The battle for a more just and equitable society isn’t just a battle about land and resources. It is also a battle of ideas.
Recently, government officials have been publicizing their ideology in their defense of far reaching proposals to change housing development in New York City through 15 neighborhood rezonings and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). While we have spent much time challenging specific zoning proposals, these ideological positions also deserve to be challenged.
These are four key elements of the de Blasio administration’s ideology regarding housing.
#1: The Market is God
In the context of private, residential development, the government actually has a lot of control over the private market. Through zoning and other tools, the government can regulate who builds, where they build, whom they build for, what they build and even how much they build. How land is used often determines who gets to use it and who benefits.
And yet here is what we constantly hear: Private development is inevitable. We can’t control it or reject it; we need to shape it, adapt and accept it. And we certainly don’t want to do anything to slow it down or it might go away.
But right now, the Trumps of the world can’t build their towers on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx because current land use restrictions make that kind of building impossible. They can’t come. They aren’t inevitable. But if the government lifts those restrictions, they can come and they will. That is what the government can do.
And that is what the government is doing. It is changing the law in 15 neighborhoods throughout the city in order to facilitate the construction of privately owned residential housing, one of the most lucrative forms of property in this city. Changing the use of the land changes the value of the land. In most places, a piece of land where you can build 18 stories of residential housing is more valuable than a piece of land where you can only have an auto shop. So when the government changes the rules in this way, it is not only influencing the housing market – it is putting money in the pockets of private developers.
So if the city changes the rules that allow developers to build, the question is will they demand that they build for the people who already live here, who are rent burdened and made poor by high rents? The question isn’t about development per se, it’s about what kind of development and for whom.
We can build truly affordable housing for the people who need it the most, the poorest among us. This might mean that we will build fewer units than if we were only to build for middle and high income people. We can build with union labor to ensure buildings are safe and career jobs are created. If developers don’t want to do this, then they don’t have to build here. That we have hard choices to make is exactly the point. They are our choices—not the market’s.
#2: More is Better in a Housing Crisis
Which housing crisis does the “more is better” approach solve? It depends on which housing crisis you are looking at.
The first crisis is that developers’ ability to build is curtailed by land use regulations imposed by the government. And with the city’s population expected to grow by 600,000 people by 2040, developers need more places to build in order to capitalize on the new demand. Developers need the government’s help to expand the market and maximize profit.
The second crisis is that throughout the city, we have a severe deficit of affordable housing for people making less than $50,000/year. Half of New Yorkers pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent and 30 percent pay more than half of their income in rent. In addition, we have an incredibly distressed housing stock where poor people live—meaning a lot of people struggle to pay rent and struggle to live in safe apartments that reflect the dignity of a home. Close to 60,000 people are homeless. Tenants need the government’s help to curtail the rising cost of rent, to stop landlord harassment and to make landlords comply with the law to live in safe apartments.
Now here is the mayor’s solution: through the neighborhood based rezonings, he will allow developers to build residential housing in places they couldn’t build before and denser in places where their building was restricted. This will accelerate the building of market rate housing in poor neighborhoods. MIH, if passed as is, will ensure that 25-30 percent of housing in those neighborhoods is affordable to families of four making an average of $51,000-69,000/year.
But how will more housing at those levels solve the housing crisis for poor people in the neighborhoods being rezoned in the Bronx? There, the median income for a family of four is $25,000. There, we don’t need housing for middle income people because we already have a surplus of affordable housing for families making more than $50,000/year. People in East New York are asking the same questions.
The government’s answer to this question is that they (or we, through our taxes) will provide additional subsidies to developers so that they can create more deeply affordable apartments and still make a profit. But how many subsidies? Which ones? For whom? How can we guarantee developers will take them or that we will have the money to provide them ten years from now when they are building housing, in the context of a different market and a new administration? What will families do when the subsidies expire?
The mayor’s plan is addressing a housing crisis. The question is: which crisis and for whom?
#3: We Know Best: Stop Complaining and Embrace Change … Change is Good!
But change isn’t neutral and it doesn’t affects everyone equally. So while Alicia Glen says that it pisses her off when her dry cleaner changes ownership, that is really not the same thing as someone being afraid that after years of struggling to afford their rent, they will have to go into the shelter system, double up with relatives or friends or leave the city altogether.
Most people do not have time or energy to be pissed about their dry cleaner changing ownership. In fact, most people don’t use a dry cleaner. To dismiss fears of being displaced as the same thing as the luxury of this inconvenience is a false equivalence that belies its own privilege.
We hear this often from defenders of the city’s plan: we are disrespectful, we are ungrateful, we are asking for too much, we are aggressive and irrational, we don’t understand the issues, and (my personal favorite) we are conditioned to be afraid of change.
There is an underlying assumption in this rhetoric about fear that posits that fear is irrational and therefore there is no real threat to be afraid of.
People are afraid and angry. They are struggling to survive and live in New York. And then they hear that the mayor is targeting their neighborhoods for investment—just not for them. The affordable housing doesn’t reflect their incomes, they are told it’s too expensive to build for them and also that it’s bad public policy to do so. Our feelings aren’t based on a misunderstanding; we are afraid and angry because we understand exactly what’s going on. Fear and anger in the face of very real threats of harassment and displacement is rational and necessary.
So when the administration talks about change not being so bad, it reflects their power and privilege, not their superior rationality or lack of fear. Because you can only make that statement when you end up OK, when you have the ability to move to a place that you can afford, that you want to live in, that you feel comfortable living in. That is not the case for many New Yorkers, especially poor New Yorkers, most of whom are black and brown.
Yes, New York is always changing. The argument isn’t about change—it’s about what kind of change, for whom and who has the power to create change.
#4: Mixed-Income Housing will Create Vibrant and Healthy Communities
When developers or government officials say this, we should train ourselves to hear this instead: poor people make themselves and others poor and therefore they themselves are the cause of neighborhood decline.
This is an old theory—it’s the idea that we need to de-concentrate poverty in order to solve it. This theory denies the structural causes of poverty and instead posits that poor neighborhoods are detrimental to the people who live in them. It posits that people are conditioned to make bad choices, so they shouldn’t be around too many other poor people. The answer is to disperse them.
You can do this in in a few ways. One is to create policies that make or incentivize people to move. This theory is behind the origin of Section 8 vouchers and the HOPE VI program that demolished public housing around the country.
Another way is to “break up” poor communities by bringing wealthier people in – and that is what the city is doing now by rezoning in a way that invites and incentivizes mostly market-rate development, with some set-aside for middle-class people through MIH, and failing to provide comprehensive preservation policies to stem the tide of displacement of existing residents.
At the recent meeting about Jerome Avenue rezoning, city officials were asked why they don’t incentivize development that will reflect the local need. They said that it was bad public policy to build housing only for poor people because you need economic and racial diversity. But the neighborhoods that the Jerome Ave rezoning encompasses are already mixed-income neighborhoods. While the median income for a family of four is about $25,000, close to 25 percent of households make above $50,000 and 15 percent make above $150,000. How can we say that a neighborhood with this range of incomes isn’t a mixed-income neighborhood?
What’s more is that the government is inconsistent in its message about the benefits of mixed-income communities. They are not bringing mixed-income housing into wealthy neighborhoods. The clear message is that the concentration of wealth is not a problem to solve—only the concentration of poverty is.
But the concentration of poor people isn’t the problem. Poor people aren’t the problem. Poverty is the problem. Displacing poor people will not solve poverty. So if we aren’t solving the problem of poverty then what problem are we solving?
No one is saying that we want to keep poor communities poor. The problem is that when we hear officials and private developers talking about diversifying incomes in an already mixed-income neighborhood that encompasses the poorest among us, what that really means is that they don’t want them there. They aren’t a part of the mix.
Where We Go From Here
Policies about housing can’t simply be calculations about rent, affordability and the number units—housing is about people. Government policies affect which people get to live here and how they live here.
As it stands, MIH does nothing to benefit poor New Yorkers. Rezonings that don’t require affordable housing to reflect the needs of the neighborhood or create careers for local residents, are rezonings that let developers decide the future of our neighborhoods.
The good news is that thousands of people have mobilized to say that they are actively involved in the future of this city. Historic alliances between auto workers, faith leaders, tenants, business owners, and union members have not only formed but have forged a new way forward. In the Bronx alone, over 1,500 residents have actively and consistently worked together to say we aren’t the problem, we are the solution, and created their own community plan. The government should listen.
We need a new way forward. We need a different way of thinking that puts people first. We live in a city where thousands of people are organized and have done the hard work of creating their own plans—all we have to do is listen.
Susanna Blankley is the director of Community Action for Safe Apartments.