March 9, 2021 Op-Ed By: Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer
Four years ago, Phipps Houses withdrew their application to build an affordable housing complex in my Sunnyside neighborhood after I had come out against it.
It was a project that the community board voted against and which faced significant community opposition. I too was opposed, but not because I didn’t want to see affordable housing built here.
As I said then, my opposition focused on four key issues:
1) Phipps’ unwillingness to commit to good jobs, paying good wages, offering real benefits. I have always and will always stand for good union jobs.
2) The “affordable” apartments weren’t truly affordable – income levels were too high.
3) The existing tenants living in the Phipps Garden Apartments across the street complained of serious maintenance issues.
4) The new building would be nearly twice the height of the building across the street
Those were real issues and real concerns. And I wish Phipps had been able to address them then.
But Phipps maintained ownership of the property, currently a large parking lot. They revised their proposal and came back to me and the community with it.
Some of the same voices opposed to the project four years ago are once again demanding that I block it. They say it’s the same project, with the same flaws, and if I opposed it four years ago, I should do so again. But this is a different, and much improved proposal. Here’s why:
Phipps has changed their tune to hiring and now offers good jobs widely, including both in this newly proposed development and the Phipps Garden Apartments. The affordability levels have been lowered dramatically, with 20% of the units at 40% AMI and the highest income band at 80%. We have never seen such levels of affordability in this area.
The buildings height has been brought in line with the existing Phipps Garden Apartments across the street. And while we have a ways to go to hold Phipps accountable as landlords, working with Community Board 2 (which voted against the plan four year ago but in favor of this plan), Phipps agreed to an improvement plan to address existing tenant complaints and have begun regular meetings with the tenant association. And improvements have begun with the hiring of additional staff and agreements on further steps to address legitimate tenant issues.
In this highly charged and vitriolic space we call politics, the demands and attacks are well underway. Phipps can and must do better by its tenants, but claiming they are slumlords doesn’t bear out. I’ve heard some say this housing isn’t truly affordable, but tell that to the formerly homeless families who will find a home here. Some have genuine concerns. Others spread lies and conspiracy theories about this plan. But truth has to matter again in government.
So let’s be honest about this project. It is deeply affordable. All of this housing is for people who are at, near or below minimum wage earners. We cannot deny these families a home. This is an opportunity to do what we say we want to do, which is build truly affordable housing.
Sunnyside must be a community that is welcoming to all, including the formerly homeless and low income earners. Low wage workers, including those making $15 an hour, need affordable housing. This project provides that.
Leadership requires one to make tough choices, even if you know it will cost you votes. And just as I insisted we build a nearby middle school despite some local opposition, I must do the right thing here as well and support this project.
I cannot in good conscience block a project that has now addressed my prior concerns and will provide genuinely affordable homes to people who desperately need them.
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer represents District 26 in Western Queens