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New affordable housing plan: nothing new.

New affordable housing plan: Nothing new

Insider Outlook

Ironically, while the city's homeless problem is growing, New York apartment buildings are at their highest vacancy rate since the Depression of the 1930s. Conversely, in 1968, when the city's vacancy rate was at its lowest and rent stabilization rules were being drafted, homelessness was not even an issue. Does this make sense? The city and state governments apparently think so.

Last week, New York City and State each presented five year plans for developing and preserving affordable housing. These misguided plans can be summed up in four words: more of the same. Anyone who believes our current housing policies are working will applaud these so-called Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategies (CHAS). The rest of us are stunned.

For starters, neither the city nor state CHAS plans have devoted much more than one page out of hundreds to the role of the private sector in providing affordable housing. Even then, businessmen are given scant consideration as developers, owners or operators of housing. Instead, they are presented as contractors serving government and non-profits.

This is ridiculous when you consider that New York has more than 1.5 million privately owned rental apartments with median rents of about $500 per month.

Even more ridiculous is the City CHAS's satisfaction with existing zoning and building codes.

The last city-wide zoning resolution, in 1961, was shortly followed by the city's peak post-war housing development - more than 60,000 units a year. By last year that number dropped to about 7,000. Meanwhile, the only significant zoning changes since 1961, the "contextual zoning" provisions of 1989, put a paralyzing limit on low-rise housing development - a trend that was adding a few units at a time to single and two-family home neighborhoods. At the time, Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden complained that the changes would stop the unsubsidized affordable housing being built in his borough. It did. Yet, the city housing plan notes contentedly that "These density controls have no negative impact on the affordability of housing."

Apparently, the city also believes that 3,000 pages of building regulations that have spawned an entire industry of paperwork expediters to get building permits are not a problem. Further, while the state promotes a uniform building code to encourage development statewide, it doesn't chastise the city for following its own more complicated code.

Following public comments, the authors of the city CHAS plan added sections on water metering and lead paint abatement.

Water metering, they concluded would aid water conservation, which, in turn, would keep bills down. They ignored evidence that no amount of conservation can keep doubled up families from using twice as much water as one family; doubled and tripled water bills are common in newly metered low-income housing and may easily force buildings into foreclosure.

Lead abatement was discussed as a health measure in which new, higher standards would be followed. There was no mention that more than 20 percent of the apartments ordered to remove lead paint under similar abatement standards in Baltimore since 1987 are boarded up and vacant. Average abatement costs of more than $15,000 per unit simply couldn't be justified by "affordable" rents.

The failure to understand housing economics, continued glossing over of regulatory obstacles, and the government-must-do-everything attitude of New York's housing strategies are now embedded in official bureaucratic plans. It's up to us to convince elected officials that "more of the same" will be a disaster.

New York is quickly becoming a city for the very rich and the very poor, with little available housing for those of us in between. And, while many hoped the city and state CHAS plans would be a step towards acknowledging and solving that polarization problem, it has done no such thing. I urge those concerned to write to their elected city and state officials and inform them they are on the wrong track.
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Title Annotation:Insider Outlook
Author:Margulies, Dan
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 20, 1991
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