Queens: the city’s housing alternative? 1

A rendering of Hunters Point South, the largest affordable housing project to be built in the city since the 1970s.

The key to coping with expensive real estate in Manhattan? Expand to Queens. In a New York Magazine opinion piece, writer Christopher Bonanos suggested ways to improve housing in Queens where, he wrote, there’s more buildable land that’s less expensive.

But according to members of the Queens community, while cost-effective suggestions are made, such as replacing the Javits Center with apartment buildings, or relocating 115,000 public housing residents to the outer boroughs, there are already enough Queens residents struggling to find affordable housing.

“Communities need to grow. Standing still isn’t an option. We need to make sure as we grow, we grow responsibly,” said state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria).

While agreeing with Bonanos’ opinion that Western Queens is a likely area for further development, Gianaris noted that commitments need to be extracted from developers to ensure that the existing community benefits to combat the influx of people he’s seen getting priced out of their homes.

Instead of supporting the Javits Center move to Sunnyside Yards, as Bonanos advocated, he advised focusing on the infrastructure to keep up with growth, such as improving the 7 line that takes commuters to the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, City Council District 21 in northern Queens only now is set to receive affordable housing following the approval of the multimillion dollar Willets Point proposal, which promises to convert the area into a retail and entertainment space and set aside 872 units for affordable housing.

As part of her negotiations, Councilwoman Julissa Ferrerras (D-Corona) pushed for two additional sites for affordable housing in Corona and Flushing, said Megan Montalvo, her communications director, in a telephone interview.

“Affordable housing is one of our top concerns for our constituents,” said Montalvo. “Unfortunately when they come in for affordable housing we have to refer them to Brooklyn or the Bronx.”

Back in 2002, the Bloomberg administration initiated the New Housing Marketplace Plan to create 27,000 affordable apartments and later extended it to 165,000 units with a proposed budget of $7.5 billion by 2014. According to the NHMP report, the city reached 97 percent of its goal at the close of 2013.

This includes the Hunters Point South project, the largest affordable housing project since the 1970s, now underway and expected to create up to 5,000 units aimed at moderate and middle-income families.

Despite the program, Seema Agnani, executive director for the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization focused on aiding the South Asian community with housing dilemmas, described the level of development of affordable housing as dismal.

Citing the 2010 Census, Agnani said while 28 percent of city residents live in Queens, only 6 percent of subsidized units are located in the borough.

With a rental market not keeping up with the demand, Agnani said that the government should focus on alternative methods of fostering affordable housing such as mixed-development housing. Chhaya often works with residents who want to convert their basements into rental units but are faced with many restrictive housing codes, she said.

Many residents, however, oppose such a change due to overcrowding.

“Give homeowners tax reliefs needed to make necessary changes to legalize the units,” she said.

Addressing the need for affordable housing in Flushing, Douglas Le, director of policy and leadership development of the non-profit group Asian Americans for Equality, said that while he commends Bloomberg’s ambitious plan for housing, it’s often tied to large land deals such as Willets Point.

“Again and again, we see families, doubling and tripling up [in homes],” Le said of the populated working-class neighborhood.

Le advised that the new administration come up with more creative ways to solve the housing squeeze, such as providing incentives promoting “affordable perpetuity,” a sentiment shared by Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria).

“We should make affordable housing units permanently affordable so that middle-class families aren’t forced out of their homes after 20 to 30 years,” said Constantinides, referring to the abundance of short-term affordable housing agreements.

According to a report by the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, only 2 percent of housing created under NHMP is required to remain affordable in perpetuity and two-thirds of the NHMP units are too expensive for the majority of local residents.

Like Bonanos, Constantinides also backs increasing the current 20 percent minimum of units required to be affordable.

While increasing the percentage may be favorable for housing advocates, Phil Megna, a partner of the Mattone Group, a Queens-based construction company, said that what would be more helpful is to create tax-abatement programs for companies at a time when land costs continuously go up.

“Nobody’s going to go ahead and build if they don’t make money,” Megna said.

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