In Williamsburg, a Fight for the Future of Affordable Rents

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A superficial recent-history of New York would state that lousy hipsters moved in and suddenly no one could afford to live here anymore—not even in Brooklyn. But a closer look would find a concerted effort between the Bloomberg administration and large developers to rezone and remake entire neighborhoods to attract wealthier buyers, thus the sparkling new condo towers poking out of Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, and half the communities in the city. Bill de Blasio was elected to counter that legacy, and while he can’t force your landlord to lower your rent, he can make the city’s relationship with developers more complicated than the rubberstamping and greenlighting of his predecessor. And the new mayor has picked his first fight on the Williamsburg waterfront.

The former home of the Domino sugar factory, an 11.2-acre lot on Kent Avenue between S. 2nd and S. 5th streets, has been in the process of redevelopment for a decade, since the refinery shuttered. In 2012, the owner sold the site to Two Trees—full disclosure: our landlord in DUMBO—which radically reengineered the existing controversial plans: “the buildings [would be] taller, there [would be] fewer of them, they [would be] funnier shapes, and there’[d] more open space,” we reported almost a year ago—there’d be more office space, more integration with the community, even tables for playing dominos. The rejiggering of a much-despised plan that retained the original’s generous promises of affordable housing pleased many of the development’s critics. “The developer… won over virtually all of the neighborhood groups and elected officials,” the Times reports today. But not, it seems, the new mayor.

De Blasio is demanding that, in exchange for crucial rezoning on which the plan depends, Two Trees add more affordable housing—or, rather, more affordable two- and three-bedroom apartments and fewer one-bedrooms and studios, thus accommodating more families. But the developer says that because this means fewer market-rate units, which are what make new parks and affordable housing possible. (De Blasio’s has another bargaining chip besides the rezoning: developers also expect subsidies and tax breaks from the city for building low- and middle-income housing.)

Because this is the mayor’s first high-profile development fight, whatever happens could determine the outcome of future disagreements. “Every developer is going to look for the same deal,” an affordable-housing developer told the Times. The New York Planning Commission will vote on the plan on Wednesday—and determine the next four years of development in New York City.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart


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