Time to Bring Affordable Housing to SoHo and NoHo

As reported by the New York Times today, neighborhood rezonings in New York City are becoming increasingly difficult, putting a dent in the city’s efforts to build more mixed-income buildings through the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. When it comes to building more affordable housing in the region, we need as much as we can get. But we also need to build it in a smart and equitable way. 

This means more housing in walkable communities near jobs and transit – places which can contribute to both better health and economic opportunity. With the City’s recently completed Where We Live plan recommending that we find more ways to bring equity to land use, it also means we need to be more equitable with our rezonings – which thus far have mostly been concentrated in lower-income Black and Latinx communities. As Alexandra Fennell from Churches United for Fair Housing points out in the Times article “why hasn’t the city done this in white communities?”

This points in a certain direction – the core part of Manhattan, which is becoming increasingly out of reach to most New Yorkers, especially lower-income New Yorkers. It’s difficult to create more affordable housing in much of it because most neighborhoods in the wealthy areas of Manhattan are legally prohibited by the state from upzoning for more housing because of the cap on residential floor area known as the FAR cap. This means that the City’s MIH policy,which would require affordable housing in new buildings, can’t take effect. RPA has long supported lifting the state-mandated residential cap on upzoning to create more mixed-income housing.

But there are some places in the wealthy areas of Manhattan where we can add more density and require MIH without state approval. One of those neighborhoods is SoHo/NoHo. And in the recent neighborhood study, Envision SoHo/Noho, there is a recommendation for finding ways to create more affordable housing, including exploring opportunities for increased density. The City should do exactly that by upzoning SoHo/NoHo where possible for MIH as part of any neighborhood-wide rezoning.

There are few neighborhoods which could use affordable housing more than SoHo and NoHo. This is one of the wealthiest and least affordable neighborhoods not just in New York City but in the entire country. And it’s a place with great schools, great transit, and thousands of jobs within walking distance. In 2017 the SoHo/NoHo Community Board ranked #1 for median household income, median rent, school performance and access to transit – and #48 for racial diversity. 

This would mean larger buildings. But in the middle of Manhattan large buildings are far from out of context. There are several buildings in the SoHo/NoHo study areas, including individual landmarks like 65 Bleecker Street, which are denser than what could be built under even the largest allowed upzoning. And unlike many of the new towers going up in Manhattan, these buildings would be mixed-income, and the new zoning could be instituted in a way that facilitates better architecture and design.

SoHo/NoHo is exactly the type of neighborhood where upzoning for MIH is meant to work best. It would make very little sense for this to be New York City’s only wide-scale rezoning action without MIH.


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    Jeffrey Kroessler

    Missing from this piece is any mention that most of SoHo/NoHo is under the protection of the Landmarks Law. Should the drive for affordable housing invalidate historic designation? This historic district, like all others, is built to above 90 percent of what the zoning allows, so unless the blocks are rezoned there is not much room for additional square footage. As for context, yes, Manhattan has tall buildings. But are those tall buildings in this immediate vicinity, or will they destroy the existing ensemble. And no, I cannot afford to live in SoHo either, and I never could.

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