En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

City’s Affordable Housing Program Faces Trouble Finding Buyers

 

For all
the booms and busts he has lived through, Vincent Riso never thought it would
come to this: Offering free 42-inch, flat-screen televisions to lure buyers
into government-subsidized homes.


Historically,
such homes have sold quickly. But not at Waters Edge at Arverne, a stretch of
130 town house condominiums Mr. Riso’s company, the Briarwood Organization,
built between Far Rockaway’s boardwalk and the A train’s rust-streaked overpass
in Queens.


So last
spring, Briarwood, which got $12.8 million in city and state subsidies for
Waters Edge, began throwing in as much as seven months’ free maintenance on
some units, along with the TV. Still, as of mid-February, roughly three years
after the units began arriving on the market, 22 of them had yet to sell.


The city
has received accolades nationwide for its efforts to provide housing affordable
to middle- and lower-income households. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has pledged
to build, save or restore 165,000 such housing units by 2014. But while the
city is still filling up low-income rentals, the housing program is struggling
on the ownership front.


Sales are
sluggish at some projects, particularly ones in poorer neighborhoods aimed at
middle-income buyers. Few units will be built any time soon: since July 2008,
the city has made only two deals with developers for new home ownership
projects, down from two dozen deals in the 12 months before that.


Last
summer, Mr. Bloomberg and the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn,
unveiled the city’s Housing Asset Renewal Program, or HARP, setting aside $20
million for developers who agreed to drop the prices of unsold market-rate
condos. But the program drew far fewer applications than the city had expected
— just five by the Dec. 31 cutoff — so the deadline was extended.


City
housing officials and developers said the reasons for the slowdown were clear.
Financing for new buildings has dried up. The HARP program has yet to catch on
because developers and lenders were unwilling to cut into profits they were
expecting to make. Would-be homebuyers remained hesitant to make the leap, and,
crucially, mortgages were harder to get.


Developers
of higher-priced affordable housing were especially hurt by the housing crash,
which caused price differences between their units and market-rate homes to
narrow. In addition, market-rate homes do not have the resale restrictions that
the affordable homes often have.


Rafael E.
Cestero, the city’s housing commissioner, said that during the housing boom,
when financing for many projects was lined up, higher-priced units like those
at Waters Edge “were deeply affordable” compared with what was then on the
market. “We had no idea what was going to happen,” he said.


Denise
Scott, managing director for New York’s Local
Initiatives Support Corporation, said her agency’s nonprofit partners were
struggling to sell 95 refurbished houses and condos in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Jamaica
in Queens, and Morrisania in the Bronx, all
city subsidized and costing $250,000 to $350,000. Some have been sitting on the
market for 18 months, she said, even though their prices were cut from 15
percent to 30 percent.


Ms. Scott
said that demand was down but that the biggest impediment was banks’
unwillingness to issue mortgages.


Samuel G.
Gaccione, executive vice president for the TNS Development Group, said his
group planned upgrades at the Shelton, a subsidized building under construction
in Bedford-Stuyvesant — granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances,
hardwood floors — to prepare for a bad market and buyer trepidation.


But the
fact that some homes are standing vacant in struggling neighborhoods has caused
some to question the wisdom of putting them there in the first place. Waters
Edge occupies the highest strata of what the city defined as affordable:
Three-bedroom units are going for up to $344,000 in a neighborhood where the
median income is $45,221, according to census data.


Javier Valdés, deputy director of the community advocacy group Make the Road New York, based in Bushwick, Brooklyn,
said the city should change how it calculated affordable income limits.
Generally, people eligible for low-income subsidized units can earn up to 80
percent of what is known as the region’s “area median income,” which in 2009
was $76,800. Moderate-income housing is open to people earning from 80 percent
to 120 percent, and middle-income housing is open to people earning 120 percent
to 175 percent.


But those
income figures are based on a broad region that includes Long Island and
Putnam, Rockland and Westchester Counties.
Mr. Valdés said affordability should
be determined by neighborhood. In Bushwick, the median income is $32,328,
according to census figures.


“We
understand the difficulty and the balancing act the city has to play, to
provide affordable housing to middle and lower income,” Mr. Valdés said. “But if condos are sitting unsold, we do want them
given to people who are from the community.”


Mr.
Cestero, the housing commissioner, said the city had long worked to create
economically diverse neighborhoods and could not have anticipated the housing
bust. He said only a few hundred homes remained unsold and noted that the
foreclosure rate among city-subsidized homes was just 0.06 percent. “I don’t
look back and think our strategy was wrong,” he said. “I think our strategy was
exactly right.”


Some
projects are doing well, especially lower-priced ones. At the Solara, which
Briarwood put up in the South Bronx, 151 of
the 160 units are under contract, after a year and a half on the market. Prices
there range from $108,815 for a one-bedroom apartment to $202,217 for a
three-bedroom.


Seeing
this trend, one development switched midstream. The Atlantic Terrace, an 80-unit
building in Fort Greene,
Brooklyn, built by the Fifth Avenue Committee,
a community development group, was originally going to sell 59 units to
families earning up to 165 percent of the area median income.


After the
market collapsed, the group lined up an additional $2 million in subsidies to
make the homes affordable to people earning far less. The lottery for the units
drew 4,881 applicants.


“We read
the tea leaves,” said Michelle de la Uz, the group’s executive director.


Despite
the troubles, the city said that it was nearing the 100,000 mark in the number
of affordable units created or preserved and that it was having little
difficulty creating and filling rentals, which tend to be aimed at lower-income
families and constitute two-thirds of the total.


Given the
market, Mr. Cestero said, the city plans to concentrate on preservation and
building mixed-income rentals.


In Far
Rockaway, Mr. Riso said he was almost certain that the last 22 condos at Waters
Edge would sell by summer.


On a
recent day, with an Arctic wind whipping off the Atlantic,
a rare sight came into view: a new buyer. Ronald Fields, 46, his wife, Naomi,
and their 4-year-old son, Taiga, dropped by to see the three-bedroom home they
were expecting to close on this month.


Mr. Fields,
who works at the cable channel truTV, could not quite believe he was about to
become a homeowner, after saving for a down payment for many years.


“Two
blocks from the beach, a new development, you can’t beat it!” Mr. Fields said.


And, he
added, he was looking forward to that free TV.