What’s all the fuss about zoning in New York City?
A major rezoning of East New York passed but was hotly contested. Facing intense protests, a rezoning proposal in Inwood was withdrawn. A new proposal to rezone Jerome Avenue in the Bronx is looking at stiff opposition.
In each of these cases, the de Blasio administration has tied its proposals to promises of at least 20 percent affordable housing under the city’s new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) regulations. In each case, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has engaged in extensive community outreach which it claims meets demands for community-based planning.
But why is the mayor who ran on a platform of addressing inequality and long-neglected communities getting so much flack from the very communities that helped get him elected?
The fuss can’t be chalked up to the typical “Not In My Backyard” prejudices; those are still more at home in the white neighborhoods that manage to keep out homeless housing (as they did recently in Maspeth, Queens) and other low-income housing. The opposition to rezoning has arisen because affordable housing is seen as a Trojan Horse to force through changes that promise mostly market-rate housing, which forces up land and housing prices and displaces more affordable housing than it creates. Because of the way the city defines “affordable,” the new units are unaffordable to most current residents.
The problem goes deeper. New York doesn’t base its zoning on planning, either at the community level or citywide. Low-income communities of color have for decades been calling for community planning based on social, racial and environmental justice. But New York doesn’t do planning. It is the only major city in the nation that has never approved a citywide plan. Instead it uses zoning to promote new development, often in areas with lower incomes and land values, and protect exclusive areas. As a result, New York is the most segregated city in the nation. While on the surface and in the subways it would appear this is the world’s most diverse melting pot, the city’s history is deeply scarred by slavery, racial segregation, an urban renewal program that came to be known as “Negro removal,” redlining, and service cutbacks during the fiscal crisis that affected communities of color the most. Zoning is also part of the problem.
Over the last century, communities facing displacement fought back. Following demands for community control during the Civil Rights movement, the city created community boards. They were supposed to give local residents and businesses a say in zoning and land use decisions. In 1989, thanks to a successful civil rights lawsuit, the City Charter was changed to eliminate the Board of Estimate and community boards were given explicit authority to submit plans for approval by the City Planning Commission.
Without funding or real support, however, community-based planning died. Twenty-seven years after the charter change, only 17 community plans have been approved in the 59 community boards. The more serious problem is that the city files these plans away and goes on with its business. I know this because I helped develop some of these plans while I worked at DCP and later helped found the Campaign for Community-based Planning.
Now, with the latest rezoning proposals, the DCP is openly engaging in what it calls community planning. But this is mostly about letting people vent around the issues. It invariably ends up with a wish list of desired projects and a long document that has no legal value, not an official plan. I call these “planning charades.”
Real community planning takes years and needs to be an ongoing activity at all levels of government – in neighborhoods and citywide. The city’s community boards are too weak to meaningfully plan. They need staff, resources and real power – and of course they must be held accountable to the principles of public interest and social inclusion — just like every other level of government, including DCP and other agencies.
To be fair, planning charades didn’t start with Mayor de Blasio. The mayor follows Michael Bloomberg and a long line of predecessors by zoning without planning. Bloomberg undertook the largest zoning blitz in the city’s history. In those rezonings white areas were more likely to be protected and minority areas were rezoned to promote new development, priming the displacement of low-income people of color.
In his two years in office, de Blasio has only one major rezoning to his credit – in East New York. It was hard fought and left many hard feelings. Proposals to rezone Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, East Harlem and Flushing are among the looming rezonings also facing stiff resistance. These rezonings promise to displace even more people of color.
As in East New York, simply talking about rezoning sparks a speculative buying fever that jacks up rents and pushes people out before the official zoning plan is announced. By the time the new zoning is passed, the cost of land has skyrocketed so that the “market-rate” housing is truly unaffordable to existing residents and those needing the “affordable” housing most urgently have already been pushed out of the neighborhood.
The mayor needs to recognize that when it comes to zoning race matters. It mattered when blacks were pushed out of lower Manhattan and moved to Harlem and it matters now that blacks are being forced out of Harlem. Now is the time for him to back off the rezonings, tell the City Planning Department to start the long trek of serious planning with communities, and pay closer attention to the impacts of city policy on the city’s diverse neighborhoods.
The city has to stop pretending that zoning can solve the housing problem. The vast majority of the 200,000 affordable housing units promised under the mayor’s 10-year plan would not be products of MIH. The city could better spend its capital funds by creating permanent housing for low-income people. Instead of leasing out Housing Authority buildings to private developers, keep them in the public domain and make new units available to the neediest – including the 59,000 people now in homeless shelters. Instead of endless public relations gambits and fruitless public hearings, engage communities in genuine dialogues leading to meaningful long-term change.
This problem didn’t start with the current mayor but it’s not ending either. Now is the time to stop zoning without planning and frankly address racialized displacement.
Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Policy & Planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and co-editor, with Sylvia Morse, of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City (UR Books, 2016)