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A birds-eye view of the Rockaway peninsula sandwiched between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic.
The Edgemere section of the Rockaways.
Joe Mabel/Wikimedia

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Budget Cuts Might Doom de Blasio’s Affordable Housing Legacy

Neighborhoods like Edgemere, Queens, now have to wait even longer for major housing projects to rise.

On his 25 minute walk to work through Edgemere — the low-slung beachfront neighborhood of old clapboard houses and public housing east of the newly fashionable Rockaway Beach — Richie Jackson says he might only pass a couple of delis or fast-food joints. “This isn’t Main Street America we’re talking about here,” said the 52-year-old, who lives in NYCHA’s Ocean Bay complex. When the neighborhood was first developed over a century ago, it was marketed as “The New Venice,” but these days the only thing it has in common with that storied city is that both are under the constant threat of rising sea level; it was among the areas in New York hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, and while the city has developed a plan to remake the area, it’s still years away from being fully realized.

More recently, Edgemere also became one of the city’s neighborhoods hit hardest by the coronavirus. “You gotta go outside the neighborhood to get what you need,” Jackson says. He regularly lugs groceries home at the end of his shifts at a Key Food outside of the neighborhood because Edgmere lacks a supermarket. “When it comes down to it, we just need more here, especially now that we’re all hurting from COVID.”

A few years ago, a major project was proposed to address some of the issues in the neighborhood. That development was Edgemere Commons — a massive mixed-use affordable-housing project planned by The Arker Companies that would be located just off of Beach Channel Drive and Beach 53rd Street; it would be made possible by city financing. First proposed in 2018, the 11-building project would cluster 2,050 apartments on the site of the former Peninsula Hospital (since the Peninsula closed, the hospital nearest to Edgemere has been St. John’s Episcopal, which is roughly two miles from the heart of the neighborhood), and bring a supermarket to the federally recognized food desert. The project was also expected to build other commercial retail locations, an urgent-care facility, and a new community center.

Affordable housing projects like this one were supposed to be Mayor de Blasio’s legacy. But now Edgemere Commons, like so many other developments of its kind, are facing major delays because of the city’s perilous pandemic budget shortfalls.

At the end of June, City Hall threw the future of many of the city’s affordable-housing projects — and the community resources that typically come with them — up in the air when it slashed the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) capital budget, which is used to fund physical infrastructure, by more than a billion dollars for the fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The move pushed a staggering 40 percent of HPD’s capital funds for affordable housing into later fiscal years.

Those cuts mean fewer dollars are available for building new homes for low- and middle-income New Yorkers in the short term. The budget crunch also throws a wrench into the complicated financing schemes and timelines for projects already in the works, like Edgemere Commons. Many developers who rely on city subsidies — which are pivotal to the mayor’s pledge to preserve and build 300,000 affordable homes by 2026 — had hoped to finalize city funding by the end of this year, but are now planning for many months, if not a full year, of delays. June is usually a busy month for HPD to close projects, but this year it finalized just 22 small developments. A budget analysis conducted by a local housing-advocacy group, the New York Housing Conference, expects those shortfalls to translate into roughly 20,000 fewer new and preserved affordable homes over the coming years.

“City Hall is saying that we’re delaying these projects, but what does that mean in reality?” said Rachel Fee, the executive director of the New York Housing Conference. “If you’re a nonprofit organization, how long can you carry a site you need financing for? Predevelopment costs are real and they’re significant. There’s a real cost to the delay, both for the developers and communities.”

The immediate costs are the loss of jobs and the delays to infrastructure for low-income communities, many of which were hard hit by COVID-19. And the upheaval comes as the city grapples with a ballooning homeless population while teetering on the edge of an eviction crisis. In the long run, scaling back on affordable housing developments would not only make it harder for those financially crippled by the pandemic to find new housing, but it would also reduce the supportive resources these projects often come with that are key to building healthy neighborhoods.

“These projects take so long to get done, especially the ones requiring rezonings, if we’re not constantly replenishing the pipeline, then we don’t have enough projects to meet our affordable housing goals,” said Scott Short, the CEO of RiseBoro Community Partnership (a developer). Because of all this uncertainty, RiseBoro has had to abandon a project under contract in the South Bronx that would have brought 70 units of senior housing to the neighborhood. And another of its developments, in Brownsville, where Riseboro aims to build 240 apartments — 60 percent of which would be set aside as supportive housing for formerly homeless families — and a supermarket, is in jeopardy. “I’m concerned that [the budget cuts and delays] will lead to more homelessness and more people getting pushed out of the neighborhoods they call home,” Short added.

In Edgemere, delays would threaten thousands of apartments designed with the community’s low-income, Black residents in mind. Delays could also jeopardize amenities intended to rejuvenate the often-overlooked neighborhood. In the context of the coronavirus, residents say the project and the jobs it would generate are even more crucial. “This would bring life to a community that is literally on the brink of death,” said Milan Taylor, a lifelong Edgemere resident and founder of the Rockaway Youth Task Force. “It’s an understatement that before the pandemic this was an important project, and now post-pandemic, it would be a lifeline.”

Arker, the developer behind Edgemere Commons, made it through the city’s nine-month land-use review process late last year and is now waiting on city financing for the first phase of construction; that includes for 450 apartments and a Western Beef supermarket. The project, which was designed with climate resilience in mind, would be built in five phases over 14 years. The effort was expected to break ground this year, but Daniel Moritz, a principal at Arker, calls that timeline “questionable” and worries about what the backlog could mean for neighborhoods throughout the city. “There’s just an insatiable demand for affordable housing,” said Moritz, whose firm recently built an East New York building with 267 apartments that received a whopping 50,000 applications through the city’s affordable housing lottery. “Delays are definitely going to hurt the neighborhoods we’re trying to build in.”

That uncertainty worries 19-year-old Andrea Colon, an economics student at Baruch College, who lives in Far Rockaway with her mother and sees the apartments Edgemere Commons would bring as a potential anchor for the area’s youth. “It really comes down to brain drain,” said Colon, who says a lack of below-market housing has meant college graduates who want to remain have little choice but to move elsewhere. “That’s why this project is really important because it addresses that need. When I graduate, I want to move out but it’s not easy to find affordable housing here,” Colon continued. “Many buildings are at capacity, there’s long waitlists. There’s definitely a barrier to entry.”

But those who are able to stay in the area face shortages of everything from laundromats to bookstores to supermarkets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies the neighborhood as a food desert, where the vast majority of residents have to walk at least half a mile to reach the nearest grocer. That’s why Taylor founded the Rockaway Youth Task Force Urban Farm on Beach 58th Street. At weekend farm stands, residents can purchase juicy tomatoes, crisp carrots, and much more from the one-acre grow space. But they’re struggling to keep up with demand. There is a waitlist of more than 100 for the community garden portion of the farm. “It just highlights the dire need,” said Milan. “There’s never enough.”

The city, for its part, is also working to bring much-needed infrastructure and affordable housing to Edgemere while mitigating flood risk through the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, which is being implemented over the next several years. But it remains unclear when the city will be able to close on Edgemere Commons. “Given the budget crisis, tough choices had to be made but HPD continues to work hard on closing the deals it can, giving priority to projects serving seniors, homeless households and the lowest income individuals and families,” Jeremy House, a spokesperson for HPD, said in a statement.

The city has called on the federal government to approve a massive stimulus package that would keep its development pipeline moving. But in the meantime, it has been forced to get creative about how it stretches the limited dollars it does have. In late August, HPD financed three new affordable-housing developments in Brooklyn and the Bronx that will create 400 apartments for low-income and formerly homeless New Yorkers through a partnership with the New York City Housing Development Corporation, which was created by the New York State Legislature and is independent from the city’s capital budget.

But for locals anxiously awaiting information about developments in their neighborhoods, each month that passes deepens the uncertainty. “This project literally screams righting inequities in terms of what wasn’t and what can be,” said Taylor. “And if this project doesn’t move forward you will see many, many folks within this community saying they’re not surprised that the city continues to disinvest in us.”

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