the city politic

New York’s Leaders Are Sleeping Through a Housing Emergency

The response should reflect the size and speed of the crisis. It hasn’t even come close.

Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

New York has become sadly inured to the ongoing housing crisis that is driving so many other municipal problems, including poverty, eviction, homelessness, and racial segregation. Even with tens of thousands of people living in shelters, our city continues to waste time, money, and energy battling over even small efforts to increase the stock of reasonably priced apartments.

Last week, members of the City Council sat through six soul-sapping hours of testimony about an effort to build about 350 badly needed affordable apartments at the corner of Bruckner Boulevard and Crosby Avenue in Throggs Neck. On the same day, Mayor Eric Adams joined a rally on the steps of City Hall with members of the construction and building service unions to push the required rezoning.

“The rent is too damn high. We need to find places where the rent can be affordable,” said Adams.

The Bronx project would include 168 lower-cost apartments, 99 of which would be reserved for senior citizens and 22 for veterans, along with a supermarket and recreation space for local kids.  The City Planning Commission has unanimously approved an upzoning that would move the deal forward, leaving final approval (or denial) in the hands of the City Council.

One sticking point for opponents is that the proposed buildings would be eight stories tall in a neighborhood where most homes are half that height. “We have a beautiful community. We just want to keep it the way it is,” said John Cerini, president of the Bronx Coalition Against Upzoning, which opposes the project.

The fight has grown so heated that Marjorie Velasquez, the local council member (who opposes the project), skipped a community board meeting about the rezoning, citing “a number of threats made against me on several community forums.”

Rallies, debates, and public hearings are the beating heart of democracy, and I’m all for it. But the scale and scope of New York’s housing emergency demands a much quicker pace of development, one that doesn’t bog down in a political firefight over every tiny new project. Because while we’re bickering and bargaining, the laws of supply and demand are grinding families down.

The average asking rent in Manhattan is now over $5,000 a month, with Brooklyn following at $3,800 and northwest Queens at $3,300. Those are the highest prices in history. We’re seeing more Airbnb units available than vacant apartments in our city.

One reason for the price spikes is the time-consuming expense of securing the zoning changes needed to build or expand apartment buildings in New York. A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission notes that a paltry 107 requests for zoning changes went to the Department of City Planning in the four years between 2014 and 2017, and 40 percent of them were not approved. The plans that did advance took, on average, two and a half years to get approval — delays that add an estimated 11 to 16 percent to the cost of building.

We’ll never cure the housing shortage at that snail’s pace. To make matters worse, large swaths of the city have mastered the art of discouraging any form of development, presenting a hostile united front to for-profit and nonprofit builders alike. The New York Housing Conference, a leading coalition that advocates for affordable housing, has created an online tracker that identifies particular council districts where affordable housing simply isn’t getting built. It includes neighborhoods like Throggs Neck, Bergen Beach, Middle Village, and the South Shore of Staten Island.

“The New York metro area is facing a shortage of 772,000 apartments affordable to very low-income households ($28,020 to up to $60,050 for a family of three). There are currently only 47 apartments available for every 100 very low-income households,” a recent Conference report says, concluding that “political barriers and policy choices that stall and thwart new opportunities for affordable projects have a significant impact. Opposition to new residential projects and zoning changes have limited affordable and market-rate housing development throughout the city.”

The Conference is asking Adams, the City Council, and the five borough presidents to create broad, citywide zoning that would override neighborhood-level efforts to opt out of building affordable housing. The Citizens Budget Commission is calling for an overhaul of the land-use review process to make it less expensive and time-consuming to build new apartments. Both ideas are sound and worth considering.

But the crucial missing ingredient is political will. New York has no shortage of well-paid leaders, who should be brainstorming ways to break us out of the current stalemate — a recurring problem of democracy — between the economic needs of the many and the political preferences (and local veto power) of a few.

But far too many politicians and community advocates are confusing simplistic slogans with actual solutions. Housing is a human right, they say solemnly — while opposing any reasonable proposal to actually build some. That’s no way to end a housing emergency that is growing worse by the day.

Adams and the Council, along with the State Legislature when it convenes in January, must treat the housing crunch like the emergency it is. And that starts with creating as many affordable units as possible. Not here and there after endless bickering. Now.

New York’s Leaders Are Sleeping Through a Housing Emergency