Affordable Housing for SoHo

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For generations, affordable housing has been built in lower-income neighborhoods. Across the United States for more than a half century, that practice deepened residential segregation and income inequality.

In New York City alone, more than 50,000 new affordable housing units have been built or financed since 2014, according to city officials, the overwhelming majority in lower-income neighborhoods, like East New York.

Now, though, the city is ready to take a different approach.

One promising plan would rezone SoHo, bringing thousands of new apartments to the cobblestone-lined area of Lower Manhattan that makes up one of the wealthiest areas of the city.

Of the roughly 3,200 new apartments, at least 25 percent of the housing will be set aside for lower income New Yorkers as part of the city’s affordable housing program, according to city officials. That number can and should be negotiated upward over the coming months. Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the plan, as do several of the candidates vying to succeed him. That’s crucial since the City Council isn’t likely to vote on the rezoning until next year, and the political capital of Mr. de Blasio, who is term-limited, is waning.

Similar rezonings are being considered at the southern tip of Manhattan and in Gowanus, a once industrial Brooklyn neighborhood that gentrified years ago. The proposal in southern Manhattan, in the Seaport area, would smartly build new housing, including affordable housing, on a site that is currently used as a parking lot. City officials can serve New York by securing more affordable housing at lower rents from developers, since the market-rate apartments will generate a far greater profit than in lower-income areas.

These rezonings are good for several reasons. First, building affordable units in wealthier areas costs taxpayers less, because the market units are priced higher, subsidizing more affordable units. Those are dollars the city will need in the long years of economic recovery ahead.

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Second, building more affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods can help ease residential segregation patterns in New York. Just 1.7 percent of people who live in SoHo and adjoining Greenwich Village identify as Black, for example, according to a 2018 study by the Furman Center at New York University.

For years, the city has set aside half of new affordable housing units for New Yorkers who already lived in the local community district where the housing was being built. In 2015, the Anti-Discrimination Center, a fair housing group, sued the city, arguing that Mr. de Blasio’s plan worsened segregation and violated the Fair Housing Act.

In SoHo, and in any rezonings moving forward, the city should consider setting aside those units for people who live or work in the Council district, which is larger and generally more diverse than the local community district. They could also remove the set-aside altogether. New Yorkers need affordable housing in every neighborhood, not as an afterthought at the end of a long subway line. Making that a reality would go a long way toward building a fairer, healthier city.

The SoHo rezoning would also make it easier for small businesses to operate by removing antiquated restrictions, like an ordinance prohibiting bars, restaurants and retail from the ground floor. Opening those businesses in SoHo requires an owner to seek special permission from the city, a lengthy and expensive process.

Unsurprisingly, there has been opposition to the SoHo rezoning from preservationists, and some residents. Many of these New Yorkers argue that taller buildings would harm the character of the neighborhood.

Before dismissing the concerns of preservationists out of hand, consider the role they played in the middle of the previous century when they helped block the planner Robert Moses from building a highway directly through the neighborhood.

The SoHo rezoning presents no such existential threat. Housing here can be built in a way that fits the needs of a city with a dire housing shortage, making richer, not destroying, the existing life of the neighborhood. The rezoning can also ease the way for businesses and restaurants in the coming years, both of which have taken a hard hit during the pandemic.

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After all, SoHo has seen many iterations. In the 1800s, it was home to manufacturing. In the 1960s, it became a mecca for artists, who found inexpensive housing there. In the past several decades, it has become a shopping destination.

In a growing city, change is a constant.

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