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Op-Ed by Jeremiah Johnson.
Jeremiah Johnson is the director of the Center for New Liberalism, a housing advocate, and a Hell’s Kitchen resident for 10 years.

Next month, the City Council will vote on approving new housing in Hell’s Kitchen. At issue is a planned housing development on MTA land in Hell’s Kitchen called The Lirio. Christine Gorman and Aleta LaFargue wrote last week in W42ST, expressing their disapproval of the current plan and calling for further modifications and delay.  While I believe that community activists like these do great work, too often they’re also part of the problem and are a significant reason why Hell’s Kitchen and New York as a whole has a housing crisis.

There’s only one reason why housing is expensive in New York City – we don’t build enough of it.   

The mayor’s recent publication— Housing Our Neighbors: A Blueprint for Housing and Homelessness — includes the above chart, which illustrates how little housing NYC builds.  While new housing completions exceeded population growth in the 50s, 60s and 70s — for the past four decades, increases in New York’s population have vastly outpaced housing growth. On the most basic level, this is the problem. New York has added millions of people and has not built enough housing to accommodate them.

It’s not rocket science — when the demand for housing increases greatly but the supply doesn’t increase, you end up with high rents and a housing crisis. The provision of new housing in New York is among the lowest the country per capita, compared to other American cities. The issue isn’t the type of housing being built, or where the housing is being built, whether or not there are affordable units, or any of those details. The issue is that New York has decades of not building enough housing of any kind.

Why is it so hard to build housing in New York?  Much of the blame lies on the process that development must go through here — it takes years and sometimes decades to get anything built. This is where community groups are often part of the problem. All too often, these community groups fight the development of new housing every step of the way.  They often try to stop any kind of new building, using NIMBY arguments about ‘community character’ or with concerns about parking, shadows, amenities, etc.

If they’re not trying to completely block the new housing, they will frequently have long lists of demands about what should be built – it must have this many units of this specific type. It must include this environmental effort, it must favor tenants from this group, it must have this amount of low-income and mixed-income units, it must be run by this non-profit and not that non-profit, etc.  These groups will stall the development any way possible, agitating at Community Boards, during City Council meetings, etc.

The end result is not that New York ends up with an abundance of beautiful and perfect low-income housing in the way that these groups describe. In reality, the end result is that very little gets built. What is eventually built takes years and years to ever come to fruition. In their W42ST article, Gorman and LaFargue described their objections to the new development at 9th Avenue and W54th Street, which should sound familiar to you:  It includes units reserved for low-income tenants but not for middle-income tenants. It’s run by a non-profit we don’t trust. The size of the building seems too large for them. It has a ‘preference’ but not a ‘guarantee’ for HIV positive tenants.  And on and on the complaints come.  

They even mention that this development is part of a housing agreement struck all the way back in 2009.  It’s insane how long it takes for housing to be built in Hell’s Kitchen, and this particular project could be facing additional years of delay, thanks to the objections of local community organizations. To be blunt — it does not matter who is managing the project, or which tenants are preferenced or how many units are affordable, if advocating for those things causes each project to take a decade to build.

New York City needs hundreds of thousands of new housing units.  Delaying a project for years over whether 100 units should be marked affordable or not only makes the problem worse.  This issue personally affects me — in my census tract in Hell’s Kitchen, a grand total of ZERO new housing units were built in the past decade. That’s shameful.

We have to stop fighting about the minute details of what kinds of housing should be allowed and start building more housing of all kinds, fast. All new housing construction, even market rate construction, lowers rents.  Study after study shows that building new market rate units leads to lower prices overall in the market and even lowers displacement.  The effect is strongest in very local areas — one study found that new market rate housing construction led to 5-7% lower prices on other units in the immediate neighborhood. That’s why it’s critical for Hell’s Kitchen to approve these projects quickly — it lowers all of our rents.

The MTA site’s development into The Lirio has been controversial in Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: Phil O’Brien

The city council and all other relevant decision makers should approve the proposed housing development on MTA land as quickly as possible, without any further delays or lengthy fights about details.  Then they should immediately approve the next project, and the next project, and the next.  The only way to escape from a housing crisis caused by a housing shortage is to build more housing, and we don’t have time to wait.


Jeremiah Johnson is the director of the Center for New Liberalism, a housing advocate, and a Hell’s Kitchen resident for 10 years.

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

  1. The problem is you build these luxury high rise, you put in few affordable housing, people apply on housing connect and they told they are ineligible. People have subsidies, they qualify. These high risers are being corrupt and crooked. Playgrounds for the rich. Housing connect isn’t even worth it. Start investigating these real estate property owners. How could it be affordable housing if the rent is 3000 dollars. What’s wrong with the picture?

  2. Thanks for writing this. The parking lot currently provides 0 housing. If the new building is allowed it will help in two ways, first it will provide some much needed below-market-rate units. Second, the new market rate units will reduce the pressure on other apartments nearby as some people move out of their existing apartments and into the newly built units.

  3. I disagree with Jeremiah about building new units being the only way to address housing crisis. The problem is AFFORDABLE housing. There are plenty of units for the filthy rich. If rent costs were lowered, more families could afford a two or three bedroom apt. But the landlords/realtors extract every penny they can get. There should be stronger rate increase limits, to encourage families to stay. Greed is the monster here!

  4. You can cry NIMBY all you want that doesn’t make it true. In fact, I would argue that it is the housing advocates who have, ironically, delayed the building of affordable housing at West 54th and Ninth.

    If the City (and Corey Johnson) had honored the original Western Rail Yards Agreement, the affordable housing that was promised for West 54th and Ninth Avenue would have been built by now.

    There is no question that Hell’s Kitchen and New York City at large needs more affordable housing. The only things that seems to get built are mega-luxury projects for oligarchs and international criminals to launder their ill-gotten gains.

    The Hell’s Kitchen community–as represented by Community Board 4– worked in good faith to wrangle additional supportive housing and moderate housing out of the luxury monstrosity that became Hudson Yards. As our editorial showed, CB4 came through with the extra supportive housing and then some.

    We still are waiting for the affordable housing for people with moderate incomes that WE WERE PROMISED. If we don’t make the City stick to its promises, then we’re certainly going to be in even greater trouble with developments at Penn Station and the Port Authority.

    We need to work together–openly and transparently–and honor the commitments that have been made. We are tired of having all decisions about real estate–big and small–made by two or three people in a back room somewhere.

    1. This line seems like maybe you should read it again:

      “To be blunt — it does not matter who is managing the project, or which tenants are preferenced or how many units are affordable, if advocating for those things causes each project to take a decade to build.”

      Just build the friggin project man, no wonder it’s so expensive when it takes since 2009 to get the thign built. We used todo things in this city, now all we do is sit around and moan.

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