What housing developers say behind city’s back

Tales of dysfunction never mentioned in public

To Cut Red Tape for Housing, Look Under Agencies’ Hood
Agencies move a lot slower in NYC than in other states, developers say

City Council members threw a fit last week when the Adams administration asked them to submit a form if they want to meet with agency heads.

“I’m not filling out any form,” sniffed Council member Gale Brewer. A Council spokesperson said members would not adhere to the “excessively bureaucratic,” “inefficient,” and “highly inappropriate” policy.

If only they were as outraged about the bureaucracy that the real estate industry must deal with. If housing developers only had to fill out a single form, it would be cause for celebration.

The snail’s pace at which applications move and the tedious waiting for routine decisions come at a severe human cost: Thousands of New Yorkers are desperate for deliverance from homeless shelters, overcrowded apartments and abusive homes.

A developer last week told The Real Deal that it took about a year to get one affordable housing project approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, yet North Carolina officials completed a similar process in a single meeting.

It took 25 minutes.

As the meeting concluded, the developer was in a state of stunned disbelief, almost certain that there was some kind of catch. Sure enough, one of the North Carolina officials stood up and said, “There’s just one more thing.”

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The developer braced for a demand or requirement that would reveal the whole experience as too good to be true. Instead, the local official said something wholly unexpected: “I just want to thank you for doing this.”

Another developer told TRD that he was meeting with planners in a New Jersey locality to hash out a project when a surprise visitor walked in: the mayor. The developer felt welcomed and appreciated, which, believe it or not, makes a difference to people in business. In New York City, bureaucrats expect developers to thank them.

To be sure, there are some talented people and small pockets of efficiency in city government, but even dedicated staffers labor in a labyrinth that gets harder to navigate as policies pile up and commissioners come and go. Every new mayor promises to streamline government and cut red tape, but end up prioritizing flag-raising ceremonies and media appearances.

The Adams administration wants more housing built and is moving to make that happen by advancing rezonings (which has taken 28 months and counting) and pushing Albany to pass reforms. And the City Council, with some exceptions, is shifting from Nimby to yes-in-my-backyard.

But the mayor, deputy mayors, commissioners and Council members would do well to meet privately with developers and landlords to find out what can be fixed in-house, without having to marshal votes or trade political favors. Rather than speed things up, the Council bogs down agencies by mandating mountains of annual reports that few people ever read.

The Council does hold oversight hearings, but business people will not publicly criticize the bureaucrats and the agencies who decide the fate of their applications. Nor will hardworking staffers in city offices who witness the foot-dragging on a daily basis, yet are powerless to do anything.

To get honest and actionable information from people who have something to lose, such as their jobs or projects, confidentiality is essential. Sit down with would-be whistleblowers and they will open up about what’s working and what isn’t.

You’ll find they have a lot to say.