street fights

‘We Were Called Gentrifiers, and We Were Called NIMBYs’

Photo: Courtesy of ODA

Innovation QNS, the $2 billion megadevelopment in Astoria, cleared its final approval on Tuesday with a 46-1 City Council vote rubber stamping the project’s rezoning applications. The site will now include more than 3,000 units, with nearly half — 1,436 to be exact — marked as affordable, making Innovation the largest private affordable-housing project in the borough’s history.

But getting here from what was initially proposed as an overwhelmingly market-rate luxury project, with renderings featuring designer stores and only 25 percent affordability, was not easy. Innovation became a lightning rod over the course of a two-year battle as dueling parties staked their positions on the best way out of the housing crisis: Does even market-rate, luxury development ease the pressure? Or should communities use the crisis to hold the line on true affordability, pushing developers to give up some of their billion-dollar bottom lines?

Councilmember Julie Won, who represents the district in which Innovation will be located, became the face of the latter group, committing early and publicly to a threshold of 50 percent affordability. But that word can be a mealymouthed way to describe housing that is still out of reach for low-income New Yorkers, and Won knows that better than most. According to analysis from NYU’s Furman Center, Astoria was in the top ten subregions in New York for new development in the last decade, but that hasn’t translated to affordability. A staggering 92 percent of new units in the neighborhood were market rate. As approved, Innovation will add nearly 1,500 additional units, with nearly half of those designated for people earning the lowest incomes — up to $36,000 for a family of three. Won is claiming the project’s unprecedented affordability as a win, but a “bittersweet” one. “The only route that we had to gain more affordable housing was to fight and to say “No,” because we’re in a binary system,” Won told me on the eve of the final vote. We talked about being called a NIMBY, holding an unpopular line, and how the negotiations really went down.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How are you feeling after the vote?

I have to say it’s bittersweet. Within the parameters I am operating in — under this leadership, this affordable-housing crisis that we are currently living in, a recession looming, with high inflation rates — this was the best deal that I could have fought for for my community. Still, it’s unprecedented for private land, for private development, where we are almost close to 50 percent of affordable housing, affordable at a deep level.

You weren’t able to get over that 50 percent threshold.

Right now, the Census data shows us that in community board one, only 10 percent of my current residents would be able to afford to live in Innovation Queens if it were developed today. Ninety percent of my folks can’t afford to live there because the median rent is $1,600, and the median income is $68,000. The developers said, “Look, we can get you more affordable units if you do this program and this program.” I was not willing to go to [Mandatory Inclusive Housing] option two, which would increase the rent of the AMI levels to 80 percent AMI, so you would have to make over $86,000 to live there. I said, No, I want extremely low income. I could have taken that deal if I just wanted to save my face and say, “Look, I got to 55 percent affordability,” but I’m not willing to do that. What I care about is getting the best deal from my community members, which is the deepest affordability levels at the highest number of family-size units possible.

You got considerable pushback for holding that “no.” 

You hear very publicly from elected officials like the borough president, who has been very critical of me for holding the line. He was on TV saying “no” was never an option. And the speaker of the City Council and the mayor also say, “We are a city of ‘yes.’” From their perspective, they’re focused on building out of this housing crisis. Whereas I have been very public and vocal that we cannot build out of a housing crisis by building luxury developments. We have allowed the development of luxury units and market-rate units to outpace the development of affordable housing.

What about those who say that we can’t build enough without market rate?

For anybody to say that the only way to build out of this crisis is to build anything, that is simply untrue. You can’t oversimplify supply and demand and say that building luxury market units will have a filtering effect or trickle down to value units or affordable low-income market units, especially in markets like mine in the heart of working-class Astoria, or in Sunnyside and Woodside. If you look in my district in Long Island City, Hunters Point, Court Square, we have built more than 28,000 units within the last 12 years. What we did not see was a decrease in rent in any of the surrounding areas or within my district. We’ve only seen an increase in rent. We can agree to disagree, but for me, as long as I’m in office, my priority will be to build affordable housing in deep affordability levels and focusing on family-size units, not one-bedrooms and studios.

A dynamic is starting to form where community opposition is being conflated with being “anti-housing.” Did that happen in the Innovation QNS debate?

We were called gentrifiers, and we were called NIMBYs. What you saw firsthand during my hearing when everyone came out, they were people of color. They were mostly Latino and Bangladeshi and Chinese immigrants that came out, children of immigrants that came out and said, “This is my neighborhood, and I can’t afford to live in these expensive buildings that you’re proposing.” We didn’t have executives of nonprofits speaking on the behalf of community members. We literally had Bangladeshi grandmas speaking for themselves with a translator. Nydia Velázquez, my congresswoman, was so livid that people kept on calling us gentrifiers, she turned around while she was speaking to face the press and the developers and said, “Do we look like gentrifiers to you?” It’s really disrespectful.

Did you feel pressure to be more amenable during negotiations?

When this project hit my desk, any person in leadership or with stature told me, This is the best you’re gonna get on a private development. Take a seat, get with the program, accept this proposal, and sell it and celebrate it. And I said, “No.” That pressure comes in all different forms. All these anonymous quotes from anonymous City Council sources in articles, they say things that are untrue about members. They’ll say that the member is unreasonable. The member is a part of the problem, doesn’t propose any solutions for the housing crisis, is fighting to have no housing at all. I knew if I wanted to have more affordable housing, I had to present the solutions. And I did; I gave them creative ways for them to build more affordable housing within the parameters that we’re in. And I was able to achieve that. And they met my demands. But I had other members call me even a few weeks ago from SOMOS [the gathering of influential New York politicians in Puerto Rico dedicated to raising awareness for Latino communities] and say, “Hey, I heard this person is gonna run against you from blah, blah, blah.”

What can be done outside of this binary system, and these fights over individual projects, to address the housing crisis?

Long term we need to have investments from the federal government, especially reinvestment in NYCHA. When we talk about affordable housing, we should talk about public housing. We need the state to reinvest in affordable homeownership like Mitchell Lama co-ops and invest in existing developments like in Woodside, because these co-ops are a pathway for homeownership for working-class New Yorkers. We need to pass opportunity to purchase (TOPA) legislation at the state and city level. We need to establish and invest in community land trusts. We need to pass good-cause eviction at the state level so that we actually have decent tenant protections. We need to create a city-owned land bank, replace our ineffective tax lien sales. We should ensure that the city-owned land is always permanent affordable social housing. There is a lot that we can do if we’re willing to do it.

‘We Were Called Gentrifiers, and We Were Called NIMBYs’