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‘We Can't Play A Zero-Sum Game’: Queens Borough President On Development Battles, Housing Crisis

This month, the latest battle over housing — and where and how it should be built in New York City — has erupted in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria.

The project at the heart of the debate, Innovation QNS, would bring 2,800 housing units to the area, 1,100 of which would be affordable, including 500 set aside for people earning $28K per year. The $2B, 2.7M SF development, a joint venture from Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Astoria Studios and Bedrock Real Estate, scored approval from the New York City Planning Commission last month.

But on Friday, local Council Member Julie Won announced she won’t support the development in its current form and is encouraging her colleagues at the council to do the same. Queens Borough President Donovan Richards in an interview with Bisnow warned against what he calls the “zero-sum game” Won and other politicians are playing when it comes to affordable housing.

He had initially pushed against Innovation QNS, but now that the developers have upped the project’s affordability component from 25% to 40%, he is urging the New York City Council to consider what kind of impact it could have on the affordable housing crisis. The council is expected to take a full vote on Innovation QNS next month after a hearing Wednesday that drew political rallies from supporters and opponents of the project.

Bisnow spoke with Richards, who said the council should override its traditional member deference on Innovation QNS if it needs to, opined on the vision for the vacant land at Willets Point and relayed how the more than 2 million residents of Queens view the real estate industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Donovan Richards

Bisnow: Let's begin by talking about the events over the last few days regarding that planned development in Astoria called Innovation QNS. You were against the $2B project initially, as far as I understand, because you felt it fell short on affordable units. Then the developers increased the affordability component to 40%. Do you support the current proposal?

Donovan Richards: Yes. There's still some things that obviously are outstanding for us. But in concept, yes. We want to see a community advisory board solidified. We want to see more tangible support given to community-based organizations on the ground. We discussed with them, you know, some things around small businesses, making sure that there are opportunities for relocation. And one of the things that was important to Astoria residents was the neighborhood feel around retail. There are certain communities that push for big-box [stores], but they're not one of the communities that was interested in big-box stores.

So more of the neighborhood retail feel was important as well, then employment and MWBE procurement, just ensuring that there are reporting mechanisms that are in place that go to the community board, to the local council person and to our office to make sure that whatever goals the developer has agreed to are actually being met in a transparent and accountable fashion.

Bisnow: So there are some details to be ironed out, but in general, you support it as it stands?

Richards: Listen, my no vote was very clear. And I used to chair the zoning committee at the city council. So I've done a million of these projects in my lifetime and, you know, the 25% bar, as someone who was one of the architects of mandatory inclusionary housing, we never viewed mandatory inclusionary housing as being the ceiling, we viewed it as being the floor. So this project, which is one of the largest [site rezoning applications] we've seen during my tenure as borough president, to me, it was important for us to set that standard for this developer and whatever developers will come after, to let them know that we're not going to just settle for the bare 25% affordable housing that comes before the desk.

And, of course, I recognize that this project brings, you know, some very important things for the community: The community facility piece is really impressive. Bringing in organizations and workforce development organizations and youth organizations that will only strengthen the community was important to the community and, of course, important to me, because I don't believe in just building housing. We have to build the wraparound services around the housing as well. 

Bisnow: The local member, Julie Won, likely needs to give it approval, and on Friday it came out that she's not going to back it because it is, in her words, "a gentrification accelerator." What do you make of that?

Richards: Well, I think you've got to look at the facts of how much affordable housing Astoria has produced over the course of the last decade, and it's near to zero. So the pressures that are felt up in Astoria would be there whether this project was there or not. And you can go to Astoria, there's very few rent-regulated apartments as it is.  

[This project is not] going to resolve all of the issues around homelessness. However, it does put a large dent. When people say, 'Well, just 500 units at 30%, only 1,100.' There are 1,100 families who can use affordable housing. I would caution those who are against 500 units at 30% [AMI] to go visit a homeless shelter. Go talk to those asylum-seekers. I talk to individuals who want to get out of public housing as well every day. Go talk to constituents across Queens who are looking for quality, permanent affordable housing, and then come back to me and tell me that we should disapprove this project. 

Bisnow: One of those people would be Julie Won, right?

Richards: Listen, I support the council member, of course, pushing for more. That's not even a question. We have to now get to a point in this project where we have to make sure that the numbers work, because there are a lot of needs on the site. So if there's a tangible way to get to more, I am all-in on that. However, we can't play a zero-sum game in Queens County when we are facing an affordability crisis of great magnitude.

Bisnow: OK, so just to put it bluntly, do you think she's doing the wrong thing by pushing against it?

Richards: I don't want to get into it. I have faith in the city council that they will move aggressively because they see the same things and hear the same things across the borough and across the city that I'm hearing, that we are in a crisis. We are in a state of emergency. Now is not the time to play a zero-sum game, and if that means the council overriding member deference, then you know, then this should be that case. We now are seeing the largest number of individuals in the shelter system than we've ever seen in history. This is a time to move aggressively. 

A rendering of Innovation QNS

Bisnow:  You tweeted on Friday, as far as I read, that 'Black and Brown Queens residents deserve to live in Astoria. We were pushed out nearly a decade ago because of no affordable housing.' And then you said you would go 'all out on this ish.'  What does that mean exactly? Like, as a borough president, what levers can you pull to spur more affordable housing? 

Richards: Well, I'm gonna use my bully pulpit. You look at Astoria and you look at what has transpired over the course of the last decade and beyond, how residents who are Black and Brown were pushed out because of very little affordable housing production. So yes, I am going all out on this ish because this is one of those moments that are going to define where we move as a borough — and where we head moving into the future. 

Black and Brown New Yorkers largely have only seen affordable housing built in neighborhoods like Jamaica and Far Rockaway. Astoria is one of those affluent neighborhoods that should also have affordable housing as well.

Bisnow: What do you hear most from your constituents when you talk about real estate? What do they tell you when you're out and about?

Richards: Twitterverse is one thing, but on the ground, you will hear every day housing is the No. 1 issue in Queens. Food insecurity, housing insecurity, those are the two things at the top of every constituent's mind, and once again, when I go into the shelters or when I get alerts — just as I have the last two or three days — every day a shelter is opening in Queens. I mean, every single day we have a shelter opening in Queens. 

As I speak, this morning, I got another alert from the city that they're opening another shelter. So that's what's on the mind of working-class and low-income New Yorkers: the need for more housing. They're not getting into these conversations about real estate developers. They just want quality housing. And you know, I just opened up a building in the Rockaways where one of the first individuals to get a key was a young lady who came out of the shelter system with her 5-year-old daughter. They lived in a public housing development out there, and now they have a brand-new, quality apartment. And that's what's on the mind of everyday New Yorkers. They're not getting in the weeds of these battles on Twitter. They just want housing.

Bisnow: Just last month, City Council Member Tiffany Cabán gave her support to Hallets North, which will bring hundreds of permanently affordable units to the area. She said that it was a choice of that or risk having the site turned into a last-mile distribution facility. That kind of negotiation, that kind of deal, [is that] pushing away from the zero-sum game, as you described it?

Richards: Yes, and we worked with Council Member Cabán on that project. Obviously, she drove home the strongest deal she could. We did everything we could to make the numbers work. She worked out a negotiation for a million dollars for the Astoria houses. She worked out a community facility on the site.

That project is about 30% affordable. [Innovation QNS] has 40%. So I'm confused why we're even having the conversation at this point. Because this project is literally not even, you know, it's a few blocks away from the last project. That project, I think, had 200-something-odd units affordable. This project, we're talking 1,100. I'm gonna take away my political hat for a second: How do you approve 237 or whatever that unit count was and then not do 1,100 in the same neighborhood? The question council members will have to ask is, ‘How do we vote to approve 30% and then disapprove 40%?’

I'm not speaking for council members. I used to be there, but I think I know enough of them to know that they want to deal with this affordable housing crisis. They know it's a state of emergency. And I feel great about the prospects of the city council moving forward with this project because of the crisis we're in. 

How do you turn down 500 units at 30% AMI in a housing crisis? If you're thirsty, you gotta drink some water. If you're in a housing crisis, you gotta build housing.

Bisnow: Let's talk about Queens in general. The borough is one of the most diverse places in the world. There's no single racial or ethnic group that dominates the population, and it's seen a huge jump in the population in the last few decades. It sounds like housing is obviously the biggest issue for the borough when it comes to development, but is there anything else? 

Richards: Employment. The prospects of a recession are high for the first quarter of next year. Unemployment, although lower than the citywide average, we're hovering somewhere around 6%. But we know when you look at unemployment that there are certain communities that, when America gets a cold, you know, they get pneumonia. And those are normally Black and Brown communities. So that's why a project like this, as we talk about employment, there are opportunities to put people into union jobs here, which is upward mobility. Because it's not about keeping people where they're at. We have to invest in the infrastructure in this community. You have to invest in human infrastructure so we can get people who are not working into some of these middle-class job opportunities that also frees up, you know, units as well and helps us to ensure that this is a borough that's prosperous for everyone. 

I don't have to tell you about the challenges around the asylum-seekers, language access, like all these things are front and center right now. We are at a crisis at the moment, especially coming out of this pandemic and still swimming through the pandemic, where we have to move aggressively on all of these fronts. So I don't take my job lightly. You know, I don't take these projects lightly because, of course, we don't want to see people displaced.  

I come from teenage parents. I lived in 20 places in Queens coming up because it was hard for my parents to find quality affordable housing. So I know what it's like to live in a basement and have flooding sometimes.

Bisnow: With Willets Point, that's an area of Queens that has garnered significant attention in recent months. So last year, the city broke ground on a development there that will bring significant numbers of affordable housing units, a school, retail, community facility. But the headlines lately have been that the area's set to score a soccer stadium for the New York City Football Club. What do you know about that?

Richards: A 26,000-seat stadium. Listen, it's exciting, and you know, we're in initial conversations. We're talking with them, but you know, the conversation doesn't change for me.

Bisnow: Just to clarify, 'them' being NYCFC? Is that who you mean?

Richards: I will just leave it very vague. You know, obviously, the city and others have an interest in it at this moment. But what I would say is, I don't care who the operator is. I don't care what the stadium is. I mean, I'm a Mets fan, but I don't care what happens there that is along the lines of a stadium. The things that are important to me are, what are the job opportunities with us? I don't care if Nickelodeon [goes] there, for all I care. All I care about is ensuring that Queens gets the biggest bang for its buck when it comes to not just economic development but community development. And when I say community development, that means: What does it look like for the communities in Corona right across the tracks? How is this going to benefit them, right? How are we going to provide opportunities for upward mobility there? So that's what's key for me on whatever is gonna happen. Whoever's gonna [put] a soccer field there, they have to hit a goal for the community.

Bisnow: Because it's not just the stadium. The area's also been floated as a possible spot for a casino. New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, he's also interested in Willets Point and has apparently spoken to City Hall about it, if reporting is to be believed, for a casino. Do you have any views about a casino there?

Richards: The conversation doesn't change. If a casino is going to come, if they're going to roll the dice in Queens County, we need for the residents to hit the jackpot too. I'm too cheap to gamble. I'm only spending $1. But the bottom line is, what does a casino look like for residents? We've seen Resorts World in Queens. We know that there have been some benefits for investment in education and other things. But once again, whether it's a casino, whether it's a stadium, I'm gonna raise the same question: How does it benefit the local community?

Bisnow:  I did read that you'd been approached by lobbyists, specifically Related Cos. What did you talk about and would you have any preferred partners? 

Richards: I wasn't approached by lobbyists from Related, but you know ... 

Bisnow: So that's wrong? Do I have that wrong? 

Richards: I forgot who I was approached by. But folks related to the Mets, to Steve Cohen. [It’s the] same conversation I'm having with them is the same I’m having with you. You know, how would this benefit the local community?

Bisnow: What would you do if you could control the site yourself? If you had a full decision over what to do there, what would you do there?

Richards: Well, I hate to say this, because I like to also listen to communities to see what they want, but in a perfect world, I would always want training centers. I think that there's room to do a lot more vocational training in Queens. You know, you have a lot of people who may not go to college … but they're still good with their hands. So how are we training — and especially coming out of the pandemic, right, where the workforce has really evolved — how are we creating entrepreneurial opportunities, whether it's through tech, whether it's through construction? How are we training individuals in these communities?

You know, school seats are critical for Queens. We, even with the asylum-seekers coming in, have some huge, huge challenges around overcrowding in schools as it is. So how are we creating more opportunities there but also ensuring that there is dual-language attached to whatever we're going to do, especially for diverse communities around Citi Field? I love housing. Listen, if a casino is going to come, like I said, I love jobs. Queens is open for business under this administration. There are a lot of pluses when you have land, but we just need to be able to make sure that whatever decisions are being made, are being made in consultation with the community as well. Even if it's imperfect, we try to make the imperfect perfect.  

Donovan Richards at the Queens Wellness Day and Wellness Expo in September.

Bisnow: I want to circle back to the discussion about large housing projects proposed in Queens. In Julie Won's leaked email to a colleague, she's asking them to back her specifically because she views it as causing displacement and pushing up rents, but also that approving the project would send a message to the community that the council would work around them and their representatives for the profit of large real estate. Do you think it's fair to characterize a compromise with private development [that way]? 

Richards: No, it's not fair. Because 100% of the community is not against the project. And just because there are loud voices on Twitter doesn't mean that they speak for the entire community. And I think we've also heard from community members who weren't initially happy with the deal in the first place as well. They had challenges around affordability. People who had concerns but who said, 'You know what, it doesn't mean we want you to not be at the table. We entrust you to negotiate a better deal.' So it's not like, because there are a few folks who are loud voices, they speak for the entire community. One hundred percent of the community, if you went in bold, is not against the project. They wanted a better deal. And I've gotten emails from residents, for instance, that said, 'Hey, you know, based on the debate, I went and walked by the site, and you know, it feels unsafe over there. So we would be happy for something to happen there.'

Bisnow: So you're not worried about the concept of elected officials being in the pocket of real estate, that message being out there — because that's kind of what she's saying.

Richards: Listen, when people say that, I mean, what does that mean? You know, right now, once again, we are in an affordability crisis. I want the developers in the communities' pocket, and that means housing. That means ensuring that there are good jobs. I want the residents in my community's pockets to be filled. That's what the overarching goal of building housing and building community facilities and providing upward mobility for our community members needs to be. You know, these slogans don't mean much to me, because at the end of the day, we can slogan our way out of this, but that's not going to help with the affordable housing crisis. That's not going to help with unemployment. And that's not going to move our borough forward.

Bisnow: So do you consider yourself pro-real estate or against real estate?

Richards: I am for housing. I am for transportation, I am for community development. This is not a for or against, because you can't paint everybody in one industry as a whole. There are bad actors in some endeavors in many industries, right? So how do you just paint one constituency as problematic? I think you look at the merits. With the campaign finance system, you can wake up and people donate, so you don't even know what the hell they are in some cases. I think for me, my record, coming in with 10,000 units of affordable housing and Queens, you know, securing $2B for infrastructure, getting hundreds of millions of dollars after Hurricane Sandy to redevelop Far Rockaway. I had widespread support, and that's one of the reasons I'm here, and especially as the first Black man to be borough president.

Bisnow: The mayor has been very vocal about the housing crisis, and he has weighed in with his support recently in the Bronx over rezoning for new housing. Do you talk much to the mayor about this issue of housing in Queens, and what's the nature of those conversations if you do?

Richards: The nature of my conversation is I need subsidy dollars from City Hall. You know, Queens has historically only got about 30% of the affordable housing budget. So my push has been working with his commissioners to really sound the alarm that we need more resources here in Queens, and even with the asylum-seekers coming in, we're going to need more. And he's been very supportive. Let's be clear. I've secured about $130M in capital funds just through my office alone, not counting his investments and other projects across the borough that we also advocated along with city council members and other elected officials.

So he's been very supportive and helping us move Queens into a different direction, but there's been a lot of communities that have been historically disinvested in, and it's going to take a long time. I talk about the projected recession coming in Quarter 1. You know, [the mayor] is already telling some agencies they need to take a 30% cut at this moment, right? So we were dealing with a crisis of great magnitude. I like to look at every project, one by one. I'm not going to say that I support every project the mayor does, but the mayor was right about Bruckner. Its veterans housing and supportive housing are attached to that. We can’t talk our way out of this crisis. We have to build our way out of the crisis.