Introduction to the City of Yes for Housing Opportunity – A little bit more housing

Explore how New York City is tackling its dire housing shortage through a citywide incremental approach. We breakdown what’s in the City of Yes proposal, and listen to some critiques.



Episode Overview

  1. Purpose of Proposal: The “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity” seeks to address New York City’s acute housing shortage by amending zoning and land use regulations to increase housing production, especially in lower-density areas of the city like Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and parts of the Bronx.
  2. Zoning Text Changes: The proposal focuses on changing the zoning text, not the zoning map, aiming to slightly upzone parts of the city without altering existing district classifications.
  3. Historical Context: Compared to earlier decades of the 20th century, New York City’s housing production has significantly declined, failing to keep up with job and population growth.
  4. Diverse Housing Types: The plan emphasizes diversifying housing types by allowing accessory dwelling units, and converting non-residential buildings to residential, thereby creating more affordable and supportive housing.
  5. Citywide Proposals: Key citywide initiatives include lifting parking mandates, enabling office to residential conversions, and legalizing small accessory dwelling units.
  6. Focus on Shared and Small Housing: The proposal supports building housing with shared kitchens and facilities, reflecting changes in household sizes and living arrangements.
  7. Community and Transit-Oriented Development: It encourages development in “town centers” and near transit stations, advocating for the construction of mixed-use buildings and modestly denser housing.
  8. Affordability Measures: A “universal affordability preference” offers incentives to developers to include permanently affordable units in new developments.
  9. Pushback and Concerns: There’s concern from community groups about the cumulative effects of seemingly small changes leading to substantial increases in allowable development size.
  10. Process and Public Involvement: The proposal is undergoing a review process involving community boards, borough presidents, and the City Council, with ample opportunity for public input.

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Show notes & links


“We’re not creating enough housing, and the housing we are creating is concentrated in just a few areas of the city.”


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Episode Transcript

intro

[00:00:00]

Dan Garodnick: We’re not creating enough housing, and the housing we are creating is concentrated in just a few areas of the city.

Journey with Purpose: Welcome to journey with purpose episode 22. This is your host, Randy Plemel. In this episode, we look to the future of New York city through the mayor’s new city of yes proposal for housing opportunity. We’re going to break this down. What this means for the city and its residents.

Don’t fast forward. I know that zoning can be confusing. It can be arcane, but this is important because it will shape what we’re able to build in New York city and who will be able to build and live here because it isn’t getting cheaper to live here. We all know this. If you need a refresher on zoning, skip back to episode 20. It’s in the show notes, but I’ll try to be as jargon free as possible during this episode.

Mayor Adams, who I personally have some issue with, seems to be trusting some of his planning [00:01:00] advisors on this the proposal seeks to amend the zoning and land use regulations as a reaction to problems with both supply and demand here in the New York region.

it primarily is changing the zoning text which governs the city, these are the rules which split the city up into residential and commercial and industrial districts and tell owners and builders what they can actually build, how tall they can build And what type of uses can go inside these buildings. So this is a zoning text change only. It doesn’t change the map or the district. So whatever district you live in right now, this wouldn’t change that district. However, because the city is proposing a change in the definitions that rule those districts, it will effectively and potentially upzone parts of the city. But really only very slightly.

And I think this is the caveat here. It is a comprehensive citywide [00:02:00] zoning, which is different than what’s been happening the last, I would say 20 years, especially since the Bloomberg administration, which has really been on a piecemeal neighborhood by neighborhood rezoning, which effectively increased some areas of the city, especially in my neighborhood and Long Island City and Greenpoint, but also effectively downzoned much of the city by either reducing what you could build there or creating contextual districts.

Journey with Purpose: Now I’ve looked over the zoning documents, all 780 pages of it and some of the supplementals and my hunch is this zoning textech change will produce more housing in the lower density regions of New York city. That’s primarily Staten island, the outer parts of Brooklyn and Queens and parts of the Bronx. That’s where most of the changes seem to be, to allow slightly more housing either through accessory dwelling units. Through [00:03:00] allowing duplex or triplexes or allowing some of the housing that we used to be able to build, like apartment buildings with ground floor retail and housing above.

Now the hope is to increase housing production citywide, recognizing the need for a broader approach given the city’s acute housing shortage. New York has built much less housing today than during the first three quarters of the 20th century, adding too few units to keep up with job and population increases.

At the same time, population continues to increase. The total population is increasing and the number of household formation, which is also increasing since the types of families that we live in now has changed since 1961 and people are living and working differently. so the amount of housing units per person is actually decreased, exacerbating the problem. The mayor’s proposal includes various ways to enable more housing [00:04:00] construction, particularly affordable and supportive housing in different density districts citywide. But it’s not just about creating conditions to add more units. The proposal also focuses on diversity of unit types. For instance, the city wants to expand the eligibility for adaptive reuse. Think old office buildings getting a new lease on life as residential buildings. Now they’re going to do this not only by creating a wider area where this could happen, but also create more flexibility in what type of apartments and houses could go inside those buildings.

Why should we do this?

Journey with Purpose: Here’s Dan Garodnick, who is the director of New York City’s Department of City Planning said at a public meeting on April 17th, 2024.

Dan Garodnick: I’m Dan Garodnik, Director of the Department of City Planning. As some of you know, Mayor Adams announced this historic initiative in September, I just wanted to say a few quick words about this proposal and why it is absolutely critical to the future [00:05:00] of our city. To put it simply, New York City has a dire housing shortage that is making housing expensive and hard to find. We’re not creating enough housing, and the housing we are creating is concentrated in just a few areas of the city.

One reason for the situation? Outdated housing. And complicated zoning laws that have limited new housing production. And when entire areas of the city are functionally shut off to housing creation, everyone gets hurt. Case in point. The vacancy rate for rental apartments in is down to 1. 41 percent.

That’s the lowest it has been since 1968. And the vacancy rate under 1, 500 a month is functionally zero. This housing shortage leads to an imbalance of power between landlords and tenants. They’re simply [00:06:00] are not enough homes for New Yorkers to live in, and it is driving rents higher and higher. We don’t need to live this way. We can create a city where there are options for housing in every neighborhood so you can rent or buy, you can stay in your own community or move closer to your family or to your job.

City of Yes for Housing Opportunity is our plan to tackle our housing crisis by creating a little more housing. In every neighborhood. It is a balanced citywide approach that includes creating more affordable housing in dense high cost neighborhoods, allowing modest apartment buildings close to public transit and along commercial corridors, making it easier for offices and other non residential buildings to become housing, lifting costly parking mandates.

And legalizing small accessory dwelling units to give [00:07:00] homeowners extra income and to allow them to stay close to family. With this approach, we can make a big overall impact on the housing shortage without dramatic change in any one neighborhood.

Journey with Purpose: So that’s the city’s reason, the why for this citywide rezoning it’s that we’re not producing enough housing. And we need to create an opportunity for just a little bit more housing. Everywhere. Now today, we’re going to talk a little bit about the why, and some of the pushback on it and talk a little bit about what it is, but in subsequent episodes, we’re going to dive deeper, but at a high level, the city of yes, for housing opportunity breaks down and a couple of different proposals.

City wide proposals

Journey with Purpose: The city-wide proposals are fairly straightforward. The first one is lifting parking minimums and mandated parking. So this [00:08:00] basically says, we’re going to get rid of all requirements that you need to provide off street parking on your building site. So that’s gone. Now, this is a vestige of the 1961 zoning, and I think we can all agree for a city that’s wants to be climate friendly, sustainable building infrastructure for cars is not the way to go. So that’s the first one. Around city-wide proposals.

The next one is creating a wider ability to convert non-residential buildings to homes. So this looks like Office to residential conversions, adaptive reuse, things like that. It extends the boundaries to citywide where you can do this. So the idea here is you create a wider range of buildings that you can’t convert to residential, you can do it citywide.

Then you can get more housing.

Small & Shared Housing

Journey with Purpose: This is linked to another citywide zoning change, which is around small and shared housing. So this would [00:09:00] reintroduce housing with shared kitchens or other common facilities.

It would allow buildings with more studios and one bedrooms to be built. This is predicated on the idea that our household size has changed. Working from home in hybrid is more durable. And we need to be able to create more flexibility in the zoning code to allow for this.

Journey with Purpose: The city hopes that this zoning text change would produce homes that look like anything from dorms to single room boccupancies, to shared housing, communal housing and other typologies of living that were effectively made illegal in 1961.

Now, these are typologies of buildings that New York is familiar with at the turn of the century, we had women only dorms. We had workers housing. And even recently. We live was a single room occupancy, small scale, very small micro unit [00:10:00] building. That was a conversion of a lower Manhattan office building. So the three different zoning changes I’ve just spoken about, about removing parking minimums. Allowing for a wider set of existing buildings to be converted to other uses and to be converted across the city. And the ability to create a different and wider set of home types in these buildings. All three of these really combined to allow people more flexibility on what they build on any given zoning site. And what’s important is that this is city wide. So this doesn’t just concentrate that in one neighborhood. It allows people that flexibility across all five boroughs.

Campus Infill

Journey with Purpose: Now the next citywide zoning change, which I’m going to go really quickly about is campus infill. So imagine NYCHA housing, Columbia, Roosevelt island NYU, these places which have kind of towers in the field This zoning change will allow for a simpler [00:11:00] set of regulations around Heights, and distance between buildings. And really allow owners who have existing unused floor area ratio, that’s the amount of floor area they can build to be able to build it in an easier way.

Now this could be a positive or negative, depending on your point of view. Whether or not you trust the city or the state or whoever to be able to build in those areas. I think one of the major concerns would be in NYCHA housing. Are we taking away public space and are we giving it to private owners and do the residents actually get benefit from that?

I think the zoning text change with potentially start a series of conversations that

could get contentious really fast. So that’s why I want to move past it.

UAP

Journey with Purpose: the last city wide proposal is called the universal affordability preference. This says, Hey builder, we’re gonna allow you to build [00:12:00] 20% more housing on your site, but only if that 20% is permanently affordable on a very specific set of income ranges forever. The idea here is that this will enable incremental growth to new buildings, to existing buildings, to office conversions, et cetera. And it would be most relevant across mid to high density areas. So six floors and above. So basically anything that kind of looks like a brown stone all the way up to towers.

Low Density District Fixes

Journey with Purpose: Okay. So those are the citywide. Zoning for kind of everywhere, but also for a little bit higher. Density areas. Now let’s talk about lower density area. So this is places where it’s either a single family homes at the very low dense area of New York, all the way up to places where there’s three-ish four-ish story buildings already.

District Fixes

Journey with Purpose: The first proposal is called, they’re calling it the low density district fix. So the idea [00:13:00] here is that there’s a lot of low density homes. These looked like detached, single family homes, maybe they’re duplexes that right now they’re functionally illegal. They either have too much floor area. They are built into the side yards or the front yards or the rear yards or anything like that. And there’s basically no way for people to legally fix these homes. And so this proposal adds a little bit more floor area. It loosen some of the yard requirements.

It’s kind of a very slight change in what people can do. Now the neighborhood character set will undoubtedly be worried that this will mean more and bigger buildings built. But in reality, this will probably mean more rear yard additions, which ultimately means allowing more homes and more places for people to live. this sort of thing has already happened in Brooklyn and Queens. This happened when the city was unified. And then in 1960, when the [00:14:00] new zoning happened, where basically there was a wave of people adding on a room in the back of their homes. And so this is something that has happened before. I think ultimately this will allow people to build slightly bigger homes or add on to their existing homes.

ADU

Journey with Purpose: Now the district fixes proposal pairs well with the next proposal, which is allowing accessory dwelling units. So these are ADU’s. ADU’s as a hot topic nationwide, I have to give a shout out to AARP who has been a huge proponent of ADU’s. Think of this as converting a garage or basement or a backyard unit. So that a loved one, a member of your family and adult child, or maybe you can just rent it out to someone.

And so it’s another place. Someone can live that separate from your primary dwelling unit. I love this because it gives us more flexibility in how we provide [00:15:00] spaces to people. It really recognizes that people live a lot differently than they do in the 1960s. And this recognizes that it was already a lot of illegal ADU’s already in the five boroughs, especially in Queens, especially in parts of Brooklyn. And this will provide a path to legalizing it. And at the same time, disapplowing ADU’s in coastal flood zones in places where you really should not have a basement dwelling units because it’s unsafe.

My concern with this provision is that it doesn’t go far enough. I would prefer it to have no side rare yard requirements. And that it would allow people to do zero lot line rear yard ADU’s. Think of all the trash that could collect between areas of the fence and the ADU, and also doesn’t take into account there’s already a bunch of existing zero lot [00:16:00] line accessory buildings scattered throughout Queens and Brooklyn. And so let’s just call it a spade, a spade and let, just allow zero lot line ADU. I think this would allow for a wider range of buildings. And it would allow to actually use open space efficiently and not just collect trash.

Town Center

Journey with Purpose: Now on to the town center zoning proposal. This proposal reintroduces the ability for people to build three to four story buildings comprised of housing above and businesses below on commercial streets in low density areas. This is basically what New York City built from the 1920s to the 1950s, which the 1961 zoning code basically outlawed when it divided the city into residential, commercial, and industrial zones.

It would make the bodega below apartments legal again. This proposal applies in areas of R1 to R5 districts with commercial [00:17:00] overlays. This means specific streets, which we’ve said are main streets and town centers, Where you can go to the bodega, drop off your laundry and eat a slice of pizza. We’ll be able to build buildings, which either already mainly exist there or people love, but also allow people to build what we think of a classic New York block throughout low rise neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods, this potentially would affect our, again, the outer borough neighborhoods. So mostly Queens, mostly Brooklyn. Definitely Staten island and potentially parts of the Bronx. But this is concentrated in areas where we’ve explicitly said, Hey, this is a town center street. After looking at existing zoning maps and going around my guts tells me this will really have an incremental effect because there’s not actually a lot of zoning districts that this applies to. But it will act as a way to. legalize what’s already there.

Transit Oriented Development

Journey with Purpose: the other low density proposal is the transit [00:18:00] oriented development. So this allows modest 3 to 5 story apartment buildings where they fit best. On large lots within half a mile of a subway or rail station. That are located on a wide street or on a short end of the block. So this is again, basically where we’ve built this historically. I personally think this should also not be a contentious part of the proposal at all since building slightly denser homes near quality transit is extremely sustainable and climate friendly, since we’ve already done the hard part of building this great subway and rail system. And we should learn from the rest of the world that we need to adjust our land use around these stations to create a virtuous cycle where people can use our transit system and we get more homes.

My critique of this proposal is that it requires a setback at the fourth story. I think this is unnecessary because it adds complexity to the build out. And when you’re on the [00:19:00] street, anything above the fourth or fifth story, you don’t really comprehend. I think the proposal is written this way because the city thinks that this will assuage the fears of people who live in low density districts, who fear a tall street wall. but I don’t think this will calm critics because I’m assuming that they fear any shift away from single family detached homes to something different. I was hunting on the zoning map and finding 5,000 square foot lots within a half mile of subway stops on a short side of the street in a low density district is pretty rare. They exist, but again, they exist predominantly in South Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Farther out Queens.

Zoning takeaway

Journey with Purpose: My suggested takeaway here is that this is a very slight incremental change to existing zoning text. Which allows existing buildings to be legalized, allows us to build buildings that we want to be there. And. Creates a [00:20:00] mechanism to build more housing for people who need it, the most people at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Pushback

Journey with Purpose: Not everyone believes that this is a small step forward and that, through a process of bonus stacking, this will lead to huge development. I spoke again with Andrew Berman. Who’s been on the show before.

Who’s part of the village preservation. Andrew. Welcome back. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Andrew Berman: I’m Andrew Berman and I’m the executive director of village preservation. the city of yes for housing opportunity is an 800 page document. Like a lot of other folks, we are pouring through it so that we actually have our head around what it would do. It purports to make. Small changes to virtually everything that regulates the way in which housing can be built and other types of construction can take place in New York.

But, exactly what those small changes are and really what their impact would be. I think, We’re trying to get our [00:21:00] heads around as are others. One of the things that we are looking at or thinking about is this proposal as part of a sort of three part package that the city put forward, City of Yes for housing opportunity City of Yes for economic opportunity, I believe one of the parts is called, and the first part is called City of Yes for, I think, sustainability or something along those lines.

each of those changes or loosens up the rules in a variety of different ways in terms of how things can be built, there’s a certain cumulative effect. For instance, we’re looking at certain things where it would allow development to be about 20 percent larger than current rules allow, but then there may be.

Two or three or four or more other provisions that also allow a 20 percent increase and it’s not clear if each of those allowances is cumulative so that it could result in something that’s 80 percent bigger than what current rules allow. So that’s [00:22:00] how we’re looking at this.

Journey with Purpose: I’m going to break this down because while I think Andrew and village preservation are acting in good faith. I don’t believe has 80% bonus stacking is anywhere near reality or will actually happen. And the reason why I think that is that while there’s a lot of little bit of changes here, they don’t appear cumulative from my reading of the zoning text. So let’s take an example site.

So I’m looking at the east village and looking at 525 east fifth street. This is me, literally just looking up a random building site that looks about representative in the East village. It’s a five-story walkup tenement, typical of this part of New York. It’s an apartment building. It’s a series of both front and rear and railroad apartments. It’s in an R7B district, which is a contextual district, which has height limits, Which generally produce a six to seven story apartment building. The only provision of the city of [00:23:00] yes for housing opportunity, which would apply to the site is the optional universal affordability preference areas. Which would provide a possible 20% bonus floor area. Only if those extra units were deed restricted, permanently affordable. In this case, this would be up to about two extra floors. And possibly up to six additional permanently affordable homes.

Now, this building is already on a 60 foot wide street.

So in additional one or two floors of buildings, setback from the front of the building per the proposal. When it really registered at all, especially with all the street trees and all the things at eye level. But it would provide six households of housing. From my review, the only real worry for people living in Manhattan. Of the change is really through both the UAP program. And perhaps giving more flexibility for selling and moving unused air rights. From one building to another [00:24:00] one.

Again, here’s Andrew.

Andrew Berman: The city of yes is proposing a vastly increased allowance for air rights transfers from individual landmarks of which we have literally scores in our neighborhood that also allows the receiving site to increase the allowable size of development by 20%. Not to mention the fact that the mayor is talking about changing. the contextual zoning rules in community boards one through eight for Manhattan. So that’s one of the things we’re definitely concerned about where they would also be increasing the allowable size and height of development by something in the neighborhood of 20%.

It’s not exactly 20%. It’s a much more complicated sort of formula,

Journey with Purpose: I think the issue here when we’re thinking about zoning changes. Is that on paper at 20% seems like a lot. But in reality. The change that would actually be experienced. And you see on the street will be much less.

It’s hard for [00:25:00] us to envision. What 20% means.

It also is hard for us to envision and remember that this isn’t SIM city. We don’t just change the zoning text. And pop. Everything. Adds a floor two. It’s much more uneven. It’s much more organic. And from my point of view, this sort of zoning text change will be. Much less noticeable then say the Brooklyn Queens waterfront rezoning. Which took a slice of the waterfront and converted it from pretty much derelict manufacturing that was being unused. To giant towers, and this is my neighborhood.

That is not going to happen here. It’s going to be much more slight and piecemeal. And one-off.

Now the negative here is why would we go through all this work? If it’s going to [00:26:00] be a little bit. But I think what I like about it is that it as every neighborhood. To do just a little bit of housing. Instead of just asking for one or two neighborhoods. Say long island city. Or Soho. Or any of the hotter neighborhoods to do the heavy lifting of providing housing.

Why not get rid of low density zoning?

Journey with Purpose: now, during that same presentation of the city for yes housing opportunity last week on the 17th of April. I asked the city planners, why wouldn’t we just get rid of the low density districts. Districts R1 through R5 districts. These are single family, detached homes, two family homes, two or three story houses. And just say anything less dense than a brownstone you might imagine in Brooklyn or Queens. As the basic building block of the city. Now, this might be my personal preference. Say I love the [00:27:00] brownstone. I love the density of 3, 4, 5 story buildings. And that should be throughout New York. I would love that as the base. Well, this is what Veronica brown, a member of DCP said.

Veronica Brown: New York City is home to a rich diversity of neighborhoods and a rich diversity of housing types that includes neighborhoods with single family homes, small apartment buildings, two family homes, as well as obviously, you know, high density buildings. All of these places are different and valuable, but all of these places also need to add housing and have important housing opportunities, which is why we’ve created a suite of well tailored proposals that respond to all of these diverse contexts.

So in the low density areas, that you’ve called out in the question, this includes some of the proposals that we walked through in the presentation, like accessory dwelling units for single family homes or two family buildings. Missing middle housing, like town center zoning or transit oriented development on appropriate sites, sites near transit sites and commercial corridors.

So, we think that that will introduce housing to those districts in [00:28:00] appropriate ways while also respecting the built character of of our communities.

(While my personal preference is the use the Brownstone, I appreciate how )

Journey with Purpose: While my personal preference is the brownstone and anything larger than four or five stories. I really have to hand it to the department of city planning here that it really does look like they’ve bent over backwards in their quest to modernize the zoning text, which explicitly allows for a wide range of housing types in our city from very large towers that oftentimes are found at Midtown or frankly now in downtown Brooklyn, all the way down to single family, detached homes, we find a lot in Staten island or outer Queens and Brooklyn.

Okay. So that was our deep dive into the city of yes for housing opportunity. thank you for keeping with us. What’s happening right now is that this zoning text proposal is going to all the community boards throughout all five boroughs. It’s going to the borough presidents. It’s going to go to [00:29:00] city council. So you have lots and lots of time to give your input to listen to understand what this change is. My personal preference is with some change, I would like this to actually happen. I think this will give us. A little bit more tools to provide housing. And I think it is incremental change, which is what we need.

Outro

Journey with Purpose: Again, this is Journey with Purpose.

I’m your host, Randy Plemel, all views are my views and they don’t necessarily. Match the views of our employer past and present. If you liked this podcast, please Heartlight share thumbs up at please. these sort of non-monetary benefits. Keep us going.

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And we will see you on the internets. Good day.

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