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The 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning is one major land-use action whose racial impact wasn’t predicted ahead of time but, according to advocates, has been significant.

Community organizations and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will hold a rally Wednesday morning outside of City Hall to launch a legislative campaign to include a racial impact study within the city’s environmental review process in order to address inequity and displacement in communities that face major land use actions.

In May, Williams introduced legislation, Intro 1572-2019, which would mandate a racial impact study for land-use actions that require an environmental review. The legislation would require that “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.” If passed, this legislation would go into effect 180 days after it becomes law.

“Most of us know anecdotally and some of the available data [indicates] that we are probably one of the most segregated cities in the country, but we also want to make sure we overlay that with the displacement that has occurred,” Williams said in a phone interview with City Limits on Tuesday evening. “The legislation is about actual displacement of longtime residents that’s been compounded by rezonings that government has allowed. It started back in the Bloomberg era and it has been made worse, I believe, in the de Blasio era.”

Reviews under review

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 that is overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination, which is charged with assisting city agencies in carrying out the reviews in accordance with state and federal law.

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, 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.

A 2018 report from Pratt Center for Community Development raises important questions about the manual. It referred to four problematic points in the CEQR Technical Manual, one of them being a lack of consideration for the potential for inequitable impacts by race and ethnicity (read the details of the report here).

Wednesday’s campaign launch stems from the long-time concerns of elected officials and community organizations that saw the city’s housing policies impact different racial groups—and what they say has been a lack of attention during the official planning process to those effects.

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, Inwood and Staten Island’s Bay Street Corridor. Bushwick and Gowanus neighborhoods in Brooklyn could see their rezoning proposals certified before the summer next year and the Bronx’s Southern Boulevard study appears to have completed the first phase of its’ community engagement process and could see a draft rezoning plan before the next winter.

The majority of neighborhoods the mayor has targeted for rezonings—with all the pros and cons that come with them, including displacement risks—are low-income communities of color.

The federal element

This is not just an issue for 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.

“We’ve been in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 for quite some time with these rezonings,” said Williams. “It’s clear that Trump is just a terrible person and obviously his policy reflects that. I always have to make sure we remember that these problems predate Trump.”

Williams said these violations have continued under Democratic leadership in the state and city despite Governor Cuomo’s experience as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary during the Clinton administration and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s experience as HUD’s New York and New Jersey regional director in 1997, also under the Clinton administration.

“The governor of the state was the HUD Secretary, the mayor of the city worked for HUD. There are two Democrats who are now executives and it has gotten worse under their tenure so I’m holding Democrats just as accountable,” said Williams.

Despite stalled federal housing policy, the de Blasio administration launched its own segregation study, called WhereWeLive NYC, to fill the vacuum left by the feds. The report from that effort is due before the end of the year, according to Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

New local push

Earlier this year, advocates also pressed for the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to change the rules that shape Environmental Impact Statements to include racial factors. The commission declined to take up that issue.

Now the focus is the City Council, where several Council members, the Public Advocate, community groups and union such as Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFHH), Inwood Legal Action, Communities Resist, RENA, Laborer’s Local 79, New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Association for Neighborhoods and Housing Development (ANHD), Hester Street, Pratt Center, Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and Municipal Art Society (MAS) are pushing the legislation to study the racial impact of development policies.

“Making racial impact analysis mandatory is a giant step toward justice and equality. We thank the Public Advocate for advancing legislation that will compel the city to fulfill its duty under the federal Fair Housing Act. A mandatory racial impact analysis will promote inclusivity and reduce segregation in city neighborhoods, prevent litigation between communities and the city, and inject more of the community’s voice in the city’s environmental review process,” said Cheryl Pahaham, Co-Chair of Inwood Legal Action, in an email statement. The group has brought a lawsuit under Article 78 against the 2018 Inwood rezoning arguing the city’s environmental review process failed to examine how the rezoning would impact the socio-economic demographics of the Inwood community, including race, income and language.

Over the last couple of years, the housing advocacy group CUFFH has been part of the push behind the legislation and shared a report with City Limits before its public release on how past rezonings in Park Slope and Williamsburg have had disparate impacts across racial/ethnic groups.

“While a variety of critiques have been made on these and other rezonings in New York City, this report focuses on the issue of race in particular. New York City is one of the most segregated cities in the country and this report touches on how the City’s land use actions have reinforced this issue rather than alleviating it,” said CUFFH network director Alex Fennell in an emailed statement.

New research cites concerns

The report, Zoning & Racialized Displacement in NYC, looked at U.S. Census data, from 2000 to 2015, which revealed the 2003 Park Slope and 2005 Williamsburg rezonings caused displacement of minority residents. The report’s research says areas with wealthier white populations were down-zoned (such as the 2004 Park Slope rezoning of 4th Avenue) while lower-income, largely minority areas were up-zoned for higher density such as the 2005 Williamsburg and Greenpoint rezoning.

The report estimates that a decrease of 15,000 Latino residents between 2000 and 2015 occurred after the Williamsburg and Greenpoint rezoning despite an increase of 20,000 residents during the same time period. After the Park Slope rezoning, the report says the neighborhood saw an approximately 5,000 resident decrease in Black and Latino households between 2000 and 2013 even with a population growth of over 6,000 during the same time period.

The 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning environmental impact statement (EIS) showed that the city predicted 8,257 housing units and 1,398 affordable units would be produced, but according to the CUFFH report, an estimated 10,044 housing units were created and 1,502 of them were affordable units. The EIS also said there would be no loss of rent-stabilized units but the report estimated that 942 rent-stabilized units were lost to date.

“Despite the Fair Housing Act being passed over 50 years ago, disparities along racial lines continue to be an issue in housing and land use policy to this day. New York City needs to study race in the form of a Racial Impact Study in order to address these issues that have historically plagued New York City and that neighborhood rezonings have exacerbated,” said Fennell.

4 thoughts on “Council Could Force the City to Study the Racial Impact of Rezonings

  1. How about they study the racial impact of the Bloomberg/De Blasio (same difference) “affordable” housing and NYCHA infill/RAD initiatives? Oh, wait. We already have the starkly new demographics of Central Harlem and Williamsburg as evidence.

  2. At the end of the day, I did not vote for Williams for PA bc of his abstention on the Inwood rezoning in ‘18. He’s trying to do the right thing now. For aspirational reasons or bc he really wants to end these rezonings that benefit developers at the expense of WC residents.

    Beyond that, I am troubled by the focus on race and ethnicity at the expense of class. Since the civil rights era, including the fair housing act, this country has witnessed the rise of a substantial middle class that includes POC. In other words, Ydanis Rodriguez (with a family income WELL INTO 6 figures) — and others like him — could afford to live in any of the luxury towers that are slated for his neighborhood. That solves the “race” issue but not the class issue. We need to think about these questions when we talk about racial segregation and inequality.

  3. CUFFH and one of its founders, Rob Solano, supported large scale rezoning, on the Domino site, for example, and the creation of DUMBO by developer Jed Walentas. Can you, Alex Fennell, and ANHD answer to this history? I support racial impact studies but it’s no excuse to rewrite recent history in North Brooklyn, And I’d like to be corrected if I’m mistaken.

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