Defining ‘affordability’ upward

By Ryan Hutchins

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 [40] 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 [40] 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.

Full article on Capital (30 June 2014)