CPC gives thumbs up to Innovation QNS

Commissioners voted 10-3 in favor of controversial project

By Jessica Meditz

[email protected]

Rendering of 38th Street Plaza by Innovation QNS.

The City Planning Commission gave a thumbs up to the large Innovation QNS project proposed for Astoria, despite a big thumbs down from Community Board 1 in June.

The proposed $2 billion development would build 12 towers between Northern Boulevard and 37th Street, some up to 27 stories tall, along with two acres of open space and 2,800 housing units — 700 of them permanently affordable — or 25 percent.

The commissioners voted 10-3 in favor of the proposal, advancing it to the next step of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application process.

Kaufman Astoria Studios, Silverstein Properties and BedRock Real Estate Partners are the developers behind the project.

Tracy Capune, vice president at Kaufman Astoria Studios, sees the CPC’s nod to the project as a significant stepping stone to providing benefits to the community.

“The need for affordable homes, family-sustaining jobs, public open space and expanded services for immigrants, seniors and young people has never been greater, and [the] overwhelming approval of Innovation QNS by the City Planning Commission is an important step toward delivering all of that and more for our neighbors in Astoria,” she said.

“We look forward to working with Councilmember Won and our neighbors in the weeks ahead to ensure City Council approval of this $2 billion investment at a critical moment for our community.”

Moments before the CPC voted, Chairman Dan Garodnick recommended the commission vote to approve Innovation QNS, citing thousands of job opportunities, affordable housing, public open space and many amenities.

“The affordable housing component of this project that will be created without public subsidy would be considered the largest privately financed affordable housing project in Queens in generations. At a time when our housing crisis is more pronounced than ever, that is a big deal and a big opportunity to take the pressure off the rents in this and surrounding communities,” Garodnick said.

“Innovation QNS is a unique opportunity to create nearly 3,000 homes including hundreds of permanently affordable homes that will change the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, providing them with stability in a vibrant neighborhood — where little of that stability currently exists,” he continued. “We should not let such an opportunity pass us by.”

Now, it’s up to the City Council to vote on whether or not to approve Innovation QNS; however, Councilwoman Julie Won, who represents Astoria in District 26, has been vocal about her disapproval of the development project since the beginning of her time in office.

Usually, the City Council votes in accordance with the position of the councilmember who represents that district.

Won criticized the developers of Innovation QNS for “disregarding” the voices of locals and not considering the community’s need for deeply affordable housing.

“I have requested for the development team to return to the community again with modifications and we will not settle for a plan that is below 50 percent affordable. Nearly 70 percent of renters in this part of Astoria are already rent-burdened or severely rent-burdened, with a current average rent of around $1,800. There are 54,000 eviction cases filed in NYC this year alone. I cannot in good conscience add more market-rate luxury housing in my district where it continues to produce an upward trend in rising rents,” she said.

“I refuse to inflict greater displacement and increase risk for evictions for working class families in my district. The developers are still offering only the minimum of 25 percent affordable apartments, calling on the city to utilize public dollars to provide any additional affordability,” Won continued. “My apprehension for this project remains and I have serious concerns that this project will displace many immigrant and working class residents that call this part of Astoria home, as landowners worry about their profit margins.”

Last month, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards also said “no” to the project; however, his input merely served as a recommendation.

In his recommendation, Richards called for an increase in the number of affordable housing units as well as expanding the lowest affordable income band to individuals or families earning 30 percent area median income (AMI).

Rendering via Innovation QNS.

“New York City is in the throes of a housing crisis, with Astoria families feeling that crush harder than most, but we have an incredible opportunity before us to reverse this tragic trend. I stand by my recommendation that certain commitments be made by the Innovation QNS development team to meet this moment,” he said.

“I have a deep respect for the City Planning Commission and its work, and I am hopeful [this] vote will lead to a healthy dialogue and community-first solutions as Innovation QNS proceeds to the City Council,” Richards added. “I remain in close contact with the developers, my fellow elected officials and all our community stakeholders, and will continue to push for true community-first solutions on the issues of affordability and equity.”

An ongoing critique of Innovation QNS is that the developers failed to engage in adequate, robust community outreach before moving forward with the application process.

Even CPC Chair Garodnick acknowledged in his opening remarks that the development team could have done a better job with this, and encouraged all future applicants to keep comprehensive community engagement at the “forefront of their minds.”

Evie Hantzopoulos, an Astoria resident, a member of CB1’s Land Use Committee and an activist with Astoria Not For Sale strongly believes that the Innovation QNS team has not done enough to improve their community outreach.

At a town hall meeting held at Kaufman Astoria Studios back in April, Hantzopoulos referred to their community engagement efforts as “a joke,” and told them outwardly that they are not being transparent.

“They’ve spent their time trying to get people to sign postcards to send in favor of it. That’s not outreach. They’re not trying to understand what the community wants and needs,” she said. “They already have their plan. They’re going through with it. Anything they do is perfunctory.”

As for her reaction to the CPC approving the plan: “disappointed, but not surprised.”

“We are going to mobilize and make sure that the voices of people who are going to be most affected are being heard,” she added.

Farihah Akhtar, an Astoria resident and organizer at CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, described Garodnick’s praise to the community members who came out to raise their voices against the project as “hollow and a slap in the face” to those fighting gentrification and displacement.

“Billionaire developers are enabled by our broken city planning and land use process and this has festered for decades. New York City is facing a major housing crisis, but what we need are deeply affordable units…these units are out of reach for working class and immigrant communities that have traditionally called Astoria home,” she said.

“NYCHA residents, with median incomes of approximately $20,000 per year, would not even meet the income requirements to apply for the affordable housing lottery,” Akhtar added.

“We will continue fighting. Astoria and New York City deserve real affordable housing and meaningful community engagement. This project is wrong and no amount of rationalization makes it palatable to our communities.”

City votes to raise rents for thousands

The Rent Guidelines Board, the city regulatory agency that decides the prices of rent-stabilized units, preliminarily voted to increase rents in their largest single-year jump in nearly 10 years. The final vote will be held on June 21.

The RGB voted to increase rents by 2-4 percent for one-year leases and 4-6 percent for two-year leases in a 5-4 vote on Thursday. The last time the RGB raised rents by over 3 percent was in 2014; that year one-year leases increased by 4 percent while two-year leases increased by 7.75 percent.

A 2017 report from the Housing and Preservation Department found that Brooklyn comprises nearly 30 percent of the city’s rent-stabilized units; meaning that up to nearly 275,000 units in Kings County could be facing increases.

The jump in rents marks a shift from the freezes and modest increases the RGB pursued under previous Mayor DeBlasio’s more tenant-friendly board. Mayor Adams appointed a landlord lawyer and a self-proclaimed rent control skeptic to the board last month, as City Limits reported.

The RGB is comprised of nine different members who are all appointed by the mayor. Two seats are designated for tenant interests, two others to represent owners, while the other five are supposed to represent the general public.

“Inflation is hurting property owners as the cost of providing safe, clean, affordable housing continues to rise. Our analysis of the data is that an increase of rents it keeps up with inflation and rising property taxes is necessary to protect the housing stock,” said Robert Ehlrich, one of the owner representatives. Ehrlich continued to cite RGB research that found that 1/3 of rent-stabilized buildings are spending 70 percent of operating income on costs.

Sheila Garcia, one of the tenant representatives called for rent freezes and rent rollbacks on apartments.

“This is what the language of the statute reads. action is necessary to prevent exactions of unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive rents and rental agreements. And to forestall profiteering speculation and other disruptive practices tending to produce threats to the public health, safety, and general welfare. It goes on to say that this is because many, many owners, and I quote, ‘were demanding exorbitant and unconscionable rent increases.’ These are the underpinnings of why the RGB exists,” said Adán Soltren, the other tenant member of the board.

The New York City Council Progressive Caucus, which represents the majority of the council, denounced the rent hikes in a statement.

“We are at a loss as to why the recommended increases only have the landlord in mind, devised so as to maintain landlords’ net operating income at constant levels. Why should the maintenance of landlord income be privileged over the tenants’ ability to keep up with cost of living increases? Tenants have not experienced wage or salary increases of 9%, are paying more for everything due to inflation, and unemployment in the City remains nearly double the national average,” the statement reads.

The caucus also called for an immediate rent rollback to stave off evictions and that the board hold at least five public hearings, one in each borough. There are only two scheduled public hearings before the final vote in June, currently scheduled on the RGB website.

Mayor Adams, who is a landlord himself, refused to take a stance on the floated hike in order to maintain the independence on the board. Adams emphasized the responsibility of his appointed positions to strike the balance between landlords and what Mayor Adams described as small time renters.

The progressive caucus dismissed the notion of ‘mom-and-pop’ landlords being the primary provider of rent-regulated apartments. Their statement cited a 2017 analysis of Housing Preservation and Development data released by Justfix.nyc, a non profit organization that releases online tools for the housing movement. The report found that 91 percent of “mom-and-pop” landlords, defined as only owning one building by the Progressive Caucasus, do not own buildings with rent-regulated units and that 70 percent of landlords who own rent-regulated units own six or more buildings.

New Senior Housing in Brownsville

Catholic Charities has unveiled a new senior housing complex in East New York

The Our Lady of Loreto Church stood for nearly 100 years in the Brownsville community as a house of worship. On Thursday, it was debuted as the brand new Pope Francis Apartments at Loreto – a new affordable housing complex for senior citizens.

“This project, and our being here today, is really a testimony to the fact that the church is not a museum, but a living organism,” Reverend Robert Brennan, the Bishop of Brooklyn, said. “The needs of the church change as the needs of the neighborhood change, over time. And so we’ve gone through cycles, and we’ve had to make changes and, and yet, something lifegiving always seems to emerge. And that’s what we have here today; we see this place transformed here.”

The units at 2377 Pacific Street will offer 135 apartments to seniors and formerly homeless seniors. 60 percent of the units will be supportive housing while the other 40 percent will be deemed as affordable independent residences for seniors, or AIRS units. The AIRS units will be pegged at up to 50 percent of the Area Median Income while the other units are supported with a rental subsidy through the Empire State Supporting Housing initiative.

The eight-story building will also feature 24-hour security, laundry facilities, rooftop solar panels and more. These services, as well as case management services, will be provided to residents by Catholic Charities.

Monsignor Alfred LoPinto took the occasion to remind attendees that the mission of the Pope Francis apartments is greatly tied to the pope’s dedication to the elderly.

“Pope Francis urges everyone to protect and nourish the elderly, stating: ‘let us protect them so that nothing of their lives and dreams may be lost. May we never regret that we were insufficiently attentive to those who loved us….’ That is why it is so fitting to me today to name this beautiful residence after Pope Francis,” Monsignor Alfred LoPinto said. “Inside these walls, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens will be able to protect older adults and alleviate their difficulties, just as Pope Francis asked us to do. We ensure that they do not feel alone by attending to their needs”

Ground breaks on affordable housing development in Corona

New supportive and affordable housing options will soon be made available to seniors and New Yorkers recovering from substance use or mental health issues, along Northern Boulevard in Corona.

Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities, Inc., along with the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Community Preservation Corporation and elected officials celebrated the groundbreaking of the project, located at 104-10 Northern Boulevard.

The mixed-use housing project will bring 30 affordable homes to Corona, made up of 21 supportive homes and nine homes for low-income senior households.

The Queens-based nonprofit, Elmcor, will serve as the developer and supportive service provider. Monica Lopez Uran is the project’s architect, and Queens-based Penta Restoration Corp. is the general contractor.

Saeeda Dunston, executive director at Elmcor, says the initiative addresses needs of the community, and thanked the late Honorable Helen Marshall in her remarks.

“This building will be a home that is consistent with who we are; a community that doesn’t separate people but integrates groups to support the healing and recovery that happens when we see each other as one community,” Dunston said. “We will provide supportive housing both for individuals in recovery and affordable housing for older adults. We know the impact that the lack of affordable housing has on the physical and mental health of people.”

Financial support for the project comes partly from CPC with a $1.7 million construction loan, and a $2.5 million permanent loan through its funding partnership with the New York City Retirement Systems. An additional $2.9 million in subsidy is provided by HPD through its Supportive Housing Loan Program.

The office of the Queens Borough President is also providing $5.4 million in ResoA funding, along with the City Council providing an additional $2.5 million for the same purpose. The project will utilize the NYC 15/15 Supportive Housing Initiative, which provides rental assistance and supportive services.

“Elmcor has diligently and effectively served the families of Queens for decades, a mission that continues with Thursday’s critically important groundbreaking,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said. “By providing those recovering from substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as our older residents, with supportive, affordable housing right here in our community, we are creating a model of human justice through housing for the rest of the city to follow.”

Councilman Francisco Moya, representing District 21 which includes East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, LeFrak City, and Corona, added that he’s grateful to have this initiative in one of the neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic.

“A lot of the issues that our city is facing stems from the lack of affordable housing, which is why when I set foot in the City Council, creating a true path has been a priority,” Moya said. “The construction of these new supportive and affordable housing units means less people struggling to put a roof over their head.”

Progressives call for the end of 421-a

Progressive politicians have a new rallying cry: “421-a , let it die!”

The little-known abbreviation is a major property tax break for developers that is set to expire this summer – and the left wants to keep it that way. The 421-a tax program was created in 1971 to spurn investment when the city was lacking money. But critics now see it as an antiquated piece of legislation that gives tax breaks for developers while failing to achieve affordable housing.

Under 421-a, developers can receive tax breaks for building housing that is determined affordable at 130 percent of the average median income. In areas like Williamsburg, that means that a single adult making over $100,000 could qualify for affordable housing.

Councilwomen Tiffany Cabán and Pierina Sanchez introduced a resolution to urge the state legislature and Governor to allow the program to expire while Comptroller Brad Lander released an analysis of the 421-a that recommended its lapse and for structural property tax reform to replace it.

New York State Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher has also introduced legislation, that is currently in committee, that would give the state the power to audit potential overcharging of rents in 421-a buildings.

“421-a is not an affordable housing strategy, it’s free billions for developers. At a time when we have so many people desperately in need of vital assistance, we have absolutely got to stop this massive giveaway to the wealthy real estate interests who need it least,” Cabán said.

In recent months, Governor Hochul has proposed a new version of 421-a, called 485-w, that would make modest changes to the affordability requirements and wages for construction workers.

“Governor Hochul’s proposal was offensive: plain and simple. It’s tweaking, in the most minor and modest ways, a program that is fundamentally broken. We need to end 421-a; we need to go back to the drawing board,” Councilman Lincoln Restler said. “ We need to start investing in housing that’s going to end the homelessness crisis that’s going to make sure that each and every family in our community can afford to stay and live in our community.”

The comptrollers report found that this year the city will give up $1.77 billion in 421-a tax breaks while the city comparatively spends 1.1 billion on the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

“So all the money the city intentionally spends on affordable housing for a wide range of people – folks who have been homeless or folks who are getting a first rung on the homeownership ladder. The whole array of HPD programs is less than we give away in 421-a tax breaks tax breaks,” Lander said.

Lander’s report features a proposal for property tax reform that would replace the 421-a program while still creating incentives for developers to build affordable housing. It includes creating a new targeted affordable housing tax incentive to build true affordability, equalize tax treatment between residential construction, and also introduce a revenue-neutral tax rate for family homes, small rental buildings as well as condos and co-ops.

The 421-a tax program is set to expire June 15th of this year and the proposed deadline for structural tax reform laid out in Lander’s plan would be in the winter of this year.

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