Housing suffers crushing defeat as mayor, speaker do nothing

In Kitty Genovese moment, leaders let activist Council member kill affordable project

From left: Mayor Eric Adams, Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, and developer Bruce Teitelbaum (Getty Images, iStock/Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)
From left: Mayor Eric Adams, Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, and developer Bruce Teitelbaum (Getty Images, iStock/Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)

It was the real estate equivalent of the Kitty Genovese murder: City leaders stood by idly as a local politician killed a Harlem apartment project.

The next morning, in an ironic coincidence, Mayor Eric Adams announced he would never let something like that happen.

“We are going to turn New York into a City of Yes,” he declared Wednesday. “Yes in my backyard, yes on my block, yes in my neighborhood.”

Bruce Teitelbaum must have choked on his breakfast, along with other industry players who had just seen Teitelbaum’s proposal for 917 homes in Harlem ripped to shreds by local City Council member Kristin Richardson Jordan.

Real estate people love Adams because he’s not Bill de Blasio and he says what they want to hear. But the way things are going, the honeymoon will end quickly.

The One45 debacle was reminiscent of the Amazon and Industry City fiascos of the de Blasio administration, in which a misguided minority exploited a leadership vacuum at City Hall to block development.

The ringleader this time was Jordan, who won her seat by barely defeating an aging incumbent who had lost his mental faculties and hardly campaigned.

Jordan is an activist who believes she is saving poor people’s homes by preventing more homes from being built. A 2009 Brown graduate, she double-majored in Black studies and literary arts but apparently skipped the economics courses.

Not that it takes an economics degree to understand that when lots of people compete for a limited amount of housing, they bid prices up.

Consider a 625-square-foot, one-bedroom pad at 156 Guernsey Street in Greenpoint with no amenities or outdoor space that hit the market in February. In the midst of the pandemic it had rented for $2,600 a month — $400 less than the year before. But with people flooding back to the city, the broker listed it for $3,450. A bidding war erupted, and the “winner” paid $3,800.

That never happens if new units are plentiful. But job creation has outpaced housing production in the city for two decades.

Adams gets that. He knows the city needs more housing and the changes needed to achieve it. But preaching to the choir, as he did Wednesday and at The Real Deal’s Showcase two weeks before, will not create a single apartment. Neither will his “City of Yes” plan unless he uses his bully pulpit and political capital to get it through the Council.

Will he? His results to date are not encouraging. He made virtually no effort to get state legislators to renew the 421a tax break, whose pending June 15 expiration has already brought apartment project financing to a halt. He didn’t press Albany to raise the city’s cap on residential development, as the governor proposed. The NYCHA trust passed on the final day of the session, but he couldn’t even get the usual four-year extension of mayoral control of public schools. Instead he got two years and an expensive, unfunded class-size mandate.

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It won’t be any easier to win over the City Council. While Adams runs around telling New Yorkers “We must support our police,” 20 progressive or socialist Council members last month defeated a routine police pension home-rule message.

That was noteworthy not just because the measure didn’t get the 34 votes (out of 51) that it needed, but because Speaker Adrienne Adams let it fail for all to see. The protocol is to not put items on the agenda unless they are going to pass.

“That vote was the death knell for Adrienne Adams’ speakership,” said one member. “She does not control the Council anymore. The left does.”

The pension measure was minor. The housing crisis is not.

Can the Kristin Richardson Jordan types be convinced that they are wrong about development? Probably not. Studies show that people double down on their erroneous positions when confronted with contrary evidence. The methods for getting them to change their minds are difficult and not well known.

The conundrum in New York is that it’s not just Nimbys killing housing development, but people who actually want to create affordable housing. It’s reminiscent of doctors trying to cure patients by bleeding them. When physicians are making you sicker, where do you turn?

One45, at West 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, would have had 457 market-rate units and 458 affordable ones, including 112 for tenants earning 30 percent of area median income, 255 for tenants at 50 percent of AMI, and 91 for tenants at 125 percent of AMI.

Jordan wanted all the units to be deeply affordable, without any market-rate units to subsidize them. She had to know that was impossible. She wants Teitelbaum to come back next year with a taxpayer-funded, fully affordable project.

That would not actually create affordable housing, because it would just divert subsidies from elsewhere. It also risks Teitelbaum building 50,000 square feet of market-rate units and a storage facility, which he can do without Council approval. His investors surely prefer that to another showdown with a socialist politician empowered by the speaker and mayor to block Harlem rezonings for the next eight years.

Jordan’s stated reasons for killing One45 — quoted in bold text below — extended well beyond her disproven theory that replacing a KFC, Dunkin Donuts, gas station and 99-cents store with mixed-use development would displace people nearby. None of them made sense.

  1. “No racial impact study.” The Council passed a bill requiring such studies for large rezonings, but it has not taken effect yet. Jordan wanted one for One45, even though she had already decided there would be “definitely displacement.” The environmental impact statement for the project, however, found it would not displace anybody. Nearly all nearby tenants are in NYCHA, Mitchell-Lama or rent-stabilized housing.
  2. “Massive negative community feedback.” Nimbys, who play a huge role in perpetuating the nation’s housing crisis, complained about all the usual things: traffic, parking, building height, flooding. Nimbys. These people already have housing and don’t want construction or new neighbors. Rather than stand up to the pitchforks, Jordan weaponized them.
  3. “Travel (subway has only 5 cars/limited parking).” The project is next to a subway station, so Jordan couldn’t say there is no mass transit nearby. Instead she said the trains weren’t long enough. Her parking reference is even more baffling. It’s well established that parking spots cause more driving and congestion, and underground garages make the housing above more expensive. Housing advocates beg for less parking, but Jordan says there’s not enough.
  4. “Need for family units concerns (70% is still studio and one-bedroom).” A major factor in the city’s housing crisis is a lack of small apartments. Most of its buildings were constructed for families of three or four people, but average household size has shrunk to 2.4. That’s why so many New Yorkers find roommates and outbid families for three-bedroom apartments. One45 would house these singles, freeing up larger units for families. The housing mismatch is well known. But not to Jordan, it seems.
  5. “It’s just not enough actually affordable housing to the people who live there.” Jordan says the median Harlem income is 30 percent of the area median income and thus Harlem units priced for households earning more are unaffordable. But half of Harlem households earn more than 30 percent of AMI. Thousands of Harlemites could afford One45’s apartments.

We asked the mayor’s office if the defeat of One45 sends a chilling message to developers, given that it was allowed to die despite being exactly the kind of project Adams wants. A spokesperson responded:

“As the city’s housing shortage continues to exacerbate our affordability crisis, developers and communities must work together to create more housing, especially housing that all New Yorkers can afford. We will continue working with all of our partners on a comprehensive effort to bring much-needed affordable housing to Harlem and every neighborhood in New York City.”

Continue working? It’s not clear they ever started.