The clashing visions and competing priorities that were at the center of the recent race for the City Council seat representing Lower Manhattan have begun to crystallize into a bricks-and-mortar policy decision. The plan to use a City-owned lot to create permanently affordable housing for low-income seniors on the site of a public garden in Little Italy took a major step forward on Friday, when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced that it was moving forward with a proposal to create a 121-unit building on the site — a mid-block lot that connects Elizabeth and Mott Streets, north of Spring Street, and south of Prince Street.
For several years, the leading advocate for this plan has been City Council member Margaret Chin. But her support for the project became a wedge issue during her recent bid for reelection, when critics of the plan — who wish to preserve the existing Elizabeth Street Garden, and build public housing elsewhere — coalesced around her principal opponent, Christopher Marte. In a hard-fought campaign, Mr. Marte came within a few percentage points of denying Ms. Chin the Democratic nomination, and then reprised this effort during the general election (this time under the Independence Party line) with an unusually strong, although ultimately unsuccessful, third-party run.
The final version of the plan for the parcel announced by HPD on Friday includes both affordable senior housing and a new (albeit smaller) 7,600-square-foot public garden. The development, called Haven Green will also include a headquarters for Habitat for Humanity New York City and flexible community activity space, as well as services provided by RiseBoro Community Partnerships, Habitat for Humanity New York City and SAGE, an organization that seeks to improve the lives of LGBT seniors. The entire project will consist of subsidized housing for seniors, with 121 units of “deeply affordable” apartments, with monthly rents ranging from $331 to $761. These homes will be set aside for seniors earning between $20,040 and $40,080 per year, with about 30 percent of the apartments reserved for seniors who were once homeless. And these protections (unlike those at many other affordable developments) are slated never to expire.
In recent years, the lack of affordable housing for the elderly has burgeoned into a slow-motion crisis in New York City, where one in five seniors lives below the poverty line.
On Friday, Ms. Chin said, “the City’s proposal marks a victory for those who value the need for affordable senior housing and open space in Lower Manhattan. This plan delivers on our commitment to our most vulnerable seniors — including seniors of the Stonewall generation who would not only have direct access to vital LGBTQ services, but also an opportunity to age in the very community where their struggle for equality and inclusion began. And community members from all walks of life would have an opportunity to enjoy more than 7,6000 square feet of public green space.”
The new building will also be constructed to “passive house” standards, which will significantly reduce the building’s energy consumption. (The project is expected to use 60 to 70 percent less energy than a standard building of its kind.) The structure and the public open space will also be designed to manage and reuse storm water, relying on a rooftop rainwater harvesting system and permeable surfaces covering the majority of the open space. The site plan will maximize exposure to sunlight and provide access to the public open space, with the Mott Street-side remaining unbuilt and a passageway through the building providing access to the public open space from both sides of the project.
HPD’s proposal for Haven Green still must pass muster under the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Process. But because it is located within Ms. Chin’s City Council District, and she supports the plan, ultimate approval is viewed by a fait accompli.
But the controversy continues. Mr. Marte responded to Friday’s announcement by calling a rally to oppose the plan (scheduled for 1:00 pm today on the steps of City Hall), and saying, “our solution is clear and non-divisive. Blocks from the garden is an empty gravel lot. It serves no one, and houses nothing but the trash piled by its gate. Capable of hosting up to five times as many units, this is the home we need for our seniors. We don’t need to deprive them of a garden when an abandoned lot continues to accumulate rats and litter.” (The alternate site described by Mr. Marte is located at Hudson and Clarkson Streets.)
Ms. Chin announced a rally of her own (scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, at 2:00 pm, also in front of City Hall, and said, “with more than 200,000 elderly residents languishing on a waitlist for housing, the need for affordable housing for the aging community is more urgent than ever.”
In 2015, when the controversy of building housing for seniors on the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden first began to take shape, Ms. Chin observed, “if we are truly committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers can afford to have a safe, clean place to live and to ensuring that seniors don’t have to choose between paying for rent or paying for medication, we can’t afford to say, ‘I like affordable housing, but can’t you build it somewhere else?’ We have to start standing up for what we believe in, and build affordable housing for seniors where we can.”