New Chair Leads ‘YIMBY’ Wave at Manhattan Community Board 5

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A young new pro-housing chair took over the helm of Manhattan Community Board 5 — set to tackle some of the city’s biggest land-use matters — as a new “Yes in My Backyard” (YIMBY) wave sweeps the city

CB5 elected Samir Lavingia on March 14 to take over after longtime chair Vikki Barbero — a member of CB5 since 1993 — stepped down and her successor, former vice chair Nick Athanail, followed suit, Crain’s New York Business first reported.

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Lavingia, 29, lives in an apartment near Columbus Circle at the northwest edge of the community district, which spans 45 blocks through the center of Manhattan to the corner of Irving Place and East 14th Street.

“Because of my experiences as a renter, I really wanted to be part of the solution,” Lavingia, who works for pro-housing group Open New York, said. “As a renter, we are constantly on the edge of losing our homes.”

Like one-third of New Yorkers, Lavingia is severely rent-burdened, he said. He pays more than half his income in rent.

That, along with Lavingia’s youth and involvement in a burgeoning pro-development YIMBY movement in New York City, makes him a little different from the older generation of community board members.

Community boards — which play an advisory role in the city’s public land use review process — have been a major bottleneck in getting new housing development approved, something many New York residents feel the city needs to clear up as the rental vacancy rate reached a historic low of 1.4 percent this year.

But the shake-up at CB5 is a sign of change across the city, with other community boards starting to adopt a pro-housing agenda.

“In Manhattan, the trend has been intentionally to appoint more members who are representative of the people that live in the districts,” Lavingia said. “When the City Council members are suggesting people for these positions, they are taking that into account and trying to put pro-housing people on the boards to better represent the voters.”

Ben Carlos Thypin, one of the founders of Open New York, compared the turnover to the political awakening that unfolded over two decades on Manhattan’s west side, culminating when Jerry Nadler overcame Democratic machine politics to be elected to Congress in 1992.

“The world felt that the old guard was mismanaging the city and its politics,” Thypin said.

There are three other members of Open New York currently serving on CB5, and some of the organization’s policy agenda has made its way into Gov. Kathy Hochul’s housing plan.

Next door, Manhattan Community Board 4 recently drew up its own plan to address the city’s housing crisis by adding some 23,000 homes to its west side district.

And the changes at CB5 and CB4 could soon spread to other parts of the city after a 2018 ballot proposal introducing term limits for community board members begins to take effect in 2027.

Yet, the shakeup at CB5 has not been without friction. Along with vice chair Athanail, longtime land use chair Layla Law-Gisiko resigned last week, with transportation chair E.J. Kalafarski announcing he was throwing in the towel two days later.

Law-Gisiko said she resigned because of her “concern over the transparency and independence of the board.” She added that she believes some of the board members “don’t always speak for themselves.”

Kalafarski could not be reached for comment. 

Athanail — a broker at Corcoran and member of the firm’s “multimillion-dollar club” — said consensus-based decision-making that had been par for the course at CB5 had given way to “intense politicking, coercion and disparagement.”

“Vikki’s departure truly marks the end of an era for Community Board 5, and I now realize that the end of that era includes me as well,” Athanail said in his resignation announcement at the March 14 board meeting. “I no longer recognize this board.”

Jeffrey LeFrancois, the former head of CB4, said community boards in the past have relied too heavily on unanimity on land use matters, and that shouldn’t be the goal in the future.

“It’s unfortunate that [Barbero’s] departure is being overshadowed by flippant resignations based on a few people having a difference of opinion on a board of 50 people,” LeFrancois said.

CB5 plays a role in some of the city’s biggest land use matters, including the future of Pennsylvania Station and the surrounding office towers that Vornado Realty Trust (VNO) planned to develop, the rezoning of Midtown South, and the ongoing revitalization of Times Square.

Lavingia — who was elected vice chair, and only became chair after Athanail’s resignation — for his part said he would try “to keep the ship running” in the wake of the shake-ups.

He has some choppy waters to navigate. In comments during last week’s meeting, board members accused him and other Open New York members of serving the interests of the real estate lobby.

Lavingia contended that Open New York is actually fighting against the real estate lobby for stronger tenant protections.

“That aligns with my values while also looking at the problems we’re facing as a country,” Lavingia said.

When he speaks at CB5 meetings, he added, “All my opinions are my own opinions.” 

A spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, whose office reviews community board appointees, said there was no conflict of interest with Lavingia’s involvement with Open New York. 

“By going through the vetting process, that’s an indication that we’ve determined there’s no general conflict of interest and can be appointed to a board and promoted to chair,” the spokesperson said.

Lavingia joined Open New York in 2022 after leaving his job at Twitter amid the turmoil of Elon Musk’s takeover. He started as a campaign coordinator for the nonprofit, which advocates for tenant protections such as “good cause” eviction and housing growth in all neighborhoods.

“What drew me to Open New York is not just that it’s focused on supply, but protecting tenants where they live right now,” Lavingia said. “I was really looking for a new thing to do that would be a little more fulfilling.”

Lavingia will remain chair at least until June, when CB5 is set to hold a new round of elections for all its officers.

Abigail Nehring can be reached at anehring@commercialobserver.com.