Jun. 5, 2023 By Tom Grech
Queens is the future, but more than ever we need Albany’s help to make sure it happens.
State lawmakers are set to pack their bags and head back to their districts for the rest of 2023, and it increasingly seems like they won’t be taking any housing victories home with them. That’s a shame when you consider the affordability crisis and commercial vacancies and our struggles to house people only getting worse. Only the legislature can solve these problems, which is why it’s crucial they not leave Albany without taking meaningful action to build housing and spur economic development in Queens and every borough.
Lawmakers have two clear-cut solutions in front of them that will lead to tens of thousands of units. The first is to lift the floor-area ratio (FAR) cap and then to expand office-to-residential conversions with an incentive to encourage affordable housing. These are the lowest-hanging fruits in terms of housing solutions and have the backing of the Queens Chamber of Commerce and dozens of organizations that make up the 5 Borough Housing Movement. We have backed these proposals because the New Yorkers we represent want to see tangible solutions that start to create units.
The reality is that our housing policies don’t match today’s Queens. New York state passed the FAR cap in 1962, when Shea Stadium was still under construction, JFK Airport was still known as “Idlewild,” and the fabled Jamaica Macy’s was humming with shoppers. Queens is a different world today: the Mets are in their second home, JFK is a completely different airport and our population has grown by more than 600,000 people. Yet the FAR cap continues to limit how many apartments can be on the floor of our building.
And, no, the Unisphere won’t be cast in the shadow of skyscrapers in Sunnyside. Lifting the FAR cap does not mean an explosion of tall buildings, but rather a full assessment of what parts of New York City could be denser. Any impacted area would have to go through the Big Apple’s rigorous rezoning process, which ends with a vote by the City Council. That would also automatically activate the City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) policy that requires affordable housing to be built.
An end to the FAR cap is also essential for office conversions to reach their full potential. This is a brilliant policy that’s so far been limited to pockets of Manhattan, where it’s yielded a lot of luxury housing but not many affordable units. It’s part of the reason why rents in Manhattan are astronomical and many have crossed the East River for greener pastures here in Queens.
We’ll gladly roll out the red carpet for these folks, but we also need the tools to create new housing. Class B and C office vacancies are also hitting our commercial districts, although not at the scale of Manhattan. That’s vacant space in Long Island City, Downtown Jamaica, and Flushing that could be apartments within walking distance of mass transit, cultural amenities, and hands-down the best food in the world. All told, office conversions could create 20,000 units citywide over the next decade. That will not only help us create the 24/7 communities we deserve but allow Manhattan to finally do its part in the struggle to create affordable housing.
More companies see the value of setting up shop in Queens. Their employees want to work and raise their families here. We are the most diverse place on earth — a point of pride we’re committed to preserving, celebrating, and expanding. But we need the housing to truly keep this as a borough for everyone.
Only Albany can give us the tools to build that housing. Let’s hope they help us deliver that future this week.
Tom Grech is president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce and a member of the 5 Borough Housing Coalition.