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.