‘The Where We Live NYC Plan thankfully moves beyond the simplistic supply-side diagnosis and acknowledges the legacy of systemic racism. However, the plan needs to put forth bold and specific commitments to change business as usual. We can learn from other cities that have gone much further.’

Flickr / John McCarten for NYC Council

The author, Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, at a housing-related press conference in 2018.

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Vicki Been released the final Where We Live NYC Plan, the City’s effort to address the legacy of racial segregation and create a roadmap towards integrated and equitable neighborhoods.

While I applaud the years of community engagement, research, and analysis that went into this document, and appreciate the additions of the SoHo/NoHo and Gowanus rezonings into the final version, we must go further to meet this critical moment in history. The plan is long on analysis but short on commitments. New Yorkers deserve more.

Families in my district are now facing a triple crisis: the devastating health impacts of COVID-19, the resulting economic catastrophe, and the uphill struggle against structural racism and inequality that has calcified the city into distinct patterns of segregation.

These crises have disproportionately impacted people of color: Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have twice the COVID mortality rate as white New Yorkers, and the unemployment rate in many parts of my Bronx district has surged over 30 percent, compared to 10 percent in Lower Manhattan. Why are some communities hit so much harder than others?

While the COVID-19 virus is dangerous, the source of its lethality is not merely biological but also sociological, exploiting the cracks in our society that we have allowed to grow. Long before COVID, Black and brown communities have struggled with inequitable opportunities and consistently have less access to parks, jobs, public transit, well-resourced schools, quality housing, healthy food, and safe living environments. Long before COVID, these disparities were having deadly consequences, such that life expectancy in Hunts Point is a full eight years shorter than in the Upper East Side.

We know this was not an accident. Decades of explicitly racist federal, state, and city land use policies created the system we see today with racially segregated neighborhoods and unequal access to opportunity. We have a responsibility to right these wrongs, not by nibbling around the edges but by attacking segregation head on.

But we have to get the diagnosis right in order to find the remedy. There are those who continue to argue that our fundamental housing problem is merely a lack of supply and that the solution is to build as much as possible, wherever possible, without regard to neighborhood context or affordability. This is the flawed logic that led to six neighborhood rezonings targeting low-income communities of color, and the approach that I resisted in Southern Boulevard. While we absolutely need to build more housing of all kinds, we cannot pretend that all neighborhoods are the same.

The Where We Live NYC Plan thankfully moves beyond the simplistic supply-side diagnosis and acknowledges the legacy of systemic racism. However, the plan needs to put forth bold and specific commitments to change business as usual. We can learn from other cities, like Seattle and Washington D.C., that have gone much further.

First, our fair housing plan should acknowledge that some neighborhoods have greater access to opportunity than others and be explicit in identifying the communities that have enjoyed these benefits. For too long, affluent communities have effectively blocked new development, especially for affordable housing, a phenomenon known as “resource hoarding”. We need to focus affordable housing production and housing voucher usage in these resource-rich communities.

Second, we should acknowledge that some neighborhoods have greater risk of gentrification and displacement than others, and we should be explicit in identifying the most vulnerable communities. The Right to Counsel initiative, passed by the City Council in 2017, calls for a data-driven, geographically targeted roll-out of legal representation for eviction cases in New York City. The same geographic approach should be taken when considering which neighborhoods to rezone and which to target with additional services that support residents at risk of displacement.

Finally, we should acknowledge the long history of disinvestment in low-income communities of color and we should be explicit in identifying the neighborhoods that have been most underserved. We should work from the bottom-up, partnering with a broad range of local stakeholders to identify the resources that are most needed, everything from community health clinics to afterschool programs.

I know this won’t be easy. The type of planning I’m suggesting will require difficult conversations across the city to acknowledge our past and raise a shared vision of the city we aim to be. I believe that New York can become a place where fair housing and racial equity are at the core of how we think about the city, driving our land use planning, our capital investments, our budgeting, and even the shape of our government. But in order to get there, we must do more.

Rafael Salamanca is a New York City Councilmember representing District 17 in The Bronx and chair of the council’s land use committee.