In the past I have not been kind to affordable housing programs. I have a lot of deeper problems with them that I’ll get to in a minute, but I think the extraordinarily high upper income limits on some of the projects are indicative of the broader problem of the essentially arbitrary and random (literally – they’re usually decided by lottery!) nature in which they’re doled out. In a way, even when the beneficiaries are blatantly undeserving, everybody wins – politicians get votes, and affordable housing advocates get paid. Everybody, that is, except market-rate renters, but when’s the last time they ever voted somebody out of power for sabotaging their interests?
Anyway, your latest affordable housing outrage story comes from New York City (where else?) – specifically 138th Street in Harlem, where the 73 units at Beacon Towers are almost all under contract, and Curbed claims that most of the remaining units are income-restricted “up to $192,000”!!! Oh yeah, and they can’t even find enough people who qualify.
Which brings me to another point: the Beacon Towers are not towers, and are certainly not any kind of beacon. They’re eight stories tall, and considering we’re talking about new construction in Manhattan, I’m going to take a wild guess and say they built right up to the zoning envelope. The immediate neighborhood is a mix of turn-of-the-century five- and six-story walkups (but little in the way of even cornice lines), some post-war towers-in-a-park-style buildings that reach up to 15 (!!) stories, along with a smattering of parking lots and other woefully underused lots. As Robert Fogelson wrote in Downtown, the New Yorkers of 1900 fully expected that by 2000, the whole island of Manhattan would be a river-to-river block of commercial skyscrapers. Perhaps that was unrealistic even if there had been no zoning code, but I bet they’d be shocked to know that a hundred years into the future and we’re still building 8-story buildings in Manhattan.
To be sure, bad zoning laws and not affordable housing mandates are to blame for the fact that taller buildings aren’t allowed in America’s most desirable city. But wasn’t this something that affordable housing was supposed to alleviate? Urbanist boosters of the mandates often tout “density bonuses,” or allowing developers to build a little more in exchange for subsidized units, as a way of eking out a little more density from the zoning code. Clearly that didn’t work in this case.
In fact, back during the 2005 Chelsea rezoning, affordable housing advocates were actually successful in getting the district’s allowed density reduced, “in order to provide more incentives for developers to apply for higher density under the inclusionary housing program.” In other wards, completely subverting the original voluntary “density bonus” idea. I suppose it was inevitable – the “density bonus” concept was forged by planners as a way of achieving their goals by enlisting the support of affordable housing activists, but they failed to recognize that the whole scheme is really just an incentive for affordable housing activists to push for downzonings. After all, they are ideologically disinclined to trust in market mechanisms, and certainly don’t care about increasing the market-rate housing supply, which often comes in the form of new luxury construction.
Anyone else know of other instances of this happening? Is it systemic, or are most affordable housing advocates not that cynical? (…or do the zoning committees stop them?)