Understanding NYC's land use, and how to fix it to enable housing production
A breakdown of a Citizens Budget Commission report and panel discussion
On Wednesday, September 28, the Citizens Budget Commission held a panel discussion on how to improve NYC’s land use process, based on CBC’s latest report, “Improving New York City’s Land Use Decision-Making Process.” This post is an attempt to make that panel discussion, and that report, more digestible to the students in my class (and anyone else who might come along). I recommend reading the Furman Center’s 302.6 series, specifically “Who Decides,” for a shorter treatment of the same subject, and as a way to prime your palette for the longer read.
The CBC’s report is excellent, and it touches on many policy issues at play in housing production, but it would be impenetrable to most of the city’s residents. This isn’t because it’s poorly written—on the contrary, it’s written with great clarity made even greater by graphs and diagrams.
The report is difficult to parse because, for many people, there are too many unknown things to look up all at once. It’s a professional document that’s easy to digest only after many (perhaps tens) of hours of learning.
The panel discussion about this report is even more difficult in this regard, because most panelists are speaking in a technical manner to a sophisticated audience; they reduce the names of laws and city agencies to quick-spoken acronyms, and it can be very unclear what the relationship between city and state law is if you don’t already know. If you were a lay member of the public expecting to comprehend the panel discussion, you would probably not.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, because I don’t think the audience was lay people—it was an audience interested in, and versed in, land use policy.
But if you’re learning about land use and want a helping hand (especially if you’re in The Foundations of New York), I think reading a transcript of the panel discussion is much easier than just listening to it (I recommend doing both at the same time). You can look up foreign acronyms, pull out quotes to ask about, and more easily match up speakers and ideas.
So: I made a transcript of the panel’s discussion with timestamps. I edited it lightly, but otherwise left it alone. This can make reading it slightly difficult, because some panelists have a less fluid way of speaking, but them’s the breaks!
Some major points to take away from the panel discussion (I contend): members of our government know what we need to do to create housing abundance, they explicitly emphasize NYC’s need to grow and supply new housing, they know and say it’s an issue of supply and demand, and more. That’s a great place to be, especially because many people I talk to assume the problem and its solutions are unknown to, or uncared about in, the government. We don’t need more investigation into our housing supply crisis—we already know its causes, and have a great menu of remedies to choose from. We need a wellspring of citizens to push on the right parts of the legislative process to get officials to legalize what we, and many of them, already know must be done. They need our support.
If you have any questions about what you read or hear in the panel discussion, and I don’t have a hyperlink to it already in the transcript, shoot me an email or DM on Twitter (firstname.lastname@example.org, or @danielgolliher). I assume I’ll be getting these regarding Dan Garodnick’s discussion of the Department of City Planning’s internal processes the most.
Below is the panel speaker list. Take a few minutes to note what everyone’s role is, who they work for, and what they might bring to the conversation. Many of these individuals have held multiple roles in the government beyond the posts they’re representing today—for example, Vicki Been was the deputy mayor for housing under the De Blasio administration.
And here is the video/audio of the panel discussion, if you’d like to listen as you read.
Andrew Rein - President, Citizens Budget Commission (a great nonprofit that issues reports on all kinds of New York City and State policy)
Carol Rosenthal - CBC Trustee; Partner, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP
Maria Torres-Springer - Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development
Vicki Been - Faculty Director, NYU Furman Center (a think tank at NYU that focuses on housing, neighborhoods, and urban policy)
Margaret Chin - Former Member, New York City Council, District 1
Jacob Elghanayan – Senior Vice President, TF Cornerstone (a real estate developer)
Dan Garodnick - Chair, City Planning Commission (a city administrative agency)
Michelle de la Uz - Executive Director, Fifth Avenue Committee (a private nonprofit)
RuthAnne Visnauskas - President/CEO, NYS Homes & Community Renewal (a state agency)
Ben Max - moderator & Executive Editor, Gotham Gazette (a news site)
Andrew Rein 00:03
Good morning and welcome. I am Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
Carol Rosenthal 00:10
Hi, I’m Carol Rosenthal, a member of CBC’s executive committee and a partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.
Andrew Rein 00:20
Few topics are as important and timely as the one we’re delving into today. In ways, this is a new area of deep work for CBC. For much of our 90 years, we never directly worked on land use decisions. However, we have always focused not only on what is good for New Yorkers today, [but] what was good for New York and New Yorkers in the future, and ensuring that New York stays competitive to attract and retain residents and businesses.
Andrew Rein 00:47
Make no mistake: improving how we make land use decisions will help New York City create housing, more affordable housing, more jobs, and improve New York’s ability to address both climate change and economic change. As we at CBC watched a seemingly increasingly contentious land use process sometimes result in decisions that held back the production of housing, held back the production of affordable housing and jobs–we decided to see how we could help. And what do we do? Our main method is by conducting rigorous research, setting criteria for evaluation, and often making recommendations, which is what we did in our recent report Improving New York’s Land Use Decision Making Process written by CBC’s Director of Housing and Economic Development Studies, Sean Campion, who you’ll hear from in a moment, but Sean was fortunate to have great input and feedback from so many of you, from so many former and current city officials, state officials, academics, nonprofit and for-profit developers, and others.
Andrew Rein 01:45
So I want to thank all of you. I also want to, you know, thank our CBC trustees. Some of you may not know, but CBCs research is overseen by committees of trustees. And I want to thank the members of our Economic Development and Housing Committee, especially our co-chairs, Sheila Davidson from New York Life [Insurance Company] and Mark Willis from NYU’s Furman Center. I mean, special thanks to Mark, [who] exemplifies CBC trusteeship at its substantive best–his feedback, guidance, [and] opinions are incredibly valuable. So thank you, Mark. So now let’s hear a little more from Carol, who’s not only a CPC trustee, but one of the city’s leading experts who’s been involved with this for a long time. Carol, take it away.
Carol Rosenthal 02:22
Thank you, Andrew. Thank you. Yes, as you know, my perspective on the land use process comes from advising clients, government, nonprofits, [and] developers for nearly 30 years. The process is ready for improvement, for efficiency, for equity, for efficacy. There are positives with the city’s primary process, the Uniform Land Use Review Process, including the fixed seven-month timeframe for the formal reviews, the incorporation of public participation, and the incentives to change projects so that environmental impacts are not created.
Carol Rosenthal 02:59
However, however, there are issues and some disconcerting trends;  there has been a tendency to add steps and add studies to the review process, there is a tendency to add more things to the review process. In prior years, the city added special permits for self-storage facilities and manufacturing zones, for special permits for hotels anywhere in the city, certifications for transit easements near [a] train station. And this often comes, or sometimes comes [as] post pandemic era, there’s staff shortages. So it makes it very difficult.  Another trend is the growth of exercising the local veto, which makes it difficult for leadership to balance local concerns with city-wide needs, and adds to the uncertainties of the process.  Third is the growth of lawsuits challenging decisions after they’re made, which adds another level of time, cost, and uncertainty. My firm alone has been involved in five major land use lawsuits in the last year, four of which were lost or dropped. The fifth one is still in process. But [it adds] to the to the uncertainties.
Carol Rosenthal 04:11
And the problems, as you noted, Andrew, they result also in lost opportunities, which people don’t always see. There’s the client who told me that they’re not going to upgrade their plaza, because of the lengthy time and risks of meanwhile losing a tenant, or the one that decided not to build new housing in an outer borough because it couldn’t make it work with the two year rezoning period. […] And the city-sponsored rezonings, where most of our new housing and other opportunities come from, they also don’t always happen because of concerns about this. We all lose out when these opportunities are missed, so that the projects that are left are the ones that can afford the review or the largest ones where the cost can be passed on to the ultimate users. There’s a balance here and we can do better at this balance for all of the needs that need to be incorporated. This is important work to open up this conversation about getting the balance right. Thank you. And thank you to all our fabulous speakers.
Andrew Rein 05:13
Thank you, Carol. Your experiences is wonderful, and thanks for your help with, and input into, the process. Now let’s bring on Sean Campion to briefly present his findings and CBC’s recommendations. Sean?
Andrew Rein 05:29
Welcome, Sean, take it away.
Sean Campion 05:32
Thank you, Andrew. My name is Sean Campion. I’m Director of Housing and Economic Development Studies at the Citizens Budget Commission. Before kicking off today’s panel, I want to share a few highlights from our report.
Sean Campion 05:46
First, let’s look at the main use decision making process.
Sean Campion 05:51
Our report focuses on the process for approving rezonings. In New York City, if a property owner wants to build a project that requires zoning changes, something like changing usage from commercial to residential, or building taller than allowed, she first has to go through the land use review process to secure those changes. The process is also the same when the city wants to rezone the neighborhood. Here’s how that works. The process has three phases, one informal and two formal.
Sean Campion 06:18
The first phase is an informal pre-review. In many cases, a property owner will meet voluntarily with elected officials and community leaders to see whether they will be receptive to a rezoning proposal. Phase two is pre-certification and environmental review. If a property owner decides to go forward, she files a formal land use application and spends the next few years working with city planning staff to finalize the application and complete an environmental review, which is required under state law. Only when finished does the project moves into third phase, the uniform land use review procedure or ULURP, which is the public-facing portion of the review process. The application then moves through a seven-month review period with advisory votes of the local community board and borough president, followed by binding the votes of the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The mayor also has the opportunity to veto at the end.
Sean Campion 07:12
In our report, we looked at how the process works. What we found is that it’s unpredictable, time consuming, and expensive. We examined private rezoning applications filed between 2014 and 2017.
Sean Campion 07:25
We found that about four in 10 applications initially filed at DCP were rejected or withdrawn before the end of ULURP. And that doesn’t include the applications that never made it past that informal discussion phase, or that never got proposed at all. Of those that were approved, the median time to secure approvals is two-and-a-half years. In reality, the time is likely longer if you include the informal negotiations that happen before applicants officially start the process. And that’s longer than other cities with similar discretionary processes. And it’s comparable in length only to San Francisco.
Sean Campion 08:00
And of course time equals money. A two-year-long process increases costs by 11% to 16%, assuming no other changes to the project; for apartment buildings, that adds up to about $67,000 per unit.
Sean Campion 08:14
And we also reviewed some prior research on the land use process both in New York and in other cities, and spoke with folks about their experiences with New York’s review process. Across that research, several limitations of the current system stood out. One common theme [was] the role of New York state’s environmental review law, or SEQRA. New York is one of only seven states that requires environmental review for local land use changes; in that respect we’re an outlier. So why is this an issue? SEQR is a lengthy and technical review that seeks to identify the adverse impacts of land use changes, regardless of whether they are aligned with planning goals or have known environmental benefits. In practice, this makes the environmental review process biased towards preserving the status quo. Another concern is that SEQRA empowers private individuals to enforce the adequacy of environmental reviews by bringing lawsuits, an idea often referred to as a private right of action. Protecting applicants against the threat of litigation makes environmental review more complex and time consuming, and often has a chilling effect on proposals coming forward at all. And in the event that an applicant does get sued, it can take years to get through the litigation process.
Sean Campion 09:31
People also pointed to some drawbacks to the city’s process. Some of it is about the city’s implementation of environmental review, and how it makes the process more complex and time consuming. Others noted that there’s no formal way to identify and advantage projects in ULURP that are aligned with the city’s long range planning goals for housing production or job creation. And of course, there’s a custom of member deference at the City Council, another factor that is relatively unique to New York City. And our political system with a term-limited city council, council members are naturally incentivized to prioritize short-term over long term-interests, and hyper-local concerns over citywide needs. The report lists six potential areas for improvement, with a range of options for how city and state lawmakers can improve the process.
Sean Campion 10:20
First, the areas for improvement. We suggest that state officials should focus on reducing barriers to beneficial growth and development by amending and modernizing environmental review laws, and by helping local governments streamline approvals of projects that advance regional housing and job goals. We recommend that city officials also should streamline and speed up reviews as much as possible as allowed under state law, while also finding ways to better identify both the benefits and costs of proposals and ways to better balance a process between city-wide needs and neighborhood concerns. And we think that’s possible to do all while making the process more collaborative and productive.
Sean Campion 11:03
And finally, we propose a series of options to advance those areas for improvement. We grouped them into three stages of change. We recommend first a series of initial administrative actions the city can take on its own. Such as more explicitly endorsing whether and how rezonings are aligned to city wide goals, finding ways to streamline reviews within the limitations of the state law, and of course tracking and measuring their progress. The second phase involves incremental state policy and legal changes; land use laws devolved from the state to local governments, and changes to state law are necessary to get at the root causes of many of the issues that we’ll discuss today. We suggest that state officials look at ways to modernize environmental review law. Some ideas would be to revise the types of projects that are subject to review, since by exempting categories of project with known environmental benefits, or to limit the topics required to be included in reviews. The third phase involves more potentially transformative options. At the city level this would include charter reforms to improve the ULURP process, such as changing when and how neighborhoods are involved in the process, and creating an appeals process for cases in which the council votes against an application. For the state, it’ll involve looking at ways to encourage local governments to streamline approval for projects that meet state planning goals, through both incentives and mandates, and more aggressive reforms or exemptions from environmental review. In general, these more transformative options will be a huge deal, and officials should be thoughtful and deliberate in how they design these changes. Thank you again for tuning in today. And I encourage all of you to check out our full report which is available on our website, cbcny.org. And now back to Andrew.
Andrew Rein 12:42
Thank you, Sean, that was an amazing job you did breaking down both a complicated topic and our report. Thank you very much. We are fortunate now to bring Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer up. And Maria has a great record of public service to New York, not only in this role, but in her previous roles as head of EDC and Commissioner of HPD—I won’t go through all the acronym soup for you. But [now] Deputy Mayor Torres-Springer is leading the charge on New York’s recovery from so many different policy and program vantage points. So thank you for joining us and take it away Deputy Mayor.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 13:22
Thank you, Andrew. Good morning, everyone. I do want to thank the entire team at the Citizens Budget Commission for having me here today for convening such an important discussion. It is of course, a really important set of topics because so many of us find ourselves really still working to support New Yorkers, not just as they recover from the pandemic, but really, hopefully thrive in its wake. And I just want to give you kudos for assembling such an all-star panel to engage on these issues today.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 13:58
Now, we all know of course, that it is a very important time to be talking about improving the city’s land use process. Because too often the topic of land use, I think, feels like the limited domain have a small number of planners, government officials, and real estate experts. But recently, and this is a good thing, the debate over where and how and what to build in this city has been more front and center. More and more New Yorkers from across the political spectrum are speaking up in support of the need to build more housing in our city to make way for more jobs.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 14:40
And a new generation of progressive New Yorkers, I think, are sending a message that every community has the responsibility to build quality homes and welcome new neighbors. And that those who are already well-housed, well, they do not have the right to deny others that same opportunity. Now we need our local elected officials and leaders to stand up in support of proposed investments in their districts. But we also need to recognize that this is a citywide problem. And that therefore requires a citywide solution. Now, the truth is, and Sean walked through all of the slides that really capture this very sobering fact, but our city’s land use system too often does make the problems worse. Now, we may not all agree on every prescription, but I think we should all be able to agree that the status quo is just not sustainable, if we are to truly address the needs of all New Yorkers. Now, those of us who have worked in housing and land use over the years, often traffic in the language of very sobering statistics about our housing crisis, but I think that they bear repeating, because they really haven’t budged. And in fact, too many of them have gotten worse. So today, only 4.5% of the city’s housing supply is vacant, with less than 1% of homes available for rent at below 1500 per month. And this means, of course, that 53% of renter households are rent burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on rent. Last night, close to 60,000 people slept in shelters, and the average stay for a homeless family has jumped to an unconscionable 520 days. Now, this impact may not be as visible as the incidents of gun violence that continue to take too many lives in our city. But I think it’s its own form of violence. And far too many people in our city are suffering in silence. It is a violence that causes people to make unfathomable decisions about whether to pay rent, or to eat, to keep a roof over their heads or to get needed medication. A violence that causes the children, the sick, the elderly to wonder where they’re going to sleep at night.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 17:11
But I also want to be clear that I think that this crisis is manmade; it is a casualty of institutional failures, and a status quo that is calcified by a regulatory environment that cost too much in time and money, a political environment that allows people to be “well, it’s not my problem,” and a civic environment that too often condones finger pointing, hand wringing, and pearl clutching. It’s the type of status quo, in my opinion, that threatens the very thing that makes our city so special, that we’re a place where doers and dreamers and strivers can succeed, because New York City is the purest distillation of the promise of this country as a place of opportunity. But a manmade crisis also means that we have the power to make things better, but only if we are willing to be bold, and to take action. I think we can build a more equitable New York if we have enough collective courage to do so. Because while government must lead, we can’t do this alone. It certainly requires a whole-of-society approach. I’d like to thank the CBC for releasing this report, which I think is such an important contribution to the discussion. It really helps to shine a light on some of the obstacles and inefficiencies in our review and approval process, which impede our city’s growth. Now, these are the less visible barriers that get little attention. And while they may seem technical in nature, they surely do contribute to our housing crisis in a very real way.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 18:54
Now, we know, we in the city, we have to do our part. And that’s why Mayor Adams has been focused on increasing efficiency and reducing bureaucracy across the whole government in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen in this city in many decades. As part of that mission, we have convened–and this is a little bit of a mouthful–the building and land use approval streamlining task force, or BLAST, one of the key recommendations that came out of our blueprint for economic recovery back in March. Since then, over 15 agencies have been digging into the very issues that Sean laid out in his presentation: the internal processes, the changes that need to be made that are within the city’s control that can produce time savings in environmental review, our land use process, our building and permitting process.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 19:49
We’re also identifying changes that we need to take to Albany ahead of next year’s legislative session. And we’ll have a full report on all of this work in just a few weeks. As part of this mission, and I know our chair of City Planning, Dan Garodnick will talk more about this during the panel, we also laid out a larger vision for helping New York to become a more inclusive and equitable city of yes. A city of yes requires making long overdue updates to the city’s zoning tools to support small businesses, create affordable housing, and to promote sustainability. Now, there’s just no reason that on a major New York City thoroughfare, for example, you should only be allowed to open a bakery or a bike shop on one side of the road, but not on the other. Or that we should incentivize developers to build parking spaces, but prevent them from installing solar panels. Or that we can’t provide the same incentives we currently offer for senior affordable housing, to build all affordable housing in every part of the city.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 20:57
Now, I want to be clear, in all of this work, whether it’s BLAST or the city of yes, the citywide text amendments, we are not looking to eliminate the system of checks and balances that exists to protect communities from completely unfettered development; communities will still have and must still have the ability of course to shape their futures. Local elected officials will still have and should have a strong say. Environmental and other impacts will still be and should be studied and considered. But what we are trying to do is eliminate the obstacles that have long since outlived their usefulness, and can instead result in near total paralysis [of] major developments.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 21:42
We have to make it easier to build projects that we all agree [we] need, like affordable housing, or electric charging stations, or flexible retail space for mom and pop businesses, without requiring a multi-year, multi-million dollar bureaucratic process. We need to speed up things that are completely within our control: the permits and inspections and approvals that are handled by a web of city agencies.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 22:09
And ultimately, we need to think about what it means to shift our process from a default no to a default, yes, because we can no longer, in my opinion, allow our system for supplying more homes to be hobbled by well-housed opponents of individual projects. So we need to fight for those changes that really get at who should be making the decisions for projects that are mission critical for our city, for our economy, and our future.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 22:43
Now, changes to our zoning code or land use process our permitting process will go a long way, of course, towards our housing crisis, but they are far from the only actions that city hall is taking. As part of the overall mission, the mayor and our amazing chief housing officer Jessica Katz, developed a transformational housing plan, where for the first time, the plan integrates our aspirations for fixing NYCHA and combating homelessness with our traditional production and preservation programs. And we’re already seeing significant results with a passage of the NYCHA Preservation Trust bill in Albany earlier in the year, which will of course help raise billions of dollars for repairs to public housing. But we just can’t stop there. In order to more effectively address the housing crisis, we need help. We need this to be [at] the top of the agenda for our colleagues in Albany. Now, this includes a replacement for our 421-a program, the loss of which is already creating a decline in applications for new rental housing construction in our city. This also means making sure that we are not surpassed by other states across the country who are enacting bold reforms, including relief for transit accessible areas that are easing development, ADU programs, fast track programs, fast track approval processes for affordable housing, and many other actions that we need to take to support housing equity in the region. We need this type of help, because making our cities stronger, and bringing opportunity within the reach of every New Yorker, isn’t something that is going to happen overnight.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 24:35
Now as the mayor says, we aren’t going to just stumble into the future of our city. This requires courage and action by many. Courage in action by elected leaders who will stand up, in my opinion, to the voices of no who are few in number but often shout the loudest. Courage and action by public servants at agencies, who when they have the pen on a project should use that opportunity to speed up the process; by developers who, when proposing projects, should reflect the actual needs and aspirations of communities, and not just their bottom line; by advocacy groups that can no longer afford to let perfection get in the way of progress; by the environmental review industrial complex, who just cannot possibly believe that an 1000+ page EIS is providing real solutions to our most urgent challenges or giving voice to communities; by media companies and social platforms, who reap the benefits when the most extreme voices garner coverage and clicks, while our city’s most extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved; and by well-housed New Yorkers who too often, in my opinion, experience the housing crisis as a distant headline, versus a call to action.
Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer 26:07
And so in closing, I just want to stress that what we do now matters urgently. It is time, in my opinion, to muster the best ideas and the deepest political will to meet the moment, because anything less won’t get the job done. Now, I want to remind everyone that this month happens to be the 60th anniversary of President JFK’s moonshot speech at Rice University in Houston. And, of course, then 1962, during that speech, he rallied the nation to land Americans on the moon within the decade. And he said that that needed to be the goal, not because it was easy, but precisely because it was hard. And that it needed to be the goal, not because the nation was willing to embrace it. But because it was unwilling to postpone it. And so I think the questions before all of us, in the face of that silent violence that I described earlier that too many of our neighbors are facing, I think the questions that we need to answer aren’t just what is the most brilliant piece of policy that we can hatch up in our conference rooms? Or what is the most winnable piece of legislation that we believe can survive the political gauntlet? I don’t think those are the questions. Instead, I think the questions for us are larger and broader, and therefore more urgent. The questions I think, include, what would we do to solve this crisis if our politics revealed the best in us, versus the worst? What would we do, not because it’s easy, but precisely because it is hard. And what are we as a city, and as a state, no longer willing to postpone? And so if the collective will of past generations allowed us to walk on the moon, then I think surely, we can come together as a city and as a state, and as a country, to house the most vulnerable amongst us to invest in a more equitable future, and to build a New York that serves the needs of all of our people. I appreciate everyone taking the time. And with that, as a provocation, let me turn it back over to Andrew.
Andrew Rein 28:40
Deputy Mayor, thank you very much for your leadership, for your actions, and for those comments which were both sobering, but also inspiring–and for focusing on how balance is the key, that we need convergence and compromise, and of course your call to action. Thank you very much for joining us today. And now I have the pleasure of bringing up Ben Max, our moderator for our panel, editor of Gotham Gazette, and CBC’s “What’s the Datapoint” podcast partner. And we’ll also bring up the wonderful panel we have assembled for us today. Good morning, Ben.
Ben Max 29:16
Good morning, Andrew. Good to be with you.
Andrew Rein 29:18
Good to be with you. I will leave it to you and our panelists. We look forward to the conversation.
Ben Max 29:24
Thank you. And thank you, everyone who’s tuning in this morning. I think we have a great audience here and a lot of interested parties, so I’m very happy to be part of this excellent event that’s already off to such a great start. I’m Ben Max, executive editor of the Gotham Gazette, a publication of Citizens Union Foundation. You can find us at gothamgazette.com, of course. Thank you to CBC for having me and for all of your great work and it’s a pleasure to collaborate with you, Andrew and others at CBC on “What’s the Data Point” and other endeavors including this. And of course, thank you to Sean Campion for this new report and that presentation, and thank you to Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer for those opening remarks that will help set the stage for this esteemed panel discussion. I’m about to introduce you to these panelists that I’ll have the pleasure of moderating conversation with today to discuss both the CBC report as well as Deputy Mayor Torres-Springer’s remarks and of course, much more based on their perspective. So there’s a lot to dig into. So let’s get to it. I’m going to do very brief introductions. You can of course look up the speakers for more on their bios, as you’d like. All right.
Ben Max 30:35
Joining us today we have Vicki Been, the Faculty Director at the NYU Furman Center and former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development and also former City Housing Commissioner, welcome, Vicki.
Ben Max 30:50
Margaret Chin is a former member of the New York City Council representing District One in lower Manhattan and gracious enough to join us in retirement here. Thank you Margaret for being here.
Ben Max 31:02
Jacob Elghanayan is Senior Vice President at TF Cornerstone, one of New York City’s most active developers of residential and commercial properties. Jake, thanks for being here.
Ben Max 31:14
Dan Garodnick is chair of the City Planning Commission and Commissioner of the Department of City Planning and he of course is a former city council member as well from Manhattan, so bringing that perspective here today as well, welcome, Dan.
Ben Max 31:29
Michelle de la Uz is executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, which develops affordable housing and other projects, and provide services to middle and low income New Yorkers. Michelle was also recently a commissioner on the City Planning Commission for about a decade.
Ben Max 31:45
RuthAnne Visnauskas is President and CEO of New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state’s affordable housing agency, and she also has experience in city government as well, including as Commissioner of the city’s Housing Department. RuthAnn, thank you for being here. All right.
Ben Max 32:02
So we have a great panel, as you can see, and my job will just be to offer some prompts based on the CBC report and other things, but also panelists, as you’ve been warned ahead of time, please be ready for some follow up questions to things you say. And also to respond to some things you might hear from your fellow panelists, or that you heard from Sean or Maria earlier.
Ben Max 32:23
As CBC President Andrew Rein has eloquently and simply put it, based on the CBC report, the status quo risks New York’s ability to create the jobs that we need and the housing that we need. So how do we solve that? All right, opening question to each of you. And this is for just about a two minute answer from each of you. And we’ll get into some longer discussion next time around. But the question for each of you is this.
Ben Max 32:51
What is the biggest problem from your perspective with the current land use decision making process? And what’s your best idea for fixing it? The biggest problem with the current land use decision making process and your best idea for fixing it. We’re going to start with RuthAnne Visnauskas, take it away.
RuthAnne Visnauskas 33:15
[…] Thank you for convening this incredibly important discussion and providing this very thoughtfully researched report to fuel our conversation today. I think it’s fair to say in New York City, in our governmental circles, we talk a lot about land use, but I think it’s become more and more apparent that that issue is certainly become a state issue, and in many ways has become a national issue and one that people are talking about in ways that they didn’t really a decade ago. It’s a really timely conversation for us at [HC] for a couple of reasons. The first, we’re already engaged in a process of reviewing and exploring ways to simplify and speed the development process without jeopardizing health and safety for New Yorkers. We very much care obviously about the built environment and about the growth of housing across the state. There’s so many studies done in the city and across the state, the supply gap on housing is, you know, upwards of 300,000 homes today. I’m sure Dan will talk a little bit about that, from his perspective [in] city planning. But that gap really is alarming on a lot of levels, and it impacts every sector of the population and the economy. It’s an urgent issue. We see it in the in the burden on many renters, [more] than 50% of renters in New York State are rent burdened. And there’s a real cost on that; there’s a cost in the housing market, a lot of pressure, there’s a cost in the job market. And there’s a real human cost for families across the state who feel that impact that there’s just not enough supply of housing, there’s not enough choice and there’s an affordability issue, sort of as an outcome of that. So it’s a really urgent issue in terms of supply and demand, sort of across the state. The report outlines SEQRA as one of the reasons for delays, and I don’t doubt that there certainly are real flaws in the environmental review process that certainly inspire many challenges across that, but that’s really only part of the reality. That is not sort of the single factor that’s kind of strangling development. There are many developers across the state and across the country that are abandoning projects, because housing costs are high, construction costs are high, regulatory costs add time add delay, supply chain in the wake of the pandemic. So we’re really trying to control something in some ways that is multifactored, and many of them are sort of uncontrollable. However, you know, within the confines of New York State, we definitely want to specifically sort of eliminate the time lag, because time creates costs, we really need more kind of development all over the state in order to grow. And so any changes that we’re looking at, I think, you know, we’re talking about today are looking at more broadly, we want to make sure align with our broader goals around growth.
Andrew Rein 36:03
Thank you, RuthAnn. Let’s come to Dan Garodnick–the biggest problem from your perspective with the current land use decision making process and your best idea for fixing it.
Dan Garodnick 36:15
Let me just start by thanking you, obviously, and also the Citizens Budget Commission for the report. We love the report. We, you know, agree it’s critical to fix this system, which is unpredictable and lengthy and, and too expensive. The biggest problem from my perspective is that the environmental review and land use process overall makes it easier to opt for “no.” It makes it easier to make the decision that you’re not going to go forward with innovation , go forward with investment in New York City. And a big part of this is our own environmental process CEQR, which is too long and too expensive. For those of you–I’m sure everybody listening knows exactly what that is–but it is the city’s process for implementing the state environmental review requirements that RuthAnn was referencing a second ago, and it’s not translatable to regular people about what’s going to happen. It’s too long, it’s too complicated. And as the report indicated, the complexity and the length of the process here is adding, you know, incremental cost by 11 to 16%, and our processes longer than comparable cities. So we need to deal with this. I will note that when I was in the city council, and I’m sure Margaret will talk about this, too, I used to think that it was mostly the political uncertainty that was prompting this challenge, that people were concerned about the lack of ability to know what was waiting at the end of the process. And that was the sort of thing which animated me to try to give the clearest possible instructions I could, when people were coming into the process with projects or rezonings, or whatever. It’s what, you know, gave us the framework that I think is really good one for East Midtown, where you set the rules, you define the public benefits, and you step out of the way and allow private innovation to move forward on its own. But now I have a clearer picture now that I’m in my current role that it is political uncertainty, but it also is the uncertainty that is created by time. So those two factors together are really important and really creating the bad dynamic for us. Now, the good news here is that the Adams administration as the deputy mayor said, has been studying this question since day one as part of our BLAST initiative. So we love the CBC report. But also, this is something that’s really important to us. So an opportunity for us here, and I will do this fast Ben, is for us to simplify our CEQR manual, right. So this is the manual which defines what you need to do when you are proposing a project and how you need to go through your environmental review. You can make it shorter by [having] the city consolidate a lot of the information that we require private applicants to go chase down from the city. So today, what happens is the Department of City Planning environmental review division, they tell you what chapters you need to study, then the applicant needs to go and find the data from city agencies in order to be able to do their analysis. And that’s not easy. You might need to wait for the Parks Department to define, you know, the difference between active and passive space in a certain area, [you] might need to wait for DEP to tell you the number of air quality permits within a certain number of feet of a particular address or DOT, you know, about the number of vehicles that are at mass transit in a narrow area. We should put that all upfront. We should make it easy, accessible for everybody–put it online and so that if we tell you that you need to study this, we should make our piece of the puzzle as easy as possible. So anyway, I’m way over my time, Ben. So I’m gonna stop there, but there are a couple other things that I would have mentioned.
Ben Max 40:11
That’s all right. Well, we’ll come back to you for those in the next round here. Let’s come to Vicki Been.
Vicki Been 40:18
Thanks, Ben. And really thanks to CBC and Sean and all of their trustees and researchers for a really incredible report. It identifies many top problems and most important problems, and gives us some creative potential solutions. And I share with my fellow panelists skepticism about the value of SEQRA, but I want to focus on a different problem, which is really the difficulty of getting city initiated, neighborhood-wide rezonings passed, which the report helpfully highlights as a problem, and as the deputy mayor highlighted as well, citywide rezonings are absolutely crucial for meeting the housing needs of our growing city. […] The Furman Center showed in our 2021 State of the City’s Housing and Neighborhoods that 25% of all multifamily homes completed between 2010 and 2020 were in areas that had been rezoned through citywide, city-initiated rezoning during either the Bloomberg or the de Blasio administrations. Even though those areas included only 3% of the city’s parcels, they were providing 25% of our new homes, and city initiated rezonings are critical. We can’t just rely on landowners or developers to come forward with proposals; those private rezonings are limited to a site or just a few sites, not to a neighborhood as a whole. They don’t involve attention to comprehensive neighborhood needs that is involved in the city initiated rezoning that takes a wider view. They rarely bring the kinds of multi-agency investments in parks and sewer, water, roads, infrastructure, schools and other community assets that are so important to ensuring that communities have a good place to live and a neighborhood that’s getting even better. But neighborhood rezonings are increasingly difficult to get through. They represent change and risk, while processes like SEQRA privilege the status quo. And they require balancing of citywide and neighborhood interests which frustrate the neighborhood and their local council member and other elected representatives. In turn, the controversy and the emotional debate around every proposed neighborhood-wide rezoning then makes it even more difficult to discuss which neighborhoods should be considered for rezonings and why they’re the ones who are being considered. The lack of a transparent process then makes the neighborhoods in which they are proposed say well, why us, and it leads to unfairness when some neighborhoods have more political power than others and can defeat or block a city-initiated rezoning. So what to do to fix the problem, I think one start is what the CBC report lays out in terms of articulating more clearly the relationship between a proposed rezoning and the goals that have been worked out through many, many, many community engagement processes, for affordable housing, for parks, for transit, etc. And so we need to draw that time much closer. And we need to really communicate to neighborhoods, what our needs for, for example, affordable housing are and where they are in terms of contributing to the city’s needs in that area. But the other thing that I would recommend is that we make that process for how the city chooses the city-initiated rezonings more transparent and more data driven. We could be asking through a regular review of all of the community districts within the city, which ones are lagging behind in meeting the needs of a growing city? And do they have opportunities for rezonings that we should take? We could make that data available. We could have an honest and transparent discussion about which neighborhoods should be looked at for city-initiated rezonings. And I think that would go a long way to helping to make the process seem and be fairer.
Ben Max 44:42
Great, thank you, Vicki. Let’s come to Michelle de la Uz.
Michelle de la Uz 44:47
Well, this is a good good follow up to Vicki’s comments.
Ben Max 44:52
I had a feeling you might be good back-to-back, you know.
Michelle de la Uz 44:55
Again, thank you to CBC for the report and for pulling this great panel together. It’s great to see so many colleagues and friends. I think, you know, as former Deputy Mayor Been said, the city’s not initiating enough rezonings in communities where there’s higher opportunities or high opportunity neighborhoods, which predominantly are wealthier and whiter. […] One of the things that happens is that a lot, often whether it’s a city-initiated rezoning or a private rezoning, that there’s mismatch between what the community believes that it needs or what the particular proposal is and what the citywide needs are. And so, you know, a big piece of that is, is understanding how it’s a piece of the puzzle to solving a greater problem. That’s, that’s really critical. And helping everyday residents in the neighborhood understand, really their responsibility, their community’s responsibility and obligation to help make the city more equitable, more fair, more inclusive, more sustainable. I think that takes a lot of effort to help people kind of understand all of those.
Ben Max 46:19
Thank you. Let’s come to Jake Elghanayan.
Jacob Elghanayan 46:24
Thanks, Ben. I guess I’ll first just plug two of the CBC report’s reforms, which were basically the two I liked the best were lowering the threshold by which something required ULURP, maybe sending that to BSA or something along those lines. And then also, the idea of bringing the borough president in along at the same time as the community board, I think would help sort of both sides. But actually, mostly, I’ll agree with Vicki and Michelle, which is that I think that the city needs to do more area-wide and wide. rezonings, which I think, you know, I think like Vicki said 80% of the city’s development generally is as of right, which often is previously rezoned areas. And that’s where you can just have the biggest impact. I think, in particular, I’ll say the commercial to residential idea that I think city planning is working on in the next few years is important. And then also, I guess, I think some of the rezonings more recently have been through the lens of well, I shouldn’t say that, I think you should look at the highest impact areas where you’ve got low scale and zone areas that don’t have a lot of job intensity that are outside of IBZs. And that are near transit areas. And that’s where you can really have […] get a lot of units quickly.
Ben Max 47:35
Now, I’m not gonna let you off the hook here that, from your perspective, though, in terms of the process, what do you consider the biggest problem with the way that land use decisions are currently made? And how would you, how would you fix something in that process?
Jacob Elghanayan 47:53
Yeah, on the process–I’d, like I said, I think, you know, the, the CBC report mentions a lot of the tweaks to make, to be made. I have to be honest, I’m probably not as upset about–I mean I think the process is too long, and all these things. But on the other hand, I do think local communities have a right to have an input, especially when there’s a spot rezoning. And there are complicated issues. And it’s not, it’s not so to me, at least, it’s often so simple, that there’s sort of a clear, a clear will, and it’s just about sort of pushing that through. There’s people who are harmed, and there’s people who are benefited, and sort of, you know, you need a little bit of back and forth. And so, you know, for us, it’s often like a little mini political campaign, which again, I think goes to the detriment to smaller developers, because they don’t have the resources to do this, which again, is why the the citywide rezonings are important. But you just, I mean, to me, it’s whenever we’re doing any one of these we expect it to be, you have to understand the politics and expect it to be a little bit of a campaign.
Ben Max 48:50
Don’t you want it to be easier, Jake?
Jacob Elghanayan 48:52
Yeah. And I do want it to be easier. I just I don’t think it’s it seems like an unlikely outcome.
Andrew Rein 48:58
All right. Well we’re, we’re trying to get there here in this discussion. Margaret Chin, last but certainly not least, jump in here. What from your experience as a city council member is the is the biggest problem with the land use decision making process and your idea for fixing it?
Margaret Chin 49:17
Well, yeah, thank you to CBC, and Max and bringing everyone together. I went through quite a few rezonings in my district, and a lot of them are controversial. And I think the biggest thing is that, really getting the information early on to council member and to the community. So people understand what is at stake. And for the council member to be able to balance local need and citywide need. We want more affordable housing, and usually the opposition are the loudest, but they do not represent all the views from the community, and that’s what we have to sort through, and sometimes the city has to put in the resources to help guide the discussion and the information, and for people to understand, you know, all these typical processes that the developer or the city have to go through, you know, the environmental impact and a lot of these it’s like, we need support. And the one that has been really successful, like when we did ESA [East Side Access] crossing, the city provided a facilitator, early on, you know, for the community board members, and the community, and community groups to come together. And we finally found a balance. And the city was willing, you know, to work with us, you know, with the market and, and getting more than 50% affordable housing, and to also to be able to bring down, you know, the AMI by providing some section eight vouchers. So there are ways to get it done, to really get everyone together. And when a proposal comes to the city council, you know, after we went through all that process, when you get to the city council, our thinking is that we have to get to approval. And that’s what we tried to do. Like you can’t just turn something down because you don’t want it. It’s like what is the land use rationale? There’s no land use rationale to oppose a project we got to work towards, you know, getting it done. And that’s why it’s also important for the local council member to really seize that opportunity to look at what are some of the district needs that could be met, so that we can balance both citywide and local need, because there’s a local community that’s going to be burned by the construction and the disruption. So it’s a great opportunity to get the city to put in some investment. That’s why the administration have to work with the council. And in a case where you have a council member, who might not be cooperative, whatever, then it’s really up to the council in terms of the speaker, land use chair, and the leadership in the council to really, you know, bring it together. Because when we said council member deference doesn’t mean that that one council member is going to make the decision. It doesn’t work that way. The council member has the burden to solve the issue. But the councilman needs support. And, and that’s why the city council itself, have to deal with, you know, how to make sure that the proposal, you know, if there is a lot of disagreement, how to resolve that. But ultimately, from what my experience in the 12 years that when a rezoning comes in, the goal is to get it done. And one of the biggest problem that I see is even after you get it done, it’s those lawsuits. Okay, like Haven Green: 123 units of affordable senior housing cannot be built because of the people who don’t want it, are filing lawsuit after lawsuit. And the city needs to be more aggressive, that is city property, city should just issue a termination lease and just get the project going. And make sure that the city agency, I mean, the deputy mayor talked about you know, Mayor, Adams, you know, want to get all these things done, well then make sure that the city agency like HPD, city won’t have the staff to do this. Or now he’s talking about budget cuts and staff cuts. HPD needs more staff as well as other city agencies to really get this going. So I think we really need to resolve those issues.
Ben Max 53:50
Thank you for coming in at the end there with some provocative thoughts and comments. I have an individualized question for each panelist. But before I do that, just quickly over to you, Dan Garodnick, as a former city council member now as city planning commissioner, this question of the role of the larger city council with relation to individual members and their decision making process, the issue of member deference that’s so often talked about that former Councilmember Chin just spoke of, and the larger role of the City Council, the City Council Speaker not coming in necessarily, to just overrule a council member, but to be sort of a larger body of decision making. What is your perspective right now as you sit in this new chair, and you look back at your old chair, on how that process unfolds at the City Council?
Dan Garodnick 54:45
Yeah, I think I think it has to be a balance and you know, Margaret Chin has had so many of these tough, tough issues and has you know, handled them, you know quite well and real challenges in her turf. And I just want to recognize her for that, it’s really quite important to note. And it’s difficult. Because when you have constituents who are saying no, as they frequently will, you have to find a way to balance those interests with what are the broader citywide needs, and every council member has the responsibility to make that evaluation and to do their best to navigate those choppy waters and come to a positive result that works. I think what happens too frequently, unfortunately, is that the the local concerns predominate, and the citywide concerns get lost in the mix. And I think it’s really important for the council as a whole, and for the speaker, and for all of us to be able to clearly articulate the citywide interests in moving some of these projects forward. Whether they are on the smaller size, like in Bruckner in Throgs Neck, or whether they’re bigger, neighborhood wide rezonings, like we’re working on, you know, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, or in connection with the four future Bronx Metro North stations in the East Bronx, these are really important initiatives for the city and deserve to move forward. It’s one of the reasons and you know, to Vicki’s point about the citywide rezonings or the neighborhood rezonings being responsible for a significant amount of housing created over time, it’s one of the reasons why the Adams administration is advancing three citywide text amendments, which will have a citywide impact and will not just affect one council district or another, it will affect everybody in a way that we believe will be fair and will be reasonable, and will enable the creation of more housing, it will enable the creation of economic opportunity throughout the city, as well as to make for a greener and more sustainable city. They are ambitious, and they will require approval of the city council and we are working with our partners in the council. We believe it’s consistent with the priorities of the council as a whole and as individual members have articulated. But we also need to make the case that that our citywide interests, the housing emergency that we are in, the recovery from the pandemic moment that we are in, requires people to step up and view this in a bigger, broader sort of sense, with a citywide scope.
Ben Max 57:45
Thank you, Dan, for that, I have an individualized question here crafted with the folks at CBC for each of you. And I’m going to have to try to keep everybody to about two minutes or so on each of these just to make sure that we can get back to everybody and have a little time for any crosstalk or followups if you want to touch on something one of your fellow panelists said afterward. We’re going in a little bit of a different order this time. We’re coming to Michelle de la Uz first here. How do you bring communities and neighborhoods into the planning process in a more productive and collaborative way? And as part of that, what do you think of CBC’s proposal to move community reviews to earlier in the process.
Michelle de la Uz 58:30
So I think the most important way to make the conversation with communities productive is to ensure that communities have the tools and the knowledge to meaningfully participate. So, you know, one of the things that Fifth Avenue Committee has done now for more than 15 years, is work with organizations like Center for Urban Pedagogy to really take really complex public policy issues and break them down into bite size, you know, information. So like, what is affordable housing, you know, what is AMI? What are all the different ways that affordable housing gets financed? What is ULURP? What’s the process? What is environmental review? Because all of these are the critical questions that are being discussed. What are the trade offs, you know, that communities are having to make. And so we literally have what we call a Community Development Series that we’ve developed that we do in English and Spanish and in other neighborhoods as needed in Mandarin and other things. And we’ve had people literally in the same workshop, 10 years old and 70 years old, and walking away with knowledge they never had before. And in one of our early workshops, we had a state elected official who went to the workshop and said, Thank you, no one ever broke it down for me like this before, right, and so whether it’s community board members, whether it’s you know, everyday residents who are being asked to participate in, in processes, it’s critical that folks kind of have a basic understanding of like, what the options are, and you know, what the trade offs are, and how all of this kind of comes together. So that’s critical. And I think that’s something that the city, you know, the HPD now has a neighborhood planning office, it didn’t have a neighborhood planning office, that kind of functions the same way that it does now, that does these places studies so that, you know, that early community engagement would have which happened as part of the Gowanus, area wide rezoning. That early engagement is critical. And I know that, you know, the smartest council members will tell a private applicant, you know, here, here are the, you know, five to 10 groups or whatever that you need to go and meet with about your proposal, then come back and talk to me like that, that kind of direction is really, really critical. Um, but that takes resources. Like, you know, when Fifth Avenue Committee engages in this work, it’s not funded by the City of New York, right, even though we’re really helping inform city policy as part of this. We, you know, we’re getting this funding primarily from private foundations. And meanwhile we’re providing a huge public service. I mean, I think that every member of a community board needs to go through these trainings, for instance, like should be required.
Ben Max 1:01:33
Interesting, and that’s something that Margaret Chin just got at too, in terms of education and resources that the city is coming in with, to help local council members work with communities.
Michelle de la Uz 1:01:43
But it has to be a trusted, you know, change happens at the speed of trust. Right? And so you gotta have your trusted ally, you know, community, person or group that’s helping facilitate this. Sometimes when the city does it, it can be more challenging.
Ben Max 1:02:02
Jake Elghanayan–how does the city’s review process currently impact the choices and investment decisions you face as a developer? How does the process that you have to go through which you interestingly, painted as mini campaigns each time, how does that process and having to gear up for those and put resources into those impact the choices and investments you make, in a way that if things were easier, you might have been able to make different choices?
Jacob Elghanayan 1:02:35
Yeah, well, I guess I’ll start by saying, again, as of right is clearly whatever you developer or builder, owner builder, whatever you wanna call us wants to focus on. So to me, keeping that part of New York’s land use process is essential. And I think, you know, continuing to expand the use of or the, the quantum of as of right sites through area wide rezonings is the best way to ultimately build the most housing. In terms of us, you know, we look for essentially, areas where there is an opportunity to change zoning, and we’re sort of like entrepreneurs of zoning, where it’s like, it might be, you know, the city is big, they’re looking at all sorts of different things. And we might sort of look at, say, you know, we think there’s a, an area here where there’s a good opportunity, but ultimately, it’s not like we can rezone anything on our own, it’s gonna go through the process. And so it’s really just our, you know, ability to assess the likelihood of success at the end, and, you know, maybe influence a little bit along the way by talking to the community board and understanding. But that’s sort of been our approach. And again, I didn’t mean to say before that, you know, the process is great. And, you know, we love it. And, you know, we just wish it could be longer and more difficult. But I do think, you know, often the, it’s not, they’re not simple interests at play, the only like, really big scale thing I can think of is that is essentially open primaries. Because I think, you know, if I look back to the Amazon thing, which we were involved with, which I I, you know, at some level get, but at the other level, probably a majority of Queens residents wanted Amazon, but the politicians didn’t feel I think, particularly responsive to that, because, you know, they were only representing, you know, a slice of the majority. So that’s my final answer.
Ben Max 1:04:23
And I appreciate that. And just quickly, that there’s often this question of financing. And the question of–you have a lot of people who say…developers are coming in even at, you know, a quarter of the units are going to be affordable under mandatory inclusionary housing developers are still coming in and just, you know, making tons of money, we need to demand more. Is there any way in this process to have that be more transparent? To have some of the questions around, you know, profitability, and “how things pencil out,” and whether things are good investments from developers’ point of views, and why developers walk away from certain demands? Is there any way in your mind for some of that to be a little bit more transparent and a little less contentious and a little less like, you know, these sort of secretive negotiations that lots of members of the public don’t have any insight into?
Jacob Elghanayan 1:05:27
It’s a good question. I mean, I’d say the biggest beneficiary of the process are probably landowners, not so much as developers, because they sort of hold in the locked-in value for a while and wait for sort of that, that opportunity. And you know that’s the sort of capitalist system. I mean, in terms of your question, I think back to I read Dan’s book not that long ago, and he talks about the StuyTown deal, the original StuyTown deal with MetLife, which is based on a return on cost, that MetLife got to earn. And that was sort of the original basis of the deal. You know, that is a world that I could see the city going in, and then it a little bit, that’s what the city owned land RFPs are about, our books are open, they’re looking at our return on costs. And it’s sort of going through the numbers, it’s a very arduous process, there’s a lot of assumptions that go into what your return on costs are going to be. And often, you know, the argument we often have at the city is, if you know there’s there’s a lot of unknowns, and so they want to–the city often wants to cap its downside, but collect the upside. And that sort of, you know, one important place where we have, you know, the disagreement, but I mean, I guess that’s the main other way, but I think it’s a way less–it’s not going to have the scale of, of sort of a simpler process. But just you know, I guess, for example, the mandatory inclusionary housing zoning that Vicki helped implement is rougher justice. And so there’s gonna be time that people make more, and sometimes people will make less, but I think you get a known quantity coming in.
Ben Max 1:07:00
Michelle de la Uz 1:07:02
I just think from an advocates perspective, we would love disclosure of that, like, I think it would actually build the trust. I mean, at first, I think it would be really difficult, but I think over time, it would actually build more trust.
Ben Max 1:07:15
Jacob Elghanayan 1:07:16
I’ll just say one thing on that is that, in general, […] I don’t think most people would look at developers’ returns like us and say, “Oh, that’s a fabulous, you know, IRR.” Especially, you know, I guess, depending on how financially aware people are, it’s not like the real estate business is producing such amazing returns, in most cases, they just they tend to be very durable. And so that’s that’s sort of the difference.
Ben Max 1:07:40
Very interesting. Let’s come back to RuthAnne Visnauskas, state housing commissioner. New York State is one of seven states, as the CBC report indicated, that require environmental review for discretionary land use actions like rezonings, and other actions required for many affordable housing projects. This may be slowing down needed housing production, despite the housing crisis that you spoke of in your opening remarks. So what should the state be doing to help increase housing production? You spoke about this a little bit, but what’s on the agenda to move that forward? What actions could help the state streamline approvals and be able to provide more of the needed housing that New Yorkers need?
RuthAnne Visnauskas 1:08:23
Yeah, look, I mean, obviously, we’ve sort of defined to the scale and the sort of depth of the issue. I think we’ve also talked a little bit about the sort of complexity of it. And that this isn’t just about sort of building for buildings’ sake, this is also about health coming out of pandemic, it’s about job growth, it’s about equity. It’s about climate. And I think [at] state we’re operating under the [Climate Leadership Act], and [I] sit on the Climate Action Council–buildings are the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. So I think it’s an it’s a, I think all those sort of complex issues lead us to also sort of a myriad of solutions that are partially the environmental review process, but also a lot of other opportunities and a lot of other incentives that we need to get development going.
RuthAnne Visnauskas 1:09:14
[The] governor talked last year a bit about transit-oriented development, about accessory dwelling units. I think that there are, you know, beyond sort of just our traditional multifamily development, there are these other tools that we need, other resources, tax incentives–you know, both the tax incentives as Deputy Mayor Torres talked about for multifamily in New York City, but tax incentives in other places around the state as it maybe relates to commercial conversions, as it may relate to an accessory dwelling unit increased production. You know, there’s other ways to get at incentivizing production of housing across the state in addition to sort of the streamlining, so I think from our perspective, we need the growth, and we want the growth. We’ve seen Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Washington, sort of implement some more comprehensive, in some places incentive based, and other ways and sort of more aggressive land use policies. So I think we’re at an interesting moment where all those things are on the table. And I think, to go back to sort of another point that the deputy mayor made, the politics of all of those issues are challenging. And so I think we’re at this moment where we’re trying to tackle solutions that are positive for communities, positive for the state, relieving pressure that everybody feels in their communities and in their sort of daily choices around rent and the cost of rent and the cost of housing in general. So I think that, you know, the impact of the SEQRA review, is sort of a piece of it, but I also think there’s, there’s pieces of that that sort of lend themselves around, what are we talking about as relates to parking? As we look at transit nodes, what kind of density are we talking about. And so at a moment where it’s kind of easy to feel the pressure and the weight of all that, I also think there’s a real opportunity and a real sort of optimistic moment that all of these sort of forces have aligned around these issues, that there will be some forward movement, but really across sort of a variety of tools, because there isn’t really one solution to all these things, we really need, you know, five or six tools that communities across the state can be using to get at greater housing production.
Ben Max 1:11:16
And just quickly, you mentioned some of this that was on the governor’s agenda this year, some of it then wound up getting dropped when the state budget agreement was reached. There’s a lot of complicating factors here that I won’t go into including, of course, the political calendar for the governor and legislators–is your sort of perspective right now and understanding that those pieces of this sort of housing agenda, including a new version of 421-a, including the ADU push, including transit-oriented development, that these are sort of the basis of the next year’s agenda if Governor Hochul is successful in this election, that those will be sort of a starting point for trying again, but to build more sort of awareness and public support?
RuthAnne Visnauskas 1:12:01
Well, I think that economic growth and housing and affordable housing are very core issues for the governor. They’re very important to her. She talks about them all the time when she goes around the state. So I think we are going into this year, very wide open, we are working really closely with the city on a lot of issues you mentioned, which are very near and dear to the city’s heart as well. But it’s certainly–it’s a statewide issue. So I think you’d expect to see, housing is a big focus as we go into the governor state of the state. And at this moment, we’re pretty optimistic and trying to be smart.
Ben Max 1:12:35
Okay, thank you. Let’s come to Vicki Been about this question of state approach. […] Other states have been more aggressive in recent years as Commissioner Visnauskas was just getting out a little bit in trying to streamline and speed up housing development. We’ve seen some of that in New Jersey, California and elsewhere. How does New York’s review process compare to other states? And what can New York learn from one or two things that are happening elsewhere?
Vicki Been 1:13:06
Thanks, Ben. I mean, look, it’s hard to compare the process across different states, in part because the very same process on the books can take, you know, six months or take three years. And so I think what’s important to focus on is that New York, often New York City, you know, touts as it should, that so much of what gets built is as of right. And as I mentioned earlier, I mean, basically 65% of what got built in the last decade was as of right, but that as of right depends upon more city initiated and comprehensive rezoning. So I think we should focus on keeping that as of right and, and indeed, expanding what is available as of right through city initiated rezonings. But there’s a lot to learn from what these other states are doing. And let me let me just focus on a couple of the sort of process things. Obviously, environmental review is a major issue, as we’ve talked about, and, for example, Oregon and Washington exempt multifamily projects of up to 200 units from environmental review altogether. Some other states will protect the developer and thus the local government from legal challenges to certain aspects of environmental review. So the aspects that turn out to be particularly problematic, relate to transportation planning, relate to sort of aesthetic concerns, and some states will exempt the environmental impact statement from legal challenges on those grounds.
Vicki Been 1:14:52
Another thing that that is happening, especially in California and on the West Coast, is that the states are saying, look, in order to reject an application, you have to reject it–first of all–with written reasons that explain exactly the grounds for your rejection. Those grounds have to be based upon objective standards, not subjective standards, like you know, I think it should be a little taller, a little shorter, usually, or I think there should be more setback or it should be brown brick rather than red brick, those kinds of things. They require that you can only turn down a project on the basis of restrictions that were in place at the time that the the application was filed. You know, in New York, I mean, developers, landowners often feel like they’re, they’re chasing an ever-changing set of rules. And they can’t predict exactly why it is that a city council member is going to object to their project or reject it on particular grounds. So limiting those grounds to health and safety concerns, and making sure that they’re based upon objective criteria in place at the time that the application was filed, could also be really important.
Vicki Been 1:16:12
And then last, but not, not least, is that some jurisdictions are allowing affordable housing as of right, and on particular kinds of land, land owned by a local government, for example, land owned by nonprofit and religious uses. So you could, you know, take whole swaths of land that is often used for more affordable housing, other kinds of housing, out of the discretionary review process and out of SEQRA as a result. And then on a state level, there’s lots to learn from what the other states are doing in terms of TOD in terms of ADUs. But another really crucial thing is that New York State could, like some other states, prohibit local governments from reducing capacity, right? Why should anybody given the housing crisis that we have today, be actually downzoning and reducing capacity? So those are just some of the things that I think we really should be paying attention to from the other states.
Ben Max 1:17:18
Great, thank you. Lots of stuff there that coincides with the CBC report and some other thoughts. Thank you. Let’s come back to Margaret Chin, coming back to something you’ve spoken about, others have spoken about here, with the City Council and its veto power, more or less over discretionary decisions and this practice of councilmember deference that makes that veto power almost entirely held within one person. What do you think of the CBC proposal that considers the creation of some kind of appeals process, perhaps to a committee of the speaker, the mayor, and the borough president for whatever borough the project is in? I don’t know if you had a chance to sort of review that proposal. But the idea that they’re getting back to what Vicki was just talking about a little bit […] in terms of evaluations of the larger need and balancing considerations. What do you think of adding an appeals process to land use decision making?
Margaret Chin 1:18:26
I’m not convinced that there should be the appeal process that was suggested in the report, you know, with the CPC, and the mayor and the speaker involved. I think it is a city council issue, it’s the city council leadership, the speaker, land use chair, and you know, the speaker’s leadership body should be there to really assess the councilmember. I talked about earlier about resources, right. For me, my first thing I did when I came into office, I hired a land use director, because I know I was gonna go through a lot of rezoning. And you need someone that really knows the process to be able to kind of like, support the councilmember. And in some of the other rezoning, I relied on the council’s planning staff to really support us on this. So I think that’s really more critical, because as I said earlier, when it comes to the council, by the time it gets to the council, it’s really working towards getting to the approval process. Right? And it’s an opportunity for the local councilmember to be able to kind of like see what they can get to support their district. At the same time, that they are contributing to the citywide needs of affordable housing, good-paying jobs, but because the local district is going to be the one that’s impacted, right, with the construction, traffic congestion, or whatever, that they need to kind of look at what are the local needs, and to be able to get the administration and the developer to help meet some of those local needs whether its improvement on the park, improvement of transit. So I think that–and all the land use that was approved when you look at it, it’s not just a simple majority vote yes, it’s usually approved by a large number of council members. Right? I mean, when you look at all the, all the land use projects that has been approved. So the goal is really how you get to the approval process, right? And to make sure that the local council member is being supported; I mean, council members have, you know, lists of concerns–like, recently with council member Cabán, right? I mean, she was able to get it done, and based on, you know, getting what she needs for her district. And, and that’s how it should work. So the process should be within the council; the speaker has to really pull the leadership team together, along with the land use chair to support the local council member to make sure that the resources are there.
Ben Max 1:21:19
All right, thank you. Dan Garodnick coming back to you,
Jacob Elghanayan 1:21:22
[…] I completely agree with what Councilwoman Chin just said. Basically there needs to be more resources for the council people. And as well, as I think, you know, DCP is understaffed. Department of Buildings is understaffed. And I think, you know, people maybe don’t expect it on our side that that’s important, but it is really important. And whether that be city support for council members or you know, group like the Fifth Avenue Committee, we are, we think that that is a good idea to get sort of more informed decision making.
Ben Max 1:21:54
Okay, great. Thank you. We’re going to come back to Dan Garodnick. And then I’m going to open it up for a quick final thought from any one or two panelists who didn’t get to say something they wanted to say before we wrap up, but, Dan Garodnick, the CBC laid out a three-stage change plan, starting with ideas the city can do on its own. You’ve spoken a little bit to those already: the City of Yes zoning amendments that the Department of City Planning is working on, obviously, with other city agencies and entities. Say a little bit more about what the city can do on its own now to improve the process, and how the city can provide a faster path for proposals that meet citywide goals such as, obviously for housing.
Dan Garodnick 1:22:42
Right, so first, as you pointed out, we have our initiatives, which are our policy initiatives, our zoning text amendments citywide, and scale neighborhood rezonings. But to the point about the nuts and bolts, how do you make it better and faster for a private applicant, particularly when it is aligned with city policy goals? We have, you know, a number of ideas, and some of them have been raised already in this conversation. Like, for example, expanding the types of projects that would be exempt from an environmental review, like 100% affordable projects, you know, right now, an EAS, [an] environmental assessments statement, at a minimum, is required in any disposition today, even if the zoning is not at all implicated. So we shouldn’t be burdening these developments with that. We need to streamline applications to make them understandable to not necessarily the most sophisticated people who are entering the process, we want to make it easy. You know, not everybody can spend millions and millions of dollars on, you know, the experts necessary, what they believe is necessary to be able to get through this process; we need to make this easier and more standardized.
Dan Garodnick 1:23:57
We want to urge applicants to pursue the simplest set of actions to facilitate their project. So we don’t want to be doing custom zoning text all the time. We want to make this simple, streamlined. City planning, we know we need to improve our comment process, you know, clear direction for applicants in a timely way is important. Some of that relates to staff. Obviously Jake mentioned it, others have mentioned it. You know, we have 21 new hires, we’re starting within the next month at city planning. We are beefing up our environmental technical review divisions because we know that that’s a place where people lean in for the ability to get comments.
Dan Garodnick 1:24:47
We also want to correctly report on how long a project is taking. And to Michelle’s point about, you know, bringing in community earlier, and thinking about ways to better engage, we want to measure these projects from the moment somebody comes to city planning not, you know, back and forth, back and forth back and forth for a couple of years before the process even gets to a preliminary application. We want to allow projects to move into the process. And this isn’t even, this is isn’t even certification, this is like before, well before certification, and ULURP starting, we want when somebody walks in the door with a project, to move in, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it, even if we think it’s a bad idea. We want to start a clock, give an application clarity on how to move forward, eliminate some of those endless pre-application meetings that tend to happen, and at the same time, allow community boards, community members, to see that something’s in the pipeline, because otherwise it’s not at all transparent to them. And that’s a mistake, it’s a mistake, because people feel like it’s a surprise, it shouldn’t be a surprise. And there, in many cases are, there’s, you know, a lot of evaluation going on in the early stages, where we’re trying to shape a proposal, let’s create some transparency there, let’s put city planning on, you know, a real timeline, I think will help all round.
Dan Garodnick 1:26:22
And then the last thing I would say is, you know, we would like on the point about amending the environmental process, you know, we would love to design an app that would allow for the maximum automation of some of these issues like you punch in your lot size, your FAR, that you’re seeking the number of units, and the app will give you the chapters of the environmental review that will require a deeper dive, there’s no reason to have to wait for our environmental division to tell you that necessarily. So we want to make sure that this is clearer and faster and make everything more streamlined for applicants. The result, we hope, is that people do not default to “no,” and they do not come to that conclusion that this process is, you know, too hairy, complicated, long, volatile for them to want to pursue, and instead enable for us to be able to move more projects consistent with public policy through the system.
Ben Max 1:27:28
Thank you. All right, I’ve got one minute until I have to turn it over to Andrew for closing. Do we have one or two 30-second comments, somebody has something that they didn’t get off their chest here today or wants to respond to somebody else on the panel?
Vicki Been 1:27:42
Ben I would jump in by just saying the time is now. We’ve been hearing these kinds of proposals, for example, on SEQRA, for two decades, and we can’t keep waiting for the perfect solution. We need to move now.
RuthAnne Visnauskas 1:27:58
I would echo that and just say we obviously we need more housing, we need it faster than we’ve been getting it, we need to–we need New York State to grow. We want to attract talent, we need businesses to innovate. And if employees can’t find places to live, they’re gonna go elsewhere. It’s true in New York City. It’s true in Long Island. It’s true in the Hudson Valley, Binghamton, Utica, Buffalo, everywhere, we really need the change. And I think that it’s hard, as Dan said, it’s easier to say no than yes. But I think that certainly conversations like this and research like this are part of the path to getting to the time is now kind of change that we need.
Michelle de la Uz 1:28:33
And I’ll just add, you know, we have the racial equity ballot measure that’s, you know, on the November ballot, and I think, although maybe there’s a dotted line connection, obviously, between everything that we spoke about here and that ballot measure and the kind of focus that that’s going to bring, I hope, to a lot of different public policies in the city, like to have equity at the center of our decision making will change a lot of our conversation.
Ben Max 1:29:00
Interesting and people looking for more information on that ballot measure, you can find it at Gotham Gazette. We’ve written about what’s going to be the ballot questions on your ballot, and that one is only for New York City. But New York City voters should be ready to vote yes or no on that one and a few others. Thank you so much, panelists for this great discussion. It was an honor to to moderate it. Thank you very much, CBC for having me. Over to you, Andrew.
Andrew Rein 1:29:24
Well, thank you, Ben. And for those of you who don’t follow Ben Max, and Gotham Gazette, and his podcast and everything, you’re missing out. Thank you, Ben, you did a great job today, as you always do. I want to thank all of our panelists. I mean, I’ll just note that, first of all, we’re honored that you were all here. But there was so much convergence on the goals about how data and accessibility of data are key to getting everyone on the same page and transparency and expertise. One of the great moments was Margaret said, I hired a land use director, and everyone started nodding, yes, yes. Data and expertise–and of course we had CBC love this–are important. So I look forward, Dan, on […] blasting off. I look forward RuthAnn to what the state is going to propose, as our former deputy mayor said, the time is now, as our current deputy mayor said a call to action. So thank you, CBC trustees, panelists, Deputy Mayor, Ben Max, Charlotte Levitt and Kevin Medina from CBC for making this possible. And please, all of you, thanks for coming and sticking with us. Please stay engaged in the discussion. The time is now. We need to come together and improve our decisions, because they are critical to a stable, safe, and prosperous future for all New Yorkers. Have a great day.