Rochester Looks to Renew 485-a Tax Break Before Critics Take Office

New York Focus, November 8, 2021

Two progressive organizers opposed to the 485-a program just won City Council races but won’t take their seats until next year. Mayor Lovely Warren has directed the Council to vote on the renewal this week.

Last week, progressives suffered a major blow in Buffalo, where incumbent mayor Byron Brown defeated socialist organizer India Walton in the mayoral race. But in nearby Rochester, election results marked a distinctive turn to the left, with racial and economic justice organizers Stanley Martin and Kim Smith elected to the nine-member city council and Working Families Party-endorsed councilmember Malik Evans elected mayor.

Local housing organizers have pinned their hopes on the new city government to pass a raft of housing reforms, including good cause eviction, rent stabilization, and the elimination of a little-known tax incentive program for developers known as 485-a. The state law, first passed in 2002, lets cities opt in to a program that allows developers to write off taxes for projects that convert commercial buildings to “mixed use.” About a dozen upstate cities currently participate in 485-a, also known as the Residential-Commercial Urban Exemption Program (CUE).

Supporters of the program—a lesser-known cousin of the 421-a tax break, which applies only in New York City, and which will likely be the subject of fierce debate when it expires next June—say that it provides incentives for developers to convert underused commercial space into needed housing, while critics claim it functions as little more than a handout to luxury developers.

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