Monday, January 22, 2007

Squeezing Richmond Hill

The Queens housing squeeze
By Amy Goldstein, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

The skinny townhouses stretch like a two-story, multicolored fence along 121st Street in Richmond Hill. All 31 houses, covered by aluminum siding, are attached. They share plumbing and electrical wiring. None has a driveway; some have three or four doorbells.

The street between 107th and 109th avenues squeezes 55 houses into a row as long as a Manhattan avenue block. And that is just one of many densely populated blocks in the community. The housing squeeze is matched by traffic congestion. Parking is almost impossible to find on these narrow, unswept, one-way streets.

This block and others south of Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill are crowded because the zoning rules are vague, said Beatrice Ammann-Priest, a planner for the Queens Department of City Planning. More than 40 years ago, “certain zones were created, but they were very general,” Ammann-Priest said. “It allows single family, multi-family, attached, semi-detached, detached … all building types,” she said.

As a result, Ammann-Priest said, having 31 attached rowhouses along one side of a block is legal because no laws say otherwise.

This type of development in Richmond Hill, as well as in much of Southeast Queens, frustrates some local politicians and community residents. Some say developers continue to tear down single-family homes to replace them with several smaller homes or multistory apartment buildings.

“People need space,” said Chan Jamoona of the United Hindu Cultural Center in Richmond Hill. “Even though we have a shortage of homes, I prefer if we kept it so people have some space.”

The overdevelopment has spiked up housing costs and mortgages in Richmond Hill, where the average cost of a small, multistory townhouse is $500,000, according to Edwin Basdeo, a Realtor at NMCRA Connectors Realty on Liberty Avenue. He said the price of such a home had surged for several years, but has been relatively stable the past few months.

The higher costs have led Richmond Hill residents to rent out rooms or floors to minimize the cost. For example, the two-story residential townhouse at 107-34 121 St. in Richmond Hill has four doorbells; one family lives in the attic, another on the second floor, a third on the first floor and a fourth in the basement.

To make matters worse, some residents convert their homes illegally, without approval from the New York City Department of Buildings. According to numbers found on the Department of Buildings Web site, 151 complaints against illegal conversions in Richmond Hill townhouses were filed in September, and more than half the cases are still open.

The Department of Buildings responds to illegal division reports as soon as they are filed, spokeswoman Tori Edmiston said. “We send an inspector up to see whether it’s illegal, then we issue violations if it is.”

Robert Singh can confirm that. Singh, of 104-34 123rd St., allowed his sister and niece to live in his basement until 2002. That’s when the Department of Buildings entered Singh’s home and slapped him with a $5,300 fine.

“People depend on their basements,” Singh, who immigrated to Richmond Hill in 1994, said. “I’m paying off a 30-year mortgage. If I could convert my basement and rent it out legally, then I’d be able to pay off more of the mortgage each month. But I can’t because I can’t afford another fine.”


Anonymous said...

That "vague" zoning was created by Robert Moses, that prominent neo-facist, who thought that he didn't have a first name......only "Moses".....after the "pyramid builder" of Old Testament fame! About 1961 "Prince Moses" turned a lot of neighborhoods in NYC upside down by re-structuring the previous zoning and increasing the allowable density "for future over-development". The "down-zoning" that's now occuring throughout Queens is an attempt to put zoning more back in line to a realistic pattern. This insures that overdevelopment (and out- of- context building) doesn't strip the ability of our infrastructure to handle the overload!

Anonymous said...

If you read the Letters section of today's amNY, Shaun Donovan, Commissioner of the NYC Dept of Housing Preservation and Development, writes that there is going to be plenty of affordable housing thanks to the 421-a program (developers will receive a tax break if 20% of their units are "affordable"), citing that as just one part of "Mayor Bloomberg's affordable housing plan." The other part? Five thousand new units in Long Island City-being built, coincidentally, 2 blocks away from my little 2 family house- and 4000 middle income homes in the Rockaways.
Do these people actually believe their own bulls*&t? Or do they think that we are really THAT stupid to believe their bulls*&t? After everyone who works for the developers, Housing Dept, and numerous other agencies grabs one of those apartments for their neice, sister, grandfather, etc. the 20% will be gone and we'll have yet more buildings with ridiculous rents that no one from Queens can afford to live in. Thanks Bloomberg!

Anonymous said...

Oh I think that this housing should be scattered all over the city, everyone should be enjoying the benefits of this latest example of social engineering.

Lets make sure that the boro hall people, and the city planning people put this housing where they live.

Lets make sure to mix it up. Still waiting for some housing group to challenge housing segregation that is proposed to go on right across the river from the UN in Suna's three 50 story towers.

Anonymous said...

I agree! Let Mayor Mike (under the 421 program) get some of that (ha, ha, ha,) "affordable housing" built right next door to his historic Manhattan townhouse! Oh, is it located within a Historic District? We'll he's protected from the "masses" isn't he! Let's all picket outside his home! "Wadda we want? Affordable housing! Where do we want it? Right next door to Bloomie"! Hey, it's only fair that he does his share!