’s median income. The lowest option available is for a family of three with an income of $47,000 per year.

The plan received backlash in the community, with protesters at City Hall saying the plan is not affordable for all New Yorkers.

“$46,000 annually is not low-income for poor people,” said Bushwick resident Maria Cortez on Feb. 23, according to the Gothamist news website.

The City Council is scheduled to vote for the mandatory inclusion plan before the end of March.

“From our perspective, it sets a new floor,” said Quart on the proposed plan. “What it says is affordable housing must be part of a particular project.”