A microcosm of New York’s ‘affordability’ debate in Greenpoint

Rendering of 77 Commercial St. (Cetra/Ruddy)
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A team developing two luxury high-rises on the Greenpoint waterfront has agreed to include 200 affordable units in the development. Or, more accurately, "affordable."

“They are not affordable to the average resident of the neighborhood,” said Moses Gates, who handles affordable housing development policy issues for the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development.

Earlier this year, Gates' organization released a report that hailed the Bloomberg administration for creating "the largest municipal affordable housing effort in the nation’s history," but also faulted it for a certain "disconnect between the City’s momentous goal and the on-­the-ground reality."

More to the point, the report found that about two-thirds of the administration's "affordable" units "are too expensive for the majority of local neighborhood residents."

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The Greenpoint example is instructive.

Last year, Sony Building owners David Bistricer and Joseph Chetrit bought the site at 77 Commercial Street for $25 million. The following year, the city announced that the developers would pay the city $8.2 million to build a long-promised city park and build 200 units of "affordable" housing, all in exchange for the right to build their buildings a whole lot taller.

Seventy-two of those 200 units would be available to households earning less than 80 percent of the area median income; 108 units would be available to households earning less than 125 percent of area median income; and the remaining 20 units would be available to families earning less than 175 area median income, according to the environmental assessment statement.

There's nothing that isn't technically correct about those numbers, according to Gates.

But they do point to a larger issue in the always fraught debate about affordable housing in New York City: namely, that the very definition of "area median income" is itself of questionable relevance to New York City, in part because it's a federal government designation that encompasses wealthier, suburban counties, and also because the government actually adjusts the area median income to account for the city's higher housing costs.

"The AMI of New York City ranges between 70 to 80 percent of AMI," said Gates. "So not only are all of the units unaffordable to community board residents, most of them are also unaffordable to the average New York City household in general."

In the meantime, there's the actual definition of affordability.

The average resident of Brooklyn's Community Board 1, in which the proposed development is located, earns 61.5 percent AMI, according to Gates. Put another way, if the average family size in that community board is 2.53 people, and the median household income is $41,540, the AMI "for a mythical family of 2.53 people" in 2010 would $67,557, he said.

"So let's say you want to target something to lower and middle income people in the neighborhood, you could set some of housing at 40 percent, 50 percent and some at 60 percent," Gates added.

From this perspective, the units are not actually all that affordable in a meaningful sense, but also violate the spirit of the 2005, non-binding "points of agreement" that accompanied the rezoning of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront, which said that affordable units would largely target income groups of 60 percent or less AMI.

The project is now going through the land-use review process, and neither the Bloomberg administration nor the developer had any on-the-record comment.

But here's how the administration responded when the Times reported on that Association of Neighborhood Housing and Development study back in February:

Eric Bederman, a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said the report “oversimplifies the issues” by looking only at income and unit sizes to determine the city’s housing needs, while the department also considered factors like whether people were paying too much of their income to rent. For instance, he said, census data showed that nearly two-thirds of low-income households that did not qualify for public housing or other subsidies paid more than 30 percent of their income to rent.

UPDATE: Here's a statement from the city's department of housing preservation and development: "ANHD’s real affordability report either ignores a significant portion of HPD’s work over the last several years, or demonstrates a lack of understanding of how HPD has implemented and delivered on development opportunities outside of the city-owned land in its pipeline. HPD makes this information public on a regular basis. Further, ANHD is behind the curve on this issue: HPD has already implemented some version of every ANHD recommendation and more." 

CORRECTION: This original version of this article misstated the percentage of AMI made on average by residents of Brooklyn Community Board 1.