Inclusionary zoning added to Rezone Albany -- and vote for approval delayed at the last minute

Albany Common Council meeting 2017-05-01

Mayor Kathy Sheehan delivering her remarks on the Rezone Albany plan at Monday's Common Council meeting.

There were two big things in the lead up to the Albany Common Council vote on Rezone Albany Monday night:

+ A provision for inclusionary zoning -- in which the city will require developers of some market-rate projects to include affordable units -- was added.

+ At the last moment, the vote on the major zoning overhaul -- more than two years in the making -- was delayed by two more weeks.

Inclusionary zoning

There were a handful of last-minute changes and adjustments made to the huge package of rules that make up Rezone Albany, and the most notable one was the addition of an inclusionary zoning provision.

We walked through this idea in a post last week, but here's the quick version: In a bid to spur development of affordable housing, many cities have added (or considered) requirements that developers include a certain number of "affordable" units in new residential development. The number is usually determined by a formula that takes into account an area's median income. Advocates say it's a way of bending the market toward affordable housing. Skeptics say it increases the cost of development and can dissuade developers from pursuing projects in soft real estate markets.

In the last few months, affordable housing -- and the idea of using inclusionary zoning -- became a more prominent topic of the Rezone Albany discussion. And multiple Common Council members -- Dorcey Applyrs and Kelly Kimbrough were especially outspoken about it -- expressed support for the idea.

It was an inclusionary zoning amendment from Applyrs that was finalized and added during the council's caucus just ahead of Monday's regular council meeting. The details:

+ The requirement applies to new projects with 50 or more units.

+ It requires developers to set aside 5 percent of the units as affordable.

+ In this case, "affordable" means that rents can't exceed 30 percent of the monthly income for a household making 100 percent of the city median household income.

+ The new requirement would take effect six months after the approval of the Rezone Albany package.

The city's median household income in 2015 was $40,949, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. So that would set the rent limit at roughly $1,024 per month.

That 100 percent of the city median income rule is important because the original version of the provision that surfaced in a council committee meeting had the income target set at 80 percent. That would have meant a significantly lower rent limit of $819.

Albany Common Council caucus meeting 2017-05-01
The caucus before Monday's Common Council meeting.

The consultants hired by the city to assist with Rezone Albany have expressed skepticism that Albany's real estate market is strong enough that an inclusionary zoning requirement wouldn't act as a brake on new projects. And the city's planning staff had recommended the provision be up for consideration -- rather than automatically taking effect -- at the six-month mark so the city could assess the potential effects. In the caucus, Applyrs pushed for the provision to take full effect at the half-year mark.

Presuming the Rezone Albany package gets approved with the inclusionary zoning provision, the city will have to scramble to work out a bunch of key details for a program that it hasn't administered before. Among the important questions will be whether the affordable units set aside by developers will have to be similar to the other units in a project -- same size and amenities, for example -- or whether the units could be downscaled in some way.

Just a few weeks ago, mayor Kathy Sheehan said she didn't think inclusionary zoning was the right approach for the city because of the possibility it could curb new development, and would rather see efforts focused on approaches such as the recently introduced vacant building rehab program (which includes an affordable housing component).

"I think it's a major step forward. And I want to stress, though, that inclusionary housing is not the same as affordable housing. It's a tool in the toolbox."

But during her comment at the start of Monday's meeting, Sheehan was supportive of the concept's inclusion, saying she was proud that her administration was able to work out a provision with the council: "I think it's a major step forward. And I want to stress, though, that inclusionary housing is not the same as affordable housing. It's a tool in the toolbox. But I want to commit to you that we continue to work to attract affordable housing to the city of Albany. And that's something, again, with this rezone, with our ability to utilize buildings in the way they're currently being utilized and have them be conforming, I am confident that we will see progress in bringing more affordable housing to the city of Albany."

The vote delay

At the end of the public comment period of Monday's Common Council meeting, council president Carolyn McLaughlin announced the vote on Rezone Albany would not be that night because of a "technical issue." The legislation for the zoning overhaul would head back to the council's Planning, Economic Development and Land Use committee May 10 with a planned appearance back before the full council on May 15.

So, what happened?

During the public comment period, Carol Waterman -- a resident of Guilderland who was at the meeting to oppose the rezoning of Sandidge Way (formerly Loughlin Street) -- said she believed the April 26 planning committee meeting at which the rezone package was referred back to the full council had happened without the 72-hour notice required by state law.

"I believe that that meeting was illegally held, which of course calls into question this meeting." she said.

Waterman's statement was initially met with skepticism by McLaughlin, but it set off a small flurry of activity by council members and city attorneys and staff behind the scenes while the public comment period continued. And as council president pro tem Richard Conti explained after the meeting, the city concluded that while notice of the meeting had been posted in city hall with the requisite advance notice, notice on the city website might not have happened ahead of the 72-hour deadline. And so, to be safe, the rezone package will be cycled back through committee.

Concerns about process

The lead up to Monday's meeting had prompted other concerns about process. Carolyn McLaughlin told the Focus on Albany podcast earlier in the day that she didn't think Rezone Albany was ready for a vote because more should be done to help people in the city understand what's in the zoning overhaul, and called for more community meetings and a later vote.

Monday's meeting also got started 45 minutes late because of an extended council caucus in which members discussed issues such as the inclusionary zoning provision. The late start provoked the ire of Vincent Rigosu, a frequent Common Council meeting attendee, who also criticized the council for adding provisions at the last minute without giving the public time to review them.

"This is disgusting," he said, calling for the vote to be delayed.

Sandidge Way

A majority of the public comments at Monday's meeting were focused on the proposed changing of the zoning for Sandidge Way, a street off Fuller Road tucked between the city's border with Guilderland and SUNY Poly. The street currently has a handful of single-family properties, but a developer has proposed a 173-unit apartment complex there. (The roots of redevelopment there stretch back to at least 2014.) The city is moving to rezone it with a residential village designation (pdf p. 26 in the Rezone book.)[TU]

There's been pushback on the idea from residents just over the border in Guilderland, and the Albany County Planning Board has recommended not changing the zoning, citing concerns about scale and traffic. [TU]

Carol Waterman -- who had questioned the legality of the committee meeting -- is one of those residents. She was joined by a handful of neighbors who said they were concerned about the possibility of five-story buildings on the site and urged the council to reconsider.

Among them was Aida Horwitt and her husband, Todd. Said Horwitt in her comment: "I think the best way to look at it is, if you lived where I live -- in my house -- how would you feel about that? ... Would you say, 'I'm happy about this. This is great.'?"

Comments

Stupid.

It is very sad that a few old, unhinged NIMBYs from Guilderland have chosen to throw the entire city of Albany under the bus because they don't like the zoning on a street where nobody lives anymore. Albany is at a crossroads - one path is preserving the status quo which will slowly choke the city out. The other path is moving into the future, a city open for business, a place where people can live and start businesses with ease, a positive and healthy city. I hope the Common Council members including Krasher and Commisso Jr. see this path forward and can put politics aside in order to bring Albany into the future that we all want. I would hate for them to align with the past rotting away in Guilderland.

if only the city listened to the rest of us as much as they do bored NIMBYs who have the time to go and complain at every meeting.

Loughlin street is a huge scandal waiting to be uncovered. Dig into it, ACA.......

Here's a hint: the developer has given a LOT of money to Sheehan and McCoy. McCoy claims he is against the development. haven't seen him actually do anything to stop it. And he and Sheehan are BFFs.

I, an Albany resident, also spoke out at that council meeting regarding the sudden speed at which these changes were coming up for a vote. Sometimes we speak of 11th hour changes but considering the 45-minute delay of the Common Council meeting, this was more like 13th hour changes, literally happening as I waited for the public meeting to start. While I am inclined to favor the recent proposition, I am not at all in favor of setting the dangerous precedent of allowing our lawmakers to take a multi-year process with citizens' input and then alter the deal without their input. That the majority of the Common Council seemed ready to cast a vote despite the inappropriate level of transparency I hope will send shock waves through our balloting later this year. Our citizens deserve better.

To set rent maximums for affordable housing, Area Median Income (AMI) is usually specified at particular household sizes. So the $40,949 median income for all households with a maximum rent of around $1,024 per month is very very rough. That might be affordable to a household of one, but a household of three or four at that same income would have many more expenses to meet and would need a larger apartment.

Inclusionary zoning can produce "affordable" housing. I'm not sure the mayor's distinction in that quote is especially helpful. The question is affordable to residents at what income level? What is affordable to a high-income family is not affordable to a low-income family.

As for the previous comments, are Albany residents welcome at Guilderland board meetings to comment on Guilderland's zoning? Speaking of, the real problem in the region is that affordability and access to housing should be considered and planned for across the Capital Region, not just community by community. To provide more opportunities for housing choice as well as access to better schools, the wealthier communities need to produce some housing units that are affordable to people at lower-income levels and are accessible to people with mobility impairments.

I really feel for those Sandidge Way residents. A massive, five-story apartment complex would totally block their view of the Nanotech building just 500 feet away!

Columbia Development and Massry Tri-City Development did not spend millions of dollars for land without knowing that a zoning change would not happen. Thousands of dollars in campaign contributions went to the Mayor Sheehan, County Executive Dan McCoy, Senator Amedore and Governor Cuomo. Now the senator and the governor do not have a vote on Albany's Common Council, but millions was found in the State Budget to balance Albany's City Budget.
Coincidence??? Not realy! New York has the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in corruption.

Sandidge Way is not my back yard (I'm downtown) but there is no need to destroy a quiet residential street when there are plenty of other better suited places to build a 175 unit apartment. Variances should not be given for the benefit of the developer. The issue shouldn't have taken over the meeting, should have been resolved already.

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