By Donovan Richards
There are few rights more fundamental to our very survival as human beings than a roof over our head and a home to call our own. It’s a right I have dedicated my entire career as an elected official to making a reality for families in every corner of Queens.
As the former Zoning Subcommittee Chairman in the City Council, rezoning applications from East Midtown to East New York came across my desk. The projects would vary in size and scope, but my first questions were always the same.
“Talk to me about affordability? Talk to me about community benefits?”
As someone who battled housing insecurity as a child and sees it still in all corners of the borough I represent, I’ve been asking this question for weeks of the development team behind Innovation Queens — the massive redevelopment project in Astoria, featuring approximately 2,800 units of housing spread across multiple buildings, along with significant amounts of commercial, retail and open space.
I was elected to this office to be decisive in these moments, and it is an obligation that I do not take lightly. After weeks of negotiations, and after hearing from countless residents in person, online and at our June 30 public hearing on the project, it is clear that Innovation QNS does not meet the needs of Astoria and our borough as a whole.
Why? Affordability – the word with more weight than any other.
According to a new study of the Queens rental market by MNS Real Estate, the average cost of rent rose from $2,507 in May to $2,622 in June, an increase of 4.6 percent. The neighborhood that saw the highest increase was Astoria, where average rent prices rose by an unacceptable 12.76 percent and the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom home is $2,553.
New York City is in the throes of a housing crisis, while Astoria families feel that crush more than most. By building more than 2,000 units of market-rate housing through the out-of-character proposal, where estimated rents will run from $2,430 to $5,190 depending on the size of the apartment, the pressure placed on the surrounding community would become simply unsustainable.
With each market-rate luxury development that goes up, so does the surrounding community’s cost of living. Had I recommended approval of Innovation QNS, I would be reversing my record of shepherding nearly 10,000 units of affordable housing into this borough, both as a Council Member and as Borough President.
How could I cut the ribbon this morning on more than 200 such homes on Beach 21st Street in Far Rockaway on Thursday, while on the same day, side with a project that would create 10 times as many market-rate units in Astoria?
It would have been a dereliction of my duty as Borough President of all 2.4 million residents who call Queens home.
At the end of the day, this decision wasn’t easy. From hundreds of thousands of square feet of community and retail space to a below-market incubator space for local small businesses and startups to the commitment to direct labor, there were many truly positive aspects to Innovation QNS.
But for a development proposal this massive in scope, the commitments, or lack thereof, on affordability just weren’t good enough.
Taking a step back, what this process has laid bare is the clear and obvious need to strengthen the MIH process, which I remain deeply proud to have helped create in the City Council. MIH policy was meant to help bridge our city’s growing wealth gap by creating more subsidized housing in private developments. But it was meant to be the floor, not the ceiling when it comes to the creation of affordable housing across our city.
Yes, my recommendation is advisory in nature. But it is my sincere hope that this recommendation underscores the importance of working collaboratively with all community stakeholders to put forward development projects that will truly suit the needs of our neighbourhood.
For our borough to thrive, Queens must be more affordable and accessible for all who wish to call it home. It is clear that Innovation QNS, as currently proposed, will not help us achieve that mission.
Donovan Richards is the Queens borough president and a former City Councilmember.