Will Ending a Lucrative Tax Break Ease or Fuel the N.Y.C. Housing Crisis?

Jackson Park in Queens is a city unto itself: 1,871 luxury apartments in glittering glass towers with a heated rooftop pool, a full-size indoor basketball court and a 1.6-acre private park. Penthouse residences, whose floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic Manhattan views, rent for $8,500 a month.

It also has another distinction. The sprawling development by Tishman Speyer, one of the country’s biggest private real estate companies, is the top beneficiary of New York City’s most generous property tax exemption. An annual reduction of $21 million nearly eliminates the tax bill on the site, which is worth an estimated $394 million and opened in 2018 on a former parking lot in Long Island City.

The subsidy is made possible through a 51-year-old tax-incentive program known as 421a, an esoteric name for a lucrative property-tax exemption that critics say has worsened the city’s housing affordability crisis by encouraging the construction of luxury buildings instead of lower-cost homes.

First introduced in the 1970s, the tax break for builders of multifamily housing in the city was meant to promote new residential construction when New York was facing a fiscal crisis and few developers were building anything. After the economy rebounded, the subsidy remained and started to evolve, slowly adding various affordability requirements to qualify for the tax break.

In recent decades, few big residential projects have been built without the tax break, subsidizing the construction of hundreds of thousands of apartments and condominiums.

Its supporters say that a tax incentive is necessary to help produce below-market-rate housing in a city with a dire shortage of homes. But even the industry’s lobbying group, the Real Estate Board of New York City, concedes that the program has not kept up with the city’s housing needs.

Now the future of the program, which is set to expire in June, is precarious, with fierce lobbying underway to expand the program or kill it entirely. Gov. Kathy Hochul is urgently seeking a replacement tax break that promotes slightly deeper and longer-lasting affordability. Supporters, which include the influential real estate industry and Mayor Eric Adams, say development of much of the desperately-needed affordable housing in New York City could all but disappear without such a program.

But the governor’s proposal has placed her at odds with the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is aggressively trying to eliminate the tax break, arguing that no version of 421a has done nearly enough to stem the housing affordability crisis.

Critics say too many apartments marketed as affordable are only within reach to families making well over $100,000 a year — far higher than the city’s median household income — and that loopholes in the program’s different versions have allowed some apartment and condominium buildings to not include any low-cost units.

Since 2014, just 44 units built with the exemption have been offered at the deepest discount possible — for tenants who make 30 percent of the area median income — according to an analysis by The New York Times. For a family of three, for example, that means an income of about $32,200 a year to qualify to pay $631 a month for a two-bedroom unit.

Many units target far higher income levels, charging rents “affordable” to families of four earning over $155,000, which is much higher than the average in their surrounding neighborhoods. The household median income in the city is $67,046, with the Bronx having the lowest level at $42,000.

“The program is indefensible,” said Brad Lander, the New York City Comptroller, who has called for the 421a program to be eliminated. “It’s a huge giveaway for developers for just a tiny handful of actually affordable units.”

Brad Lander, center, the city’s comptroller said the tax break program was “a huge giveaway for developers for just a tiny handful of actually affordable units.”Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Developers have tapped into the tax breaks at such scale that it costs New York City more than $1.77 billion in lost tax revenue annually, double the amount in 2010.

Governor Hochul has included in her budget proposal a plan to revamp the 421a tax program and force developers to build affordable units in all projects, something that is not currently required. In a significant change, some units would have to be kept “affordable” even after the tax deal expired.

Her proposal has drawn the support of Mayor Eric Adams, who has ties to developers and believes lower-cost housing is hard to build without tax incentives.

“New York City cannot tackle the housing shortage at the root of our affordability crisis without an improved successor to the 421a program,” Mr. Adams said in a statement.

But critics say the governor’s plan still gives too big of a benefit to developers in return for too little for low-income New Yorkers.

The governor’s proposal also introduces a new benefit for developers, allowing the tax break on condominiums sold to people who earn up to 130 percent of the area median income, which is currently $83,600 for a single person. The area median income includes New York City and several suburban counties.

“The stakes are pretty large,” said Matt Murphy, the executive director of New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “You have to recognize its scale, and the policy debate around it is really important: How do you shape it to meet your current generation’s values and evolve it, knowing we are going to have a housing crisis and a low-vacancy city.”

The chief criticism of 421a has never changed: It has amounted to a tax giveaway for builders who have used it to erect high-end residences and helped drive the city’s surging housing costs.

The most affordable units are often studios and one-bedroom residences that disqualify families, while larger homes marketed as affordable have relatively high income requirements.

The PLG, a new residential building in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood of Brooklyn, has 141 “affordable” units, all requiring tenants to make about 130 percent of the area median income, the highest possible tier in the program.

In that neighborhood, the median asking price for a two-bedroom unit is $2,400 a month, according to the listings site StreetEasy; at PLG, a two-bedroom “affordable’’ unit is $2,710.

From 2016 to 2020, more than two-thirds of two- and three-bedroom units made available through the city’s affordable-housing lottery and created through the 421a program were priced for families who make 130 percent of the area median income, according to a recent report by the Furman Center.

The benefits also extend to commercial tenants, such as a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Midtown Manhattan that has a 20-year tax break, reducing its property taxes by nearly $2.6 million every year.

In Long Island City, a flurry of rezonings and developments have transformed low-slung buildings and industrial lots into towering luxury apartment buildings, including the Jackson Park complex.

Tishman Speyer rushed to break ground at Jackson Park to qualify for the 421a tax break only months before a previous, more-generous version of it expired in 2015, and placed the buildings just outside a designated area that would have required the developer to include below-market apartments.

Tishman Speyer, one of the country’s biggest private real estate companies, rushed to build Jackson Park before a previous version of the tax break program expired that did not require Tishman to include any below-market units. Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

If construction had started in 2016, Jackson Park would have had to include some low-cost units because of newer 421a rules. Instead, Jackson Park has none.

A spokesman for Tishman Speyer said the developer took advantage of a tax exemption made available to all developers and followed all its regulations. The company supports new proposals to increase the affordability of future 421a projects, the spokesman said.

On surrounding blocks, several other developers also rushed to start construction to meet the 2015 deadline. That includes Tower 28, which opened in Long Island City in 2018 and, at 58 floors, was briefly the tallest residential building in the city outside Manhattan. Developed by Heatherwood Luxury Rentals, it has 451 units — none below market.

The subsidy lowers Tower 28’s tax bill by $5.4 million annually. Heatherwood did not respond to requests for comment.

Paula Crespo, a senior planner with the Pratt Center for Community Development, which has criticized the program, said she considers the tax break program “a missed opportunity, to require something back from the developer for these decades of tax exemptions.”

In buildings with condos, the tax break extends to individual owners, an exemption available in some of the most prominent residential projects in Manhattan, including 35 Hudson Yards, a luxury condo tower. Whoever buys the full-floor penthouse on the 90th floor, currently for sale for $49.5 million, would pay just $27,500 in annual property taxes because of a 421a exemption that lasts 20 years. Without the tax break, the yearly property taxes would be $342,000.

35 Hudson Yards, center, a luxury condo development in Manhattan. Whoever buys a penthouse on the 90th floor would receive a tax break that would reduce annual property taxes to $27,500 from $342,000. Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

For decades, the Real Estate Board of New York has helped defeat every serious effort by elected officials to eliminate the tax break. Today, the industry group has not changed its position on preserving the incentive, but its leaders concede that the tax program’s many iterations gave rise to luxury housing without enough lower-cost homes.

The group supports the 421a replacement plan proposed by Governor Hochul.

“We’re not going to argue to keep the existing program because of that disconnect, that’s an important disconnect that needs to be addressed,” said Basha Gerhards, the organization’s senior vice president of planning.

REBNY claims that some tax relief is necessary in New York to produce and maintain affordable housing because land and construction costs and property taxes are so high. Without assistance, the group said, banks may consider the projects financially infeasible.

“The question is: Do we want these units?” said Zach Steinberg, REBNY’s senior vice president of policy, referring to below-market homes. “Because that’s what we’re talking about. We need these housing units in New York City.”

In the months before it expires, some progressive elected officials and housing advocates have argued that the tax break should be scrapped altogether.

At a recent rally in Downtown Brooklyn, where the tax exemption has fueled a surge in high-end residential construction, Mr. Lander, the comptroller, urged state lawmakers to instead fix the city’s uneven property tax system by lowering tax rates on new apartment buildings, increasing them on condominiums and providing tax relief for low-income property owners.

Matthew Koziolek, a mental-health therapist, and his wife, a public-school teacher, spent more than a year applying for affordable units on the city’s housing lottery website. With a combined income of about $100,000, the couple qualified, on paper at least, for several apartments in Queens but none that they could actually afford on their budget, including a two-bedroom residence in Jackson Heights listed at $2,400 a month.

Matthew Koziolek and his wife Andrea are considering leaving New York because they say the low-cost apartments they qualify for under tax break program are not within their budget.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

The Jackson Heights building has a 35-year tax break through the 421a program, which cuts its annual tax bill by $185,000. Of its 20 units, 10 are “affordable” apartments reserved for tenants who make up to 130 percent of the area median income.

“It’s not affordable unless you have generational wealth,” said Mr. Koziolek, 30, adding that he and his wife are visiting Colorado in April to explore relocating there. “We have stopped looking on the New York City website because we found it to be a joke.”

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