Chin Urges Council Colleagues to Turn Parking Into Affordable Housing

Last month, Manhattan City Council Member Margaret Chin asked the de Blasio administration to prioritize affordable housing over car storage by replacing a city-owned parking garage in her district with new apartments. Acknowledging that the decision might be politically difficult, last week Chin urged her City Council colleagues to follow her lead if they want to tackle the city’s affordability problem.

Margaret Chin wants affordable housing instead of parking. Will her City Council colleagues join her? Photo: NYC Council
Margaret Chin wants affordable housing instead of parking. Will her City Council colleagues join her? Photo: NYC Council

From Chin’s op-ed in Our Town:

I understand why there’s sometimes resistance — from officials or local stakeholders — to certain proposals for new housing on city-owned lots that currently exist as parking garages or open space. It’s true that many of these lots already serve some purpose within our communities, and it can be difficult to commit to giving up a public resource in order to make way for housing. […]

There’s almost always going to be some argument against giving up one of these city-owned lots. Some people might say, “Don’t take away my parking!” Others might say, “Don’t take away my green space!”

They all generally lead back to the same question: “Can’t you just find a different place for housing?”

But if we’re really serious about completing the mayor’s plan in a decade, the fact is that all of us — council members, community boards, residents — must make affordable housing a priority in our districts.

Earlier this year, Chin’s office identified three city-owned lots in her district that might be suitable for new housing and asked the City Council’s land use division to estimate how many new units could be built under current zoning [PDF 1, 2]. They found that a vacant lot used by a nearby business could accommodate 129 new units. Chin’s office says HPD has committed to developing the property, with a request for proposals due out soon.

There were also two parking lots that could be replaced with housing: A Department of Education lot at the corner of Eldridge and Stanton Streets could house 37 families instead of approximately 30 cars, and the site of a DOT-owned public garage could offer 89 housing units instead of 356 discounted parking spaces. (Chin staffers say they have not yet heard anything back from DOT about that site, which is undergoing a $5.8 million renovation.)

Chin has an extensive background on housing issues. She helped found Asian Americans for Equality, which develops affordable housing, and used to serve on the board of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Last year, she was backed by a PAC funded by the Real Estate Board of New York but later denounced its support.

So far, it seems Chin is the only council member who’s examining the potential for affordable housing on under-used city land. A freedom of information request for similar analyses produced by the City Council yielded only Chin’s documents. In the meantime, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development is producing a list of city-owned property as part of the mayor’s housing plan. “This is the perfect time for council members to help them get a leg up,” said Chin spokesperson Sam Spokony.

There’s some momentum for parking-to-housing conversions: Last month, HPD issued an RFP for the development of affordable housing on a city-owned parking lot in Flushing. That project could replace 156 parking spaces with about 200 new housing units.

But in other neighborhoods, it might not be so easy. Bayside, for example, is looking at turning a city owned parking lot into… a parking garage. The Bayside Village Business Improvement District recently secured a $20,000 discretionary grant from Council Member Paul Vallone to study the feasibility of building a garage on an existing 92-space city-owned lot next to a Long Island Rail Road station.

The area has one of the highest car ownership rates in the city and many business owners see plentiful parking as critical to their success. “[A] person could easily hop on the Cross Island Parkway and go to Roosevelt Field, where there’s acres of free parking,” said BID Executive Director Lyle Sclair. His strategy is to compete with the suburbs by emulating them. “People can say, ‘I know there’s a parking garage.’ It makes people more likely to come back.”

Sclair doesn’t see the LIRR-adjacent lot as an opportunity for transit-oriented development. “The site we’re looking at is probably not suitable for housing,” he said. “It’s literally right next to the railroad station.”

He noted that the completion of East Side Access will drive up demand for the Long Island Rail Road in coming years, but believes most commuters will want to park and ride. “Somebody who’s looking to Bayside is looking for more of a suburban quality,” he said. “[The garage is] going to be a stimulus to bring people to the neighborhood.”

In her op-ed, Chin acknowledged that turning underutilized city land into affordable housing can be a difficult proposition. “We simply can’t spend years trying to find those different places for housing that can please everyone,” she wrote. “The sites are there, and we have to take advantage of them as swiftly as possible.

  • BBnet3000

    Affordable housing for autos owned by a wealthier than average minority of us or affordable housing for human beings who actually need it?

    This looks like the biggest recent test of whether we’ve moved past the 1950s mentality in NYC.

    “Somebody who’s looking to Bayside is looking for more of a suburban quality”.

    Sclairs mistake here is that he is assuming that means car-dependent. It doesnt have to mean that even on Long Island and it definitely shouldnt mean that in Queens.

  • JK

    Good for you CM Chin! Like you, city government should always be asking:”what is the highest societal value for this parcel of land?” How often is below market price parking a better use of public land than affordable housing, or a park or a school?

  • linstur

    Chin is right, and it should include MICRO HOUSING.

    There is a unique, market-driven solution to create affordable units — not through government subsidies or charitable funding, but through the market — developers and even local citizens can build smaller and therefore much more affordable units. Seattle is exploding with them — and people love them — there is no vacancies for the units that have been built.

    Micro-Housing is also GREEN and environmental. It is about 8 micro-unit studios per floor with a communal full kitchen/hang-out area – where you can cook a meal with friends and bond with neighbors. The rent? $600-$1000 a month and under. We liberals tend to be enamored with the government spending money to help. But we all know the tragedy of housing projects — just watch The Wire. The government doesn’t have the steadiness and decades-long commitment to keep buildings up. But the market DOES. If landlords need to rent their units they will keep them up and make them desirable — and lower the rent.

    Chin should also push to PRE-ZONE lots for micro-housing units. A small lot in Seattle that housed a dilapidated single-family home housed 64 micro-units. NYC is the place for this — because everyone agrees you do NOT need a car. By pre-zoning lots, small investors, local citizens, and builders and non-profits can jump into the game. Why are developers the only people doing affordable housing? Let everyone get into the game. If there is a small profit to be made — hundreds of builders would jump in. In LA, tons of non-professional-developers flip houses. How about having non-developers and non-billionaires working on affordable housing? Chin can unleash this energy and capital. But fear of protracted fights with neighborhood groups will stop the “little guy” from getting into the movement and it only leaves Developers in the game.

    The last big thing Chin and the city should do: empty lots that sit empty for more than a year should be given blanket, expansive new zoning rights. Put the onus on neighborhoods to get a business going or build a park. If a lot is just empty, it shouldn’t be a fight to get something built. (The owner should also be taxed until they do something useful).

    The city should cut red tape for all citizens and thousands of entrepreneurs to move affordable housing forward. It will unleash the city to solve this problem – far more effectively than “poor doors” in luxury buildings that a few random people win through a lottery.

  • BBnet3000

    “Affordable housing” as its being done today is nothing like housing projects.

    As for the owners of market rate units keeping them up…. sounds like somebody who has never lived in a cheap (but market rate) apartment in this city.

  • Duh

    Too bad people hate living near train stations. Housing just isn’t realistic for this site. There are 0 people who would want to live here, said someone not in real estate.

  • andrelot

    Micro-housing = slums. Just a glorified SRO.

    There should a federal law banning any housing unit, other than a few exceptions like college dorms, nursing homes for severely-restricted ill senior or barracks, that doesn’t contain on itself kitchen and bathroom facilities.

    No adult past college should ever have, due to low income, share his/her cooking or showering space with other non-related adults.

    No public funds should ever be used to build, promote or push such squalid living models.

    What is next – people who work on different shifts having roommates at age 40 because they don’t stay much in the same house together?

  • Bolwerk

    Is this post a joke? That is counterproductive (and authoritarian, of course). Some people who have been on the street feel more comfortable in a dorm-like environment and transition better if offered such a space.

    As long as minimal level of cleanliness is maintained, I don’t see the problem. The demand for that kind of housing is going to be very limited, even with the young adult audience that might deign to accept it.

    No adult past college should ever have, due to low income, share his/her cooking or showering space with other non-related adults.

    Is there anything else we should ban because you don’t like it?

  • Ian Turner

    Wait, you would force people to buy more housing than they want because you personally think they should live that way?

  • linstur

    Just to be clear: Micro Housing units have full bathrooms as well as kitchens. The units share a large kitchen with a big table to have more people over. Here are some links:

    http://www.lifeedited.com/what-the-heck-is-a-micro-apartment/

    http://www.marinatimes.com/2013/03/micro-apartments-come-to-the-city/

    These are not slums — and yes, it might be for the young or certain demographics, but Seattle can’t build enough to keep up with the demand. In a vibrant city, we don’t all need massive apartments. I’d rather live smaller and be in the heart of a city than have space but have to drive everywhere.

    It’s not for everyone, but it’s affordable, environmental, and market-based.

  • Bolwerk

    Most people don’t know what the word “slum” means, and the term was exploited to destroy urban housing that was pretty salvageable. (What so-called “slums” survived from the early 20th century era in Manhattan are among the most demanded housing in the USA.)

    Anything could be a slum. But if it’s clean and not dilapidated, it’s by definition not a slum. Another, maybe common but perhaps not necessary, trait of slums is people being piled on top of each other in housing units. That could happen to micro-housing units, but it can happen to any unit.

  • Jonathan R

    Please, read the second wise paragraph and consider carefully. My neighbors used to pack three adults and five children into a four-room railroad apartment.

  • Joe R.

    I agree BUT I personally feel if we didn’t “gold-plate” buildings nowadays we could build multistory buildings with 1000 to 2000 square foot apartments which might rent for under $1000 per month, while still providing a profit (or at least breaking even, meaning the city could build them without subsidies). Look at housing projects as built in the 1940s through 1960s. They were simple, basic places to live. Granted, aesthetics were sometimes lacking but it might only cost a minimal amount more for that. The key is to build spartan but sturdy so minimal maintenance is required. Another key is to not provide anything more than is needed. That obviously means no parking. It also means standardizing on everything from windows to appliances to plumbing fixtures AND especially central heat/AC. I would personally rather have more space than more luxury.

    My line of thought here is for what it might cost to make a smaller space usable via things like beds which fold into walls and the like, it should be possible to just build a somewhat larger space. Many people, including families, would love to live closer in, but end up elsewhere because they have to either pay much more for a decent amount of space, or make due with much less space. Simple, basic construction could lessen the need for such tradeoffs.

    I’m sure these micro housing units will have plenty of takers but frankly the main demographic I see here is those wishing to save money to buy something bigger down the line, or those who don’t make much but have no relatives nearby they can live with. If you’re young/single in a low income job and you’re in the same city as your parents, it’s better for a whole host of reasons to just stay with them. Living alone, which is a given in tiny apartments like these, frankly isn’t a healthy way to live for anyone. I know it’s an American thing for young people to go it alone as soon as possible, but I think we should take a cue from other places where extended families are common. Besides providing a support system on many levels, splitting housing costs via an extended family arrangement means each member pays far less than even the rates for micro housing.

  • Bolwerk

    And that sent the whole building/neighborhood into a downhill spiral of ruin and poverty?

  • Miles Bader

    Besides the great content, I also really like her writing style… It’s very concise and to the point, and friendly, without the usual sense of focus-group-driven ass-covering and bet-hedging one usually finds in politician’s writing.

  • rino

    Does she really want to have the parking garage on Essex turned into affordable housing. Taxpayers are paying for the $5.8m renovation that is ongoing. Wow, she has no regard for taxpayers and wants everyone to give more so people can get discounted housing. Stop wasting our money and do something worthwhile.

  • douglasawillinger

    They need more parking in Manhattan, particularity retail businesses which support the City with taxes, yet get kicked in the teeth by the elitist disdain for automobiles, and for express tunnel alternatives to crowded surface routes as Canal and Delancy Streets.

  • dporpentine

    Hilarious.

    The idea that any retail place in Manhattan depends on our would be improved by inviting more car traffic here is almost as ridiculous as the contention that there exists a single retail store or restaurant or contractor or you-name-it in the city that doesn’t build willful tax avoidance into its business model.

  • douglasawillinger

    Typical out of touch Manhattan Elitist!

    Reminds me of that movie the Day After Tomorrow with the people dancing in the streets with no issues of food shortages etc.

    The world would be so better without the influence of the wealthy facing Central Park who fund such nonsensical anti parking/anti people policies.

  • Maggie

    Yeah! Love the idea of express tunnel alternatives to Canal and Delancey Streets. Let’s code name these alternatives the A, C, E, J, Z, N, R, Q, F, M, 1, and 6? We could even have a futuristic valet system where no one would need to find a 180 square foot parking space on arrival.

  • linstur

    Brilliant!! If only we could also invent a two-wheel vehicle that used less space. Maybe we could have special lanes just for them. Health-conscious New Yorkers could even power them themselves and simultaneously get a work-out.

  • dporpentine

    Please keep talking. This is making my day.

  • Joe R.

    I’ll take the Devil’s advocate position just for a moment. Let’s assume you’re right that retail businesses depend upon customers who largely arrive by car. OK, now let’s look at two things. One, the amount of taxes those customers generate for the city. Two, the amount their car use costs the city in the form of services and negative externalities. I think in all cases we would find the costs of operating an automobile in a very dense population center far exceeds any tax revenue. Consider that more car use means more police, ambulance, fire, and road maintenance services. It also unfortunately means more hospital services for those hurt directly by cars, or indirectly via the air pollution cars make which causes asthma and cancer. These costs are all huge, and none are completely covered by drivers.

    When all is said and done I think the correct fiscal stance would be to say good riddance to any business which is heavily dependent on car driving customers. The costs the city wouldn’t have to bear as a result would far exceed any tax revenues. That goes double for customers who aren’t city residents. A suburban car commuter whose “business” might be a couple of meals a week is a losing proposition for the city. The bottom line is you don’t even need your so-called elitist disdain for automobiles to justify getting rid of them in big cities. Having them around is just bad fiscal policy pure and simple. It’s a fact driving is heavily subsidized wherever it takes place but in no place is driving more heavily subsidized than in large cities. Here each mile driven has the highest external costs. Ironically cities are the one place you least need to subsidize autos due to the plethora of other ways to get around.

  • douglasawillinger

    Some 95% of the vehicular tolls are absconded with for questionably run transit agencies, with only 5% of such for vehicular road maintenance, and none for new bridge and tunnels. So your argument makes no sense; its simply more elitism, egocentricism of the Central Park DNC funders.

  • douglasawillinger

    Express tunnels to replace the old LME and MME proposals would be infinitely more environmentally conscious than continuing to place a disproportionate amount of the traffic burden upon the CBE.

    The Bronx ought to have an environmental justice law suit against Manhattan for Mayor Lindsey’s giving into blackmail in August 1969.

  • douglasawillinger

    The Manhattan elitists are so out of touch with reality that they failed to stand up for rail freight on the new Tappan Zee bridge. And then they reelect Gov Cuomo who sold out that way less expensive means of achieving a Hudson River rail freight crossing, who reportedly did so because ‘liberal progressive’ Rosie O Donnel objected to the slight increase in the bridge profile from her mansion some 2 miles or so to the north. Jeez!

  • dporpentine

    I don’t suppose you’d do anything foolish like look to see which areas in the state actually voted against Cuomo in the primary, right? It would ruin the fun you have attributing the ills of the world to such elitists as . . . Margaret Chin.

  • douglasawillinger

    To the elitists that supported Cuomo even AFTER he blew that more cost effective means for rail freight across the Hudson simply so Rosie O Donnel would not reportedly have to see it some two miles from her mansion.

    If Margaret Chin was a Cuomo supporter the yes, she s part of the political problem. As really people in general who automatically vote for a given political party, so their votes can be taken for granted.

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