- [New York City's] approach is limited by its belief that "affordable housing" is possible only where it is the instigator. As planning chair Amanda Burden put it recently, "Where you see affordable housing, it's met two conditions: Either it's on city-owned land or it's where you can provide the density to do inclusionary zoning." Staten Island has few places that meet either of those conditions right now, which means that if housing is going to be created on the scale needed to meet demand, the market will have to do it. This is not impossible. Although critics of Staten Island's builders insist that all "the market" is interested in producing is $400,000 townhouses, builders themselves are quick to point to townhouses that sold for $350,000--which is "affordable" by the city's own measures--and less. "I've built maybe 2,000 units of affordable housing on Staten Island for rental and for sale, under various government programs," says Randy Lee, "and of those, over 1,000 were affordable homeownership units; the last group sold for about $250,000." That was, he points out, before the downzonings went into effect.
So the city finds itself in an ungainly position. It is aggressively pursuing affordable housing as a citywide policy, while at the same time making the construction of affordable housing less likely in large swaths of Staten Island through its downzoning efforts. "What the city's doing," says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a writer on development issues and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, "is downzoning these areas in which there's enormous market demand and at the same time providing subsidized housing in areas like Brooklyn and Manhattan, where there's also enormous market demand. So for this moderate-income group who want to buy on Staten Island, the city's providing subsidized housing in Brooklyn. It seems insane."
Downzoning vs. Affordable Housing
A recent article in Governing magazine discusses the trend towards downzoning on Staten Island and illustrates the inherent tension between community-supported limitations on housing density and the need to ensure a supply of affordable housing: