Advocates to Rally for Affordable Development in Brooklyn

Growing up in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, Onleilove Alston says her family experienced homelessness, contended with redlining and remained in the community despite the crack epidemic.

But with Mayor Bill de Blasio planning to upzone the long-neglected community, Alston says too few of her relatives and neighbors have been cued in to the city's plans—and with speculation driving up the price of land, they now fear displacement at the hands of developers instead. 

“We see rezones as kind of a fork in the road. If they’re done right, our communities can get what they need. If they’re done incorrectly, without community input and without real attention to what affordable means for a community like the South Bronx or like the East Bronx, it could just displace millions,” said Alston, whose advocacy group Faith in New York worked with the de Blasio administration to arrange a local hiring initiative as part of Hurricane Sandy recovery work in Far Rockaway. “There will be long-term consequences without real community engagement, and when I say consequences, I mean everything from gentrification and displacement to political consequences.” 

As de Blasio departs for Washington D.C. to unveil an agenda designed to goad presidential candidates to the left, a coalition of liberal activists including Alston and the Building and Construction Trades Council plan to push for the mayor to take a cue from his own platform.

Real Affordability for All (RAFA), a coalition of 50 advocacy groups seeking to preserve the city’s affordable housing stock, have organized a march in East New York, the first neighborhood the de Blasio administration plans to rezone, for Tuesday night. The group expects at least 1,000 attendees.

The Department of City Planning says the formal land use review process will begin by Sept. 9, but Alston and other advocates say it should be delayed to ensure officials seek enough community feedback to inform an acceptable template.

The administration’s plan hinges on a mandatory inclusionary zoning program that offers developers more density in exchange for the construction of affordable apartments.  RAFA would like to see half of all constructed units deemed affordable. The coalition is also calling for a localized calculation of what affordability means— either within or in addition to the  federal government’s approach of basing rates on an area median income that encompasses the entire metropolitan region. And RAFA says directing local residents into unionized construction jobs would work in tandem with de Blasio’s goals. (The Building and Construction Trades Council president has publicly offered to use discounted labor on affordable developments as a way to recruit and train new union members.)

RAFA says it has partnered with a developer to ensure its template is economically viable. The plan would offer developers single-digit profit margins in areas where the real estate market can fetch luxury rates for non-subsidized units, but would require subsidies in other parts of the city, the group said. 

“In neighborhoods or areas that are going to see substantial upzones, the application of this model works,” said Ismene Speliotis, executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York Management, which promotes, develops and manages affordable housing. “The upzone is in its basic premise.”

The Real Estate Board of New York, which represents developers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Davon Lomax, deputy political director for the DC 9 painters’ union, says he was not personally involved in discussions with the administration or housing advocates, but thinks the Building and Construction Trades Council’s agreement with the New York City Housing Authority might serve as a model. Lomax says the council inked a project labor agreement that netted more than $3 billion in contracts for its unions and reserved 10 percent of its apprenticeship class for public housing residents. He says the agreement wound up being viable because it waived certain organized labor work schedule requirements to save time and money.

“From what I hear, they’re going pretty well,” Lomax said of the talks between RAFA and the de Blasio administration.

Alston was less optimistic. She senses the 50-50 model touted by RAFA is a “sticking point” with the administration, which has so far preferred the more traditional ratio of 20 percent affordable units.

The administration has also been non-committal about how it will assess what is affordable in neighborhoods, Alston says. The coalition claims units planned by de Blasio would be accessible for families earning $42,000 to $67,000 annually, while median incomes are $34,000 or less in some of the communities targeted for upzoning.

Wiley Norvell, a de Blasio spokesman, says the administration is planning with current residents in mind.

“We’re committed to real neighborhood planning that protects and strengthens East New York’s fabric. In the coming months, we will bring together all the threads that will help grow and empower this neighborhood: Mandatory Affordable Housing; protections for current tenants; investments in community facilities. At the center of all of this is a commitment to keeping East New York affordable for the people who live there today,” Norvell said in a statement.

The administration stresses that it is carefully planning for the rezonings and would establish a floor for what portion and what income levels would be deemed affordable by neighborhood. De Blasio’s office says the goal is to ensure some income diversity, while allowing existing residents to afford the rates. In poor communities like East New York, the administration envisions at least 50 percent of units deemed affordable for locals and layering in Housing, Preservation and Development subsidies on top of mandatory zoning benefits to drive down apartment costs. Some of these subsidies, such as the Extremely Low and Low Income Affordability program, are available to developers that set aside between 61 and 90 percent of units, with a portion available for formerly homeless families or those earning under 30 percent of the area median income.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Faith in New York worked with the Bloomberg administration on post-Sandy recovery work, when it actually worked with the de Blasio administration. The earlier post also inaccurately stated that the Real Affordability for All coalition was pushing a mandatory inclusionary zoning model. The coalition’s model is a more flexible approach that seeks to create affordable housing for neighborhoods’ residents through rezoning.