“We’re not selling out…there are people who call my office every day to tell me that they need affordable housing…we have to put something on the table to give it a try.” With those words, Municipal Council President Joyce Watterman put the kibosh on amendments to an inclusionary zoning ordinance (IZO) offered by Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro at last Wednesday’s council meeting.
But despite Watterman’s display of control, the meeting was dominated by Lavarro, who used up the lion’s share of the evening attempting to amend the IZO and questioning the city’s use of proceeds from the issuance of bonds.
The IZO, announced last week jointly by Watterman and Mayor Steven Fulop, would require residential developers with projects over a certain size to make 20% of the units affordable. Before Watterman’s “no” vote, Lavarro painstakingly laid out his proposed changes to it.
The ordinance “has too much flexibility and too many avenues out,” said Lavarro.
Lavarro pointed out that the ordinance would allow a developer to avoid building affordable housing as part of its project if it built affordable units off site, contributed to an affordable housing fund or built public parking garages or government offices. Lavarro argued that these “community benefits” should be limited to public schools, public recreational facilities and public transportation.
He objected to a provision that would let the City Council waive enforcement of the affordable housing requirement. “The purpose [of eliminating the waiver] is to tie our hands and future councils’ hands…[the provision] entirely defeats the purpose of having an ordinance in the first place.”
From the beginning though, Watterman stymied Lavarro’s efforts, ruling that his amendments needed to be voted on as a group rather than one by one as Lavarro had proposed. Deprived of the ability to vote on individual amendments, three councilmembers, Denise Ridley, Mira Prinz-Arey and Richard Boggiano, abstained. Jermaine Robinson, Yousef Saleh and Daniel Rivera joined Watterman as “no” votes. Councilman Solomon joined Lavarro by voting in favor of the amendments. Lavarro promised to offer his amendments again at the council’s next meeting. Thus, Lavarro’s amendments went down to defeat.
Lavarro wasn’t finished playing interlocutor. On a vote to issue $31 million in bonds to fund capital improvements, he asked for explanations. Lavarro said that he was opposed to any expenditure on a museum slated for the city-owned “Pathside” building at Journal Square if the project lacked a business plan. “We should have an idea whether this is going to be a self-sustaining program,” he said. Similarly, Lavarro objected to spending money on new city vehicles without having a vehicle inventory system. “We are winging it,” said Lavarro. Notwithstanding Lavarro’s objections, the council authorized the bond issuance 8–1.
If Lavarro was in the minority on the council, he had the overwhelming support of the public speakers. Ward F resident Dana Patton expressed the views of many. “There’s too much wiggle room here for developers and the council to give up on the affordable requirement. There’s not enough to protect the most vulnerable in our community.”
The next meeting of the Municipal Council will take place on October 21 at 6 p.m.