NYC Housing Commissioner Adolfo Carrión On Development, the Migrant Crisis and More

The head of Housing Preservation and Development says incentives similar to 421a are essential for satisfying New York's demand for housing

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Adolfo Carrión Jr.’s whirlwind political career took him from the West Bronx to the White House and back again before he joined Mayor Eric Adams’s administration in 2022 as the city’s commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development. Carrión’s mandate is to help New York provide half a million new units of housing over the next decade.

That challenge is far from easy. Legislation that would incentivize the construction of affordable units and allow for taller, denser high-rises in many neighborhoods remains stuck in Albany. Plans to convert vacant aging office properties to homes also remains stalled. And the influx of tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Central and Latin America has unexpectedly strained the city’s resources.

SEE ALSO: L+M Plans 328-Unit Affordable Housing Development at 1225 Gerard Avenue in the Bronx

Still, Carrión, the 61-year-old father of four who lives on City Island, said during interviews with Commercial Observer in early June that he’s optimistic about the city’s direction and the Adams administration’s ability to solve problems like creating enough housing for its future workforce. 

This interview was conducted over two separate days. Some responses were edited and condensed.

Commercial Observer: The housing commissioner’s office is a long way from Baychester. What made you get into politics?

Adolfo Carrión Jr.: My father was a pastor, which is not too far off. After I graduated from college and finished a bachelor’s in world religion and philosophy, I met the chair of the school of architecture and engineering at City College, who came to my school in the South Bronx. I was teaching a seventh grade bilingual class, and he asked whether I would volunteer to teach my class through the lens of the physical city. 

I said, “Yes, that sounds interesting.” That brought me into everything about urban planning and the city’s workings, history, infrastructure, decision-making, how things get paid for, and the politics behind all the decisions that get made. 

Our class asked for special permission to stay late into the day to build models of the water system, Central Park, and major landmarks. He said, “If you’re really interested in this stuff, there’s a program at Hunter College for urban planning that is targeted to diversify the planning field. As a Latino New Yorker in your 20s, you are a perfect candidate.”

I eventually got a job at the Department of City Planning in the Bronx office. I was a liaison to Community Board 5, which represents Fordham, Morris Heights and University Heights, to develop a land use plan. While I was there, they said, “We want to hire you as the new district manager.” That steeped me in everything about life in the city at the local level. 

I then got involved in a local Democratic club as a volunteer, and some people on the community board said, “Have you thought about running for City Council?” I hadn’t. I wasn’t even a registered Democrat. I was an independent. But I said, “Yeah, I’ll run.” 

Foolish me. 

You served as a councilman and the Bronx borough president. Why did you decide to join the Obama administration?

When he was thinking about running for president, he came to New York. We were supposed to meet for 30 minutes but we spent 90 minutes together. We talked about our upbringings, what it is to be a Black and brown male in America and about the failure of American cities to create the environment that are good platforms for success, especially for Black and brown men, and families. He understood that I had some pretty strong ideas at the national level to get America’s economic engines moving in the right direction. 

I was a surrogate for him around the country, and I was the president of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. He asked me to come to the White House and serve as the White House director of urban affairs.

What do Eric Adams and Barack Obama have in common, and how are they different?

I think they’re similar in the sense that they believe that American cities need to work for everyone, and if we build local economies that catch the entirety of the population it catches the entirety of our potential as a country. We have people on the sidelines or people not participating in the economy because they’re not getting educated, they’re not properly housed, they’re not addressing the institutional biases that exist as a country. They’re definitely in stride.

Why did you decide to join the Adams administration as housing commissioner? 

After I left government, I started my own business in affordable housing for 12 years. I knew the mayor was trying to put together a team dedicated to fixing things. His whole mantra — get stuff done, get stuff built, a “City of Yes” — it’s all forward-thinking, and I was excited about that. 

How can you shift City Hall’s focus toward housing when public safety remains a top issue?

I don’t think it’s a question of focus. From the day I walked in the door, the reality was we are in an affordability crisis. We have a lack of supply of housing, and we can’t continue to be competitive as a major global city and an attraction to investment if we can’t get enough people and the workforce housed.

We were climbing out of a global pandemic that changed the way people moved, worked, and all the patterns in business and government. Every agency lost people. We lost hundreds of people in this agency, so the commitment was to rebuild. Let’s get people into the housing we built as quickly as possible and make sure that it’s not difficult to get through the development process. 

We also said we need to look at the rules, regulations, laws and the zoning. How can we create a zoning regime that will allow and encourage the production of more housing in more places in the city, especially around transportation hubs?

City Hall’s chief housing officer, Jessica Katz, left in May. Does her absence imperil housing efforts?

I worked hand in hand with Jessica. She’s a phenomenal public servant. She knows housing and put us on the right track. And I’m excited to work with [Deputy Mayor] Maria Torres-Springer. She sat in my chair as commissioner. She knows this job and this agency.

Housing is actually going to the front of the front burner. We’re trying to build a strong environment that allows families and individuals to succeed where they live, where they work, where they plan, and all of this together. It’s not to say that we weren’t doing this before. It’s simply to say that this formalizes our engagement much more.

The mayor initially did not set a target for the number of new homes in his housing plan a year ago, but by December 2022 we finally got a number: 500,000. Do you know what changed?

One of the things that is painfully obvious is that we have a housing supply problem in the state of New York, and the governor speaks very eloquently about that. We’ve created more jobs than we have housing units and we need to house the people we have created jobs for. So the strategy is to create affordable units that are below-market, priced for working families, the elderly, and people who may find themselves homeless or have some mental health or physical issues that require assistance. 

We represent a small but important slice in the production of housing. So we set out to change the zoning code, and we’re working on that. The “City of Yes” is an attempt to shift conversation and say zoning creates the template and the baseline for development in any municipality. Investors will make the adjustments we’re looking for, which is the production of housing in a market with a dearth of housing — if we allow the rules and lower the risk to do that. The price point in the market and the availability of units in the market are directly related to the availability of supply.

The Police Department owns several vacant lots and parking lots throughout the city. How could the city build housing on them? Have you heard from the NYPD on this? 

We work with all city agencies, including the NYPD, to identify underutilized city-owned land that is a good fit for affordable housing. We have a long pipeline of such sites, but a great example of this work is the Timbale Terrace project in East Harlem. This is a 300-unit affordable housing development with 16,000 square feet of art space on the site of a NYPD parking lot. This project will go through the land use review process in a few months. 

Another site we are committed to looking at is on East Fifth Street. That is part of the SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan. There are many public parcels and we will consider all the feasible ones, including NYPD sites. 

The governor’s plans to build new housing were not included in the state budget. Are there plans to readjust the city’s targets in light of Albany’s stalemates?

Absolutely not. We think that given the need, if we create the platform for development, and upzone where it makes sense for transportation infrastructure, and if we allow for more development to advance in mixed-use zones where you traditionally could do only manufacturing, we now can produce housing alongside commercial uses. If we convert commercial buildings to residential, we’re moving in the right direction. Every effective leader has to offer a moonshot goal to the people they’re leading.

What are you trying to get accomplished in the legislature before the end of the year? 

Our team pushed hard in the final stretch to pass J-51 and the Housing Affordability, Resiliency and Energy Efficiency Investment Act (HAREEIA). We celebrated when they passed, not because it was a political victory, but because they’re hugely important and will enable us to better provide decent and affordable housing.

J-51 is a tax incentive to preserve affordable housing while protecting tenants, and HAREEIA modernizes and expands our loan authority to produce more affordable housing. This allows us to assist more kinds of households, including renters, first-time homebuyers and existing homeowners. 

Do you support a 421a-like tax abatement for developers to build multifamily units?

We have got to get a sexier name than 421a. A numbered designation doesn’t mean anything to anybody. You have to explain it every time. It is one of the most effective public-private partnerships in the country. It has created tens of thousands of affordable housing units in high-cost neighborhoods that are rich with amenities. Did it need a little fixing? Definitely, for the record, it needed some adjustments, and those adjustments were offered. The legislature now knows about what those adjustments are, which would make that housing more affordable to working families.

What about good cause eviction, which makes it harder to raise rents or evict tenants from their homes?

Our focus is on fair housing and making sure that people have access to lower-cost units across the entirety of our geography and that they are protected. And we have a whole set of programs that protect tenants that are in place. Our regulatory agreements are loaded with rent protections.

I know the legislature is in conversations about good cause legislation. We’re happy to continue discussing the bill that they’ve offered. The good cause eviction legislation is relatively new. We have a very strong set of rules in New York City that protects tenants, and anybody can tell you it is difficult to evict a tenant. We’re in active discussions with the legislature, and I’m not going to compromise the discussion.

How are you working with City Planning and the Department of Buildings to change building codes? Can you convert office buildings to residential use without the state’s help? 

We looked at what the possibilities are and how many units we can generate, and they’re significant. There are tens of thousands of units we can create with those conversions. We want to create the kind of environment that allows these conversions to take place.

There are a lot of technical steps here. Some of the commercial buildings don’t match up with residential use under the building code. There is a process, in terms of outfitting buildings, that will allow for these spaces to abide by the habitability requirements. 

What’s the biggest challenge?

Sizes of units and access to light and air. You have a lot of commercial floor plates that have windows around the perimeter and no windows at the core of the building. Either of these are design and engineering challenges. For many buildings it’s not an easy conversion.

Why doesn’t the city build more public housing?

We partner with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and our housing development corporation to finance new construction on NYCHA campuses. We can share with you some projects. There’s a whole list of them where we’ve partnered with NYCHA on their campuses, and we’re actively working with them to look for new opportunities.

What role are you taking to tackle the migrant crisis?

We’ve serviced and cared for more than 76,000 asylum seekers, and there are close to 50,000 in direct care in more than 130 shelters and humanitarian emergency centers. This is an all-of-government effort right now. Imagine taking a 76,000-seat football stadium and pouring it out into the city all at once — because in a period of a year that’s what we’ve experienced. 

Our agency is working on a couple of humanitarian emergency centers. One is in Brooklyn and we’re setting another one up soon. There are hotel contracts in five cities across the state. We’re asking county executives, elected officials, and community organizations to help us absorb this national humanitarian crisis that we’re facing. History is going to judge us by what we do with this. 

We’ve had waves of people coming to this country generation after generation. They happen to be from different places around the globe and they get similar reactions when they arrive. What we need right now is for the federal government to step up and accelerate work permitting. They all want to work, that’s why they came here. We have markets that need workers and we need funding. The city is going to spend an estimated $4 billion  over the next few years. That has to be a shared burden not only across the state but across the country. 

We need this Republican-controlled House to seriously take up immigration reform. Let’s pass immigration reform that allows a process that is rational and fair and a continued partnership with state governments. 

Should the city provide shelter to all asylum seekers who arrive here? Why is the administration moving to suspend the right to shelter? 

This isn’t just a crisis of shelter or housing. It’s a humanitarian crisis, and we have a moral imperative to do our part to support a group of people who overcame incredible odds just to arrive in this city. All people, including asylum seekers, deserve dignity and respect. We will continue to do our part as these folks overcome unbelievable odds and lay down roots in New York City. Now we need other counties and cities to do their part — in fact, many are already stepping up. We’re partnering with mayors, county executives and town supervisors across the state to identify sites and welcome asylum seekers into their communities at zero cost to the host localities.  

New York City pays for all support, including a bed, food, health services, laundry, case management, and everything else we provide in our sites in New York City. We are doing everything we can to provide thousands of people the care they deserve.  

Housing is one of several city agencies that has faced staffing shortages. What are you doing to expedite hiring? Have acquisition and preservation efforts slowed because of the shortages? 

A robust and healthy workforce is critical to carrying out our mission, so I set out to rebuild this agency post-COVID. We’ve rebounded enormously. In 2018, we hired 218 new employees. Under my leadership in 2022, we hired 442 new employees, and as of last month we’ve brought on 242 new employees.  

Our hiring fairs have been immensely successful. Over 200 people attended a hiring fair for our Division of Tenant Resources earlier this year, and that day we extended offers for all 49 openings on the team. DCAS has been hosting weekly citywide hiring fairs and we’ve attended every one. With the DC37 contract passing in April, providing well-deserved raises and $3,000 bonuses to more than 1,300 of our staff, we’re now able to keep more of our workforce. And, the cityOffice of Management and Budget has helped us increase pay for   about 200 of our recent hires to make our wages fairer and more competitive. 

There are parts of the agency that still need more help staffing up, and I feel optimistic that the new remote work pilot will help all agencies, not just HPD, better compete for top talent. 

The housing department is currently embracing remote work for two days a week. Do you ever work from home? How is this process going  

As a leader, it’s important to me that I don’t ask my staff to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. So, when the city’s air quality dropped, and city office workers were allowed to work from home the rest of that week, my senior team and I came into the office to show support for our staff who did not have that option. They need to know their boss will be there with them. It’s important to me to be able to connect with my team and see people in person. There’s no Zoom meeting that can replace that.

You currently live on City Island. How do you commute to work? 

I take the New York City ferry from Ferry Point Park to the Wall Street pier dock. The lion’s share of my commute is via the river. I’m a water guy.

We hear you ride a motorcycle too. What’s the most dangerous place to ride?

The FDR Drive. It’s not so much the danger of the traffic that’s flowing at a normal speed as it is the stop and go. It’s totally annoying. Every few seconds they’re thinking they’re making progress and you pass them along the way again. Nobody makes progress in the city by hopping from lane to lane.

When is the best time to ride a motorcycle in NYC?

Very early on a Sunday morning. Everybody is sleeping, and this beautiful city is as quiet as a mouse.

Speaking of danger, we’re told you’re a beekeeper. How often do you get stung?

We are beekeepers. We have a very productive four hives. Last season we harvested eight and a half gallons of what we’ve labeled as Harbor Honey. We live near City Island Harbor, which faces Hart Island. We give away most of our honey. 

There are real misconceptions about honeybees. Honeybees are not interested in humans. They’re always working. Even when I visit them with bare hands without the hazmat suit, they will walk on you. They will only sting if they feel threatened.