Zoning and Affordable Housing

This year’s first fellowship event was on the topic of zoning and affordable housing. This topic hits home for many of us fellows as we are all beginning our careers and are transitioning to living on our own. Us fellows who are from New York are all from the outer boroughs and see the struggles of the rising cost of housing daily.

The first presentation was on the topic of zoning laws in NYC and was presented by Mr. Vishaan Chakrabarti. Mr. Chakrabarti is an architect from the urbanist school of thought who advocates for high-density solutions in New York. He is a Columbia professor and has worked for the Department of City Planning under Mayor Bloomberg. The second presentation was on affordable housing and was discussed by the husband and wife pair, Adam Weinstein and Holly Leicht. The pair dedicates their careers to addressing the affordable housing crisis within NYC’s framework.

Both zoning and affordable housing are complex issues which are extremely important in an ultra-urban city like New York City. The first speaker, Mr. Chakrabarti, discussed the history of zoning and how feelings toward zoning have transitioned from subdivisions between industrial centers and residential areas to a more integrated nature. Mr. Chakrabarti advocates for small center systems which would allow people’s work and homes to be located near each other. His call to action would be to make changes in the current zoning code ULURP to allow for more coexistence between commercial and residential land use. Although informative, Mr. Chakrabarti’s presentation was very Manhattan-centric and it didn’t touch on zoning issues faced in the outer boroughs. My concern would be that he would advocate for high-density commercial hubs and that all the boroughs would end up as a reflection of Manhattan. For me this creates quality of life issues and also changes the diverse character of the city into a very homogenous one.

The second presentation by Holly Leicht and Adam Weinstein discussed the technicalities associated with securing cheap land, funding affordable housing projects, and working within an income-cap and voucher program. When Ms. Leicht mentioned that most of the vacant land in the city was gone, I got worried. Where will working class New Yorkers go? She also advocated for exploring places like Yonkers for affordable housing options. This concerned me as well. The working class, the people responsible for running our restaurants, factories, retail stores, and many other services, would have to commute from far distances into the city. What happens when places like Yonkers become unaffordable? Would they have to move even farther? This does not seem sustainable. The pair gave a very succinct presentation of a very in-depth issue. I would love to know more about issues related to their work such as the long wait-list for the units and vouchers as well as potential solutions such as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) which would require that a certain percentage of new development projects be dedicated to remaining affordable.

-Michelle Muallem (2016-2017 Fellow)