Opinion: Moving Toward Just Land Use and Housing Policies in NYC

Citylimits.org | December 16, 2020

‘Across the city, the mayor and developers are pushing rezonings and development projects that attempt to rip out the fertile roots of people and place, to wholly redefine city neighborhoods for a wealthier and whiter population.’

Broadway Triangle. Two Bridges. Inwood. Flushing. These are just a few of the neighborhoods that have battled development and rezoning proposed or supported by the City of New York in the streets and the courts. Their struggles articulated a shared sense that the city’s housing and land use policies were harmful to their families, homes, and communities.

Adi Talwar
Residents hold up signs at a 2018 hearing about the Inwood rezoning.

They understood that new housing and commercial space would be unaffordable to them, and that they faced displacement. They understood that the city’s plans would have a racially-disparate impact, harming working class people of color and benefitting higher-income whites. They understood that the planning and public review process was a sham. They were asked to express their support for the city’s plans in the absence of critical information, and recognition and representation of their voices and needs.

The Council’s Dec. 10 approval of the Flushing Waterfront District is the latest attempt by the city to create new neighborhoods out of thin air. In a Nov. 9 hearing of the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, the developer’s attorney testified that only 75 to 90 of the 1,725 residential units to be constructed would be affordable. The affordable rentals would be separated from the other units, which were planned as luxury condominiums. When Councilmember Francisco Moya asked whether the condos would price at $1 million, the attorney demurred.

As is the case in the Inwood rezoning, the so-called affordable units in the Flushing project will require incomes in excess of what most households in the community earn. John Park, Executive Director of Minkwon Center for Community Action, told the Council Subcommittee that the local Flushing community was unequivocally opposed to the development: “The entire project is not for the local Flushing residents, or what local Flushing residents can afford.”

Sunny Lee, Minkwon Center Community Organizer, told the Council Subcommittee that developers wanted to fast-track the project by skipping community input. Daniel Carpenter Gold from Take Root Justice testified that the developers used a “sleight-of-hand” to reduce the development analyzed in the environmental assessment statement to 5 percent of the proposed build for the project. Similarly, during the Inwood rezoning, Paul Epstein testified that the city low-balled its development projections to minimize projected adverse environmental impacts.

Across the city, the mayor and developers are pushing rezonings and development projects that attempt to rip out the fertile roots of people and place, to wholly redefine city neighborhoods for a wealthier and whiter population. The city’s next mayor and council must take action to comprehensively reform unjust and ineffective land use and housing policies. We offer the following recommendations to advance equity and sustainability:

Enact a racial impact study mandate. The city escapes accountability by ignoring race when evaluating potential impacts of proposed land use actions. Yet, racially disparate impacts have occurred in past rezonings in Williamsburg-Greenpoint and Park Slope-Fourth Avenue, where, despite overall population increases, thousands of Black and Latino families were displaced. In Inwood, a trial judge agreed with community petitioners that racial impact studies should have been done, before an appeals court reversed that opinion. But lawsuits should not be needed to get the city to do what is right. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Land Use Chair Rafael Salamanca have proposed legislation to mandate racial impact studies of major land use actions.

Prioritize ending homelessness. Apply new resources, such as Opportunity Zone funds, and reallocate existing subsidies, to do so. It is immoral and unacceptable that 100,000 to 110,000 city children experience an episode of homelessness every year. Dramatically increase the construction of permanent, new housing for city residents with the lowest incomes. Design housing units that meet the needs of families with children, especially multigenerational families with children and single-parent families. Studio and one-bedroom apartments with one bathroom are not adequate.

End community preference. Pablo Zevallos, in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, concluded that the city’s community preference policy, which grants a preference for city-subsidized affordable units to residents of the community district where the newly-available affordable housing is located, privileges white, higher income households and compounds the perpetuation of segregation by limiting residents’ ability to move to different neighborhoods. He recommends that the policy be eliminated.

Use the zoning text to protect and enhance neighborhood businesses. Inwood’s rezoning threatens the future of hundreds of women-, minority-, and immigrant-owned businesses, many of which operated long-term without leases. Ground-floor retail is essential and often unique to specific communities, but rezonings and development can drive these core services and amenities out. As the City Council has proposed, people should be given the option to create Enhanced Commercial Districts or other tools from the zoning text.

Capture value for communities, not property owners. The mayor’s upzonings of low-income neighborhoods create windfalls for property owners and profitable opportunities for developers. There are more equitable ways to rezone for increased density, such as making property owners pay for property value and density increases when selling or developing, as recommended by the Pratt report “Our Hidden Treasure.” These funds could be invested in affordable housing and other neighborhood needs. Pratt also recommends establishing social ownership and social stewardship mechanisms, such as community land trusts, “to enable land to be transferred to mission-driven organizations devoted to housing justice and economic security.”

Put community-led planning at the forefront of land use. Community-led planning, built on genuine representative, deliberative community participation, will tap the deep knowledge and concerns of local residents, business owners, and other stakeholders. Genuine participation would enable people with different interests to deliberate with each other and with city officials. To be successful, the city must provide extensive outreach to ensure people involved are reasonably representative of the community as a whole. The Council Subcommittee hearing on Flushing was especially unrepresentative, as 41 percent of residents there lack broadband and could not participate in the virtual meeting. Representativeness is essential for equity of any final plan and credibility of the process. Community-led planning should inform the development of a citywide comprehensive plan.

Conduct comprehensive planning. New York City should have a community-informed comprehensive plan for land use that prescribes goals for the development of the built, natural, and social environment, and an action plan and resources to achieve those goals. If the city had a comprehensive, long-term plan that tied land use, infrastructure, housing, public health, climate, and more in an equity framework, and a public process to keep rezonings in compliance with the plan, sustainable and equitable growth could be achieved.

These ideas bubbled up from our work fighting for tenant rights and a just Inwood rezoning. Activists fighting for their housing and communities around the city are coming up with even more, which should send a message to the mayor that top-down rezonings are not what people want. It’s time for the grassroots to lead.

Cheryl Pahaham and Paul Epstein are co-chairs at Inwood Legal Action.

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