Advocate Candidates Discuss Community Character Amid Development Boom

Sixteen candidates are vying to replace former Public Advocate Letitia James in the Feb. 26 special election. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews.

Sixteen candidates are vying to replace former Public Advocate Letitia James in the Feb. 26 special election. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews.

By David Brand and Paula Katinas

Amazon or no Amazon, New York City is in the midst of a record development boom, a decade-long surge in construction that has transformed entire neighborhoods, especially along the waterfronts of Queens and Brooklyn.

Development has also expanded into residential neighborhoods further from the East River, like East Flatbush and Ridgewood, where zoning, whether as-of-right or through variances, has led to multi-story, multi-family developments. But with acute crises in public housing, a debilitated transit system and a certain online retailer’s abandoned plan to move to Long Island City, the issue of community preservation has not been a major focus in the breathless race for public advocate.

The Eagle asked public advocate candidates what steps they would take to balance community character with the need for new housing and how they would use the office to address the increased burden on local infrastructure.

Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, investigative reporter Nomiki Konst, Manhattan Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell, attorney Dawn Smalls and Queens Councilmember Eric Ulrich each weighed in, stating that the city should better engage communities and force concessions from developers. They varied on the specifics, however.

Blake tied destructive development to racial disparities and income inequality citywide and explained some specific policy proposals he would push as public advocate. He also called on the city to facilitate home ownership, financing and preservation among low-income people of color “preyed upon” by property speculators.

“I will fight for ‘cease and desist’ zones, which would allow residents in neighborhoods to opt into a ‘do not solicit registry’ so homeowners gain protection from speculators, real estate brokers and others engaged in buying and selling real estate, if they choose,” Blake said. “I will fight for a 15 percent flip tax on properties bought and resold in one year, and a 10 percent tax on properties bought and resold between one and two years to deter speculators. I will also promote community land trusts to ensure permanently affordable homeownership and expand down payment assistance and other resources for homebuyers.”

In addition to homeowners, Blake said he would be an “aggressive advocate” for the protection of rent stabilized units.

Ulrich discussed his work during the 530-block rezoning of Ozone Park, which covers a large portion of his council district, and said that rezoning could serve as a model for other residential communities to emulate.

“We struck a good balance,” he said. “We preserved the character of community with low density — one-, two-, three-family homes — and allowed for modest upzoning along commercial strips and areas where development is positive.”

Smalls, an attorney who worked in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said she would close zoning loopholes that enable “overdevelopment” without affordable housing included in the deal.

“For example, mechanical voids should not be allowed to be used to increase the height of buildings,” she said. “I also believe that major developers should contribute to the local infrastructure such as parks and schools.”

O’Donnell, who represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side, highlighted his history of resisting upzoning proposals that threaten to transform neighborhoods, like Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to rezone a swath of East Harlem.

“I believe that increased development requires increased commitment from developers to support the neighborhood’s ability to handle the additional burdens, especially when it comes to transit,” he said.

Kim said he would discourage incentives and tax breaks for developers who agree to set aside a small amount of units as affordable housing, which is often still too expensive for the lowest income New Yorkers.

“[I] would reinvest those resources into community needs, including affordable housing and infrastructure,” he said. “I also believe we must focus on supporting local small businesses, which are the backbones of our economy. This is one of the best ways to preserve community character.”

A spokesperson for Konst said she would resist rezoning that “rewards real estate developers and hurts workers and families.”

Politicians are too beholden to the developer class because they receive substantial donations from the real estate industry, the spokesperson said.

“As public advocate Nomiki will work to expand rent stabilization and rent control programs to ensure that affordable housing better reflects what is truly affordable for the community,” she said.