Affordable housing construction is ‘essential,’ but NYC developers have concerns
Affordable housing is exempt from a state mandate to pause all non-essential construction in New York. But developers across the five boroughs, where city officials have cleared 354 projects with below-market-rate units to move forward, are facing a moral dilemma: Just because they can push on with construction, should they?
Initially, Gov. Andrew Cuomo deemed all construction essential as the novel coronavirus inundated New York City. He reversed course in late March, halting work at many sites but with several exemptions, including work on hospitals and homeless shelters, critical infrastructure projects, and affordable housing.
Even as construction deadlines loom large in the minds of lenders, some housing developers are hitting the breaks on building. That’s the case at 28 projects across New York City where work has voluntarily halted, putting thousands of below-market-rate apartments in nebulous territory, the New York Post first reported.
“Even though there are ways to keep these sites safe, I erred on the side of not putting [workers] at greater health risk, especially as we’re in the peak of this,” Ron Moelis, the CEO of L+M Development Partners, told the Post. That firm had two low-income housing projects nearing competition before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked New York. “We’re operating in an unknown environment. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress, notes that developers are juggling worker safety and preserving projects set to provide sorely needed housing.
“It’s a balancing act. The safety of workers clearly is the most important thing,” says Scissura. “But at the end of the day, it’s up to individual firms. There’s no one-size-fits all rule.”
Firms that have temporarily paused construction include Greenland Forest City Partners, the builder behind Pacific Park in Brooklyn; TF Cornerstone, the developer behind Hunter’s Point South; and SK Development, which has a handful of mixed-use projects in Manhattan, spokespeople confirmed. Between these three developers, that’s roughly 3,000 apartments in construction limbo.
Other worksites, meanwhile, continue to buzz with activity, though largely scaled down. Related has continued work on 15 Hudson Yards, which features 107 apartments set aside for those earning 50 to 60 percent of the area median income (that translates to $858/month for a studio and $1,350/month for a two-bedroom).
Less than a dozen workers are on site with several precautions in place, including temperature screenings for all workers, protective gear, and frequent sanitization of areas where work is being done, according to a Related spokesperson. Projects such as these—that are mostly market rate but have 20 to 30 percent of apartments earmarked as affordable—are exempt from the state’s new restrictions, according to the city.
“The City is protecting the health and safety of all New Yorkers while continuing to push forward with delivering critical services and infrastructure,” Matthew Creegan, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said in a statement. “Affordable housing is going to be an even more crucial resource in the wake of this pandemic.”
Some elected officials remain concerned with worker safety and want construction exemptions narrowed. “There’s an economic impact in limiting non-essential construction, even when there is affordable housing involved,” City Council member Carlos Menchaca said in a statement. “[But] the priority should be on the safety and health of the workers and their families.”
Councilmember Brad Lander says affordable projects nearing completion should be finished and then used to house the homeless. He is calling on city and state officials to narrow constructions exemptions to shutter projects with a small chunk of affordable units.
“80-20 projects are market-rate housing. They are not affordable housing projects,” says Lander. “I do think that 100 percent affordable housing, or at least majority affordable, are reasonable to be considered essential. We are going to really need these units given the crisis we’re in.”
The Article was published on ny.curbed.com