A Phil Hall Op-Ed: It would be kind to say that Eric Adams’ tenure as mayor of New York City has been something of a mess. Indeed, Adams’ failings since becoming mayor in January 2022 have been so severe that even President Biden didn’t want to be seen with him last week during the commander-in-chief’s visit to the city for the United Nations General Assembly.
Adams obviously realized that he needs a game-changer to reanimate his cred as a serious and inspiring leader. This might explain the audacious plan he unveiled last Thursday that set a goal of creating as much as 100,000 new housing units over the next 15 years through an overhaul of the city’s zoning code.
Among the proposals Adams offered were new regulations allowing the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall on top of single-story commercial buildings in some neighborhoods; a new regulation making it easier for the owners of one- and two- family homes to turn their basements, attics or backyard garages into apartments; and the elimination of the rule that apartments must be 680 square feet on average.
Adams is also pushing the idea of getting rid of parking space requirements on new apartment buildings while allowing for residential development closer to transit stations. He is also dangling the prospects of incentives for developers to include more affordable units in their multifamily complexes.
“If we do this right, decades from now, New Yorkers will see this moment for what it was: a turning point away from exclusionary policies and outdated ideas and towards a brighter, bolder, more equitable future,” said Adams in a statement.
The mayor is under the impression that housing is his key to successful leadership – he’s already offered proposal for new developments across the Bronx and Brooklyn and raised the idea of rezoning the heart of Manhattan that would enable the conversion of aging office buildings and light manufacturing sites into multifamily housing.
In fairness, New York City’s housing problems were a crisis that Adams inherited, and he is addressing the issue in a bold manner that was not employed by his predecessors. Changes to the city’s zoning laws are long overdue.
But the Adams plan is conspicuously lacking in detail on what kind of rents will be charged if any of this new housing gets built. New York City is already one of the most expensive rental markets in the nation – the median rent on new leases in Manhattan in August was $4,400, according to the brokerage Douglas Elliman – and most developers are not interested in building affordable housing projects, even with incentives.
In fact, there is no consensus on what “affordable” means for New Yorkers. For lower income working class New Yorkers, Adams’ offering is all big picture and no fine print.
There is also the issue of the quality of life in New York City, which was deteriorating before Adams arrived at City Hall and has become worse since. High prices and rising crime are creating an environment that many people consider to be unaffordable and unsafe. The pandemic created an opportunity for many New Yorkers to flee the city for more affordable and less dangerous surroundings elsewhere. To torture that “Field of Dreams” cliche: if he builds it, will they come?
Also, it will take time for Adams’ proposals to get approved. There needs to be public forums to discuss the matter and a final approval by the City Council – and that could be at least a year away. Adams is up for re-election in 2025 and little or no results from this plan will work against him if he chooses to run for office again.
On the periphery of this situation is a big problem that Adams cannot get under control – the number of homeless people in New York City shelters surpassed a record-high 100,000 this spring, and the reason behind that unwelcome record is the influx of illegal immigrants being dumped into the city. Adams’ attempt to bus the illegals upstate – without advance warning to the counties and cities being targeted – resulted in multiple lawsuits against the city, and his criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policies resulted in him being shunned by Biden. Adams is viewed so poorly at the White House that it is not impossible to believe the city will not receive adequate (or any) federal aid if Adams’ proposals are approved by the City Council.
Nonetheless, Adams deserves an A for effort in recognizing there is a housing problem that needs to be fixed. Whatever grade he gets for his attempt at fixing it remains to be seen.
Phil Hall is editor of Weekly Real Estate News. He can be reached at [email protected].