Does SoHo, Haven for Art and Wealth, Have Room for Affordable Housing?

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As SoHo became less welcoming to the non-wealthy, another shift was happening in New York. With the federal government reducing its support for building and maintaining public housing, the city began to rely on developers to fill the need. In exchange for incorporating a certain number of low-cost rentals, builders were allowed to erect tall towers filled mostly with luxury apartments, and with stores at street level. The imposing new buildings have irked people living in the older, low-rise streets around them.

The rezoning proposal is nowhere near final. In the meantime, residents of all opinions are trying to make their voices heard before the planning department presents a proposal that will go to the City Council and the mayor later this year. For those who oppose the plan, the debate has put them in an uncomfortable position: Their opposition can be seen as a barrier to diversifying the neighborhood.

“I’m very sensitive to the whiteness of us all,” Frederica Sigel, a member of the local community board, said at a meeting last year. “I think the thing that’s great about New York City is that every neighborhood contributes something different, and so what we’re contributing in SoHo with our cast-iron buildings and the scale and cobblestones and art, I don’t feel that we should be responsible for producing as much affordable housing as other neighborhoods.”

“But I want to live in a diverse neighborhood,” she added.

In an interview, Ms. Sigel clarified her comments, saying that stringent city requirements, not the wishes of residents, were to blame for the homogeneity. Much of SoHo and NoHo have been designated as historic districts, granting older buildings protections and offering few opportunities to create affordable housing, she said.

Many in SoHo are especially fearful that the commercial rezoning will increase the number of mass-market retailers, bringing even more tourists and noise to the narrow cobblestone streets.

“What they’re proposing would eat away at and eventually erase what makes SoHo so special and desirable, and therefore a place where people want to live and have businesses,” said Yukie Ohta, a lifelong SoHo resident and the founder of the SoHo Memory Project, an organization dedicated to the history of the neighborhood.

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