What is it And Who Qualifies?
The 421-a tax abatement was created in 1971 to encourage the development of underutilized or unused land by significantly reducing property taxes on newly developed land for a set period of time.
During the time period, thousands of New Yorkers were moving upstate or to the suburbs, and City officials feared a decline in residential development. Initially the city gave these tax breaks to any newly constructed development, but as the Manhattan housing market rebounded in 1980’s, the City created an “exclusion zone” between 14th and 96th Streets. Any developers building in this “exclusion zone” were 421-a eligible only if they constructed affordable housing on-site (typically 80/20, with 20% being low-income units) or off-site (by purchasing certificates that were used to create low-income units in other parts of the city).
Thousands of condominiums across Manhattan were developed under this program prior to the 2008 housing market crash. The abatement was available for new developments located only on lots that were vacant, underutilized, or “nonconforming” with the prescribed zoning use under the 421-a abatement. Owners are exempt from paying any increases in property taxes that result from new construction. The 421-a abatement was initially set to run for 10 years, but can run for as long as 15-25 years in upper Manhattan and the outer NYC boroughs.
The 10-year abatement provides unit owners with a 100% abatement from property tax increases for the first two years, with taxes then being increased by 20% of the current tax rate every two years for the remaining eight years. For example, if an apartment is bought in a building that had a 421-a abatement in the first year and sold in the seventh year, the new buyer would have the remaining three years of reduced taxes, since the abatement stays with the property and does not follow the owner.
This tax abatement expired in January 2016, due to disputes over wages between the construction industry and developers. However, a revival bill dubbed 421-a, “Affordable New York,” is currently being developed in the state Legislature. The “Affordable New York” bill would permit qualified developers a 100% property tax break for a term of 35-years, mandating that all affordable units remain so for a 40-year term. The bill also includes mandates regarding construction worker wages and benefits. The newest version of the bill suggests allowing outer borough developments with up to 80 units to qualify (an increase from the 35 units necessary to qualify in the Governor’s initial proposal).
Currently, the biggest issue is the debate over the average assessment value for qualifying condominiums, with NY Republicans looking to raise the limit from $65,000 to $85,000. By increasing the assessed value (which is based on a percentage of the unit’s market value), pricier properties will then qualify for the abatement. This has led many to question whether the 421-a program actually promotes affordable housing, or if it just incentivizes private development in the outer boroughs. It does not help that affordable housing benchmarks have been hit in the time since expiration, and the anticipated cost to the City to support the program with the current proposals are expected to total $1 billion (estimated at $100-120 million per year) over a ten-year period, seemingly while not increasing the affordable housing inventory.
Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo have fought publicly after the former introduced a proposal that would expand affordable housing, which the Governor shut down because of inadequate pay for construction personnel. The Mayor has described the current proposals as an “undue burden” on NYC residents, with the cost for each affordable unit increasing to $592,000 from $507,000 when the initial version of 421-a was in effect.
Things to Consider Despite Tax Relief Opportunities
When buying a condominium or co-op, it is important to consider the scenarios in which these tax abatements fall off or change, and to research which new laws or regulations have potential impact on your purchase in the next 3-5 years. What will be the real cost when the abatement expires? The property taxes could drastically jump to levels higher than those at the time of purchase.