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Soho/Noho article was an attack on housing justice movement

BY STEVEN HERRICK | Gerald Flynn’s April 9 editorial in The Village Sun masquerading as a news article, “Nonprofits behind Soho/Noho rezoning are packed with power players,” is a full-on attack against the entire housing justice movement that seeks to promote affordable housing in wealthy, predominately white communities like Soho and Noho.

While quoting Andrew Berman of Village Preservation and Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance, who are against any upzoning, Flynn apparently reached out to Citizens Housing Planning Council (CHPC) for comment, but made no effort to speak to anyone at Open New York, Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD), or at my organization, Cooper Square Committee (CSC), all of whom who are maligned in the article. All of our organizations support Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), although you would have to speak to us to know our positions on the Soho/Noho rezoning, or whether we have even taken formal positions on it.

The Open New York op-ed published on Oct. 7, 2020, cited in Flynn’s article was signed onto by Cooper Square Committee and 20 other housing justice organizations, and was a statement of support for the concept of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing — not an endorsement of the Department of City Planning’s Soho/Noho scoping document (released three weeks after the op-ed), which creates an out-of-scale upzoning.

CSC supports a more moderate upzoning in Soho and Noho, and no upzoning in the Soho historic core, which makes up about 40 percent of the study area, since there are few opportunities to build mixed-income housing there anyway.

However, there are vacant sites and “soft sites” in other parts of Soho and Noho, including the sub-areas outside the historic district, where hundreds of low-income housing units (80 percent of the total in the rezoning plan) can be built, and they will only be developed as residential sites if there’s sufficient economic incentive, which is what a moderate upzoning would provide. If Soho/Noho wants want mixed-income residential development, some amount of upzoning will be needed in order to incentivize it, or else you will just get new hotels and office buildings, like the 20-story office tower planned at the former Bowery Bar site on E. Fourth St. under the current zoning.

CSC has asked the Department of City Planning to examine an alternative zoning scenario, too, but it’s more nuanced than Village Preservation’s plan. We support the following zoning actions:

  • MIH with more modest upzonings ranging from 7.2 to 8.5 FAR (floor area ratio) in some sub-areas, not the 9.7 to 12.0 FAR that the city is proposing.
  • CSC also believes the city must do better than the usual 80/20 income mix for market-rate and affordable housing. Income mixes ranging from 75/25 for smaller development sites up to 60/40 for the largest sites are feasible given the high market-rate rents (median of $4,700 per month) in these two communities.
  • MIH at 5.0 FAR in the Soho Historic District core (in agreement with Village Preservation about this).
  • Contextual zoning districts with height limits ranging from 145 feet to 175 feet.
  • Anti-demoliton and anti-harassment provisions in the zoning text.
  • Funding for tenant-rights organizations like AAFE and CAAAV to do outreach and organizing to prevent harassment and displacement of tenants, especially monolingual Chinese American tenants, in upzoned areas outside the historic districts. This is crucial to enforce the anti-harassment provisions.
  • Implementation of a flip tax for conversions of Joint Live Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) units to residential to generate more than $100 million to fund the arts in Soho/Noho over the next 20 years and beyond, and to provide a subsidy to residential developers willing to do better than the minimum 75/25 income mix.
  • A small zoning bonus for creation of new cultural spaces.
  • Ground-floor Use Group 6 retail as of right (currently not allowed by zoning) throughout Soho and Noho, with some low-impact retail uses allowed on upper floors.
  • Along Broadway and Lafayette St., Use Group 10 (large-scale retail) should also be allowed as of right (on the second floor and below).

It remains to be seen what zoning densities City Planning will propose when the ULURP application is certified, and whether our organization and other affordable housing groups will be able to support the plan once it is finalized.

Herrick is executive director, Cooper Square Committee

9 Comments

  1. Lynn Ellsworth Lynn Ellsworth April 15, 2021

    Housing “justice” my foot. MIH is a massive policy failure by any measure and in this case it is all designed to let the owners of Edison Properties profit immensely while harming a historic district, with OPEN NY going around gloating about that idea. If any of these advocates were serious about affordable housing, they would have been screaming bloody murder with the rest of us about the refusal of City and State to make the 5 World Trade Center site into 100% affordable housing.

  2. Rowbow Rowbow April 15, 2021

    The glaring crime in this article is easy for anyone to see, if one cares to look at, say, the St. Johns development fiasco. Elected leaders convinced residents of all the affordable and senior housing that the developers agreed to build there. And now we’ve been screwed AGAIN.
    Over the course of this humongous and ugly building project, the owners backed out of any housing at all, and now it’ll be completely commercial. The exact same thing can happen with any housing promised in this article. Why would anyone believe these folks? How many times do we listen to community leaders, only to latter hear them say, “Oops!”???
    I’m sick and tired of believing these people who have zero power to enforce the things that they claim will be better for all. It’s never better.

  3. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus April 15, 2021

    So if I lose my protections as a certified Artist living in a JLWQA apartment since 1975, it will further human rights and the “housing justice movement”? For all of these years, I did artwork to support human rights and housing justice. I didn’t know I was supposed to get put out on the street so that wealthy developers can pad their pockets under that guise.

    This is like saying that Hitler’s plan to displace the Jews and send them to camps was a Housing Improvement Plan. Y’know, it was HIP. Things make sense when they have initials!

    Alas, a “flip tax” will be paid by uber-wealthy non-artists who magically convert the JLWQA lofts that we have spent decades working on, improving and legalizing into “residences.” The now-elderly artists and neighborhood people who converted a burned-out industrial wasteland into “Soho” will be displaced from our homes!

    This will supposedly “fund arts in Soho/Noho” but who will it fund if the artists have been displaced and sent packing?

    First of all, JLWQA apartments cannot be simply converted into “residences” because of the many existing structural deficiencies, such as lot-line windows that limit light and air, thus allowing artists to work in spaces that are otherwise uninhabitable. Will the next argument from the real estate crowd then include demands for demolition of the low-rise landmarked buildings, so that hulking condos for the uber-wealthy can be built on behalf of social justice?

    If a few “affordable” units are then doled out by the powers that be, such as the author of this article, it will merely represent what we used to call tokenism.

    Is anyone really to believe that this particular trough has been laid out so that the piggies can apply a lesson in social justice?

  4. Sean Sweeney Sean Sweeney April 15, 2021

    Along with Mr. Herrick, I attended well over a dozen meetings of the 2019 “Envision SoHo/NoHo” Advisory Group – with approximately 15 stakeholders, including community groups, cultural/arts representatives, tenant groups, a small business rep, two BIDs, property owners, NYU, REBNY and Mr. Herrick’s Cooper Square Committee. We were tasked to comment and opine on proposed zoning changes.

    To the very best of my recollection, Mr. Herrick did not open his mouth once during the endless hours of meetings. Not once!

    Now, without the courtesy of contacting us first, Mr. Herrick is foisting this real-estate developers’ dream onto our community. Only worse.

    Even REBNY never called for an increase in height and bulk, as Cooper Square Committee is now pushing. Not even REBNY.
    REBNY only asked for UNLIMITED retail, exactly what Mr. Herrick is parroting. If Mr. Herrick is such a big fan of tall, bulky buildings in SoHo/NoHo, why didn’t he say so to our faces during the Advisory Group meetings? Why did he remain deafeningly silent?

    He also is calling for the introduction of Use Group 10, that is, Destination big-box retail and department stores on Broadway and Lafayette Street, just as REBNY wants.
    How does that benefit affordable housing?
    Doesn’t it turn SoHo and NoHo further into a touristy, destination shopping mall like Herald Square or the Paramus Mall? Why is Cooper Square Committee shilling for the likes of Home Depot, Costco, Walmart and REBNY?

    He also calls for “low-impact” retail use on the upper floors. Doesn’t he know that there is no such definition of “low-impact” retail use in the Zoning Resolution, but that this is a term disingenuously being tossed around by the BIDs to bring us yet more shoppers?
    Why is Cooper Square Committee shilling for the Business Improvement Districts?
    What does this have to do with affordable housing, Herrick’s organization’s claimed mission?

    He also calls for a flip tax for converting from the current, conforming use of Joint Live-Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) (aka Artist-in-Residence, AIR) to straight residential use.

    The actual tax rate has not been revealed yet by City Planning, but the current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing formula is $1,075/sf. Let’s use that as a guide.

    So, even at the high-end range of $2,000/sf for sales in SoHo/NoHo, the flip tax could be well above 50% of the final sales price. For perspective, that is double the tax that the IRS charges on the profits of multinational corporations.

    When my SoHo building in 1981 converted from warehouse use to JLWQA use, we had to pay a similar flip tax, the BRAC Tax – Business Relocation Assistance Corporation tax — totaling 25% of the purchase price we paid for the building. The money was going allegedly, or so the city said, to help wholesalers and manufacturers relocate.

    For 40 years I’ve been trying to figure out where that money went. I could not find a single manufacturer or wholesaler who benefited from it.
    It was only at a community board meeting where some city officials said that the BRAC tax monies did not go into any fund to assist manufacturers. Instead it went into the General Fund of NYC. Sounds like a swindle to me.

    So, if Mr. Herrick gets his way, if my building now wants to convert from its current Joint Live-Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) use to straight residential, we shall have to pay yet another flip tax? Another City swindle?

    The City does not have a flip tax on any other building in any other neighborhood. Why is SoHo and NoHo being punished — twice?

    Herrick is quick to bandy about the trendy term du jour “housing justice.” Maybe he can explain the justice in loft pioneers being outrageously taxed twice when no other neighborhood in the city or country is subject to this injustice. Justice indeed, Mr. Herrick.

    Also, his flip tax for an arts fund will not be dedicated to SoHo or NoHo. It is intended for citywide distribution. Why should we be taxed an additional 50% of our sales price to fund, say, a people’s art collective in Canarsie?

    I could go on, but you get the picture.

  5. Ronnie Wolf Ronnie Wolf April 16, 2021

    Hey, Steven Herrick and supporters of the Dept. of City planning proposal!
    There is an elephant in the room.
    While you suggest that the residents pay a “ flip tax” or into an “Art Fund,” as ways to covert our homes from conforming live/work to residential, what exactly do you propose should be done about all the illegal ground-floor commercial spaces in these neighborhoods? Double flip-tax payments for commercial owners or triple payment into the really, really ill-conceived Art Fund?

    • David Thall David Thall April 16, 2021

      This proposed “flip tax” is an invention to drive out current owners — so that the outside developers, a.k.a. vultures, can swoop in and buy a property cheaper. Because to them, it’s just a business expense.

      It’s a win-win for them, because with us gone, so goes their opposition. This is very devious and nasty.

      These outside real estate developers and Trump wannabes — pushing to destroy our property values and quality of life living here — are no better than carpetbaggers.

  6. David Thall David Thall April 16, 2021

    I’ve lived in Soho as a property owner for 31 years and been a condo board president on Mercer Street for 21 years. I do not run a business here, I live here.

    FACTS:
    SoHo Real estate taxes have more than quadrupled in the last 10 years.
    Buildings’ insurance premiums have doubled, and building maintenance costs continue to go up nonstop. Consequently, these costs have been passed along, and rents have gone up for years. Very high rents have made SoHo unaffordable and so vacancies increased.

    Commercial vacancies are increasing dramatically because of the high rents. In my building, the two ground-floor commercial spaces have been unrented for over a year, well before the pandemic. They used to always be rented, to high-end retailers.

    Residential rents that had gone up, driving up real estate taxes, have now come down dramatically — killing property values. But the very high real estate taxes are not coming down. Meanwhile, maintenance costs and insurance premiums continue to go up nonstop.

    ONE RESULT
    As vacancies have increased dramatically, oversized illegal retailers like ZARA have moved in. At over 42,000 sq ft they are well over the 10,000 sq ft zoning limit. They have deep pockets, so their lawyers have pushed hard to get “special permits” — before the upzoning agenda hit full force. The timing is no coincidence. Their lawyers have been pushing for special-permit exemptions for some time to existing size rules to set a precedent, so they can be “grandfathered” in. We battled with this giant-box retailer for over five years just to get them to handle their enormous daily output of trash appropriately. Not to mention their endless caravan of late-night delivery trucks.

    Point being, increasing the allowable size of big-box retailers and adding more retail space to Soho destroys the quality of life in Soho for the people who actually live here. That is a tangible, measurable fact.

    A FALSE NARRATION
    The need for an increase in retail spaces in Soho is a specious argument, made by outside real estate speculators and property developers who do not live here.

    They lobby hard for more retail space to include upper floors of existing buildings and rezoning to build taller, bigger more-dense structures and add more stores.

    THIS BEGS THE QUESTION:
    With so many current empty ground-floor retail spaces everywhere and getting worse, why on earth does adding more retail inventory to a small neighborhood like Soho help existing owners? This would only worsen an already-dire situation and crush property values further.

    CONCLUSION
    SoHo now has very high real estate taxes and a lot of empty units. Property values are falling rapidly. Rents have fallen a lot. Consequently, owners of some empty retail spaces are forced to rent short-term as pop-up stores. The endless set-up and tear-down of these pop-ups only adds to the noise and growing, often-mishandled garbage and endless caravan of delivery trucks and the overall downgrading of the quality of life for residents who actually live here.

    This upzoning agenda is being perpetrated by people who do not live here. For those who do live here, these perpetrators’ rationale is specious, illogical and, frankly, their avarice and venality is very offensive.

  7. Bad Faith Bad Faith April 16, 2021

    We’re supposed to believe that Real Estate Capital is the antagonist here, yet the primary criticisms I’m seeing in these comments are against the taxation of real estate transactions and the motives of an organization that is expanding social housing and managing the only scaled-up community land trust in NYC. Telling.

    • Frank Kase Frank Kase April 16, 2021

      “The primary criticism I’m seeing in these comments are against the taxation of real estate transactions.”

      You didn’t do so well in Reading Comprehension, did you?

      No one minds paying a fair and equitable tax. It is an outrageous tax that no other community anywhere has to pay that is unjust.

      It is an inequitable tax that only residents — many aging in place — must pay to become legal, but commercial Landlords do not have to pay for their retail portfolios to become legal.

      Do you really believe it is “housing justice” for residents to be taxed 50% of their sales price and big commercial, hedge-fund, real-estate trusts taxed nothing?

      The comments are also about The Cooper Square Committee calling for increasing the FAR 70%, giving landlords 70% more free air rights, without these wealthy Property owners paying a dime to the people of New York in return for this value-added gift worth millions upon millions of dollars of precious Soho and Noho property.

      And what the hell is “social housing” except some claptrap to con us into believing that Cooper Square Committee has not sold out.

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