Demystifying Affordable Housing

Panelists seek development solutions for NYC in a lively discussion

Affordable housing has long been an acute concern in New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a cornerstone of his administration. As land values and demand climb, developers and policy makers are pushing the envelope to provide additional units, according to several industry experts on the recent SMPS New York panel “Demystifying Affordable Housing: Development Solutions for the Future of NYC.”


Last week’s panel featured John Gearrity (Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Building & Land Development Services at NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development), Aaron Koffman (Director of Affordable Housing at The Hudson Companies Inc), Andrea Kretchmer (Managing Director at POKO Partners, LLC), Robert Sanborn (Partner at The Housing Collaborative, LLC) and moderator Christine Hunter (Principal at Magnusson Architecture and Planning).

Affordable housing often relies on non-profit groups to fund and champion development. And in NYC, the development of affordable housing units has not kept up with the growing number of tenants who require this type of housing, ranging from poverty level to moderate income.

The panelists discussed upcoming trends and efforts among developers, designers and policy-makers. New affordable developments are predominately located in Brooklyn (including Coney Island) and Queens. Land prices in these neighborhoods are more amenable for new developments, as pricing throughout the city has escalated nearly six times in recent years. Developers can best position themselves by focusing on City RFPs, or partnering with a land owner as the ‘development expert’ on the project team, said Andrea Kretchmer of Poko Partners.

Inclusionary housing brings a certain number of affordable housing units into market rate communities, which is important to support the city’s diversity. On the controversial topic of the “poor door,” panelists agreed it was morally wrong to segregate market rate from affordable housing tenants. “That’s not New York, that’s not a diverse building,” said Aaron Koffman from The Hudson Companies. Robert Sanborn of The Housing Collaborative echoed this sentiment later on, emphasizing that the industry needs to remember decisions impact “real people, a real number of units and real dollars.”


The group acknowledged that constraints of development, finances and site can make mixing these tenants challenging. For example, there is a required audit of affordable housing tenants when market rate tenants are present in the building, requiring a door-to-door check-in to ensure the tenants living in affordable housing units actually meet the income requirements. While regulatory measures like these are good in theory, they can sometimes stifle developers and take money away from the building.

On the policy side, John Gearrity of HPD (NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development) says the agency is working to enhance its capacity, stretch the dollar, and streamline the process for new developments. Unit density is difficult for the city to control, as it is largely driven by design. Developers must continue to consider other ideas and solutions besides inclusionary housing and standard affordable housing. For example micro units, increased density and relaxed zoning laws in low-rise and mid-rise communities would all help to increase the number of units available. At the other end of the spectrum, some New Yorkers are, in fact, “overhoused” in units that are too large for the number of people living there explained Andrea Kretchmer of Poko Partners. There are efforts to reposition existing single tenants currently living in large units intended for families.

The panel wrapped up with a discussion of transportation in developing neighborhoods. Express trains, construction and delays all impact where people want to live as they commute into Midtown and other workplace-focused areas. Queens, for example, is predominantly serviced by the 7 train. Additional residential development will require extensive funding for transportation expansion and updates.

Photos courtesy of SMPS New York


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