Since Mayor de Blasio fantasizes to the press about covering Sunnyside Yards and building affordable housing on top of it, I have decided to put forth a more pragmatic housing solution that focuses on the original intent of government. Raze Queensbridge and put up brand new towers for both the poor and whomever qualifies for ‘affordable housing’ in NYC in 2015.
First let’s start with the Mayor’s current plan. Governor Cuomo is against it, and as part of the land is owned or controlled by the state, that pretty much knocks the whole idea out of the gate. Nevertheless, even if he can be turned, I have analogized the project to the “Big Dig” in Boston due to the huge engineering undertaking required to build over train tracks. The timeline is decades, at which point the current Mayor will be long gone from office and no one will “own” it. Thus blame will be dispersed and fingers will be pointed everywhere. Another good analogy, whereby multiple government agencies were involved, is the Freedom Tower.
Secondly, the Mayor’s obsession with and loquaciousness over ‘affordable housing,’ is a huge contrast to his reticence towards the more difficult and controversial topic of public housing, aka housing for the poor. Aka the projects.
So while those of us in southern LIC focus on the impact, fairness, and luxuriousness of Hunters Point South, and the NYC media grabs onto the headline-making but remote-chance-of-happening Sunnyside Yards, a whole swath of Long Island City is basically ignored.
Yet isn’t this exactly why government first started building and subsidizing housing in the first place, to provide shelter for the poor? And in later decades, as these projects became known for isolating and compounding the problems of the poor, wasn’t the concept of 80/20 conceived of as a way to mainstream those in poverty?
Well the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in North America, are a relic in all respects. The housing is antiquated and dilapidated. It’s completely isolated with a bridge on the south, a river to the west, and warehouses and autobody shops to it’s east and north. Any occasional talk/press about it’s being a vibrant community, is completely negated by the fact that it’s too dangerous to be outside of at night.
But guess what else Queensbridge is? Low density and extremely close to the city. All the buildings are only six stories high, there’s a namesake station on its eastern border that’s two stops from Manhattan, and the Queensboro Plaza station four blocks from there has multiple lines just one stop into Midtown.
So here’s the plan.
1. Knock down the existing 3,000+ units
2. Rezone to allow 30-story buildings1= 15,000 units
3. Sell the property to a developer with two stipulations 1) 4,500 units are controlled by NYCHA (the NYC public housing agency). 2) the other 10,500 apartments are market rate but rent-stabilized, just like Linc LIC and Gantry Park Landing are.
So let’s analyze the benefits of the LICtalk plan:
a) 50% increase in public housing units – and all are brand-new!
b) 10,500 additional reasonably-priced apartments for all to live in. Will they be ‘affordable?’ Not by the city’s narrow definition, but consider this when the pricing of these units is originated. First of all, there will be an additional 10.5K units where there were none (allowed) before, The additional supply in the market will lower prices (unless one doesn’t believe in the laws of supply and demand). Of course owners of existing rental buildings will absorb the brunt of this revenue drop, but I think De Blasio can stand up to them. Right? Secondly, the developer of this project will forgo many costly amenities: why subsidize it for the 4500 units out of their control. Thus those paying market rate, will only be paying for no-frills (but conveniently located) housing, lowering their monthly cost. But wait, there’s one more very important point to consider in terms of the market rate pricing: in a wonderful collision of thriftiness, altruism, and optimal outcomes…
c) The poor will be mainstreamed instead of isolated. Because over two-thirds of the residents in this development will be paying ‘market rate.’ BUT, let’s face it, because they’ll be living amongst the poor, the developer will have to lower their market rate apartments even more to attract tenants. In other words, in exchange for new housing close to the city that’s reasonably priced, these renters will be living with those currently in the projects. Eventually that discount may start to fade, but those who decided to take the chance will have the benefit of their apartments being rent-stabilized.
Sure, I’ve left out a lot of other considerations2 Two that quickly come to mind are the dislocation and need for temporary housing and additional requirements of the developer of “equivalency”: no poor-door or apartment cherry-picking (like lower floor no-view for you, two high floor western exposures for me). Also I’m sure some critic will say “What developer would ever pay for that land?” To which I’d respond “Assume that the land is free, zoned for 21-story towers, and it’s in the city’s interest to make this work well and minimize red tape. Would you be willing to build an additional 9 stories in return for 30 acres of riverfront land adjacent to Manhattan?” Yes? Now get out your checkbooks because it might be heavily discounted but it’s not free.
These buildings may not be fancy, but because the owners time horizon is eternal, you know they will be well-built. So Mayor de Blasio, stop wasting time and political clout on Sunnyside Yards. Don’t be scared to do something attainable yet radical, something that Chicago did several years ago to it’s biggest project Cabrini-Green, and most importantly something that will improve peoples lives without adding to the divisiveness between the haves and the have-nots. Raze Queensbridge now.
Public Housing in New York Reaches a Fiscal Crisis – “just over a quarter of a million households sit on the waiting list for an apartment in one of the New York City Housing Authority’s 334 developments”
The Land That Time and Money Forgot – “the projects remain a mystery to most New Yorkers, a shadow city within the city, out of sight and mind, except when someone gets shot or falls down an elevator shaft”
Sunnyside Yards, A Behind the Scenes Photo Essay – another great chapter in the Camera Obscura series