A panel of developers, community leaders and government representatives spoke about various housing issues in Queens during a housing conference hosted by the Tribune. Photo by Bruce Adler.
BY JOE MARVILLI
The Queens Tribune and the PRESS of Southeast Queens hosted a housing conference on Oct. 14, looking at both affordable and luxury housing in the Borough with a bevy of invested parties.
Taking place at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, the conference examined both the challenges and opportunities of the housing market in Queens and throughout the City. Elected officials, real estate developers, government employees and community leaders came together to throw in their two cents on what housing is and what housing could be in the Borough.
Michael Nussbaum, the publisher of the Tribune and the PRESS, introduced the conference by discussing the spotlight that has slowly focused on Queens over the last few years, in terms of development. With Manhattan prices going through the roof and Brooklyn not far behind, developers are turning their gaze towards Queens as an opportunity for investments.
“Many people look at Queens as the last frontier of available land to develop,” he said. “The availability of product here is as good and generous as anywhere you can get in the City. Within 10 square blocks between Main [Street] and Roosevelt [Avenue in Flushing], there’s close to $2.5 billion of private equity going in. But in Jamaica, there are hotels going up. There are people looking at developments here.”
With several major projects underway throughout the Borough, such as Hunters Point South, Flushing Commons and The Norman Towers in Jamaica, everyone at the panel seemed to agree that Queens had arrived as a ripe landscape on the housing market.
However, taking place concurrently with this growing development market are rising levels of income inequality. According to a 2013 report released by the New York University Furman Center, between 2000 and 2012, median rent in New York City went up while the median income of renter households declined. The median rent in Queens has jumped from $1,239 per month in 2006 to $1,327 per month in 2012. At the same time, median household income dropped from $60,563 in 2000 to $55,633 in 2012.
The questions of the conference centered on what happens next.
Electeds Weigh In
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and U.S. Rep. Greg Meeks (D-Jamaica) addressed the packed event space, giving their perspective on Queens’ housing market. They both particularly focused on affordable housing and its opportunities and obstacles.
Katz said that one of the most important parts of affordable housing is making sure that the rent remains reasonably priced. The BP’s words have been backed by her actions in the past, such as her rejection of the Astoria Cove development proposal due to a lack of sufficient affordability.
“One of the things I believe we need to do is educate folks about affordable housing,” she said. “It is for working folks who need a place to live. That’s the definition of affordable housing. The one thing we don’t want to do is price people out of communities they’re living in.”
For instances where the new developments’ units are within the community’s price range, Katz said the next challenge is making sure that the new projects interact with the community and do their best to fit into its framework.
“Folks are coming here next to build. There’s just no doubt about that,” the BP said. “We need to make sure that as they build, and as we create jobs and housing we desperately need, that we also keep that part of Queens that we really love.”
Meeks’ speech focused on the specific history and trials of Southeast Queens. He talked about the neighborhood’s history as one of the most affluent African-American communities in the country. However, the Great Recession of 2008 caused many people to lose their homes. As the community recovers, the Congressman said that the question is how to get these individuals back in the market. He added that seniors are also struggling to find adequate lodgings.
“In Southeastern Queens, you have a number of seniors who want to downsize but have no place to go. They have equity still in their homes so they want a decent prize,” Meeks said, then addressing the developers. “Some of you have worked with the community very closely. You’ve got to take these communities into consideration as you look to develop.”
The centerpiece of the conference was a panel and Q&A session with several developers and community leaders, where they took on housing in Queens from multiple angles and viewpoints.
Mark Willis, executive director and resident research fellow of the NYU Furman Center, moderated the conversation. The six experts on the panel were Michael Meyer, president of F&T Group, Eric Bluestone, a partner in the Bluestone Organization, Teresa Bainton, the director of the New York Multifamily Hub, Elliot Sander, president and CEO of the HAKS Group, Michael Mattone, executive vice president and CFO of The Mattone Group, and Peter Kulka, chairman of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
One of the issues the panelists honed in on was the battle between continuing development in Queens, while keeping costs down to avoid pricing people out of their neighborhoods. Meyer said that the big jumps in prices in Manhattan and Brooklyn are now coming to Queens. Bluestone said the challenges were also dependent on the details of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan.
“The ability to be able to build affordable housing in Queens is becoming difficult. We’re still waiting for the dust to settle on what the City’s affordable housing program is and how the City is looking to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to subsidizing,” he said.
For Downtown Jamaica, several panelists said they were looking into how the area could be transformed into a desirable destination, not just for people visiting, but also for the residents. People who live in Southeast Queens have limited options for entertainment or dining near their homes.
Mattone said that the company’s construction of Jamaica Center, with retail locations and a movie theater, tried to achieve this goal. However, Kulka said Jamaica needs more affordable housing and other economic development to attract people.
“We need to get people back into the downtown. With that follows the economic development, the businesses, the commercial center, then you start getting large corporate chain stores, better restaurants, food eateries,” he said. “Currently, Jamaica after 5 p.m. becomes a different country. People who work in Queens, coming through it, leave. Then you have a vacuum. We need to bring residents here.”
Responding to an audience question, Bluestone said that people living in the arteries around Downtown Jamaica do not have anywhere nearby to relax and enjoy a night or day out. The creation of those surroundings is required to push Southeast Queens forward.
Sander added that Brooklyn and Harlem are hot neighborhoods partially due to those areas’ beautification efforts. He said that Jamaica should do the same.
“One of the reasons Brooklyn is hot is because they beautified those neighborhoods,” he said. “Jamaica has unbelievable potential if you look at the architecture, but in terms of the signage and in terms of street furniture and layout, it’s not attractive, so we need to focus on that.”
Nussbaum asked the panelists to address the Mayor with a simple housing request or question. In response, Mattone asked for the relocation of some City agencies to Southeast Queens. Bluestone asked for those agencies to work closely with developers. Meyer wanted to know the Mayor’s housing plans, aside from affordable units, for the outer boroughs.
Kulka said the Mayor should keep his eyes on Jamaica, an argument emphasized at another point in the discussion.
“This administration has been wonderful in opening its eyes to Jamaica,” he said. “But now, we need to make a move. We need to make things happen. Talk is talk. Let’s get to work.”
Reach Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @JoeMarvilli.