As Mayor de Blasio has pushed to upzone neighborhoods throughout the city as part of his plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, critics have expressed frustration with the administration’s pattern of targeting low-income communities of color. Some have asked whether there are any high-income, majority white neighborhoods that could be upzoned instead.
There are already some middle and higher-income neighborhoods among de Blasio’s mix: the Long Island City and Gowanus rezoning areas both have median incomes above $65,000, and Gowanus is almost 50 percent white, according to published reports.
But altogether, 85 percent of residents in the targeted neighborhoods are Black or Latino, and over half of households make less than $35,000 a year, while in the city as a whole, 51 percent of residents are Black or Latino and 36 percent make less than $35,000 a year. (And this analysis doesn’t include the rezonings pursued by the Economic Development Corporation in Inwood or Far Rockaway, where there are also large low-income, non-white populations.)
Attend a Lively Debate on the de Blasio rezonings
with Tom Angotti, Vicki Been and Moses Gates
* * * *
Some argue that rezoning low-income communities comes with risks. While a rezoning converts a neighborhood into a mandatory inclusionary housing area, where developers must provide at least 20 to 30 percent of units at below-market rates, they also encourage the growth of market-rate housing, which some say ends up gentrifying the low-income communities of color they purport to assist.
Others object for fair housing reasons. They say that the inclusionary housing should be used to ensure that high-income areas do their share of providing low-income housing, so that low-income families can have access to good schools in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Still others say that from an infrastructure standpoint, it’s unfair that low-income neighborhoods must shoulder the burden of population growth.
Not everyone buys the administration’s argument that the city needs to upzone at all. Some question the mainstream economic theory that rents rise due to a mismatch between the supply of housing and demand, and some argue that the city’s housing supply can be boosted within the existing zoning code.
But let’s suppose you believe that the city needs to promote more development. The question then becomes: Which high-income neighborhoods could do their share of absorbing the growth?
A list of high-income areas
There are a few ways to generate a list of high-income neighborhoods that would appear to be potential candidates for growth. Housing expert Moses Gates, writing in Metropolitiques in 2015, came up with a quick list by taking neighborhoods that were zoned for a good school, with median incomes over $50,000 and within one kilometer of mass transit. He also eliminated areas already zoned for high density, some special districts, industrial business zones, and historic districts.
City Limits assembled a list by looking at the neighborhoods the Furman Center’s State of New York City Neighborhoods report designates “high-income,” (which excludes recently gentrified neighborhoods), removing districts that were among the city’s top ten most dense districts and removing the top five districts with the longest commutes.
Neighborhoods that showed up under both methods include the West Side (Chelsea and Clinton) in Manhattan, Bay Ridge, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, and Long Island City, Bayside and Forest Hills in Queens.
Prompted by City Limits, Stephen Smith, a real estate professional and former journalist*, also listed some neighborhoods off the top of his head he thought should be rezoned: parts of Williamsburg, parts of Park Slope, Riverdale, parts of Forest Hills, large swathes of southern Brooklyn, eastern Queens and Staten Island—and, if you’re not worried about preserving architecture, he added—the West Village, the Meatpacking district and most of brownstone Brooklyn.
Community control verses fair share
Shown Gates’ list, the Department of City Planning did not offer a definite assessment of whether or not it would consider a rezoning of those areas, but offered a few observations, including that it seeks to “minimize residential displacement,” so it is hesitant to knock down large amounts of existing housing, as it notes would need to be done in some single-family neighborhoods (a point that would appear ironic to some critics, who say the city already underestimates the demolition for redevelopment that its proposed rezonings will cause).
Furthermore, the administration says it seeks to work with councilmembers and community boards who express interest in a rezoning. While the East New York community board would probably beg to differ, it’s true that the local councilmember’s support is key to getting a rezoning passed—and so there are likely many single-family neighborhoods where the councilmember’s allegiance to her voting base makes her support of a rezoning unlikely.
The stereotype is that such wealthy, low-density neighborhoods are wary of low-income housing or of out-of-character buildings, and that, well-heeled and well-connected, they are able to stop City Hall from even uttering the word “upzoning.” And there’s some statistical truth in this, at least in the past: According to a thesis by MIT Masters student Leo Goldberg, neighborhoods that secured downzonings during the Bloomberg era were disproportionately white and had higher incomes.
There is, of course, great variation between the neighborhoods brainstormed above, from the more suburban-like communities of Forest Hills and Manhattan Beach, to the dense urban neighborhoods of Park Slope and Chelsea. City Limits spoke to community board members and council members from a variety of these neighborhoods to see how they’d react to the idea of a neighborhood upzoning.
Some told us that residents did not want to see their neighborhood character change and become overshadowed by large-scale developments. Many added that infrastructure is already too overtaxed to support a growing population. Others argued that they did welcome density, albeit along certain corridors and carefully, or argued that there should be other ways to create affordable housing without upzoning. Concerns about displacement and “gentrification” weren’t totally out of the picture, either.
In some of these arguments, one could hear the echoes of legendary urban planner Jane Jacobs insisting that “there is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” Yet while it might be true that residents know their neighborhoods best, it’s also true that certain neighborhoods get their way more often, with implications for the fair share of burdens of city functions.
Here’s a closer look at how these neighborhoods react to the idea of neighborhood-wide upzonings.
It’s about neighborhood character.
“At the end of the day, if I bought a house in Queens and I live next door to what might be this monster that’s going to take all this space next to me, and take all this sunshine, and shut down my quality of life, there’s an issue there,” says Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Forest Hill’s community board 6, expressing what he thought community members might argue, while Bay Ridge’s Community Board District Manager Josephine Beckmann, in an e-mail to City Limits, wrote that there would likely be opposition to a rezoning due to the “long history in preservation zoning with a vision of maintaining community character as it relates to density and scale.”
Susan Seinfeld, district manager of Bayside’s community board 11, explains that people feel they’ve earned their keep.
“It is the desire to live here in the city of New York, close enough to the cultural center of Manhattan to enjoy, but live in a nice size house they worked hard for to buy and maintain and spend a lot on and pay bigger property taxes plus income taxes for,” she wrote in an e-mail to City Limits, adding that forcing an upzoning on Bayside might not be best for the city’s tax base, either. “Changes could push more of the middle and higher income people out of the city.”
Neighborhood character—though of a different sort—is also important to Clinton and Chelsea’s community board 4. Chair Delores Rubin says that the community has worked hard over the years to create affordable housing and design a nuanced zoning code that preserves the area’s low-rise character, creates open access to the waterfront, allows an auto-business corridor, creates some opportunity for new development, and protects tenants with a certificate of no harassment program.
“We’re not a NIMBY neighborhood at all,” Rubin says. “The zoning has already been carefully thought out to provide the short of protections that have been important to the community at large but also to allow us to absorb additional density.”
One rezoning of Chelsea in 2005, for instance, focused on preserving the character of some areas while promoting residential and commercial development in others, including in former manufacturing areas. The rezoning also launched an inclusionary housing program that has been noted for its success.
Rubin noted, however, that commercial retail in the neighborhood has become greatly unaffordable, and the board is pushing for more affordable housing in the neighborhood on a number of public and private sites.
Park Slope would be especially oppositional to a rezoning, predicts Craig Hammerman, district manager of Park Slope’s Community Board 6, as much of the neighborhood is protected either by a historic district or was contextually rezoned by Bloomberg.
“It would be a real challenge to just double back within a decade. Zoning is supposed to last for generations. You’re not supposed to look at redoing zonings every time there is a change in administration,” he says. Overhauling zoning frequently, he adds, “creates a lot of uncertainty in the market place and people would be less likely and willing to invest.”
More complicated than just redlining.
Yes, Forest Hills, and many of the other neighborhoods on the list, are mostly white. Bayside, however, is diverse, and Councilmember Barry Grodenchik wants that remembered.
“It’s not because of the demographics or anything,” he says. “It’s one of the most diverse district in the city in New York—and people like it the way it is.”
Seinfeld said it’s not like Bayside enjoys some outsize political power in order to stop rezonings—”although residents here do know to call their legislators and will make use of a legitimate right to contact elected officials.”
Asked if affluent neighborhoods are able to use their money and political power to prevent upzonings, leaving low-income neighborhoods vulnerable to rezonings, Bay Ridge’s Beckmann wrote in an e-mail to City Limits, “I do not feel I have enough information to respond to this depiction.”
Yet she added that displacement is a concern in Bay Ridge as well.
“There is no evidence that upzoning would not result in displacement,” she wrote. “You can visit local senior centers or talk to residents on the street and they will confirm this sentiment. Many families feel they are being forced out by sharp increases in market rates and seniors who have rented in unregulated apartments in properties that were recently sold can no longer afford the high rents.
In some cases, neighborhoods that statistically appear as high-income, white neighborhoods also feel they have reason to resist the threat of “gentrification”—both as a form of cultural change, and as a trigger for displacement for poorer members of the community. A recent BKYNER article on AvalonBay’s controversial 22-story building in Sheepshead Bay received many comments from residents expressing derision for the newcomers who would soon arrive to rent the building’s expensive apartments.
“You can expect a bunch of hipsters, gender benders, snide leftists, souless progressives to start their ‘social engineering’ very soon,” predicted one commentator. (A few others noted that it would likely be rich émigrés that buy apartments so far from the city, not hipsters.)
Another focused attention on the neighborhood’s vulnerable populations, writing, “Immigrants, homeowners, seniors & longtime residents are getting priced-out of with high rents/property taxes/water, sewer & electric bills.”
As Goldberg writes in his thesis, some traditionally high-income, low-density neighborhoods in outer-borough neighborhoods have begun to absorb immigrant populations seeking cheaper rents—which makes the impact of upzoning these higher-income neighborhoods on displacement increasingly complicated.
Infrastructure is insufficient.
Infrastructure is also a huge concern for many outer-borough neighborhoods, especially Bay Ridge.
“Past administrations have not been able to meet current infrastructure needs in Community District 10. We have an 8,000 public-school seat deficit, aged infrastructure and a substandard transit system and local activists continue to strive to address the aforementioned needs,” wrote Beckmann, noting the collapse of sewer tunnel in 2012 that required $12 million in emergency repairs, and the millions currently being spent to repair school buildings.
It’s true that Bay Ridge has one of the highest school overcrowding rates in the city, and last year the School Construction Authority identified the need for more than 10,000 new school seats in the district, of which only about half have been funded. No Bay Ridge schools, however, are on the list of New York City’s worst school buildings generated by the property service union 32BJ, which tend to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods.
Forest Hills has similar complaints. According to the Department of Education’s calculations—though many dispute their accuracy—Forest Hills has an average school utilization rate of 105 to 120 percent. That’s significant overcrowding, though not as bad as Bay Ridge.
“Schools are at or over capacity right now. There isn’t any vacant land for a school. The Queens Boulevard subway, at peak hours, operating at full capacity, is inadequate,” wrote Forest Hills’ City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz. “I will say, however, that I am always looking for opportunities to create more affordable senior housing in my district. Seniors do not attend schools, and are not likely to use the subways during peak hours.”
Grodenchik, representing Bayside, says that schools are already overcapacity (a truth), public transit, sewer, and electrical infrastructure is inadequate, there wouldn’t be sufficient parking to accommodate a new population, and there are few stores or opportunities for jobs out there for new residents.
“I think enough of my colleagues [in City Council] are willing to welcome developments because they understand we have a need,” says Grodenchik, speaking to the imbalance between supply and demand of housing. “I just don’t see it as prudent in my area.”
Bayside’s Seinfeld says that the area has already gotten more crowded as developers maximize what is allowed under the existing zoning. Yet even agreeing on new locations to build schools is a challenge, with some residents protesting the siting of a school because they argued it was too close to other schools and would result in traffic congestion.
Theresa Scavo, chairperson of Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay’s Community Board 15 wrote, “Homes are on top of each other, losing the open air feel that many moved here to enjoy… Many streets are lined with new construction, Ocean Avenue has constant construction on every block from Kings Highway to Emmons Avenue.”
It’s true that Sheepshead Bay has seen a sudden burst of construction recently, with 491 new residential building permits filed in 2015. That’s about the same as what East Harlem saw in 2015, but nothing like Bushwick, with 2,262 permits, or Williamsburg, at 6,498 permits.
As for Clinton and Chelsea, Rubin cautions not to forget that those neighborhoods will be impacted by the neighboring Hudson Yards project, which is expected to bring 20,000 units to the area. Any additional building, she says, needs to adequately take into account the cumulative impact of all this development on the neighborhood.
Okay with nuanced approach to increasing density
Others stressed that there were definitely opportunities for development, but it had to be done carefully.
As part of its plan to spur the creation or preservation of 10,966 units of affordable housing, the Clinton and Chelsea community board has been pushing the city to rezone and develop particular underutilized public and private parcels in the neighborhood. The board is not interested in skyscrapers, and envisions the units targeting a broad range of incomes all the way up to households earning 165 percent Area Median Income or $142,000 for a family of three, not just low income housing. Rubin says the neighborhood already has low-income housing and wants to improve the neighborhoods’ income diversity (though according to the Furman Center, it’s already one of the most income-diverse districts in the city—with a sizeable middle income and upper-income population).
Greenwich’s Community Board 2 chair Terri Cude rejected the implication that her district, which includes the low-density Greenwich Village Historic District, wasn’t welcoming enough density. She noted the number of large, site-specific affordable housing developments that the board is supporting and its push to ensure the 2013 upzoning of Hudson Square included incentives for affordable housing. It’s also currently supporting a contextual rezoning of the University Place and Broadway Corridor, which would institute height limits but also gives bonus density for affordable units.
“There are places where [density] just makes sense, there are places where it doesn’t,” says Cude. “It’s got to be planned, not just, ‘we haven’t maxed out [to] as much as a building can be’!”
In addition, Bayside’s Seinfeld added that there might be parts of Bayside suitable for development, “mostly in the small commercial district along Bell Boulevard and Northern Boulevard,” though she noted that area already has parking troubles. And Alvin Berk, chair of Midwood’s community board 14, as well as Bay Ridge’s Beckmann point out that when their neighborhoods were contextually rezoned by Bloomberg, there was also some upzoning allowed on commercial corridors.
Voices of support for upzonings
Among the outer-borough Councilmembers we spoke to, Councilmember Jumaane Williams, whose district covers Midwood and Marine Park as well as eastern Brooklyn neighborhoods like East Flatbush and Canarsie, might be the anomaly. He said that “everybody, including Midwood” should do their “fair share” of absorbing housing growth.
“I do think there’s been a lot of concentration in the poorer communities, in the black Latino communities, so we have to stop that. The NIMBY-ism has to be forced out of the equation,” he said, referring to the stereotypical “Not In My Backyard” attitude that he said he’s seen in many communities.
“I don’t want to go to those areas and completely change the character of the neighborhood, and knock down a Victorian home and put up a six story [building],” he explained. “I do believe even in those … family neighborhoods, there are zones that do have higher density, and in those areas, we probably need to go higher than what’s already there.”
As for the builders themselves, they’re of course gung-ho about any upzonings. David Schwartz of Slate Property Group says that if land prices are high, with sufficient density added through a rezoning, he thought projects could work in many affluent communities. And he thought that the environmental review process—if properly addressed with city mitigation strategies—could ensure that communities attain the right infrastructure as they grow.He noted, however, that neighborhoods with good transit and avenues where there is room for multi-family housing development would be the most promising for development with mandatory inclusionary housing buildings, while neighborhoods like Manhattan Beach, where there is mostly just low-density housing with poor access to public transit, might be less successful.
Seth Pinsky of RXR Realty is similarly optimistic. He too says that while developers will be most attracted to neighborhoods near transit, even areas that are more distant from the city and more moderate rents could still be of interest, depending on the circumstance.
“You’re seeing population growth across New York City, so I think there is almost a limitless demand for new development and in particular new housing,” Pinsky says.
*We originally described Smith as currently a journalist for the blog Market Urbanism, but that was a former occupation. He also reported for New York YIMBY and the New York Observer.