Fix for Brooklyn’s Housing Crisis Could Also Improve Borough’s Architecture

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    What can be done to fix New York City’s housing crisis? There is a glut of luxury rentals on the high end but a lack of affordable housing on the low end, and homelessness — especially among working families — is rising along with Brooklyn’s skyline. New York City, and in particular Brooklyn, is becoming more unaffordable under de Blasio, despite good intentions, for families making less than $80,000 a year, according to a lengthy report in the New York Review of Books.

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    Row houses and new construction in Williamsburg

    De Blasio’s solution — rezonings of poor neighborhoods and building or preserving affordable units — is actually making the problem worse, the report argues. Meanwhile, ironically, affordable rentals aimed at higher-income households are going unfilled — while those families struggle to buy, not rent. Author Michael Greenberg writes:

    Brooklyn is emblematic of New York’s housing emergency, with the hyperinvestment its real estate has been attracting since 2011, when the credit freeze brought on by the 2008 financial crisis began to thaw. These past six years have seen an extraordinary amount of displacement, and the majority of the displaced have been African-American. Seven of Central Brooklyn’s most vulnerable neighborhoods have a combined population of 940,000, 82 percent of which was black in 2010. It is the largest concentration of African-Americans (and Afro-Caribbeans) in the United States.

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    Hundreds of rent-regulated apartments on Albee Square in Downtown Brooklyn met the wrecking ball in 2015 to make way for new developments. Photo by Cate Corcoran

    One possible solution, he says, is to remove the cap on rent-stabilized units to keep them permanently affordable and give landlords less incentive to drive out tenants. However, it’s politically impossible, the author acknowledges.

    He proposes instead a 1/2 cent city sales tax to fund the construction of 100 percent affordable buildings aimed at households with incomes of $35,000 to $80,000 a year.

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    In addition to creating abundant affordable housing, the tax would have myriad other benefits, such as increased tax revenue from market-rate developments and a decrease in the cost of homeless services, he argues.

    With a sales tax devoted to housing, affordable buildings needn’t be confined to land the city already owns; enough money would be available to purchase lots all over the five boroughs, not just in poorer districts. The buildings could be woven into the fabric of the city, rather than clumped together in self-enclosed enclaves that promote a kind of psychological as well as physical segregation. New affordable housing would no longer be contingent on giving tax exemptions to the builders of private, market-rate projects: luxury developers would be free to charge whatever the market will bear for all of their units, not just 70 or 80 percent of them, and the city, in turn, could collect from these developers the billions in property taxes that it now forfeits under 421-a. Housing built with money from a special tax fund would be 100 percent affordable. Over time homelessness would decrease—especially among low-wage working families—as would the amount (currently about $1.6 billion per year) that the city spends on homeless services.

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    Construction in Downtown Brooklyn

    Another surprising and appealing benefit would be aesthetic: The architectural design of the 100 percent affordable buildings would be much better than the “blight” of for-profit buildings currently subsidized by the 421-a tax break, he says:

    Imaginative low-cost housing is one of the most exciting branches of contemporary architectural design. There is no reason why New York cannot participate, and even be a leader, in this movement, instead of surrendering its skyline to a monotony of tinted-glass-clad towers with a handful of lower-cost units thrown in as a necessary concession to the city. One need look no further than at the ranks of luxury high-rises on the Williamsburg waterfront or in Downtown Brooklyn, or at the self-replicating piles clustered around the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City, to understand the new “blight of dullness,” to borrow Jane Jacobs’s famous phrase, that is overtaking New York.

    The program could even benefit developers, we think, who would still be busy building. What do you think of the proposal?

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    Downtown Brooklyn viewed from Fort Greene Park

    [Source: New York Review of Books | Photos: Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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