New York’s Green Legacy of Bling
Today, the man who runs New York City’s housing department promised to convert failed luxury developments into apartment buildings that people with low or modest incomes can afford. That’s an audacious vow, inviting a barrage of howls from the real estate lobby. But anybody intent on making a viable economy in a warming climate should follow it with scrupulous hope. The proposal would save a heap of carbon emissions by avoiding the wreckage of partly built towers and the construction of unbuilt ones. And it can help create the workforce of a sustainable city in the next economic upturn.
On its own, the idea is elegant. Dozens of real estate projects, comprising thousands of apartments, got enough financing for developers to start construction but lost their financing when banks started withholding credit before construction completed. That leaves dozens of sites around the five boroughs, many near transit hubs, that can now become other kinds of buildings.
Like, the kind that house creative types and clerks and cops.
The man who offered this idea, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Rafael Cestero, noted in a speech at the New School that “probably seven million details” lay within the idea of converting luxury projects that have no financing into apartments for the underserved low-income market. The bulkiest details involve profit. How can a lender, a developer and an investor who expected to make money by selling $54 million apartments expect to make money by renting apartments for less than $2000 a month?
The obvious answer would be one in which the city pays the original investors to walk away from the properties. But it’s not clear that the city can toss out the requisite amount of money, or that other investors would arrive promptly to build the affordable units. Tax credits for anyone who invests in affordable housing, or tax breaks for the people who build it, can play a role. So can grants from federal agencies for building energy-efficient apartments. The developers will shriek until they get the choice cuts of whatever the government serves, and advocates will mistrust developers. All this keeps reporters, and democracy, humming.
What’s essential about the idea is its ecological good sense. Preservationists like to say that “the greenest building is the one you don’t have to build.” Reuse a building and you avoid wreckage, new sourcing, lots of truck traffic, and so forth. Likewise, the greenest city is the one that can absorb low-wage workers, entrepreneurs, artists and activists without forcing big increases in car travel and far-flung infrastructure.
That would be quite a legacy for the real-estate bubble.
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