Adi Talwar

Skeptics of the city's East Harlem rezoning proposal, which was approved in 2017, believe the environmental review dramatically understated the risks of displacement.

The city’s environmental review method overlooks the residential displacement impact of development on New York neighborhoods, where socio-economic demographics are rapidly shifting through private and public rezonings, a new report finds.

During a city-initiated rezoning or project, the city must do an environmental review to understand and assess the impact a proposed project may have in the neighborhood. The review follows a Technical Manual as a guide—and the new report from Pratt Center for Community Development raises important questions about the manual.

The Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination is charged assisting city agencies to carry out environmental reviews in accordance with state and federal law and advises the mayor on environmental policies, according to its website. The City Environmental Quality Review or CEQR is mandated by the State Environmental Quality Review Act. According to the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination website, CEQR is a disclosure process and not an approval process. It helps support decisions made by agencies such as approvals of rezoning or variance applications, funding, or issuance of discretionary permits.

The Pratt report says, “Despite community groups vocalizing concerns and despite quantifying large numbers of vulnerable residents, recent Environmental Impact Statements have concluded that rezonings will not displace residents at a significant level.”

It refers to four problematic points in the CEQR Technical Manual. First, the technical manual dismisses the potential for inequitable impacts by race and ethnicity by not making a review of the impacts on race/ethnicity a requirement. Second, only low-income tenants living in one- to four-unit buildings are considered vulnerable to displacement because the technical manual does not consider rent-regulated units as vulnerable. Third, the potential for displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods is dismissed because, the Pratt report says, “…if rents are increasing in an area and presumably displacement is occurring, Environmental Impact Statement authors are to conclude it is not possible that a proposed action could make the situation any worse…”

And fourth, Environmental Impact Statement authors use their own discretion in determining a finding of significant impact. Says Pratt: “The Technical Manual provides specific guidance to analysts in some areas but when it comes to the most important aspect—the final determination—the manual is noticeably open to analysts’ subjective conclusions.”

Pratt director of policy Elena Conte says the review process is failing to live up to its basic purpose. “This is a disclosure document and it is supposed to shed light on the way a proposed project is going to impact the community,” she tells City Limits. “The fact that the racial makeup of community is not considered is inexcusable. It is about having the facts and looking honestly at who is vulnerable and who is likely to be impacted.”

The report is not alone in focusing on vulnerable communities — elected officials and housing advocates are also challenging the current process of how rezonings are done in the city.

In August during a City Council public hearing on the recent Inwood rezoning — Councilman Francisco Moya, chair of the subcommittee on zoning and franchises, said the city needed to make a more deliberate effort to study the impact of previous rezonings, especially their secondary displacement effects and impact on construction workers and local hiring.

In February, Churches United for Fair Housing, along with community members and organizations, took a housing development to the Supreme Court to stop the construction in the Broadway Triangle section of Brooklyn. Churches United claimed that rezoning the area without evaluating segregation would result in discrimination against people of color, and was in violation of the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But the Supreme Court found no facts that supported the intentional discrimination by the developers, city officials, or the entire rezoning process.

The court said the developers could not be held responsible for racial disparities that they did not create and there was no evidence to show a connection between policies and impact. But the court did note that since the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, 50 years ago, no court has required racial impact studies.

Renae Widdison, the author of the Pratt report, said she had spoken to several planners/consultants authoring Environmental Impact Statements as well as academics, community based planners, and community organizers.

“If anything can come out of this report is the detailed way—the really specific way—that this methodology is wrong,” said Widdison. “If we are trying to move towards a future that is equitable, then we can’t treat everyone the same because people have not been treated the same. If we desegregate our schools then we have to talk about race, if we are going to desegregate housing then we have to talk about race.”

The Pratt Center report recommends the city conduct a citywide displacement risk analysis and use it to inform housing and development policy, adopt a comprehensive anti-displacement policy agenda with a goal of no net loss of affordable units and convene a Task Force of technical and community experts to revamp the CEQR Technical Manual’s approach to evaluating residential displacement.

14 thoughts on “City’s Environmental Review Process Faulted for Ignoring Evidence of Development’s Harm

  1. I read both this article and the referenced Pratt Center link. I’m left scratching my head.

    The recommendations clearly have merit: housing and development policy should consider risk of displacement and adopt a goal of no net loss of affordable housing.

    But nowhere in the Pratt Center findings — or this article — is there a cogent link between an environmental review and these goals. Blaming displacement on an environmental review is like faulting a paint brush for doing a lousy job as a hack saw. When I reach into my tool kit, I try to grab the right tool for the job at hand.

    • The link is pretty clear. If the EIS fails to identify the displacement risk that a development might pose, how could the city–as you suggest–consider risk of displacement or implement a no-net-loss policy? In your tool kit, you likely have both a saw and a tape measure. Maybe the EIS is the latter. It’s not what you cut with, exactly, but a shoddy one is going to make your cutting a lot more problematic.

      • I’m still missing the link.

        An environmental review should look at a plan’s potential impact on air and water resources. In NYC, impact on wildlife is rarely relevant, though a small fish had big consequences for Westway. An environmental review should consider a plan’s potential health consequences. Dense infrastructure costs governments less than sprawl. Per-capita energy and water consumption is less in dense areas: good for air pollution and climate change. People who live where it’s dense and walkable tend to be physically healthier. These are all valid environmental considerations.

        Displacement and loss of affordable housing are also a valid concerns too, no less important than environmental impact, but they’re neither linked to nor related to an environmental review. Address them fully, but separately.

        • Ah, I think you’re thinking that environmental reviews are, well, about the natural environment. In New York City for many decades they have looked more broadly at all the impacts of a potential change in land use: Shadows, local business, schools, infrastructure, traffic, etc. It’s the “urban environment” that we’re talking about. And as flawed as the process is, there is a logic to the idea that we want a comprehensive, objective assessment of all the ways a potential move is going to affect life in the city.

        • An environmental impact statement is prepared if an action is determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment. It compares alternatives so that the decision maker can assess which action has the least impact on the human environment. That includes all impacts: seats in the public schools, transportation, water, sewer, air, parks, and all other city services. There has not been an EIS prepared by the City in the last few years that have looked at any real alternatives, or even cared what the community stated. This article was a breath of fresh air and was duly needed.

  2. We Inwood residents urged City Hall to study the racial impacts of the Inwood Rezoning in housing and business displacement. City Hall flat out refused. City Hall does not want to what the racial impacts are because it would expose City Hall’s discriminatory policies.

    • It’s probably not legal to study racial impacts. But if what you are saying is that the Inwood rezoning will bring more whites into the area you’re probably correct. Only time will tell. But it sure looks like deBlasio rammed through the Inwood rezoning.

  3. Of course new developments will cause some displacement as overall rents increase as a neighborhood becomes more desirable. But how can you guarantee no net loss of affordable units?

  4. Isn’t it obvious that humans are also part of the environment?
    They are both ‘impacted-by’ and have an ‘impact-on’ the rest of the environment.
    Human animals need protection as much as any other animals.

  5. This discussion needs to be informed by the important work of psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Fullilove, documented in her book, “Root Shock.” Changes in the environment beyond air, water, etc. can have devastating health effects. The EIS is too limited in scope and needs to be changed or another tool of measurement developed and applied.

  6. Where are the guidelines that insist that an EIS has to be accurate? Rogue agencies, specifically the DEP, have used fraudulent EIS reports for advocacy on projects, not as objective studies on which to base decision-making.

  7. The zoning change impact on the East Harlem community is well documented from the earlier 2003 revision which preceeded the 2017 changes. All you have to do to realize tbe enormous impact on the population Past y Presenf is look. Requesting City Hall to take its head out of the sand is not too much to ask…

  8. It seems disingenuous to me that anyone who is concerned about housing affordability — which is arguably the most important social justice issue in New York City — would be opposed to the rapid construction of new housing units. Even if new units are disproportionately expensive, their mere creation takes market pressure off existing units. The New York City region needs to accommodate its growing population. Production has lagged growth for years, creating a chronic bottleneck that results in very high prices for units that are neither luxurious nor ideally located. Arcane processes that slow down new construction will ultimately contribute to a rising cost of living in all of the region’s neighborhoods.

    • If only it were that simple. New housing development can have secondary effects that raise the rents of other existing units because they change the dynamic of a neighborhood. It can be hard to decouple previously existing rent trends from those exacerbated or lessened by new development, but this is certainly a risk. Even more obvious is the risk that the zoning changes that facilitate more housing development can lead to a loss of industrial space (and jobs) and alter the economics of neighborhood retail, driving out independent businesses and low-cost options. It’s not a simple matter of supply and demand — at least not when some neighborhoods are forced to accept growth and others are shielded from it.

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