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Flatiron condo inspires debate over De Blasio's affordable housing initiative

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The Planning Department is hesitant to require affordable housing

The parking lot at 38-42 West 18th Street and 41-43 West 17th Street is the site of two proposed towers that would hold 62 condo apartments. It is also, according to the New York Times, "an unlikely focal point in a battle over the future of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan."

For a bit of background, Mayor de Blasio is now knee-deep in a plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. A key part of this plan is mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH), meaning that affordable housing is required in new developments where developers are seeking rezoning for those projects. The city decides the breakdown of how many affordable units to include on a case-by-case basis.

The parking lot development, by Acuity Capital Partners, calls for incorporating new 17-story and 16-story towers into an adjacent four-story tenement and five-story loft building. But Acuity needs a special permit from the City Planning Commission for the towers because current zoning allows only up to six-story buildings. Politicians and civic groups argue that this project should be subject to MIH, which would mean that 20 to 30 percent of the project’s units would be set aside at below-market rents.

But the developer and the real estate industry feel differently. The Times explains: "Even the chairman of the Planning Commission, Carl Weisbrod, [has] argued that the project is more of a rejiggering of the zoning than an enlargement, and thus it should not obligate the inclusion of affordable housing."

MIH takes effect when a development requires "a significant increase in residential floor area," and Weisbrod argues that's not the case here—rather, because Acuity is building around the existing tenement and loft buildings, and would be shifting the air rights from the older buildings to new ones, there won’t be a significant enlargement in residential space.

But politicians like Gale A. Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said that to exempt this project from affordability requirements "feels like a bait and switch." There’s concern that if this project won’t have to include affordable units, similar projects will follow suit and the city could lose out on potentially thousands of affordable apartments.

Why the hesitation from the City Planning Commission, who should be feeling the pressure to create as many affordable units as possible to meet the mayor’s requirements? In a word, lawsuits. Here’s the Times: "The concern among city officials is that if the Planning Commission were to interpret the rules on mandatory inclusionary housing, or M.I.H., in a way that would seem overly onerous to developers, it would invite lawsuits that could jeopardize the new rules."

The City Planning Commission has debated significantly over this, since it’s one of the first developments to be considered under the new housing rules. Although this type of special permit is usually under the jurisdiction of the Planning Commission, Brewer plans to file a letter of objection if the commission doesn’t require the inclusion of affordable housing. In that case, the decision will move up to the City Council. And as the Times promises: "This is likely to be the first of many fights over the mandatory inclusionary housing program."