The idea seemed like a pipe dream.
But in the highly competitive race for the open 10th Congressional District seat, a grassroots advocacy campaign calling for affordable housing on an empty, state-owned World Trade Center development site has become an unexpected political test for candidates seeking to represent one of the city’s most liberal districts.
Against the backdrop of an affordable housing crisis and issues of equity, all but one of the major candidates have embraced the idea that has been described as quixotic, but which has gained newfound political relevance amid an up-for-grabs August 23rd primary.
Under redistricting, the development site at 130 Liberty Street — also known as parcel 5 of the World Trade Center — was drawn into the new district, encompassing Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.
So far, five of the leading Democratic contenders — former Mayor Bill de Blasio, ex-prosecutor Daniel Goldman, Congressman Mondaire Jones, and Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou and Jo Anne Simon — have all signed on in support of the affordable housing campaign run by a group of residents and 9/11 activists called the Coalition for a 100% Affordable 5WTC. While approval of the project rests with Gov. Kathy Hochul, the district’s representative in Congress, can help push for federal funding to subsidize greater affordability.
The concept of creating an affordable complex in one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods was first proposed last year leading up to the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Purchased with federal money intended to spur the neighborhood’s recovery after 9/11, the site was set to become the first residential building within the sprawling development.
The development team selected by the state led by Brookfield Properties and Silverstein Properties carved out 300 of roughly 1,200 units as affordable. The plan has been touted by the developers as having the potential to deliver “unprecedented” and “deeply affordable” permanent affordable housing in Lower Manhattan without the need for a public subsidy.
But members of the coalition argued that public land, particularly one borne of historic tragedy, came with a higher obligation.
They said the building should be entirely affordable and that 9/11 survivors and essential workers should have tenant preference.
“There are moral issues here,” said Todd Fine, one of the members of the Coalition for a 100% Affordable 5WTC.
He pointed to the outset of discussions around rebuilding Lower Manhattan. “There was so much commitment to the idea that this needed to be done fairly,” he said.
Many of the candidates running have agreed, although the sudden outpouring of support by some can seem politically expedient.
“Who wants to be against low-cost affordable housing for 9/11 survivors?” said Nicholas Dagan Bloom, an urban policy professor at Hunter College. “The big issue is who will pay for it, and is the price reasonable?”
Under current plans, the project has been designed as a 900-foot skyscraper deemed a supertall with 1,200 apartments. It would straddle Battery Park City and Tribeca, two of the city’s priciest and most racially segregated neighborhoods. Between 2015 and 2019, the area had an average household income of $323,000, according to city data, while more than 70% of the residents are white.
The demographics speak to the argument that there needs to be a more equitable distribution of affordable housing in New York City. But the challenge of doing that has always been the prohibitively high cost of land and construction in wealthier sections of Manhattan compared to the outer boroughs.
“It’s the bang for your buck problem,” Bloom said.
In the case of the WTC site, the cost of constructing each apartment is approximately $1 million, according to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the state entity in charge of the project.
At the same time, the developers have maintained that they would need $500 million to make all of the units affordable. In a statement to Gothamist, Andrew Brent, a spokesperson for the developers, said, “5WTC will also provide needed market-rate housing and community and public amenity spaces on a site that was originally planned solely for office and retail, helping complete the exciting revitalization of the World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan.”
Supporters of greater affordability argue the costs can be lowered with a redesign that slightly lowers the height of the building. They have also pointed to creative financing mechanisms like using federal Section 8 vouchers or issuing special tax-exempt bonds.
At the end of the day, Fine also argued, “It’s worth it to pay a premium for affordable housing.”
Noting the $4 billion transportation hub and office skyscraper that had been erected so far, he added: “There is not any affordable housing to show for it.”
The project still needs to go through a lengthy review process that will involve public hearings. Hochul has been noncommittal so far. Asked for a comment, Hochul’s office referred to a previous statement.
“Gov. Hochul is committed to continuing to take bold action to protect tenants and help solve the housing affordability crisis – not just in one neighborhood or one building, but across the state, and we are monitoring the development of this project in that context,” her spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hayes said.
‘I will fight for that’
Of those running to represent the congressional district, Niou has the longest track record of advocacy on the issue. The WTC site sits inside her Assembly district and she was among a group of elected officials who backed the effort early on. In newsletters to constituents last year, she called the project an “opportunity for permanently and deeply-affordable housing.”
Last month, Niou won the key endorsement of the Working Families Party, which has made affordable housing a central part of its platform.
While her rivals in the race may have arrived late to the game, they have nonetheless responded emphatically.
“It absolutely should be 100% affordable, with a preference for survivors of 9/11,” said de Blasio last week during a candidate forum hosted by a group of political clubs in downtown Manhattan. “I will fight for that.”
Goldman, a former prosecutor who lives in Tribeca, argued that private developers who use public land have an obligation to provide the community with amenities like affordable housing, schools and transit-related development.
“That should be a part of any rezoning or any development plan and this is exactly the example that I would use as to how we should do it,” he said.
Fine, of the coalition, has actively sought to get candidates on the record. In May, he began tweeting at candidates, asking if they would commit their support.
Jones, who moved to the district last month from Westchester County, responded within hours.
Meanwhile, Simon, who represents Park Slope, reached out to have a conversation with members of the coalition. In its endorsement of her last week, the Downtown Independent Democrats, the largest political club covering Lower Manhattan, cited her commitment to 100% affordability at 5 WTC as one of the reasons she won the members’ backing.
Still, in a field of more than a dozen candidates, not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. The most prominent holdout has been Manhattan City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who recently received the backing of 1199 SEIU, an influential union which represents healthcare workers.
Rivera did not respond to Fine’s tweets, but in a statement to Gothamist, the Councilmember explained her decision as having to choose between funding a private development and public housing.
“While I appreciate the spirit of the 5 WTC proposal, governing is about choices and if the choice is between fully funding NYCHA and handling a private developer billions for a skyscraper, I’m choosing NYCHA every time,” Rivera said.
Presented with Rivera’s comments, the Coalition for a 100% Affordable 5WTC responded with its own statement.
“Advocates for a 100% affordable 5 World Trade Center have long made clear that our proposal seeks funding that would not compete with NYCHA or deplete other affordable housing funds,” the group said. “We are deeply disappointed that the council member would rather see 80 stories of luxury housing by ‘handling a private developer billions for a skyscraper’ than create at least 900 affordable units that are desperately needed in a deeply segregated neighborhood.”