economic development

Patchett's EDC: From Amazon to Willets Point

New York City has created or preserved more affordable housing last year than any year on record – but it matched that by spending a record high amount as well, due in part to changes in the federal tax code, The New York Times reported this week.

Economic Development Corporation President and CEO James Patchett, who has been a point person for the de Blasio administration on affordable housing, explained that federal funding is one of the biggest challenges moving forward, both from changes to the corporate tax code and threatened cuts to Housing and Urban Development.

“Fundamentally, the federal government has been one of the largest sources of funding for affordable housing historically, so it just requires the city to be more creative to leverage more with market-rate housing to make affordable housing possible and to use our public sites and public assets as effectively as we can," Patchett said.

Patchett also weighed in the city’s chances to attract Amazon to build its second headquarters here, the expanding ferry system, coastal resiliency and high-profile projects like Willets Point in Queens and Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.

Check out highlights of the interview below. To listen to the full podcast, click on the link at the top of this article or subscribe to City & State’s podcasts on iTunes or Soundcloud.

C&S: What are EDC's plans for equitable growth and to make sure that the gains of new white-collar job creation, like from Amazon, are widely shared?

JP: As relates to Amazon, I fundamentally believe I should be fired as the president of the Economic Development Corporation if we don't try to land Amazon's second headquarters. And I think Amazon would be crazy not to pick New York City because we're the talent and cultural capital of the world. That being said, the conversation with Amazon is very much about talent. And one of the most important things that both they (Amazon) and we are interested in is diversifying the tech sector. And I think Amazon coming to New York is actually an opportunity to diversify the tech sector because New York is also, in addition to being a talent center, one of the most diverse cities on the planet. What we want is actual jobs for New Yorkers from a variety of backgrounds, and we have heard from Amazon an interest in seeing that. As to your broader question about fairness and equity, I think in some ways that's a good example of it. We really do, as the mayor has said, look through every decision about how can it make the city fairer. One of the major initiatives we have around the jobs front is around the life sciences. But part of our program is not just about attracting major companies, it's also about getting people from a wide variety of backgrounds into it. We've created, as a first step, an internship program that is taking people from a variety of educational backgrounds, including high school students, to get them into biotech startups, to start to gain experience in those jobs. And then, over time, we're also looking at apprenticeship models, both in life sciences and elsewhere. So we have to create more good quality jobs, but we have to make sure they're accessible.

C&S: Is it a good idea to be develop projects in neighborhoods that were flooded during Sandy – and where flooding will occur in the future?

JP: First of all, the great thing about the ferry system is that it's incredibly resilient in the sense that during a storm, as happened this weekend, we may need to have it out for a couple of hours because of high winds. But as soon as the storm is over, we're able to go back on. There aren't flooded tunnels. Immediately after Sandy actually, one of the pilot programs for the ferry system was that it was able to run to the Rockaways when the A train stopped working. The A train stopped working for a year. So having a resilient transit system is actually, I think, helpful for dealing with the issues of climate change as waterfront communities are going to be impacted because they'll actually have transit, whereas parts of the rest of the city might not. When the bridges are down or the subway tunnels are down, the ferries can keep running. And as to building resiliency, the city changed the building code to ensure that all new buildings that are being constructed, that are in flood zones based on new flood maps, have to be built to highly resilient standards. That means the utilities have be located appropriately, it means they have to be elevated or have berms around them as needed. So I think the combination of the building code and having a resilient transportation system actually make waterfront development make a lot of sense. It just needs to be done intelligently and we can't ignore climate change, we have to accept that it's the new reality.

C&S: One idea some left-wing observers have put forward as a possibly more efficient alternative to 421a to build affordable housing is to use property taxes from affluent owners of luxury condos to build it. I assume you're, in keeping with the mayor, of the opinion the current approach is the right one. Why?

JP: I would just say generally speaking, I definitely consider myself left-wing, if you will, but I just generally disagree with the opposition to cross-subsidizing affordable housing with market-rate housing. I also disagree with that movement's view that a single unit of market-rate housing is a bad thing. If we want to continue to create affordable housing, we have to be willing to cross-subsidize it with market-rate housing. And I think market-rate housing is needed in the city to make sure we have more supply to deal with the demand. I believe that more housing results in lower prices over time, being an economist. But to your question, specifically on 421a, I was heavily involved in the negotiations around 421a both times it came up before the Legislature. The city was very focused on ensuring we increase the affordable housing requirement as a part of 421a. We don't reject it outright, but what the mayor said at the time was, it has to be reformed or we would support getting rid of it. What we pushed for was a larger affordable housing requirement and we also pushed for eliminating condos as a part of it. So you can no longer get a 421a for condos. That was a reform that the city insisted on and we got, and I agree with that criticism of it. I think for as to exactly where the program came out, it was not the program that we pushed for, but ultimately, a 421a program that has the right balance of economic benefits in exchange for affordable housing, we support because we believe it's a good tool.