Robert Camacho Bushwick

Adi Talwar

Robert Camacho, the chairperson of Brooklyn Community Board 4, at the intersection of Himrod Street and Evergreen Avenue. He has joined a coalition of Bushwick residents, community groups and elected officials who are pushing officials to study the impact of city policies on race and equity, especially when it comes to rezonings.


After eight years of litigation, Brooklyn community organizations and residents in 2017 settled a lawsuit against the city concerning Brooklyn’s Broadway Triangle development. The lawsuit accused the city of discriminating on the basis of race and religion in funding and planning for a proposed low-income housing project, conceived under the Bloomberg administration, on a vacant lot.

Under the city’s original plan, an unusually large share of housing units would be three- or four-bedroom apartments, designed for larger families. Plaintiffs alleged that would skew the development towards white, Hasidic families (which tend to be large) despite the need for affordable housing in neighboring communities of color such as Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The 2017 settlement required the city to include affordable housing for extremely low-income families, reserve 50 percent of the new apartments for families from surrounding areas and set aside $2.4 million for counseling and legal representation for local residents who have faced discrimination.

But while the settlement addressed some of the issues at that site, the dispute reflected deeper concerns about the way city housing policies impact different racial groups—and the lack of attention during the official planning process to those effects.

Those concerns have dogged Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan for years: The majority of neighborhoods the mayor has targeted for rezonings—with all the pros and cons, including displacement risks, that rezonings bring—are low-income communities of color.

It’s not a conversation confined to New York City. Past federal policies like redlining and slum-clearance and present-day local zoning laws are part of what’s driven continued residential segregation in the United States, five decades after the Fair Housing Act. Under President Obama, the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 moved to require states and cities to study how their housing policies affected segregation. But the Trump administration stalled that effort.

New York City in 2018 launched its own segregation study, called WhereWeLive NYC, to fill the vacuum left by the feds. But advocates aren’t sure how the results of that report—due this fall—will shape city policy. So they pressed for the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to change the rules that shape Environmental Impact Statements, which are prepared before any rezoning, to include racial factors. The commission declined to take up that issue.

The focus is now on the City Council, where several members and the Public Advocate are pushing a set bills that could require they to study the racial impact of development policies.

“There is a deep awareness that the impact of the city housing and land-use is felt differently across different groups,” says Emily Goldstein, director of Organizing and Advocacy at Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “Some questions are being heard repeatedly during rezonings such as, ‘Why are only communities of color being rezoned? Who is getting those affordable apartments? Who is facing displacement?’ And those questions need to be answered.”

The view from Bushwick

The de Blasio administration’s initiative to create and preserve an estimated 300,000 affordable housing units has so far propelled the rezonings of East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue and Inwood. The city is now moving to rezone Staten Island’s Bay Street Corridor as well as Bushwick and Gowanus in Brooklyn, and a rezoning for the Bronx’s Southern Boulevard appears likely to begin the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in the near future.

On Stanhope Street in Bushwick, the block where Brooklyn Community Board 4 Chair Robert Camacho grew up and still lives, is an almost completed four-floor walk-up building. The shiny, new development stares at Camacho every morning when he steps outside of his door. He makes sure to point it out to visitors, as if it was not obvious.

Camacho seems like a popular guy in his neighborhood. Most folks in the area seem to know him and he can give personal intel on almost every long-time Bushwick resident and those who are gone. Camacho says he and his neighbors worked for decades to transform Bushwick from a crime-ridden community to one of the fastest developing neighborhoods in New York today, but he feels their investment does not matter to the city. “We raised these kids when their mothers and fathers died from drugs. We had block parties when no one wanted to be here. We treated [the addicts] like human beings. We made this neighborhood. But we can’t live here?,” says Camacho. “The [new] apartments across from [my house] are renting for $3,000. Who can afford that in this community? Not us.”

Camacho and many of his neighbors face high-priced market housing. The average gross rent in Bushwick increased from $1,001 in 2006 to $1,433 in 2016 and the average asking rent for units advertised for lease in 2016 was $2,599, slightly higher than the rest of the borough ($2,550). In 2016, an estimated 32.6 percent of Bushwick residents were considered severely rent burdened (when a household spends more than 50 percent of their income on rent).

Bushwick’s likely rezoning had its origins in a community-based effort to resist those forces seen as driving longtime residents out. A set of stakeholders convened by two local Councilmembers presented a plan to the city, and then the city presented its own. The city’s draft plan overlaps with the community vision but there are key differences  (you can read the full analysis by City Limits here).

Now the focus is on gauging the impact of the city’s proposal. The Bushwick “draft scope,” a document describing the details of a land-use action and outlining the methods the city will use to study the project’s potential impacts for the legally-required environmental impact statement (EIS), projected an increase of almost 18,000 residents in the neighborhood over the next 10 years.

Race erased

But while that environmental review is supposed to study the development’s impact on everything from shadows to open space to traffic, advocates have complained that the way the city does its reviews understates the risk of residential displacement. What’s more, the existing process takes no account of how the impacts of a rezoning affect different racial groups.

So Camacho has joined a coalition of Bushwick residents, community groups and elected officials who are pushing officials to study the impact of land-use policies on race and equity across the city, especially when it comes to rezonings.

“The real issue we are facing is residential segregation. Looking back in the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act, residential segregation has not been addressed, especially not in urban cores, many of which remain as segregated if not more segregated than when the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968,” says Alex Fennel, Network Director at CUFFH.

“There is a sense that land-use is color blind, ” Fennell adds. “We don’t discuss the real legacy. Zoning and land-use has always been political and driven by race.”

Some communities that have faced recent rezonings raised similar concerns through the legal system. After their neighborhood as rezoned last year, Inwood residents and stakeholders filed a lawsuit contending that the environmental study missed important factors such as the impact of new development on preferential-rent leases, racial displacement, and minority- and women-owned businesses. It also alleges the study failed to take into account the impact of prior rezonings and asking the court for the annulment of the City Council’s approval of the Inwood rezoning.

On a different front, Fennell and allies pushed for two related sets of changes to the city charter. One would create a comprehensive planning process that would require individual rezonings to be consistent with citywide goals—goals that could include racial equity. The other would impose a set of reforms to the EIS process, including the addition of a racial-impact element.

“There is no racial breakdown, even as part of the recommended guidance for the EIS. That is a glaring oversight,” says Elena Conte, Pratt Center Director of Policy. Conte notes that even when an EIS does candidly assess a risk for displacement or other ill impacts, “there is no follow up” to see if proposed mitigation steps occurred or helped.

The city’s Charter Revision Commission, however, has steered away from any major changes to the planning or environmental review process.

The ‘Wild West’

In 2015, the Obama administration published the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which required local governments to run a community engagement process and complete a questionnaire exploring issues like segregation, disparities in access to opportunity and disproportionate housing needs. Assessments were due from different jurisdictions on a rolling basis, with New York City’s due in 2019.

The AFFH rule aimed to improve the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was passed following the civil unrest after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Act prohibited discrimination in housing and also required HUD to “administer the programs and activities relating to housing and urban development in a manner affirmatively to further the policies of this section [of the Act].”

But last August, HUD Secretary Ben Carson postponed the implementation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule until 2020. Several civil rights organizations have sued HUD over the suspension. The delay is still in effect, leaving states and municipalities on their own.

“It’s a little like the ‘Wild, Wild West’ right now because the Obama AFFH rule is no longer in effect and there’s little direction coming from Washington. This administration doesn’t seem to believe in affirmatively furthering fair housing. So local communities are left to their own devices, which is why you’re seeing such varied outcomes in different communities,” says Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center.

Last year in March, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in partnership with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) announced Where We Live NYC initiative, a fair-housing assessment process “to study, understand, and address patterns of residential segregation and how these patterns impact New Yorkers’ access to opportunity – including jobs, education, safety, public transit, and positive health outcomes.” The initiative was to include community participation as well as data and policy analysis which will guide a public report set to be released at the end of 2019.

City gives a preview

On June 22, HPD hosted a summit to report and get feedback on its findings so far. There, the agency revealed six goals—some of which already exist under current city policies. One would expand fair-housing enforcement and protections for those who face discrimination when looking to rent, buy or get a loan for a home. The second goal is to address equity during the housing search by providing more income-inclusive housing programs and services for non-citizens, those formerly involved with the criminal justice system or those who identify as LGBTQ.

“As we look to our future, it is incredibly important for us to look to our past and acknowledge what got us here: the sins that have helped shape the city and now that we have to confront,” said Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development during the summit.

The third goal is to protect and preserve existing affordable housing, something that has long been part of city policy and has been augmented in recent years by initiatives like the Right to Counsel bill and the Certificate of No Harassment program.

The city also wants residents using various forms of rental assistance to have “access to a diversity of neighborhoods” and to improve the housing subsidy programs for “participating residents and landlords.” A fifth goal focuses on the housing needs of residents with disabilities.

The sixth goal is to take a deeper look at historical segregation, discrimination and poverty in the city and bring those perspectives into policy-making efforts with the aim of decreasing neighborhood violence, improving school integration, expanding accessibility to public transit and creating tools to help “build financial wealth and security” in poverty-concentrated neighborhoods.

Advocates say the city faces a steep task in assessing the roots of its segregation.

“I think [the racial impact study] has to be pretty extensive in New York City because of the breadth of the issues we’re dealing with here, which are a little different than other cities. I do think it has to be a more extensive and in-depth process [of] analysis and then I think the action plan has to be comprehensive,” says Freiberg. “And clearly, New York has more than one issue they need to address. So I think in that sense it has to be a much more comprehensive package that they come up with at the end of the day.”

To some extent, analyzing and documenting the impact of racist policies on New York City’s housing market is the easy part. Figuring out what to do next is trickier.  “How do we ensure the recommendations coming out of that are measured and implemented?,” Conte asked.

Seattle’s example

One of the more expansive recent racial disparity studies came out of Seattle, which also has a serious housing crisis, including one of the largest homeless populations per capita. Cities in Washington state are required to create and maintain a comprehensive plan. At the intersection of the comprehensive plan and Seattle’s own Race and Social Justice Initiative came the Growth and Equity analysis, a response to decades of displacement that played out in neighborhoods throughout the city, according to Seattle City Planning senior planner Nick Welch.

“And that was partly due to the housing affordability crisis and this period of rapid development when it was just impossible to avoid looking at those tough questions of who is able to remain in the city. The economic displacement going on [while] the cost of housing rises — people are moving within the city and moving outside of the city and some people are being forced out of housing entirely,” says Welch, a senior planner for Seattle City Planning. Around 2015, the state updated the planning process to focus on racial equity, “a recognition that we have several core values in the comprehensive plan, but we really need to emphasize and elevate our goals for racial and social equity,” according to Welch.

The Growth and Equity analysis looks at factors in every aspect of city government and civic life, including transportation, land use, environment, the economy and the port of Seattle, Welch says. It created two composite maps, one of displacement risk and the other depicting access to opportunity.

The displacement risk map factored in 14 indicators that ranged from linguistic isolation to housing-cost burdens. The access to opportunity map plotted factors from school performance to access to fresh produce. The city then overlays those maps to figure out where to target policies. For example, if an area were determined to be at high displacement risk and low access to opportunity, then the city would prioritize public-sector investments in affordable housing and aim to close some of those gaps in assets and amenities.

A different task presents itself in low displacement risk, high opportunity neighborhoods—which are mainly White and wealthy. “The main challenge there is that those have been exclusive neighborhoods, effectively forever. And a big part of that is a zoning question. In many areas we don’t have capacity for new housing at all. And any housing that gets built is primarily large, detached single-family homes,” Welch says. “So we need policies that would increase access to a wider range of people to live and work in those neighborhoods.”

The maps affect the private sector as well. Today, Welch says that if a developer tries to bypass the growth and equity analysis,”it just would not pass the smell test. This is enshrined in actual policy and regulation — we have local environmental review policies that direct us to consider these types of impacts — and it’s then also just institutionalized in our departmental goals, our legislative body, and in the public’s expectation for our work.”

Council bills could create change

It’s unclear that WhereWeLive will propose anything as ambitious as the Seattle system, especially after the lack of action by the charter revision commission. So debate has moved to the City Council.

City Councilmembers such as Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee Chair Francisco Moya have called on the city to halt all future rezonings until a study is done on the impact of the land-use changes approved so far. “I believe we need to change the conversation and stop relying on the market to save us. If we cannot have this discussion now then when we can we have them?” Moya asked last summer. “What are the displacements that take place? We are on rezoning number five, why not look at what happened?”

Now, several bills before the Council would help to answer those questions.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams with Councilmember and Chair of the City Council Committee on Land Use Rafael Salamanca in May announced the introduction of a bill that would require the city to present race-based analysis of all rezoning plans. The bill, Intro 1572-2019, reads: “All draft and final environmental impact statements prepared in connection with applications subject to review by the city planning commission, shall include an analysis of potential direct and indirect racial and ethnic residential impacts of the proposed action and whether the proposed action would affirmatively further fair housing within the meaning of the Fair Housing Act.”

Other Councilmembers have also pushed bills that could create a shift in the city’s land use policies. Bushwick Councilmember Antonio Reynoso has sponsored Int 0252-2018, which would require the city to include environmental mitigation strategies among the promises tracked as part of the publicly accessible online database of commitments made during the public review of each proposed rezoning. Were EIS documents to confront racial disparities and propose steps to mitigate them, Reynoso’s measure would provide some transparency for gauging whether these steps were actually taken.

Moya sponsored Intro 1487-2019, which would require the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to study secondary residential displacement effects of recent rezonings, and Intro 1531-2019, which would require the city “to report on the actual impacts on public school capacity and overcrowding in areas affected by neighborhood rezonings four years and ten years after each such rezoning.” Paired with a new requirement to include explicit discussion of race in the EIS, these measures could provide an even more detailed picture of how different communities have been affected by land-use changes so far.

For housing advocates, a hard and comprehensive look at policy—with an honest and courageous willingness to change—has become vital.

“Our position is that the city, as part of its fair housing assessment, needs to examine all of its housing and community development policies and programs to see whether they are affirmatively furthering fair housing,” says Freiberg. “It’s not just about rezonings and displacement. It’s about whether the city’s overall plan is going to remove barriers to housing choice and produce more open, equitable, and inclusive communities.”