N.Y.C. Community Boards Usually Oppose New Housing. Not This One.
Few obstacles to new housing loom as large as powerful neighbors who dislike the idea of new construction. And few residents can be quite as loud or influential as New York City’s community boards, which have a reputation for giving priority to a neighborhood’s character and pushing back on new development.
With the city confronting a staggering housing crisis, however, one community board is pursuing an unusual path: calling for the development of nearly 23,000 new homes, including hundreds affordable to lower-income New Yorkers, in its Manhattan neighborhoods.
The push, set to be formally announced by the board on Thursday, comes from a body that represents the west side of the borough from 14th Street to Columbus Circle — a swath that includes diverse areas like Hell’s Kitchen and upscale ones like Chelsea and Hudson Yards, along with the High Line, the Port Authority bus terminal and a mix of building stock that ranges from art galleries to parking lots and rundown warehouses.
The group, Manhattan Community Board 4, has no power to implement its plan, which would involve zoning changes, multimillion-dollar public investments and the repurposing of buildings and property owned by the state, among other provisions.
But it has the backing of the area’s City Council members, who wield significant power in determining what does or does not get built in their districts. And the board hopes it can achieve some success by capitalizing on the growing political momentum among city and state leaders to make it easier for developers to build homes. Its efforts, it hopes, may be a template of how New York City neighborhood leaders, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods that have traditionally resisted housing, can help make a dent in the city’s housing shortage.
“This plan is really meant to be an opportunity, a gift, to the city and the state, from a community, saying: ‘Build these apartments here,’” said Jeffrey LeFrancois, the chair of the board.
Mr. LeFrancois acknowledged the challenges of fulfilling all of the plan’s provisions. But he added, “If we achieve 25 percent of this plan, we’ve made a difference in the community and the City of New York.”
The New York metropolitan area needed more than 340,000 additional homes in 2019, according to a May analysis by Up For Growth, a Washington policy and research group. The city has issued fewer building permits per resident over most of the past decade than Boston, Austin and San Francisco, according to a recent study from the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit research group.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has pledged to make housing issues a central part of her agenda in 2023. Mayor Eric Adams last week said the city would try to simplify development regulations, including eliminating environmental reviews for some residential buildings, in order to speed construction of new housing.
On Wednesday, Ms. Hochul and Mr. Adams both appeared together at a meeting of business and civic leaders and said they would jointly push for a slew of new ideas designed to address the housing shortage, includingremoving some state limits on residential building size, legalizing basement and garage homes and even creating an appeals process for when local governments reject new development.
Politicians on the left have said they would want far more public investment to keep homes affordable at below market rents and help lower-income New Yorkers who bear the brunt of the crisis, but some have even softened their opposition to developments that include market-rate apartments.
Local neighborhood leaders, who are often more inclined to resist big changes to their areas, have so far been less vocal about coming up with proposals to expand housing.
There are 59 community boards across New York City, each representing a different geographic area. Boards each have up to 50 volunteer members along with paid administrative staff, who are appointed by borough presidents, and while they do not have any formal power to veto projects, they must be consulted on many land use changes, and their opinions can be influential.
Some community boards have endorsed development projects, but they have earned a reputation for pushing back.
Earlier this year, a community board in the Bronx voted against a new housing project that will add almost 350 homes — including almost half that would rent at below-market rates — to an area with a relatively high share of single-family homes. The project was ultimately approved by the City Council.
Manhattan Community Board 4’s plan is a combination of several different strategies.
One part calls for building housing on sites owned or controlled by the state or its economic development corporation, including the former Bayview Women’s Prison at the intersection of West 20th Street and 11th Avenue and a parking lot on West 46th Street. Together, the board estimates those proposals could add more than 5,400 new homes.
Another part of the plan, which would require city approval, seeks to rezone four areas. It would allow for more residential development near Hudson Yards and expand a “special district” in west Chelsea. Those proposals, the board estimates, could add more than 15,000 homes.
The community board also wants to crack down on illegal hotels and prevent illegal demolition of residential buildings. It also hopes to work with the state to prevent more than 1,600 units affordable to lower incomes — about $80,000 per year for a family of four, for example — from becoming market-rate units when their tax exemptions expire.
The plan, which incorporates earlier efforts to develop in the district, calls for more than 37,000 homes to be added to the community district overall. That includes the addition of 23,000 new homes, the preservation of more than 3,700 homes and thousands of homes under development and already completed between 2015 and 2019.
Of the 37,000 total, more than 14,000 units would be considered affordable for middle-class and working-class New Yorkers, the board estimates.
Vicki L. Been, faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center, said she could not think of another example in recent memory of a community board creating such a detailed and ambitious plan.
“They are being constructive,” said Ms. Been, a former deputy mayor for housing and economic development under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who worked with community boards on housing projects. “They are stepping up to the plate.”
But she said allowing community boards to set their own priorities could clash with citywide needs.
The plan, for example, calls for many of the new homes considered “affordable” to target middle-income people, such as families of four earning more than $133,400 a year. But the city may want and need to prioritize and invest in homes affordable for lower earners in relatively wealthier parts of Manhattan.
“The positive is, they’re taking the initiative,” she said. “But the downside is, you can’t have 59 different housing policies.”