Does Historic Preservation Limit Affordable Housing?

By Stefan Kühn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9413214

I answer that it can in CQ Researcher’s Historic Preservation:  Can The Past Escape The Wrecking Ball?

Many people fail to realize that land use policies like historic preservation involve big trade-offs. The most important one is that if you want to protect existing structures from demolition and modification, you can’t replace them with bigger ones that could house more people. Consider:

  • Historic preservation equals height and density restrictions. New building technologies (think steel girders and elevators) allow buildings to be built higher as time goes by. If a city landmarks a large percentage of its inner core, it restricts the ability of that core to go higher. This can lead to sprawl, as a growing population is pushed farther and farther from the city center.
  • Historic preservation favors the wealthy. Limited supply drives up housing prices and apartment rents, benefiting owners. And low-income and younger households are likely to suffer, as they are least able to bear the cost of the increases compared to other households. Future residents — think Midwesterners, Southerners and immigrants seeking to relocate to a city like New York for job opportunities — will also suffer.
  • It isn’t easy for historic preservation to be green. It feels environmentally responsible to protect older, low-density buildings in city centers because you have no dusty demolition, no noisy construction. But it actually comes at a big environmental cost. Denser construction reduces reliance on cars and thereby lowers carbon emissions. People living in a dense city have a much smaller carbon footprint than those in a car-oriented suburb.

Just because preservation comes at a cost does not mean it is bad. Much of our past is worth protecting. Some places benefit from maintaining their identities — think of the European cities that draw the most tourists year in and year out. But it is bad to deploy historic preservation indiscriminately, without evaluating the costs it imposes on current residents and potential future ones.

Cities that want to encourage entrepreneurship and affordable housing should deploy historic preservation and other restrictive land use tools thoughtfully. Otherwise, those cities will be inhabited by comparatively rich folks who complain about the sterility of their current lives and who are nostalgic for “the good old days” when cities were diverse and hotbeds of creativity.

If they fail to understand the trade-offs inherent in historic preservation, they won’t even understand that a part of the problem is the very policy they support to “protect” their vision of their community.

In Spite of It All

By Chris Hamby - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrishamby/8294571901, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35347913

Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Most Mind-Boggling Housing Turf Wars Ever—and What They Can Teach Us All. It opens,

Welcome to turf wars! No, it’s not the latest reality TV show—it’s just a way to describe two (or more) parties insisting that a particular piece of property is their own.

Turf wars are as old as the hills, and the existence of people who could lay claim to them. And they’re at the center of some surprisingly fascinating stories of wealth, greed, and pettiness. It seems that no property is too small to inspire a bitter rivalry—including one about the size of a floor lamp—that could go unresolved for decades.

As proof, check out some of the strangest turf tales below, and the lessons we can all learn from them to avoid the same ugly fate.

1. The smallest land grab ever

In Manhattan on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue lies a 500-square-inch piece of private property in the shape of a triangle.

The backstory: In 1910, the city demolished a building owned by David Hess to build a subway, but the surveyors missed this small patch in their measurements. Later on, once this error was discovered, the city asked the Hesses to donate it, but the family refused.

For good measure, the family laid a mosaic reading, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.”

Per the New York Times, it’s “one of the smallest pieces left in private ownership as a result of the cutting through a few years ago of the Seventh Avenue extension. It has been assessed on the tax books for $100.”

In 1938 the family sold this parcel to the cigar shop a few feet behind it for $1,000.

Lesson learned: Land survey mistakes—or not bothering with a survey at all—can cost you big-time!

“If there’s any question about who owns what, it’s better to be safe than sorry and get a good survey done,” says David Reiss, a law professor at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

On a more human level, we can learn this: “Spite is about as powerful as an immovable object,” says Reiss. “If you try to dislodge it, you will in all likelihood lose.”

Skyscraper’s Future up in The Air

skyscrapers

The New York Law Journal quoted me in Upper West Side Skyscraper’s Future Uncertain After NY State Court Ruling. The story opens,

The development at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan is slated to be the tallest building on the Upper West Side, with its 51 stories rivaling the skyscrapers located further downtown.

But whether this will ever happen has now become questionable, after a state court ruling that found city officials were wrong to follow an interpretation of city zoning law used by the developer to achieve the project’s awesome height.

Supreme Court Justice Franc Perry of Manhattan sided with local community groups looking to halt the building underway at the site. The plaintiffs—the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Arts Society of New York—were joined by numerous local state and city elected officials in opposing what they say is not only an out-of-character monster development in the Manhattan neighborhood, but one that relied on a faulty zoning law interpretation to move forward.

“It is finally a declaration that zoning law means something and developers can’t make it up as they go along,” said Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady name attorney Richard Emery, who represented the plaintiffs.

Since 1978, developers and city buildings officials have relied on the so-called Minkin Memo, named after the former head of the city’s Department of Buildings’ Irving Minkin, for guidance on what experts call an ambiguity in the city’s zoning law towards so-called tax lots. These are additional subdivisions of city real estate, which can overlap with or be included inside a zoning lot.

Under the Minkin memo, developers have been able to pull together extra vertical building rights that nearby property owners aren’t using, offering the opportunity to boost the size of a project such as 200 Amsterdam beyond what would normally be allowed.

“The zoning resolution is ambiguous about when a zoning lot can be formed from partial tax lot; it never deals with that problem,” said Stewart Sterk, the Mack Professor of Real Estate Law and director of the Center for Real Estate Law & Policy at the Cardozo School of Law.

Initially, city officials had no problem with the move. DOB issued a permit to the developers for a residential and community facility building at the site of the Lincoln Towers condos on the Upper West Side. The developers relied on the Minkin memo as the basis for the acquisition tax lots that combined partial and whole lots to provide the developers with the vertical building rights needed for their skyscraper.

Shortly after DOB green lighted the project, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development challenged the DOB’s decision. The challenge snowballed, and soon seemingly every local elected official, from state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to borough president Gale Brewer, were opposed to the plan. The project’s permit was appealed by both CESD and the Municipal Arts Society to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

In March 208, DOB made an official about-face on the project. In a letter from assistant general counsel to the BSA, the department said the Minkin memo provided an incorrect interpretation and that zoning regulations did not in fact intend for zoning lots to consist of partial tax lots.

The BSA was not persuaded by the arguments and in July 2018 voted 3-1 not to grant the appeal, with one board member abstaining. The plaintiffs soon after pursued a review of the BSA’s decision in state Supreme Court.

In subjecting the developers’ permit to further review, Perry pointedly took issue with BSA view of the process.

“BSA found that the Subject Zoning lot is ‘unsubdivided,’ within the meaning of the [New York City Zoning Resolution], simply because Developer has declared it to be so,” the judge wrote.

Noting that the referenced law states that a zoning lot is defined by being “unsubdivided” within a single block, Perry said BSA’s interpretation would render the term “superfluous,” and run “afoul of elementary rules of statutory construction.”

Since DOB saw the light on the Minkin memo during the appeal process, the court said the department’s statutory basis for the issuance of the permit to begin with was undermined. BSA’s decision was nullified and vacated, and the board was directed to review the project’s permit application “in accordance with the plain language” of the zoning regulation and Perry’s order.

As Cordozo’s Sterk noted, the development at 200 Amsterdam was far from the first to use the Milkin memo to justify partial tax lot usage in a building plan. Perry’s decision has the ability to throw uncertainty around zoning and building issues into a business sector highly adverse to such things, Sterk said.

But just as important for Sterk is the question now of when a government agency becomes estopped from changing its mind after it’s already induced people to rely on its existing interpretation.

“That’s a big problem in this case, because clearly developers have put millions of dollars into this project in reliance on an existing interpretation,” he said.

Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who is the research director of the school’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, said he saw the case as less of a “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic as much as one of whether the assurances of government officials can be binding.

“There’s a reliance on government statements and government permissions,” Reiss said, while noting the project has already commenced.

Should the case stand, he predicted it would serve to rattle developers’ confidence in their dealings with the city going forward.

“It’s more uncertainty in a process that’s already pretty uncertain,” he said.

Luxury Rental Turned Into College Dorm

photo by Ann Larie Valentine (no changes made) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Realtor.com quoted me in ‘Help! My Luxury Rental Was Turned Into a College Dorm’. It opens,

Finally! After years of scraping by in cramped apartments in sketchy neighborhoods, you’ve made it—into a luxury rental with a doorman, concierge service, gym, bike room, and other posh amenities. It seems perfect.

Then you meet your neighbors, sunning themselves on the roof deck. Topless.

Sound like the opening to a Skinemax flick? On the contrary, it’s a reality for residents at The Azure, a new high-end apartment building in Brooklyn, NY.

“There were girls sunbathing topless up there,” one tenant with a child told the New York Post. “My wife was, like, ‘WTF?!’ There are a lot of families [here].”

You see, The Azure was facing significant vacancies, so the management company decided to rent out 30% of its units to King’s College, a liberal arts school in lower Manhattan. The result? Families who paid top dollar to live in a building with a business center, cold storage space for grocery deliveries, and other luxe features suddenly found themselves in what felt like a college dorm. A “dormdominium”! And you know what that probably means: late-night parties with eau de weed wafting through the halls and, um, some awkward bump-ins during rooftop barbecues with bikini-clad (or unclad) residents. And noise. Lots of noise.

“We bought into the luxury experience of the nice rooftop,” another tenant lamented. “We didn’t expect it to be packed with 18-year-olds.”

When luxury apartments turn into dorms: Why it happens

This rude awakening for well-heeled renters isn’t as unusual as you might think. It’s just what many luxury developers may find themselves doing now that the high-end rental market is softening, leaving empty apartments that must be filled to make ends meet.

“Building owners stuck with vacant properties will try to rent them to whoever they can within reason,” says Aaron Shmulewitz, a real estate attorney with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman in New York City. “When the economy goes bad, building owners have to scramble.”

Part of the problem is that a few years ago, the housing market was going so strong, developers got bullish on building—only to find themselves in a more sluggish market once their structures were complete.

“Opening a residential building is a many, many-year process,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “You have to acquire the site, you have to get financing, perhaps you have to get zoning approvals, you have to get your plans approved … then you have to build it and then you have to market it. You’re talking about years of work.”

Many of these builders were likely banking on the possibility that rental demand would just keep going up and up—but they bet wrong.

“We have a large amount of supply that came into the market within a fairly short period of time,” says Edward Mermelstein, a real estate attorney with One and Only Holdings in New York City. “At the same time, the demand has waned substantially.”

How do college kids afford a luxury rental, anyway?

While luxury rentals in any other city might be hurting right about now, New York is well-positioned to solve this problem, thanks to its high student population and limited dorm space.

“Renting to college students in Manhattan or Brooklyn has always been a trend, as there’s a total of almost 250,000 active students on this small island,” says Michael Jeneralczuk, a real estate agent with REAL New York. “With that said, luxury apartments are usually outside of student budgets.”

While a luxury rental might be outside of any individual student’s budget, a larger group of students can make it work. According to the Post, the King’s College students are paying a combined $6,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment housing four people, which comes to $1,500 per person. This is more affordable than trying to rent alone; even a studio apartment at The Azure starts at $2,399 per month, according to the building’s website.

Meanwhile, the nonstudent rate for a two-bedroom apartment at The Azure starts at $3,391 per month. So by renting to King’s College students, the building is also making almost twice as much per apartment. So, at least for these two parties, it’s a win-win.

“It’s an opportunity to fill vacant apartments and collect rent,” says Becki Danchik, a real estate agent with Warburg Realty in New York City.

Given that the luxury rental market is slowing down nationwide, does this mean renters across the country might expect college-aged neighbors soon, too?

According to Reiss, it depends on development levels. In Los Angeles, construction has stalled, so apartments are filling up. Seattle, on the other hand, is facing similar issues as New York City.

“Seattle has had a construction boom, which means there are a lot of empty apartments,” says Reiss. “You face a similar situation where landlords are going to look to find some way to rent those out and make their money back.”

 

Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

Amazonian Rage in NYC

photo by Theeditor93

Vice quoted me in Amazon Is Bringing in Elite Lobbyists Amid Seething Rage Over HQ2. It opens,

Amazon might be too big to tax, but it’s not too big to freak out.

As the company tries to erect a massive headquarters in America’s largest city, it has come up against staunch opposition from residents, politicians and unions—all concerned the powerful monopoly will serve to inflate rent and strain local infrastructure, especially the housing supply and subway system. And while it might seem like a trillion-dollar company could easily quash protesting naysayers, turns out CEO Jeff Bezos might actually have good reason to try and win the haters over.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon hired high-powered Democratic consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker, and a lobbying shop called Greenberg Traurig, to help smooth the way forward for its new HQ. While Amazon remained relatively tight-lipped, the company has sought to make inroads into affected communities—planning meetings with public-housing residents and reaching out to members of the city council. But some elected officials, including Senator Mike Gianaris and NYC Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose districts include the HQ’s proposed turf in Long Island City, have refused to serve on its advisory board, indicating instead a desire to kill the project entirely. Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac poll that dropped this week showed the majority of NYC residents backed the HQ2 plan, but activists groups and community board members have continued to organize, spurred on by Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—or at least her Twitter account.

In fact, the new Amazon influence operation, which emerged a few weeks after HQ2 plan was made official, suggested there were still concrete ways locals could thwart or at least put a dent in the company’s expansion scheme. If nothing else, an extremely-powerful company that has experience in the DC lobbying game is finding out it won’t get a new home in NYC without a fight that cuts at the core of the Democratic Party’s identity.

According to Richard Brodsky, a lawyer and veteran Democratic politician who served in the state assembly, if city officials or other activists took Amazon or the politicians who supported the plan to court, they could employ legislative subpoenas to demand more documentation of the project, and investigate compliance issues. Brodsky argued Amazon’s bid might provide the jobs promised, but that the company still had a long way to go in informing the public about how it would impact communities.

“Because the governor and the mayor have given this project to a set of soviet-style bureaucracies, there’s no one to ask the questions and no one to answer,” he told me, referring to the special fast-track process Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have tapped to push through the Amazon deal. “Who the hell do you ask?”

Litigation is a fairly common way of handling disputes over projects like this in the city, according to David Reiss, a law professor and expert on community development at Brooklyn Law School. “Not being a shy bunch, New Yorkers often file lawsuits that try to set up procedural roadblocks to the project,” he told me via email. “These suits can slow down or even stop projects—and can give community members leverage with the City, State and project developers.” Even if it isn’t stopped altogether, legal action could help modify the project and fund parks, schools or transit.

Under the current approach from on high, however, the Amazon HQ also had to be approved by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), comprised of gubernatorial appointees mostly made in consultation with the state legislature. This may prove to be among the only serious points of leverage Amazon opponents have to stall, or, in an extreme case, block the whole project. Even then, Brodsky said, the PACB was only technically supposed to oversee financial concerns, and not necessarily gauge a project’s social impact.

The city, for its part, appeared to largely be standing behind its original plan as it geared up for public hearings beginning next week. A spokesperson from the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit development agency contracted by the city that helped broker the deal, told me Amazon was working to broker partnerships with affordable-housing developments and other community organizations, as well as provide concrete details about the 25,000 jobs promised in the company’s initial memo about the project.

The spokesperson also dismissed the idea that the new HQ would strain the city’s mess of a public transportation system. They argued the current flow of traffic on the subway routes amounted to Queens residents commuting to Manhattan for work, and that the “reverse commute” of Amazon employees coming to Long Island City would balance things in the other direction, not jam up trains in some new way. (It’s worth noting that Amazon employees were already reportedly looking for rental properties in Long Island City proper.)

Those resisting the headquarters, however, were unlikely to be swayed by more details, logistical help, or civic engagement on part of a brand many despised for what it represented in the annals of modern capitalism. Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a national spokesperson for anti-Bezos sentiment and a leading light of a left-wing insurgency in the Democratic Party, took to Twitter again on Tuesday: “Now what I DON’T want is for our public funds to be funding freebie helipads for Amazon + robber baron billionaires, all while NYCHA and public schools go underfunded & mom+pops get nowhere near that kind of a break,” she said, capturing criticism of some of the most comical parts of the Amazon deal as brokered by de Blasio and Cuomo.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic Socialist bent may still be a nascent one, and her job in DC means local activist groups will have to lead the fight on the ground. (Some unions actually supported the deal, further exposing the internal Democratic Party divide at issue here.) At the same time, it’s important to look back to previous massive corporate deals for context on what’s going on. While Amazon, as a company, doesn’t have many contemporaries in the city trying to launch a new home at this scale, the way stadiums, universities and other hubs have been constructed in NYC in the past will help inform what does—and doesn’t—happen in Long Island City.

The EDC spokesperson, for example, pointed out that other big projects—such as Columbia University’s expansion and Atlantic Yards—were also achieved via a General Project Plan pushed through by the state instead of undergoing to the more public land review process at the city level. Using that fast-track in Amazon’s case has been a key flashpoint in the dispute over its origin, garnering frustration from Van Bramer and his colleagues. (Announcing a project before knowing the specific details, the EDC spokesperson insisted, was par for the course in cases like this one.)

This fast-tracking does happen often with larger projects, Reiss agreed, noting that land procedures can be bypassed when the state government is involved, leaving some feeling like their voices were ignored. “This can cut deeply because they are often the ones who are most affected by the negatives of the construction process and the changes that the project bring about in their communities,” he told me.

The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition

photo by SounderBruce

The New York Law Journal published commentary of mine, The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition. It opens,

Last week Amazon finally announced that New York and Northern Virginia would be the sites of its planned major expansion. While many are caught up in the excitement of Amazon bringing 25,000 high-paid jobs to both metropolitan areas, it is worth thinking through the costs that beauty contests like this one impose on state and local governments. Amazon extracted billions of dollars in concessions from the winners and could have extracted even more from some of the other cities courting them.

It is economically rational for companies to create such Hunger Games-type competitions among communities. These competitions reduce their costs and improve their bottom lines. But is it economically rational for the cities? As long as governments are acting independently, yes, it is rational for them to race to the bottom to secure a win. So long as they are a bit better off by snagging the prize than they would have been otherwise, they come out ahead. But the metrics that politicians use are unlikely to be limited to a hard-nosed accounting of costs and increased tax revenues. Positive buzz may be enough to satisfy them.

Consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s deal with Foxconn. Just over a year ago, he was touting the $3 billion state subsidy for FoxConn’s manufacturing plant. This was the year leading up to his hard fought election fight, a fight he ultimately lost. His public statements focused on Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 jobs. While that was a lot of jobs, it was a hell of a lot of subsidy—more than $230,000 per job, more than six times the largest amount Wisconsin had ever paid to subsidize a promised job. Walker got his campaign issue, FoxConn got its $3 billion and Wisconsin residents got … had. The $3 billion dollar subsidy has grown to over $4 billion at the same time that Foxconn is slowing down its investment in Wisconsin. So now taxpayers are subsidizing each job by well over $300,000 each. Nonpartisan analysts have determined that it will take decades, at the earliest, for Wisconsin to recoup its “investment.”

Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at stadiums and arenas even though economists have clearly demonstrated that those investments do not generate a positive financial return for the governments that provide these subsidies. Fancy consultants set forth all of the supposed benefits: job creation, direct spending by all of the people drawn to the facility, indirect spending by those who service the direct spenders. This last metric is meant to capture the increase in restaurant staff, Uber drivers and others who will cater to the new employees, residents and visitors to the facility. But as has been shown time and time again, these metrics are vastly overstated and willingly accepted at face value by politicians eager to generate some good headlines. They also ignore the opportunity cost of the direct subsidies—monies spent on attracting a company is money that can’t be spent on anything else. While we don’t know what it would have been spent on, it is likely to have been public schools, mass transit, roads or affordable housing in many communities.