The quixotic quest to make WTC tower 100% affordable

For some, 300 low-income housing units is not enough

New York News Analysis /
Nov.November 08, 2021 07:00 AM
130 Liberty Street (Rendering via DBOX and KPF)

130 Liberty Street (Rendering via DBOX and KPF)

Nothing is ever easy in New York City, it seems. Especially at the World Trade Center.

The latest wrench in the rebuilding is a grassroots campaign to change the plan for a tower slated for 130 Liberty Street, where the Deutsche Bank Building once stood.

As if Gov. Kathy Hochul did not have enough to deal with nine months before the biggest election of her life, the New York Times asked her last month about the activists’ demand to make all 1,200 of the project’s apartments, rather than 300, affordable.

Hochul’s press secretary gave a seemingly noncommittal answer. That’s Politics 101 when a decision is not due until after the next election:

“Governor Hochul is committed to continuing to take bold action to protect tenants and help solve the housing affordability crisis — not just in one neighborhood or one building, but across the state, and we are monitoring the development of this project in that context.”

It’s not hard to read the tea leaves, though. Hochul’s answer to the activists, roughly translated, is: No.

Hochul has a lot of real estate issues on her plate. The eviction and foreclosure moratorium ends Jan. 15. Left-wing legislators are gearing up to pass “good cause eviction” (aka statewide rent control) early next year. And she is overhauling her predecessor Andrew Cuomo’s plans for Penn Station and probably the LaGuardia AirTrain, too.

The last thing she needs is to open a can of worms by redirecting $500 million in housing subsidies to placate a newly formed group demanding 100 percent affordability at 5 WTC.

True, the backers have drummed up political support from Council members Ben Kallos and Mark Levine, state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler.

And you might think Hochul would seize the opportunity to take credit for the world’s tallest affordable housing project.

But she likely has already concluded that full affordability at 5 WTC makes no economic or political sense.

Let’s start with the economics. As envisioned, the 900 market-rate units would generate enough profit to pay for the 300 income-restricted units and send millions of dollars to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose land-swap made the project possible.

One reason the market-rate units would be lucrative is the views they would offer. Stable, quality housing is a priority for low-income New Yorkers; a commanding view of the harbor is not. That is why affordable projects are not very tall: Per unit, towers are far more expensive. Each one at the World Trade Center will cost about $1 million to build.

Experts told the Times that subsidizing 900 affordable units at 5 WTC would run about $500 million, enough to build 3,600 affordable units elsewhere. So the folks feeling righteous as they lobby for a fully affordable skyscraper would be depriving 2,700 families of low-cost housing.

It’s not a perfect comparison, because neighborhood does matter. The Financial District is a high-opportunity neighborhood; East New York, for example, is not.

But for building social capital, your immediate neighbors also matter. If everyone in your building is low-income, you won’t get your kid a Wall Street internship by rubbing shoulders with an executive in the fitness center (if there even is one). An estimated 85 percent of jobs are obtained by networking and 70 percent are never even advertised.

As for the politics, would Hochul rather cut a ribbon on a single affordable tower in Lower Manhattan or dozens of affordable projects across the state? Rhetorical question.

What about Kallos, Levine, Kavanagh, Niou, Maloney and Nadler? Kallos, a quasi-pariah in the Council who will be out of office in eight weeks, is irrelevant to Hochul. She might care about the others, but their support for her election does not hinge on 5 WTC. They need her as well, and they won’t turn against her for “only” creating 300 affordable units there.

It may well be that the six politicians are backing full affordability to get cheers from the far left, knowing there is no downside (other than this article) to supporting something that they have no control over and know won’t happen.





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