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Adams Should Aim Higher on Zoning Reform

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eye on the news

Adams Should Aim Higher on Zoning Reform

A new report goes only part of the way toward changes that the city needs—it’s up to the mayor to push for more. June 24, 2022
New York
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

New York City mayoral administrations get one big shot to do something transformative for land-use regulation in their first four-year term. It takes about six months to figure out the basic direction; another six months to work out the details; and a year to undertake the legally mandated environmental review. By year three, the proposal is ready to undergo the city charter’s grueling seven-month review process. By the time that’s over, campaign season is beginning for the next mayoral election.

Bill de Blasio achieved passage of two major zoning amendments—Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA)—in 2016. Much like de Blasio, Mayor Eric Adams’s big land-use initiative will be to enact zoning changes intended to alleviate the city’s chronic housing shortage. But with Adams’s proposals approaching the end of the figuring-out-the-direction stage, they remain dismayingly vague and insufficient.

A new report from the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) may provide some insight into the administration’s direction. The report, “Onward and Upward,” was drafted by a committee of experienced architects, city planners, and attorneys, with help from city officials. CHPC introduces the report online as “a technical roadmap to advance the new administration’s goals and priorities.”

The CHPC report is focused on zoning and regulatory reform, as is the mayor. It has many good proposals, like reducing off-street parking rules and legalizing additional dwelling units and single-room occupancy buildings. But it also comes with an odd set of blinders. Adams’s own housing plan acknowledges, with illustrative charts, that a key reason for the city’s housing-affordability crisis is that the “housing stock has not kept up with the rapid population and job growth that our city has experienced in recent decades. Even as the population surged throughout the 1980s and 1990s, housing was built at a much slower pace than was necessary to meet the need. . . . New York City produces significantly fewer new units per capita than many other major cities across the country.”

I criticized Adams’s plan for offering no policies that would actually remedy the long-term housing supply deficit. CHPC’s report suffers from the same shortcoming. As I’ve written, the supply solution should include widespread increases in zoned densities in the many relatively affluent neighborhoods where the housing market supports new privately financed housing construction but restrictive zoning largely prohibits new housing from being built. That, in turn, necessitates reform of de Blasio’s MIH program, which is intended to ensure construction of mixed-income housing when rezoning occurs. However, because the program requires such a large percentage of the new housing to be below-market and affordable to those with relatively low incomes, it works, even in theory, only in the city’s strongest housing markets and with the generous tax incentives provided under state law. Unfortunately, the tax-incentive program for mixed-income housing, known as Section 421a, has just expired, and the legislature has given no sign that it will be renewed.

The CHPC report proposes that the city pursue more rezonings in the few strong-market neighborhoods where the MIH program might once have worked, before the tax incentives expired. That won’t produce nearly enough housing to solve the city’s problem. The report also proposes the rezoning of underused industrial areas for housing, citing Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn as one example, without recognizing that no housing will be built in such mid-market areas without MIH reform and tax incentives.

CHPC’s framework apparently does not include new middle-income housing, though the private market produces such housing in middle-market neighborhoods where the zoning allows it. Housing for the wealthy is acceptable, where it cross-subsidizes low-income housing. So is government-subsidized low-income housing. But without more middle-income housing, the needs of the city’s growing labor force will go unmet.

Other odd proposals in the CHPC report seem to be reflected in Adams’s plans. De Blasio’s ZQA zoning amendments specified a floor-area increase for affordable senior housing, called Affordable Independent Residences for Seniors (AIRS). The thinking here (I worked on the amendment while a city employee) was that seniors largely did not contribute to the effects that come with built density, such as greater traffic congestion or the need for more school seats, so senior housing could be built larger than was appropriate for family housing.

CHPC now proposes that the additional-floor-area incentive be extended to all types of affordable housing, including those intended for families. The report justifies this by arguing that, due to fair housing concerns, AIRS buildings must be free-standing, and affordable senior units can’t be mixed in the same building with market-rate units. In contrast, affordable family housing can be mixed without raising legal issues.

Under current MIH rules and tax law, this provision, if enacted, would produce 100 percent affordable buildings constructed with deep public subsidies. By constructing bigger buildings, affordable-housing developers could perhaps save on land costs. But what if the city reformed MIH and the state legislature enacted a workable new tax-incentive program? In that case, the affordable housing floor-area incentive might be widely used, like a similar program that existed prior to 2016: the Voluntary Inclusionary Housing floor-area bonus combined with the one-time Section 421a “exclusion zone,” which linked tax benefits to mixed-income housing. As I wrote in 2020, this combination worked brilliantly until the tax incentives expired—at which point the zoning floor-area bonus stopped being used and no below-market housing was produced.

What’s missing is any consideration of whether it makes sense to pump up density citywide—but only in the locations already zoned for apartment buildings. The proposal would likely generate community resistance (some of it justified) and require a great deal of study and analysis.

A better alternative might be to look for geographically dispersed housing opportunities in all neighborhoods, including relatively affluent areas where current zoning permits only low densities. That alternative, which I have proposed, would necessitate the same study and analysis, but it might be seen as fairer since it would increase zoned density based on sound planning criteria and not merely by formula.

The CHPC report also has a confusing section on process reform. Changing zoning means going through a process called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which takes about seven months. There’s a period before that called pre-certification, in which the Department of City Planning and the applicant agree on the parameters of the proposal to be submitted to public review. Pre-certification involves a lot of back-and-forth that applicants often find maddening. CHPC proposes, not for the first time, to impose a time limit on this process. When I worked for the city, I was skeptical about such proposals. There is no obvious beginning point for “pre-certification.” If there were time limits, a “pre-pre-certification” process would likely evolve in which all the delays that now happen in pre-certification would still occur.

Except for one brief mention, the CHPC report disregards the costliest and most time-consuming part of pre-certification: City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR). State law sets the parameters of environmental review, so the legislature could exempt housing entirely from review in cities with populations over 1 million in the midst of a housing emergency. Short of that, the legislature could be helpful in other ways. The city, meantime, could take a close look at revising its guidelines, called the CEQR Technical Manual. The manual has accreted a great deal of superfluous analysis resulting in enormous, but not very informative, documents.

I have focused here on the details of the CHPC report because they seem to reflect the administration’s thinking. Adams has just one chance to get this right, since mayoral second terms are usually overshadowed by the achievements of the first. The mayor should take the good parts of the CHPC report and reach higher.

Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

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