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Council Advances All-Affordable Real Estate Project In East New York, And Partly Affordable One In Astoria

By George Joseph, THE CITY

November 19, 2022

A rezoning that would allow for a massive new real estate development in East New York that would include 11 residential buildings with more than 2,000 apartments passed a key City Council test Thursday, with support from a local representative best known for his opposition views.

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Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), an outspoken socialist and frequent opponent of rezoning, backed the plan for Innovative Urban Village after years of negotiations with the developers — an intransigent stance he said led to a project with only affordable units for the overwhelmingly Black and Latino, working-class neighborhood.

The plan, as initially envisioned by the Gotham Organization and the Christian Cultural Center, a megachurch in Starrett City that owns the land, originally proposed rents for residents living between 30% and 120% of the New York area. s median income – currently anywhere from $40,000 to $160,000 for a household of four.

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But after community feedback and negotiations with Barron’s office, the developer lowered the income limits to between 30% and 80% of the median income, or between $40,000 and $106,000 for a family of four. According to 2019 data compiled by the Furman Center, the local community district’s median household income was $48,000 and more than half of the area’s households earned income that would qualify.

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City Councilman Charles Barron, the East New York Democrat, speaks during an election-related rally in June/Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The proposed project on what is currently a parking lot and otherwise vacant land would also include a trade school, a grocery store, a daycare and four acres of open public space.

Barron, a former Black Panther and a longtime opponent of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party establishment, said the project should set an example for other city council members proposing major developments in their districts, as well as the Adams administration, for how to “yes” without rubber stamping projects with rents above what local residents can afford.

The same Council committee also unanimously approved another major rezoning, known as Innovation QNS, after lengthy negotiations with local Astoria Councilwoman Julie Won (D-Queens), who initially raised objections to what she called insufficient affordable housing.
The $2 billion project is expected to bring nearly 3,000 apartments to an area near Northern Boulevard, about one-third of which are categorized as affordable.

The project is backed by construction workers union 32BJ SEIU and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who ridiculed Won as she held out, citing concerns that the arrival of luxury units would exacerbate gentrification in the area.

In a statement, Won explain her apparent change of heart by pointing to “wins” including an increase in affordable units her team secured — though those modifications appeared to fall short of the 55% affordable threshold she initially demanded.

“We are negotiating daily to ensure unprecedented levels of affordability for my immigrant and working-class community,” Won said, adding that she was “finalizing negotiations for commitments from the developer and the mayoral administration.”

In fact, she let the project proceed through the subcommittee, which is where other lawmakers usually defer to the wishes of the local council member, before receiving a firm, written commitment.

“As the board member, I will use every accountability measure to ensure that our community wins are actualized,” Won continued.

Barron, speaking about the East New York project, urged council members not to settle for half an affordable loaf of bread in projects that need their approval.

“I keep telling them, ‘Go for 100% affordability, affordable to the income level of the income bracket in your community,'” Barron told THE CITY. “We have all these projects where people say, ‘Oh, I have 30% affordable or 25%.’ This means you have 70% market. In this one here there is no market rate.”

Council members have leverage, he pointed out, because of “member deference,” New York’s longstanding but increasingly controversial practice in which the majority of the Council follows the wishes of the member representing a given district with projects to be rezoned .

“The city council has the power. No matter what the mayor wants to do – wants to give breaks to his property and people who fund him and whose music he dances to on Wall Street – the mayor can’t do any rezoning,” Barron said. “The mayor can’t even get a bill passed. In fact, 34 votes on a bill and we override a mayoral veto.”

Tale of two ‘innovations’

Barron’s “yes” vote for what he calls a “100%” affordable project comes after months of high-profile clashes across the city in which the Adams administration and pro-development forces, pointing to the city’s housing crisis, pushed lawmakers to greenlight has. -light more, bigger projects.

In October, City Councilwoman Marjorie Velázquez (D-The Bronx) suddenly came out in favor of a development proposal in Throggs Neck after her residents had promised for months that she was against it. Her turnaround allowed the construction of hundreds of new apartments there, a victory for Mayor Adams and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.

In June, developers withdrew an application to build a 915-unit high-rise development in Harlem after Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan (D-Manhattan) blocked the project, which, despite repeated concessions, never passed 50% market- units have not been achieved.

Richardson Jordan has faced criticism from some elected officials and pro-development groups, who have pointed to the likely alternatives being offered for the site.

“The site will remain indefinitely as is – a vacant lot, an abandoned gas station and a small amount of single-story retail. If the property owner proceeds with development below the proper limits, it will likely become a self-storage facility,” he said. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said at the time, “The desperate need for additional affordable housing in Harlem and the entire city is growing.”

Barron was one of the most prominent council allies of Richardson Jordan, a fellow Black socialist, who called her a “sy-ro” for standing up to the “arrogant” developer, as The Amsterdam News reported.

However, for the project in his district, Barron said that AR Bernard, pastor of East New York’s Christian Cultural Center and one of the forces behind the development, is someone he can work with.

“He is much more conservative. I am much more radical. He is much more capitalistic. I am socialist. So we’re on very different ends of the spectrum,” Barron said. “But the bottom line, I don’t care who comes before me or what your politics are, you’re going to make housing affordable for our people.”

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