By Arthur Z. Schwartz

We in the Village live in one of the most expensive residential areas not just in NYC but in the world. Long-time residents, who either have rent stabilized apartments or bought their co-op or condo 20-40 years ago may not realize how bad it is, but it is almost impossible for a person making less than $160,000 a year to afford even a studio apartment in the Village. On my block, which is between 5th and 6th, one bedrooms rent for $6000 and up. It makes us a neighborhood of older long-time residents and young business people, most of whom move on. I have had the experience of raising four children, none of whom could afford to live where they grew up.

Things aren’t much better in Chelsea, or even Hells Kitchen, to our north. Once upon a time we had a City Council Member, Christine Quinn, who cut her activist teeth working for a tenants’ group; but during the Bloomberg era she fell under the sway of big-real estate and embraced the rezoning of Chelsea. Those developers then bankrolled her failed run for Mayor. Our next City Council Member, Corey Johnson, worked in real estate before becoming our Council Member, and he helped usher in Hudson Yards, with the most expensive residential real estate in the City in it, and now around it. His one announced venture into affordable housing, at the St Johns terminal on Houston and West Street, which picked up “air rights “ from Pier 40 so it could go up 40 stories, in return for a promise of affordable and senior housing, turned into Google’s new Headquarters.

Now we have a new Council Member, Eric Bottcher, who ran for office supported by PACs funded by New York’s biggest developers, seems to just be sitting on his hands. He recently celebrated his second bill (!)passed in 11 months in office, talks a lot about garbage, and bike lanes, but has done nothing to make his district more affordable.

I am writing about this because I want readers to see what an activist City Council Member can do to make living in NYC more affordable. The neighborhood is Astoria, Queens, where Council Member Julie Won recently celebrated a hard won project called Innovation Qns, which was approved on November 21st by the City Council.

The final version of the Innovation Qns plan features 1,436 income-restricted apartments, around 45 percent of the total. “We have set a new precedent for building affordable housing on private land,” Councilmember Julie Won said in the Council on the day of the approval. 

Innovation Qns Conceptual Model. Photo Courtesy of the NY City Planning Commission

Innovation Qns involves the development of a $2 billion, 12 building, 3,190-unit complex in an active industrial swath of southern Astoria, after the local councilmember agreed to the final plan which added hundreds of additional income-restricted apartments previously proposed; 1,436 apartments priced for low-and middle-income New Yorkers — up from 711 in the original project proposal.

Won’s final deal with the developers (Silverstein Properties) included the inclusion of 554 “family-sized” two-and-three-bedroom, income-restricted units not included in the initial plan. The new figures mean around 45 percent of the apartments will be income-capped and deemed “affordable.” Of those, 157 apartments will be set aside for people experiencing homelessness.

“Those are significant gains for my community,” Won said. “This is not the best that my community deserves, but it’s the best I could get within a negotiation that is always a compromise for both sides.” She had earlier demanded that the developer make 55 percent of all apartments “affordable” but said she backed off to preserve as many units as possible for low-income residents. She said the 45 percent threshold will be a benchmark for future negotiations, including plans to up zone the site of the failed Amazon campus plan in neighboring Long Island City.

Her decision comes after months of intense, and increasingly contentious, negotiations with the developers, as well as Council staff, City Hall officials and union leaders who sought her approval for such a large-scale project on private land, which supporters say will create much-needed new homes. City Council Members are usually deferred to where major zoning changes are involved in real estate development. 

But critics of the original proposal, including Won, argued it didn’t offer enough truly affordable units, expressing fears about potential for “secondary displacement”—a disputed concept that new developments lead to higher rents in adjacent buildings—and accelerated gentrification in a part of Astoria where average incomes trail other parts of the neighborhood.

“What they envisioned for this was a fancy Upper East Side kind of neighborhood,” Won said of the developers behind the project and their initial plan. “It’s now truly going to be a mixed-income, affordable community-centered development.” The original proposal included around 2,800 units, with just over 700 deemed “affordable” under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) rules, which force developers to cap rents so that low- and middle-income residents pay no more than 30 percent of their income in a portion of new apartments built in areas that underwent a rezoning. But developers have three options for “affordability” across a range of income levels, with many of the so-called affordable units still far out of reach of many low-income renters. 

The final version of the project features 658 units with rents set for people earning 30 percent of the area median income—currently $28,000 for an individual and $36,000 for a family of three. 

Won held out, however, even though Mayor Eric Adams, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and a number of influential labor unions backed the plan. She said she would settle for no less than 55 percent “affordability” in the development.  

Supporters of expanded affordability definitions emphasized the City desperately needs housing for residents of all income-levels amid a serious shortage. A major project like Innovation Qns could help put a dent in the overall need. For years, residential development has failed to keep pace with population growth, with less than 0.2 units added to the city’s housing stock for every new job created between 2010 and 2018. That shortage of available apartments, leading to record-setting rents. But the problem is most dire for low-income New Yorkers: overall apartment vacancy rate for apartments priced below $1,500 is less than 1 percent, according to the city’s latest housing survey.

Erik Bottcher, whose campaign in 2021 had the support, with two mailings, of Silverstein Properties, could even take a small page out of Julie Won’s book and accomplish something. Will he? What do you think?

Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village.