Historic Zoning Changes: New York City Zoning for Quality and Affordability

Laura Osorio

Posted by Laura Osorio

This past March, New York City adopted amendments that are major changes to its zoning regulations, Zoning Resolution of the City of New York. These amendments seek to increase the amount of affordable housing in all five boroughs and improve the quality of the city’s housing. We at Burnham have been following the process for the adoption of the changes to New York City’s zoning regulations and are providing an overview of Zoning for Quality and Affordability, some of the complex amendments to New York City’s zoning regulations.


Background to Zoning for Quality and Affordability

In 2014, the New York City Mayor, Bill De Blasio, unveiled Housing New York, a 10-year plan to build and preserve 200,000 affordable units throughout the city that will provide housing for approximately 500,000 residents. As a result of many factors, particularly New York City’s desirability as a place to live and economic growth, there has been a loss of affordable housing in many of the City’s neighborhoods affecting seniors and low-to-moderate income families. Currently, there is an affordable housing crisis in the city.

Housing New York outlines a variety of initiatives to support the plan’s goals. To help with building new affordable housing in the city, one of Housing New York’s recommendations is to amend the New York City zoning regulations to encourage less expensive and more development of affordable housing units. The plan notes some of the New York City zoning regulations are outdated and stand in the way of building attractive and quality affordable housing.

The Housing New York recommendations for zoning changes to encourage developing more affordable housing were incorporated as the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) amendments. Also, the ZQA amendments seek to resolve some of the limitations of the Quality Housing regulations adopted in 1987. These regulations were intended to maintain the character of medium-to-high-density neighborhoods designated as contextual zoning districts, and they have generally worked well. However, over the years, it has become apparent that the Quality Housing regulations have placed limitations on residential building design. The regulations are now outdated and have not kept pace with current changes, particularly those involving green technologies, new construction and design methodologies for residential buildings, and ways to make use of difficult to build on irregular lots.

After opportunity for public comment on the approved draft amendments by the City Planning Commission, The New York City Council (Council) voted on March 22, 2016, to adopt ZQA with some modifications, such as adjustments in building height, different parking requirements, exemptions to the Sliver Law, rear yard obstructions, and distances between buildings among others. On the same day, the Council passed a companion program, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, that requires developers to create affordable housing when an area is up-zoned or rezoned for additional housing development.

Highlights of Zoning for Quality and Affordability Zoning Changes

The goal of the ZQA changes is to facilitate the development of affordable housing, including housing and care facilities for seniors.The ZQA is also designed to enhance the quality of apartment buildings in medium-to-high-density areas by allowing more interesting exterior design elements, improving ground level retail space, and encouraging apartments with increased ceiling heights. The ZQA amendments, scattered throughout the many pertinent zoning provisions, are lengthy and detailed. The following highlights some of ZQA’s most important changes:

Supports Affordable Senior Housing and Long-Term Care Facilities

  • Introduces the term “affordable independent residences for seniors” to broaden the type of entities eligible to provide affordable housing for seniors
  • Increases the floor area ratio for affordable senior housing in high-density and some medium-density contextual zoning districts
  • Allows for more flexibility in affordable housing unit size and density
  • Introduces the new term “long-term care facilities” to include today’s spectrum of care facilities
  • Removes or reduces the cumbersome permitting process for long-term care facility development in certain districts and increased floor area ratios
  • Zoning changes to encourage mixing of affordable senior housing and long-term care in one facility, such as allowing the same maximum floor area ratio for both

Encourages Inclusionary and Affordable Housing

  • Permits a more flexible building envelope, including a higher maximum height for inclusionary housing (mixed income housing) in contextual zoning districts
  • Removes barriers to affordable housing development on narrow sites by eliminating the specific height restrictions for these lots
  • Lowers or eliminates the affordable housing parking requirements in Transit Zones, areas designated by the amendments with good public transportation

Improves Quality Housing Regulations

  • Allows an increase in the height of Quality Housing buildings in some contextual zoning districts if the building’s ground floor meets a number of specific requirements
  • Changes ground level floor area requirements to support accessibility ramps
  • Modifies street wall line-up provisions and articulation
  • More flexible court regulations in certain zoning districts
  • Changes provisions for corner buildings to allow for “wrapped” corners and heights that help with better transitions between buildings
  • New setback provisions to improve space at ground level and more variety at upper levels
  • Removes the minimum unit size requirement of 400 square feet to allow for more flexibility in unit design
  • Eliminates Quality Housing double-pane window and modifies Special Mixed Use District sound-attenuated window requirements
  • Changes zoning rules in certain districts regarding irregular site conditions to facilitate better building design

Impact of Zoning for Quality and Affordability

There was considerable opposition to ZQA. Some groups believe the amendments don’t do enough to encourage affordable housing and others are concerned the amendments will facilitate the development of larger buildings that will ruin the character of their community. It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the ZQA amendments will encourage affordable housing that will permanently remain economical and transform residential building design. Time will tell.

The New York City zoning regulations are complex, but we at Burnham can help you understand the zoning requirements that apply to your construction project.

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