Councilmember Julie Won on Innovation QNS

QNS Innovation, the $2 billion megadevelopment in Astoria, received final approval on Tuesday with a 46-1 city council vote approving applications to rezon the project. The site will now include more than 3,000 housing units, nearly half of which—1,436 to be exact—marked as affordable, making Innovation the largest private affordable housing project in the borough’s history.

But getting here from what was initially offered as a market-priced luxury project, with renderings featuring designer stores and just 25% affordability, wasn’t easy. Innovation has become a lightning rod during a two-year battle as the dueling parties define their positions on the best way out of the housing crisis: will even luxury development at the cost of market eases the pressure? Or should communities use the crisis to hold the line on true accessibility, pushing developers to forgo some of their billion-dollar bottom line?

Councilwoman Julie Won, who represents the district in which Innovation will be located, became the face of the latter group, early and publicly committing to a 50% accessibility threshold. But that word can be a wacky way to describe housing that’s still out of reach for low-income New Yorkers, and Won knows that better than anyone. According NYU Furman Center analysis, Astoria was in the top ten sub-areas of New York for new development over the past decade, but that hasn’t translated into affordability. A staggering 92% of new units in the neighborhood were at market price. As approved, Innovation will add nearly 1,500 additional units, nearly half of which are for those on the lowest incomes — up to $36,000 for a family of three. Won claims the project’s unprecedented affordability as a victory, but a “bittersweet” victory. “The only way we had to get more affordable housing was to fight and say ‘no’, because we’re in a binary system,” Won told me on the eve of the final vote. We talked about being called NIMBY, holding an unpopular line, and how negotiations really fell apart.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do you feel after the vote?

I have to say it’s bittersweet. Within the parameters that I’m operating in – under this leadership, this affordable housing crisis we’re living in right now, a looming recession, with high rates of inflation – this was the best deal I could have fought for my community. However, it is unique for private landfor private development, where we’re nearly 50 percent affordable, affordable housing at a deep level.

You could not exceed this 50% threshold.

Currently, census data shows us that in the first community council, only 10% of my current residents could afford to live in Innovation Queens if it were developed today. Ninety percent of my parents can’t afford to live there because the median rent is $1,600 and the median income is $68,000. The developers said, “Listen, we can give you more affordable units if you do this program and this program.” I was unwilling to go to [Mandatory Inclusive Housing] the second option, which would raise the rent for AMI levels to 80% AMI, so you would need to earn over $86,000 to live there. I said, no, I want extremely low income. I could have accepted this deal if I just wanted to save face and say, “Look, I’ve reached 55% affordability,” but I’m not willing to do that. What matters to me is getting the best deal from my community members, meaning the highest levels of affordability for as many family units as possible.

You had a considerable setback for having supported this “no”.

You hear very publicly from elected officials like the borough president, who criticized me a lot for having held firm. He was on TV saying “no” was never an option. And the president of the city council and the mayor also say: “We are a city of yes. From their point of view, they are focusing on building to get out of this housing crisis. While I’ve been very public and we can’t get out of a housing crisis by building luxury developments. We have allowed the development of luxury units and mark-to-market units to overtake the development of affordable housing.

What about those who say you can’t build enough without market rates?

Anyone say that the only way out of this crisis is to build anything, this is simply not true. You can’t oversimplify supply and demand and say that building luxury market units will have a filtering effect or trickle down to value units or affordable low income market units, especially on markets like mine in the heart of working class Astoria, or in Sunnyside and Woodside. If you look around my neighborhood in Long Island City, Hunters Point, Court Square, we have built over 28,000 units in the last 12 years. What we haven’t seen is a decrease in rents in the surrounding areas or in my district. We only saw an increase in rent. We can agree to disagree, but for me, while I’m in office, my priority will be to build affordable housing at high levels of affordability and focus on family units, and no on bedrooms and studios.

A dynamic begins to form where communal opposition is confused with being ‘anti-housing’. Did this happen during the QNS Innovation debate?

We were called gentrifiers, and we were called NIMBYs. What you saw firsthand in my audition when everyone came out was people of color. It was mostly Latino, Bangladeshi, and Chinese immigrants who came out, children of immigrants who came out and said, “This is my neighborhood, and I can’t afford to live in these expensive buildings that you’re offering . We didn’t have nonprofit leaders speaking on behalf of community members. We literally had Bangladeshi grandmothers speaking for themselves with a translator. Nydia Velázquez, my MP, was so livid that people kept calling us gentrifiers. She turned as she spoke to face the press and developers and said, “Do we look like gentrifiers to you?” It’s really disrespectful.

Did you feel the pressure to be more receptive during the negotiations?

When this project came to my desk, any person of leadership or stature said to me, this is the best you’ll get on a private development. Take a seat, follow the program, accept this proposal, sell it and celebrate it. And I said, “No.” This pressure comes in different forms. All these anonymous quotes from anonymous city council sources in articles, they say things that aren’t true about the members. They will say that the member is unreasonable. The deputy is part of the problem, offers no solution to the housing crisis, fights to have no housing at all. I knew that if I wanted to have more affordable housing, I had to present the solutions. And I did; I gave them creative ways to build more affordable housing in the settings we find ourselves in. And I was able to achieve it. And they responded to my requests. But I had other members who called me a few more weeks ago from SOMOS [the gathering of influential New York politicians in Puerto Rico dedicated to raising awareness for Latino communities] and say, “Hey, I heard this person is going to run against you blah, blah, blah.”

What can be done outside of this binary system, and these struggles of individual projects, to deal with the housing crisis?

In the long term, we need investments from the federal government, especially reinvestments in NYCHA. When we talk about affordable housing, we have to talk about public housing. We need the state to reinvest in affordable homeownership like the Mitchell Lama co-ops and invest in existing developments like Woodside because these co-ops are a pathway to homeownership for New Yorkers in working class. We have to pass Opportunity to Purchase Legislation (TOPA) at the state and city level. We need to establish and invest in community land trusts. We need to enact good cause eviction at the state level so that we actually have decent protections for tenants. We need to create a city-owned land bank, replace our inefficient tax lien sales. We must ensure that land owned by the city is always permanent and affordable social housing. We can do a lot if we are willing to do it.

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