NYU’s Furman Center has released a policy brief, The Latest Legislative Reform of the 421-a Tax Exemption: A Look at Possible Outcomes. This brief is part of a series on affordable housing strategies for a high-cost city. It opens,
Since the early 1970s, New York City has provided a state-authorized, partial property tax exemption for the construction of new residential buildings. In the 1980s, the New York City Council amended the program to require that participating residential buildings in certain portions of Manhattan also provide affordable housing. Most recently, New York State extended the existing program through the end of 2015 and created a new 421-a framework for 2016 onward. However, for the program to continue beyond December, the legislation requires that representatives of residential real estate developers and construction labor unions reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wages of construction workers building 421-a program developments that contain more than 15 units.
This brief explores the possible impacts of the new 421-a legislation on residential development across a range of different neighborhoods in New York City, including neighborhoods where rents and sale prices are far lower than in the Manhattan Core and where the tax exemption or other subsidy may be necessary to spur new residential construction under current market conditions. We assess what could happen to new market rate and affordable housing production if the 421-a program were allowed to expire or if it were to continue past 2015 in the form contemplated by recently passed legislation. Our analysis shows that changes to the 421-a program could significantly affect the development of both market rate and affordable housing in the city (1, footnote omitted)
The 421-a program operates against the backdrop of a crazy quilt real property tax regime where similar buildings are taxed at wildly different rates because of various historical oddities and thinly-sliced legal distinctions. Like the Queen of Hearts, the rationale given by the Department of Finance for this unequal treatment amounts to no more than — And the reason is…because I say so, that’s why!
The brief concludes,
Our financial analysis of the possible outcomes from the 421-a legislation offers some insights into its potential impact on new construction. First, if the 421-a benefit expires in 2016, residential developers would lower the amount they would be willing to pay for land in many parts of the city. The result could be a pause in new residential developments in areas outside of the Manhattan Core as both buyers and sellers of land adjust to the new market.
* * *
Second, if the newly revised 421-a program with its higher affordability requirements and longer exemption period goes into effect in 2016 without any increase in construction costs, the city is likely to have more affordable rental units developed in many parts of the city compared to what the existing 421-a program would have created. Condominium development without the 421-a program may still continue to dominate in certain portions of Manhattan, though the program appears to make rentals more attractive. (12)
The first outcome — lower land prices if 421-a expires — is not that bad for anyone, except current landowners. And it is hard to feel bad for them, given that they should not have expected that 421-a would remain in effect forever (and not to mention the rapid increases in NYC land prices). The second outcome — the new 421-a framework — sounds like better public policy than the existing program.
But one wonders — what would it take for NYC to develop a rational real property tax regime to replace our notoriously inequitable one, one that treats like properties so differently from each other. Can we escape from Wonderland?