Responding to REBNY opposition to city landmarking laws

By George Calderaro, Board Member
Historic District Council
Manhattan Community Board 1

Re: “Preserving the past must be balanced with building for future,” that appeared in the July 16 issue of REW.

The Real Estate Board of New York’s (REBNY’s) long history of opposition to the New York City Landmarks Law and to LPC limits its capacity to offer a fair and objective analysis of the local designation and regulatory processes affecting historic properties, including its relation to affordable housing.

The Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation has commissioned a study to analyze the New York City Landmarks Law and its economic, social, and environmental impact on the city and its residents.

This report, entitled “A Proven Success: How the New York City Landmarks Law and Process Benefit the City” by preservationist Gregory Dietrich, responds to an ongoing spate of allegations by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) against the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and its Commissioners (LPC) concerning the designation and regulation of historic properties in New York City.

Here are related findings from this study especially as it applies to affordable housing:

• Because LPC does not regulate use, historic district designation does not prevent the development of new and/or affordable housing on existing soft sites or impede the redevelopment of a designated property into affordable housing units.

• The tension between supply and demand for Manhattan housing, exacerbated by its highest per square-mile population density of any county in the United States and limited developable land area, pre-dates the New York City Landmarks Law and continues into the present.

• The exorbitant cost of housing in Manhattan has the capacity to skew any analysis pertaining to the effects of landmark/district designation on housing and affordable housing since it is not representative of the market conditions of the city-at-large.

• There is no direct correlation between affordability, availability, and historic districts within Manhattan’s exorbitant real estate market, as evinced by a sampling of neighborhoods where apartments are selling for $1 million or less. In spite of the high number of designated properties on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, there are comparable sales prices and availability in both designated and non-designated neighborhoods within this price range.

• New and affordable housing can be constrained by a variety of factors irrespective of historic district designation that include: zoning, land availability, high land costs, development costs, transactional costs, alternate highest-and-best-use scenarios, and/or a lack of owner interest in pursuing redevelopment, as well as a lack of sufficient government incentives for affordable housing production.

• New York City agencies and academic institutions focused on housing policy maintain that the loss of affordable housing is just as serious an issue as the production of new affordable housing. Accordingly, the retention of affordable housing must be an integral part of any public housing policy initiative to address this crisis.

• New York City’s affordable housing crisis is more pronounced in its outer boroughs, where there has been minimal designation by LPC. Thus, the focus on the lack of affordable housing in Manhattan due to district designation trivializes a very complex and serious issue.

• Numerous government-sponsored economic incentives exist to promote the rehabilitation of affordable housing through and state and federal historic tax credits, coupled with a host of federal credits conducive to the production of affordable housing.

• REBNY’s long history of opposition to the New York City Landmarks Law and LPC is matched by its even longer history of opposition to affordable housing by advocating for higher rents on rent-regulated apartments, de-regulation, and vacancy decontrol, suggesting that it is trying to undermine the former by pitting one public purpose (affordable housing) against another (historic preservation).

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