Defining ‘affordability’ upward
It was late April and Helen Rosenthal—Upper West Side progressive, City Council freshman—was not pleased with what she was hearing.
TF Cornerstone had brought plans for its latest Manhattan megaproject, with more than 1,000 units in Hell’s Kitchen, to the City Council’s Land Use Committee for approval. Planning officials clearly hadn’t wrung enough value out of the developer, Rosenthal believed, and decided more could be done.
And so it was. The Council generally defers to the local members on such matters, so Rosenthal was able to cut a deal with TF Cornerstone. It meant more “affordable” housing, to the tune of 10,000 square feet, and a guarantee that a preschool would be built on the site, which is now expected to cover some 900,000 square feet.
But Rosenthal looked at the neighborhood surrounding the West 57th Street development and thought it wasn’t enough. She felt there was a need for moderate-income housing that could go to people who live in the community now. Extell Development’s massive Riverside Center South project on the Hudson River, between West 59th and 72nd streets, is already slated to include hundreds of units for lower-income families.
So, in an unusual move, Rosenthal told TF Cornerstone that the threshold to qualify for the least-expensive units—the ones that would be set-aside for some of the poorest New Yorkers—should be raised.
She increased the eligibility cut-off from 40 percent of area median income, or A.M.I., to 60 percent. That means a family of four making about $33,500 per year would have met the threshold under the original plan, but that same family would need to make at least $50,300 to qualify under Rosenthal’s revisions.
“I said to the developer, ‘we’re done with the  percent lower income,’” Rosenthal recalled recently as we lunched at a Lenny’s near City Hall. “‘We’re giving you a break, because we’re going to make it at 60 percent A.M.I., not  percent. So you’re going to get a little more rent from these people.’”
That allowed her to negotiate more “affordable” units for much-higher-income families. Rosenthal told the developer to dedicate 10,000 square feet, or about 20 more units, for moderate-income households. She said all those apartments had to be big enough for families. “I don’t want any single-bedroom ones,” she said. Those new units will be dedicated to households making between 175 percent and 230 percent of the A.M.I.
Those numbers are so high they’re off the chart in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, quite literally. The plan defines “middle income” up to 165 percent. What does that actually mean? The range encompasses families of four earning between $147,000 and $193,000 per year.
To hear the councilwoman tell it, these are the type of families that live on the Upper West Side, which is at 140 percent of the A.M.I. These are the kind of families, Rosenthal says, that are being pushed out of her neighborhood by the ever-rising cost of apartments there. They are the families that took a chance on the neighborhood a few decades ago and made it what it is today. They’re not rich, just upper-middle class.
It’s also not without precedent. There have been other projects that dedicated units to those A.M.I.s, like Hunter’s Point South on the Queens waterfront. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was at the groundbreaking of that project and proudly declared in a written statement that it will be “the first large-scale middle-class development to be built in our city in more than three and a half decades.” And the City Council under Speaker Christine Quinn released a report last year in which it defined middle class as up to 300 percent of A.M.I.—$199,300 at the time for a family of four.
But what Rosenthal did to the TF Cornerstone project was not without criticism. There are those who would argue 230 percent A.M.I. is far too high an income level to dedicate to affordable housing. And in this case, the result was obvious: Families considered “extremely” and “very” low income—that likely can’t find anywhere comfortable to live in New York City that isn’t, in some way, dedicated to assisting the poor—lost a potential home. Instead, the city will add apartment stock that’s affordable to families that could afford decent homes in any number of neighborhoods in the five boroughs.
When I suggested that to Rosenthal, she said she had already heard that criticism. It didn’t come from the mayor’s office. “It came from… the council members. It’s your point. It came from the council members who said ‘What? …You negotiated something where the extra you got was that?’ Because, of course, we need more affordable housing—more affordable housing for everyone. So there were a couple of council members who abstained, because they were of course trying to represent their district. And I respect that totally. But I did right by my district.”
Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Buildings, abstained from the land-use vote. When I talked to him a few weeks ago, he wouldn’t say anything along the lines of what Rosenthal said she was told by colleagues in private. He spoke in general about affordable housing. There is a need for a good spread, he said, covering the poorest among us all the way up to middle-class folks, saying it “gets tricky to find housing in the city” even at middle incomes.
“I think there’s been a lot of projects that come through the Council that don’t have the deeper income units we’d hope to see,” Williams said. “What it does is tend to push pockets of poverty other places across the city.” He said there should be ways to put middle-income families in lower-income neighborhoods. “The objective here is to breakup these concentrated pockets of poverty.”
Ironically, Rosenthal uses the same argument to talk about why she made the changes she did to the $550 million TF Cornerstone project. She wants to ensure the Upper West Side doesn’t just become a place for the very poor and the very rich. Truth be told, that is where a lot of the affordable housing work to be done in her neighborhood remains. The mayor’s plan to create 80,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade does not target the U.W.S., which is mostly built out. But the plan does call for preserving 120,000 units that are already affordable. That’s where a lot of work can be done in Rosenthal’s district, the councilwoman said.
The Upper West Side lost 12,231 rent-stabilized apartments between 2008 and 2011, according to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. There’s another 2,661 units at risk to expire by the end of 2019. There’s also 1,220 Mitchel-Lama units at risk and 616 Section 8 units at risk, ANHD says. It’s important the middle class not be sucked out of Manhattan’s now-prospering neighborhoods, Rosenthal said.
“You know, from my perspective, what makes the Upper West Side the Upper West Side is that, 20, 30 years ago, a bunch of sort of lower-middle income families and individuals took a risk on the Upper West Side, settled this community and made it the community that it is today,” Rosenthal said. “And the city, I think, has an obligation to find a way for these people to stay on the Upper West Side and not let it turn into a community that’s very wealthy.”
She notes the loss of stabilized housing and adds, if the trend continues, “then we will become simply a community of market rate and NYCHA. Right? So the very wealthy, the very poor. And I believe that, you know, we want to get away from that model. We don’t want to be the very wealthy and the very poor. We want to have a prosperous middle class, not only because that’s one of the stable tax rate bases for New York City to survive, but also because that’s the aspiration of the poor—is to move into middle income housing. Otherwise we’re just going to go to a servant class and, you know, very wealthy, market-rate people. And that’s… part of the role of the Upper West Side, is to serve as a gateway to the middle—to the American aspiration.”
No one’s really arguing the city shouldn’t dedicate affordable housing to at least some middle-class families. It’s more about where the line is drawn between those who need help and those who don’t. What Rosenthal did to the Hell’s Kitchen project may have ruffled some feathers on the Council, but one leading advocate for affordable housing said he doesn’t have a problem with it. “I understand why she wanted an A.M.I. that she felt had no access to affordable housing and wouldn’t be able to live in her district,” said Harvey Epstein, the associate executive director of the Urban Justice Center. He said he thinks 230 percent is high, but that “what she’s trying to do—she’s trying to find out what the upper end is.”
Rosenthal also indicts de Blasio’s affordable housing plan using the same arguments. She says it does not aspire to create enough housing for middle-income New Yorkers. Seventy eight percent of the units that would be created or preserved under the mayor’s plan target low-income New Yorkers—up to 80 percent of A.M.I., or an income of $67,120 for a family of four. Above that, 11 percent of units created or preserved would be for moderate incomes and the remaining 11 percent for middle incomes, up to 165 percent of A.M.I.
“If you look at the mayor’s housing plan, its focus, I think, is on the very wealthy and the very poor. Right?” she said during our lunch. “He’s adding zoning. He’s adding height. He’s allowing builders to build taller, but only if they build more affordable housing.”
When I first suggested that some reasonable people believe families making above the levels targeted in the mayor’s plan could find housing in a lot of places in New York, while those at the lower end can’t find it anywhere without help, she said, “I hear what you’re saying.”
“And if we took that argument to its logical end, we would live in an even more segregated New York City than the one that we live in now,” she continued. “Do you know that currently in New York, within the country, we have a school system that is the most segregated? And why is that? We have a housing policy that has taken that road. The poorer families and, frankly, the communities of color are going to one set of schools… And the public schools around there are all schools of color and on the Upper West Side, they’re all schools of white, with some exceptions. And I think that’s not the goal of New York City—to become more segregated. I think there is room…”
I interrupt her and say the mayor’s plan seeks to put affordable housing in many different neighborhoods. “Not middle income in my area. I had to get that TF Cornerstone deal on my own. The mayor’s affordable housing plan doesn’t help me at all.”
This article appeared in the July issue of Capital magazine.