In Williamsburg, Disputes Over Who Should Get Affordable Housing Stymie Development

Today, high-rises have arrived on the banks of the East River. But nothing has happened at Cooper Houses, as conflicting opinions about what should be built and where have stymied any action.

Affordable housing development still hasn’t moved forward at Cooper Park Houses in Williamsburg. Photo credit: Malik Singleton/City Limits

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Seven years ago, when the city rezoned the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods to permit high-rise, high-rent construction on the waterfront, affordable housing was part of the deal. Some 3,500 subsidized units were supposed to be generated through a set of programs—including an agreement by the New York City Housing Authority to construct a new affordable housing development on the 12-acre site of its Cooper Park Houses development.

Today, high-rises have arrived on the banks of the East River. But nothing has happened at Cooper Houses, as conflicting opinions about what should be built and where have stymied any action.

“Building in New York City is expensive because of bureaucracies,” says Rabbi David Niederman, the longtime Housing Committee Chair of Brooklyn’s Community Board 1.“Luxury projects move because [while] city-owned projects depend on funding and approval … private owners plug away.”

Cooper Park Houses is one of the 334 developments run by NYCHA, the oldest and largest public housing authority in the country. Under an agreement with the mayor, NYCHA is supposed to facilitate the development of 6,000 units of new affordable housing on its sites. At a City Council hearing in January 2012, NYCHA’s chairman John Rhea said 2,000 units had been built and another 2,000 were in the pipeline.

But Cooper Park Houses doesn’t appear to be among those. “There is a multi-variable equation on why that hasn’t moved forward,” Rhea testified.

Now, as the city rebuilds in Sandy’s wake and New York City’s major agencies are forced to prioritize new projects related to rebuilding efforts, there is a risk that previously planned initiatives will stall indefinitely—especially those that were already slow going, like the one at Cooper Park Houses.

A vague plan

Nearly 1,600 people live in the 11, seven-story buildings that make up the Cooper Park Houses development, which was built in 1953 and occupies an L-shaped parcel of land bordered by Frost Street and Morgan, Kingsland, and Maspeth Avenues.

The 2005 rezoning plan only vaguely defined how, where and when to expand housing in the neighborhood for working-class residents.

In an email response to the Brooklyn Bureau, NYCHA’s spokesperson, Sheila Stainback, said that following the 2005 rezoning the authority did in fact commit to providing land for new affordable housing units at Cooper Park Houses, determining that a narrow parking lot extending from Skillman Avenue could fit a new unit.

But by 2007, before the parking lot idea could be fully developed, NYCHA withdrew the plan in response to a backlash from two sets of residents. According to Stainback, people in the private homes on Maspeth Ave. complained that new properties would “cast significant shadows” over their “unusually small rear yards.” And Cooper Park Houses residents were reluctant to lose their parking lot.

Frank Lang, housing director a St. Nicks Alliance, a community development corporation, says that it was HPD that first recommended the parking lot in order to meet community demand for affordable housing. “The community had such negative reaction, plus NYCHA didn’t have money do it, so they dropped it.”

Community Board 1 got involved and asked NYCHA to find a different space nearby. The only other possibility was Frost Playground, which sits within NYCHA’s Cooper Park Houses property but is operated by the city’s Parks Department.

Lang says NYCHA wasn’t interested in that idea. In her email, Stainback said, “To build on the playground, the New York State Assembly and Senate must pass legislation to alienate (or de-map) park land. Plus, a replacement park would have to be built nearby and of equivalent size.”

Beyond the question of where to build the housing is who it will be for and how to fund it. Some want the new development to offer housing to senior citizens—who are under pressure to relocate from their current NYCHA apartments to smaller units, in order to accommodate families on NYCHA’s lengthy waiting list. But it’s unclear if the federal government will make enough Section 202 funding, which covers senior housing, available.

At the hearing last year Rhea said, “So in a world—you know, I’m just going to be blunt—in a world of scarce resources and scarce time, the more difficult the solution, the longer it will take, and the greater likelihood it won’t happen.”

Delays upon delays

Each year that has passed since 2005 has caused involved parties to be distracted by new projects and more tight-lipped about the stalled plan. “Nobody is looking at this in larger comprehensive way. [They’re] not finding solutions, they’re just moving on,” says Lang. “There’s no timeline on this agreement. NYCHA residents want more housing, seniors want smaller units, so there is no champion or comprehensive approach.”

Those frustrated by the Cooper Park Houses delays have slowed the conversation in their own ways. Five weeks prior to superstorm Sandy, the City Councilmember who pointedly questioned Rhea about the Cooper Park delays at the 2012 hearing, Diana Reyna, delayed an interview for this story because, according to her staff, her office was close to publishing a comprehensive study.

“She wants to wait until we release a report in the next two weeks so that we have our message in order,” said her spokesperson. “We’re commissioning an analysis of rezoning and affordable housing promises.”

The report is still pending.

As the new year dawns there is a set of subtle changes in the area thanks to legislative redistricting. At the state Assembly level, a new line will now cut through the parking lot and separate the Cooper Park Houses development from the homes on Maspeth Avenue. At the Congressional level the area, previously part of Rep. Nydia Velazquez’s district, has become part of Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s territory—bringing new voices to an already complex conversation.

Meanwhile, HPD says in the seven years since the rezoning, 788 units of affordable housing have been completed in the rezoned area, with 134 more in construction and “an additional 290 units in predevelopment.”

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Tags: new york cityaffordable housingeconomic developmentreal estatebuilt environmentbrooklyn

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