Jamaica debates downzoning downside

<i>Multifamily conversions now face restrictions as density issues increase</i>

The Queens neighborhood of Jamaica last month had building limits lifted in the city’s largest-ever rezoning, a move intended to boost development in the area’s downtown corridor. In a less-noticed but significant move, the city also downzoned 161 blocks of the surrounding neighborhoods of South Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans and the southern edges of Jamaica Hill and Jamaica Estates.

That means conversions of single-family houses into two- or multifamily homes, a staple of the Queens streetscape, are now restricted on a block-by-block basis. From a builder’s perspective, downzoning can lead to development doldrums.

In other parts of Queens, like Flushing, downzoning has made properties less attractive to developers and investors, said Judy Markowitz, a residential real estate agent. In Flushing, residents who successfully pushed for downzoning have had trouble selling homes. Even if a building is in great condition, builders might be less interested if they think it won’t turn a profit as quickly because there are restrictions, she said.

“In north Queens, they fought the density,” said Markowitz. “Residential advocates are happy, but in some cases, homeowners that wish to sell their home or who bought their homes with the idea that they would live in their homes and expand it or turn it into a two-family or huge one-family — now they can’t.”

Kenny Sattaur, a southeast Queens real estate broker for RE/MAX Southshore, estimates 25 percent of homes for sale in Jamaica have been converted from one-family to two-family. While that has been good for landlords, it has worsened congestion, he said.

“When I go to sell a home and I can’t park, it’s not a good sign,” Sattaur said. “If the streets are overcrowded, think about the schools.”

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Sattaur defended downzoning, saying it has preserved the charm of places like Cambria Heights. The predominately Caribbean and African-American southeastern Queens neighborhood was named last year by Money magazine as one the nation’s best communities to live in.

“I think the Jamaica rezoning is good because in the last five years, all the two-family conversions have affected the area,” Sattaur said. “Cambria Heights is beautiful. It’s in demand because it was rezoned a long time ago — many, many years ago — as a one-family zone. Developers can’t touch it.”

With so many Queens homes already converted from one-family to two-family, the market probably would not have demanded more in Jamaica, said Jack Mangra, a real estate agent who represents buyers and sellers there.

“We have a lot of houses being sold, but many people are sitting and watching,” he said. “Buyers are looking for good deals, and sellers are holding on. My experience and feeling is sellers are going to have to drop their prices.”

Consequently, some investors are trying to improve property values of existing old homes by rehabbing them instead.

“You can get a better product on a resale than a conversion or a new construction,” Sattaur said.