Residents of Community Board 4, both young and old, packed the Fashion Industries High School auditorium on West 24th Street in Chelsea on October 6 for a Community Board 4 meeting on affordable housing. Councilman Corey Johnson greeted residents with a friendly kiss on the cheek, even as one woman walked out when a board member was late, saying, “I knew this would be a waste of time.”
Midtown West, once considered a light industrial area, is now a prime destination for developers who want to profit off of the current boom in Manhattan’s residential real estate. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Affordable Housing: Ten-Year Plan for the creation of 200,000 affordable units citywide – with 11,000 in Midtown West – is expected to provide the city with an incentive to build residential property and provide homes for New Yorkers with a range of incomes.
The plan would increase affordable housing units from the current 2,078, a steady level since 2005, to 11,000 – and would replace the optional 80/20 plan that exists in many communities in Midtown West.
Affordable housing was instituted in the 1980’s by former-Mayor Edward Koch to restore vacant buildings and properties devastated by arson and neglect. The CB4 plan, which was introduced in August and took 6-8 months to finalize, is an attempt to expand the concept. The board hopes that once the plan is approved by the mayor, it will serve as a precedent for other communities to follow.
Joe Restuccia, director of the Clinton Housing Development Company, member of CB4 since 1983 and a panelist at the town-hall meeting, approved of the board’s plan to use unconventional methods to increase space for affordable housing. “If one city agency owns a space, let’s figure out who owns that space. Let’s look at untraditional things and move those ahead,” he said, igniting a roar of response from the crowd, including an elderly man who yelled, “But how?”
“High end real estate creates affordable housing,” Restuccia continued, as the same voice called out, “But for whom?”
The new plan will eliminate the 80/20 program, which was both optional and carried no long-term guarantees, and include a system for incorporating mandatory inclusionary housing. Sarah Desmond, a panelist, member of Community Board 4 and a legal consultant at the Housing Conservation Coordinators, said, “The 428 tax abatement [tax incentive] is only affordable for a certain length of time. When it starts to expire, Midtown West will lose rent-stabilized units. That means 1,700 affordable units are going to expire within 35-years,” without an alternate plan in place.
Residents complain that under the current system, landlords work aggressively to move them out and make their buildings more appealing to wealthier renters. Sharon Laughlin, wearing a grey hoodie and jeans, is a fixture in Hell’s Kitchen; the 67-year old has lived in the area all her life and now resides at the Hudsonview Terrace Apartments at 747 10th Avenue. “The main thing about affordable housing,” she said, “is that it’s not so affordable anymore.”
Laughlin imagines that she’d have been long gone if it weren’t for the protection afforded by her government-subsidized Section 8 voucher. “They can’t kick me out,” she said. “That’s completely illegal. The building owners like the money from the government. Had I been unsubsidized, I’d be gone.” The City Department of Housing Preservation (HPD) has a contract with the landlord and pays a large percent of her rent. When asked how much she pays, she said, “I don’t tell. Just consider it to be a 10 cent tip at a local bar.”
Many residents wanted to find out how to stop landlords from harassing them and forcing them to vacate their homes, in an attempt to refurbish the units to charge higher rents. As both a community board member and neighborhood resident, Desmond said, “It used to be the thugs that would bang on the doors in the 1980’s,” but now it’s the landlords. But the new plan does not address ways to improve the landlord/renter relationship.
Restuccia also voiced his frustration with compliance under the 80/20 plan. He mentioned one building being built on 24th and 11th that will have a car elevator to take residents from their vehicles directly to their apartments, and another on 28th that will have a swimming pool on each floor; neither building has affordable housing units. “The developers say that this won’t work financially,” he said, about creating affordable housing options. “You’re building 800 new apartments with views of 360 degrees. The flooring in the market rate unit will be wood, but in the affordable unit it will be parquet. When you put the same thing in every apartment it is cheaper to build. Inclusion means that everybody gets included and it’s not that the affordable tenants get the lesser deal.”
Councilman Johnson also expressed concern about rent increases for senior citizens and wanted to reassure the crowd that the HPD is considering ways to rectify the problem. Commissioner Vicki Been assured the audience that finding adequate methods to support the senior population is an on-going process. “A great deal of funding to build supportive centers and senior housing has expired,” she said, to disapproving response from the crowd. “We are not going to let the fact that Washington is falling down on their job keep us from doing our job,”