Housing Advocates Have a Long List of Hopes for Eric Adams Administration
Backyard cottages. A new property tax code. Hotels into homes. Offices next to apartments. Cash for appliance conversions. Everyone has ideas for Eric Adams to solve New York’s thorniest real estate issues.
When Eric Adams becomes mayor of New York City in January, he will inherit a mixed legacy of land use and housing policy decisions from Mayor Bill de Blasio, including universal right to counsel for tenants, a series of residential rezonings across largely working-class swaths of the five boroughs, and a citywide hotel special permit that effectively bans new hotel construction.
Adams, who is currently Brooklyn borough president, pitched a few housing and zoning proposals during his campaign, such as converting hotels into housing and revamping the city’s property tax code. Largely, though, he has shied away from specifics on real estate-related issues, despite a very friendly relationship with the industry.
Real estate observers and housing advocates have a long list of hopes and dreams for his administration nonetheless. These include property tax reform, converting hotels and office buildings to housing, upzonings, expanded rental voucher programs, and even subsidies for rent-stabilized landlords making energy-efficient renovations.
Emily Goldstein, the director of organizing and advocacy at the nonprofit Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, said she hoped Adams’ team would take a more holistic approach to housing policy and homelessness than de Blasio’s administration. She pointed out that the disconnect between the city’s departments of housing and homeless services had in some ways exacerbated the homelessness crisis.
“It’s really important that homelessness be treated as a housing issue and that [the city’s Department of Homeless Services] and other agencies that are geared towards shaping policy and enacting budgets for folks who are experiencing homelessness are under a deputy mayor who is accountable for enacting the mayor’s housing plan,” Goldstein said. “Having DHS and housing in separate areas has led to a big disconnect, and, if the agency responsible for homelessness doesn’t get much say in housing policy, then we stay in a mess.”
Goldstein and her organization also want Adams’ officials to embrace comprehensive planning. The concept, which has long been a talking point of progressive housing activists in the city, would involve working with local communities to craft specific neighborhood plans for zoning, housing and necessary investments in local infrastructure like schools and parks.
“There needs to be an actual long-term plan in New York City, and that needs to be carried out in capital budgeting, land use policy, operating budgets, and across housing and jobs policy,” Goldstein explained. She hoped that Adams would “have a very different relationship with communities on the ground and especially with communities of color, and with histories of disinvestment. And set up opportunities for those communities to do planning and develop visions for their neighborhoods.”
“Wealthier whiter communities get to do some of that by default,” Goldstein added. “There’s a bit of a default veto that they get over changes to their neighborhoods.”
She said she felt that de Blasio’s approach to rezoning had ultimately been unnecessarily divisive and unproductive.
“One of his big things when he got into office was that he was going to rezone 15 neighborhoods, and that was the vehicle for producing units,” Goldstein said. “The impacts in terms of gentrification and displacement in the neighborhoods that were targeted were pretty destructive, and there was just this series of running battles during de Blasio’s administration over land use policy and zoning policy.”
She was not alone in feeling that wealthier, whiter neighborhoods should be doing their part to produce more housing.
“If New York is going to build the housing we need, it needs to happen in wealthy neighborhoods that haven’t been doing their fair share so far,” said Will Thomas, the head of pro-development group Open New York. He noted that even in densely built Manhattan, there were many neighborhoods with untapped development potential.
“Kips Bay, Gramercy, Morningside Heights, the West Village,” Thomas explained. “There are a number of neighborhoods where he could upzone contextually. We would push him to focus on wealthy, transit-rich areas in Brooklyn or Queens. There are many neighborhoods that many people don’t consider wealthy but are in fact quite wealthy — Long Island City, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope. These neighborhoods often have ample capacity on the subway. They have room to grow and areas where they could add density.”
He also argued for reforms that would help reduce the cost of construction. Reducing or eliminating mandatory parking minimums in the zoning code would go a long way toward that goal.
“These minimums drive up construction costs, they contribute to traffic and pollution, and ultimately contribute to congestion quite a lot,” Thomas said. “In the Gowanus rezoning they reduced parking minimums. There are many places in the city where they’re considering reducing parking minimums altogether. There’s no reason Long Island City should have parking minimums.”
He also felt that the city should make it easier for homeowners to legalize apartments in garages, backyards and other underutilized areas of their property.
“We think the city should take the lead on legalizing accessory dwelling units, which would allow backyard cottages [and] legalizing garages in existing homes,” Thomas explained. “This could potentially create thousands of homes at potentially more affordable price points, and give current homeowners a way to add value to their property. And it would give the city a way to regulate these units.”
Thomas also felt that there should be a more concrete planning process at the neighborhood level across the city, but with the goal of producing a specific number of apartments in certain areas.
“Adams has mentioned housing targets at the community board level. In terms of equitable growth, it’s a model we’ve seen operate in California,” he noted. “We think that City Hall should start the planning process for that as soon as Adams is sworn in, so new council members would have a clear scorecard in terms of getting new housing to their district.”
Mitchell Korbey, a land use attorney at Herrick Feinstein, felt that planners should be looking more closely at zoning in industrial areas throughout the five boroughs. He pointed to the industrial parts of Long Island City, for example, as ripe for a residential rezoning, as well as the Meatpacking District and the area north of Madison Square Park.
“Why are these areas zoned for manufacturing when there’s no manufacturing?” Korbey asked. “We need to strengthen those industrial business zones and manufacturing zones that are working. And we can rezone those areas that are zoned for manufacturing where there’s very little, if any, manufacturing.”
He added that some industrial areas should be upzoned to allow for new multistory warehouse projects, which remain rare in New York City. “There’s nothing between M1-4, which is 2 FAR [floor area ratio] and M1-5, which is 5 FAR … and those areas that are vital to warehousing should be rezoned for more industrial,” Korbey said, referring to the New York zoning terms for light manufacturing areas.
Korbey also said he felt that Adams’ city planning department should focus on trying to remove hurdles for office and hotel conversions to apartments. Allowing smaller apartments would help pave the way for residential conversions in hotels, for example.
“Microunits have been on the tip of planners’ tongues for a long time, and they’re a very good affordable form of market-rate, affordable studio apartments,” he noted.
Korbey also suggested that office conversions would be more plausible if zoning and building codes allowed living and working on the same floor.
Mayor-elect Adams has pitched converting 25,000 hotel rooms into supportive and affordable housing but provided very few details on how that would happen. Ultimately, the plan would require significant regulatory changes in the building and zoning codes, and maybe even a new kind of tax break that would incentivize hotel and office owners to convert their buildings to apartments. The state legislature would have to approve a new tax abatement or exemption, which creates extra hurdles. Another Adams campaign pledge — to reform the city property tax code — would also require extensive involvement from state legislators. He has also proposed upzoning all of Midtown South — from 14th to 42nd streets between Ninth and Park avenues — though this area is already one of the city’s densest.
Adams has been friendly with landlords, developers and brokers. Over the course of his campaign, he raised hundreds of thousands from big commercial landlords like the Durst Organization, Rudin Management, SL Green Realty Corp., Thor Equities and Tishman Speyer. Jay Martin, the executive director of a small landlord group, Community Housing Improvement Program, said he felt cautiously optimistic about Adams’ pro-real estate perspective.
“We are hoping this administration will take issues like zoning reform more seriously than the last administration, which allowed the City Council members to fight among themselves, and it’s coming to a head at the very end of the administration,” Martin said.
He also hoped Adams would be receptive to the concerns of small and rent-stabilized landlords, including around issues such as rising utility and tax bills, fines from city agencies, and increased renovation costs related to new environmental rules.
“The Adams administration could be an advocate for property tax reform and a more robust voucher system to help alleviate renter burdens,” Martin said. He felt that too many financial burdens — combined with constantly growing unpaid back rent due to some tenants’ struggles through the pandemic — had begun to weigh on small landlords that couldn’t afford to absorb the cost.
“Just being able to have a conversation with the administration will hopefully be the start of smarter policies, and we hope they can start to understand that every fine becomes translated to costs for renter burdens,” Martin explained. “The nickel and diming of small property owners translates into higher costs at the end of the day.” He pointed to a new change in the city’s lead abatement laws, which could force owners to re-renovate units that had already been renovated and abated under the previous lead threshold.
“We have to work with the administration to meet the deadlines and we may need offsets in order to not pass those costs on to renters,” Martin said.
Both the state legislature and the City Council are considering bills that would require electric appliances in all new apartments starting in 2024 for smaller buildings and in 2027 for new residential projects taller than seven stories. Martin assumes it’s only a matter of time until owners of older buildings face all-electric mandates too. Removing existing gas lines and replacing large gas-fired boilers with smaller individual electric ones could mean moving a tenant out of an apartment for a month or two.
“They want to move to a point where every unit is electrified and off fossil fuels but it has to be done with an understanding of the huge infrastructure challenges,” Martin said. “You would have to be removed from that unit for four to six weeks and placed in a hotel while the work is done. The money has to come from somewhere. We can’t just say there’s a 20 percent rent increase across the board.”
He felt that electrifying apartment buildings was “a worthy goal, but where is the power coming from? You’re talking about quadrupling the power need for one building. You’ve reduced the electrical output, you’ve killed a peaker plant in Queens. The grid needs to be bolstered so it can handle the electricity that needs to be drawn down. There’s a lot of promising rhetoric but we’re looking to see where the rubber meets the road.”