Eric Bechtold / Alamy Stock Photo

Willets Point and the Making of a Neighborhood

Ben Hitchcock

May 07, 2024

It won’t just be for low-income families, and that’s as it should be.

It won’t just be for low-income families, and that’s as it should be.

“What we are seeing in Willets Point is the future of New York City,” said Mayor Eric Adams in December, as the city and its development partners sliced their shovels into the dirt of the industrial peninsula in northern Queens. 

For decades, the 61-acre site has been a warren of auto body chop shops, where hubcaps get replaced as the dust kicks up from the unpaved roads. Earlier this month, the City Council voted 47-1 to move forward with the next phase of the project. Pending approval from Adams, who has been a supporter of the project, the site will soon be home to a soccer stadium, a school, a hotel and 2,500 new affordable apartments. Renderings show a slick, modern neighborhood rising from a patch of land once called the “Valley of the Ashes.” 

“It’s not just the stadium — this is a brand new neighborhood that’s coming to the borough of Queens,” Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents Willets Point, told City Limits in March. “There hasn’t been this many affordable units coming online in decades.”

But what kind of neighborhood will Willets Point be? If this project represents the future of New York, as Mayor Adams has said, what can Willets Point tell us about what’s in store for our city? 

Whenever projects like this come up for discussion, a common refrain rises from policymakers, advocates and onlookers. The apartments might be technically designated as affordable — which is to say, reserved for people at various income levels — but affordable for whom? Will they serve the lowest-income New Yorkers? It’s a fair line of inquiry in our city, where the costs of living are high and many live in poverty. But it’s also an oversimplifying question that underrates the importance of housing production and the value of mixed-income communities.

A closer look at the numbers shows that the apartments in Willets Point will not all be affordable for the lowest income New Yorkers. Willets Point’s backers are overselling the affordability of their new project; the actual price breakdown doesn’t quite support their rhetoric. But what Willets Point will do is inject thousands of new units into a housing market that is desperate for supply. And the project will provide something New York, a city with huge wealth divides, can certainly use: a new mixed-income neighborhood.

Remaking a neighborhood 

Willets Point has long been seen as a prime candidate for reinvention. The point sits tucked between Flushing, the famous hub of Asian community and culture, and Corona, a majority Hispanic neighborhood with compact houses and corner stores. These are working-class neighborhoods where people pay working-class rents. In Queens Community District 7, which contains Flushing, the median household income is $64,610 and the median rent for all units is $1,770, according to the Furman Center. In Queens CD4, Corona, the numbers are similar: Median income is $67,330 and an average apartment goes for $1,800. (The city’s median income is $72,150, and its average rent is $1,700.)

Over the last two decades, the City has made multiple attempts to get a development project off the ground in the area, using eminent domain and buying the land out from under the Willets Point chop shops piece by piece.

In 2007, the Bloomberg administration announced a plan to build 5,500 apartments and a shopping mall on the site. Development was stalled by protests from some of the auto body shops — which eventually agreed to a buy-out and were relocated to the Bronx, where they mostly withered — and then finally scrapped by a state court in 2015 for encroaching on parkland. In 2018, the de Blasio administration started fresh and announced the now-approved version of the plan, which, like the Bloomberg plan, handed control to the City’s Economic Development Corporation and a pair of major private developers: Related Companies (which has experience creating neighborhoods whole cloth) and Sterling Equities (which owned the Mets from 1978 to 2020). 

In this public-private partnership, the government is footing the bill for environmental remediation, necessary after a century of hard industrial use, as well as road and sewer upgrades. The developers, in turn, will construct the housing. 

To move forward, the project needed to include enough affordable apartments to earn the sign-off of the local Community Board and the City Council, while also generating enough revenue from rents to remain financially viable — a tricky needle to thread in New York, where construction costs are high. It is not possible to break even on an unsubsidized building in New York that brings in only rents affordable to low-income renters, so an array of both city and federal subsidies are required to ensure that the affordable housing units pencil out. These subsidy programs mandate certain levels of affordability and other benefits, such as housing for seniors or the formerly homeless. 

If this project represents the future of New York, as Mayor Adams has said, what can Willets Point tell us about what’s in store for our city? 

Willets Point will be a mixed-income neighborhood

Taking a careful look at the rents of the new Willets Point apartments can cut through the noise and show us what the new development will actually contribute to the existing neighborhood. 

The new development will be built out in two phases. Phase I, which will see the construction of 1,100 apartments on 23 acres of city-owned land, is already underway. Phase II, which will bring another 1,400 units and a dedicated soccer stadium for New York City FC, just got the Council’s approval.

It has all shaken out like this: About a quarter of the new apartments will be deeply affordable, priced to be rented to those making 30% or less of the Area Median Income (AMI). Another quarter of the apartments will be rented, at various levels, to families earning between 30% and 100% of AMI. The remaining half of the units will be rented to people making 100% or 120% of AMI. Some units will be set aside for formerly homeless New Yorkers and seniors, as well. (The rents for the Phase II apartments have not been finalized, but the developers have announced that they will be similar to Phase I.) 

Translate those AMI brackets into actual rents. For reference, in 2023 a two-bedroom apartment at 30% AMI cost at most $953 per month; a two-bedroom apartment at 120% AMI cost at most $3,813 per month. 

The following chart compares the distribution of existing 2-bedroom apartment rents in Flushing and Corona with the projected distribution of the new 2-bedroom apartment rents, using 2023 AMI numbers, in Willets Point (assuming that the distribution of two-bedroom apartments’ rents roughly mirrors the whole complex’s distribution of rents).

open in new tab
Download: Data, Chart Image

Rather than matching the spread of existing apartments, the Willets Point development will add new types of units to the area. (These charts show the rents of all apartments in these neighborhoods, not just apartments currently on the market. The median asking rent for apartments on the market in Flushing and Corona in 2022 was $2100, according to Streeteasy/Furman Center — higher than the median rent for all the apartments, but still likely below the median rent for all the new Willets Point units.)

Looking further afield, we can try to find an existing neighborhood where the rents more closely match the Willets Point proposal. The development’s rent spread is artificial, so finding an exact analog among existing, market-driven neighborhoods is an imperfect science. The closest matches are upscale Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. The chart below shows how Willets Point rents compare with those neighborhoods. 

open in new tab
Download: Data, Chart Image

Willets Point will not be another Park Slope, however. To start, the affordability of these new units is guaranteed. Forty percent of Willets Point’s units are set at legally prescribed price points so that they will be permanently affordable for, say, a three-person household bringing in around $76,000. Equally importantly, unlike Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or even Fort Greene, zero new units will be going at eye-watering luxury prices at the top of the distribution. It is also worth emphasizing again that 15% of the new units at Willets Point will be rented to formerly homeless New Yorkers, a policy outcome that is impossible in less regulated neighborhoods. 

Willets Point’s new apartments will be neither a concentration of low-income housing, nor a Hudson Yards-esque hub of new money. They will serve a range of incomes. 

Mixed-income neighborhoods are good, actually 

As New York’s housing crisis has grown more severe, many New Yorkers have demanded new low-income units in particular. Listening to politicians talk about Willets Point, you might think this project is designed entirely to cater towards those renters. But this bait and switch unnecessarily undersells the project: Mixed-income neighborhoods like this have broad benefits for people across the income spectrum. 

The city needs new housing supply at every level. The latest data shows the city’s vacancy rate at its lowest level in 50 years — 1.4% — one of a slew of metrics indicating the severity of the housing shortage. Notably, the crunch is severe among units targeted at middle-class renters, not just units with the lowest rents. Just 2.2% of apartments that rent for more than $1,650 were vacant, well below the 7% or 8% vacancy rate that economists consider healthy.

Recent surveying also shows that New York has more millionaires than ever, and that middle- and upper-middle class New Yorkers are leaving the state in high numbers. 2022 saw a net loss of 58,000 New Yorkers with incomes in the fourth-highest quintile, households earning between $104,000 and $172,000. That’s more than double the number of households in that quintile who left in 2019, the last year before the pandemic upended migration trends. Those are exactly the types of households who contribute to the economy and could live in the 100% to 120% AMI units that Willets Point will add. 

These new middle-income units will have positive spillover effects. Research shows that adding new market-rate housing slows regional rent growth and in some cases even reduces rents nearby. Other cities that have added market rate units rapidly have already seen results. Austin, Texas is building housing faster than any city in the country, and rents there have fallen by 7% this year. To reduce the housing supply issue to a zero-sum question — build for only the lowest-income New Yorkers or not at all — is to fundamentally misunderstand economics.

This is most clearly demonstrated by recent research into a phenomenon academics call vacancy chains. When a new market-rate unit is filled, the resident vacates an apartment that can then be occupied by someone from a different economic class. Research from Finland shows that in Helsinki, for every 100 units of new market-rate housing constructed, 66 units in the bottom half of neighborhood income distributions are freed up for new residents. The Willets Point development could have such an effect in its corner of Queens. 

Additionally, mixed-income neighborhoods have genuine benefits for the people who live in them. Residents of mixed-income neighborhoods report feeling safer than in low-income communities; these benefits are connected with reports of improved mental health. One study found that 75% of relocated low-income residents report reductions in stress when they move into the new neighborhoods. Mixed-income neighborhoods can draw new amenities to low-income areas, and they may even reduce future resistance to subsidized housing, as neighbors become more familiar with the units. 

A new economically diverse neighborhood is a good thing, one that policymakers shouldn’t be the least bit shy about having created. 

Dreaming big

Of course, projects like Willets Point are not the only solution to New York’s housing crisis. It’s a huge challenge that requires a range of solutions. The city’s public housing stock needs significant investment. The rental voucher program should be expanded to reach more low-income renters. Housing discrimination is still all too common. But these are complementary policies that can be pursued alongside the creation of mixed-income neighborhoods like the one at Willets Point. 

It is also fair, given the lofty rhetoric that the project’s backers have deployed, to wonder if this is the absolute best outcome that New York could have come up with. Lots of people dream about building new cities, new neighborhoods; rarely does anyone get the chance to actually do it. 

For a project of its scale, this version of the Willets Point redevelopment has faced minimal resistance. The site is perched on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides and Citi Field on the fourth; there are hardly any NIMBY neighbors to gum up the works with complaints about neighborhood change. Willets Point officially has zero permanent residents, and many of the chop shops that would likely be complaining if they had to make way for highrises were already evicted in the previous redevelopment efforts. And major private dollars are invested in the smooth passage of the project, since the ultra-wealthy owners of the soccer team are on board to build the stadium. (Whether the stadium is really privately financed, and whether stadiums are a good use of public dollars, are essays for another time.) 

I’m being more imaginative now, but that’s where the best projects and policies start. What if the proposal had included even more housing units? What if that housing had been produced by a Social Housing Authority that cut out the private sector and prioritized social benefits even more directly? Could the government have been more diligent in its efforts to resettle the owners of the chop shops? What other services could this new neighborhood have provided its residents? Why is the design so predictably boxy? These are questions that you have to ask when pondering the future of a huge tract of city-owned land right on the 7 train.

At the groundbreaking, Adams invited us to envision the future of the city. Willets Point shows that, for now, even sites that are relatively promising for development are still subject to the many of the same old constraints as all the rest. Projects that are touted as “transformative,” as Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer described Willets Point, still produce outcomes that feel familiar. The next time New York gets a chance to build a new neighborhood — if there is a next time — policymakers should consider swinging for the fences. (Sunnyside Yard, anyone?) 

Until then, we should celebrate the progress of the development at Willets Point. The new mixed income neighborhood will provide benefits to those in surrounding communities, people who move into the new apartments and the city as a whole. Though the need for affordable apartments is acute, so too is the need for more apartments, period. Willets Point moves us in the right direction.