‘Time and time again, we have seen the concerns of community members come to fruition, as rezonings have led to rampant gentrification and displacement in working class communities of color across the city.’
Earlier this week, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams announced that he is nominating Cea Weaver, a prominent housing rights activist and leader in the Housing Justice for All Coalition, to the City Planning Commission. Weaver’s nomination would be an incredible asset to the City Planning Commission, a powerful city agency that has the first binding vote on rezonings and other (oftentimes controversial) land use proposals in New York. Her appointment is an incredible opportunity for the future of our city to actually fight for deeply affordable housing and tenants’ rights, and the City Council should approve her nomination.
Weaver’s nomination is particularly exciting, as it comes at the end of a particularly contentious year for the City Planning Commission (CPC), where the commission consistently sided with the real estate industry over the needs of everyday people. Over the past several months, the CPC greenlighted two highly controversial rezoning plans: Industry City in Sunset Park, and the Flushing Waterfront Rezoning. While community members have spent years organizing against both of these plans, which caused serious concern about both commercial and residential gentrification, only one member of the CPC voted against Industry City (where the rezoning ultimately failed due to opposition from local Councilmember Carlos Menchaca), and only two members of the CPC voted against the Flushing Rezoning.
Time and time again, the CPC has voted against the interests of community members in predominantly Black and brown working class communities. And time and time again, we have seen the concerns of community members come to fruition, as these rezonings have led to rampant gentrification and displacement in working class communities of color across the city. In the years since the Williamsburg Rezoning, which was approved 11 to 2 by the CPC in 2005, the Latine population in North Brooklyn declined by 18 percent, despite the fact that the city’s Latine population as a whole increased by 10 percent over the same time period. It is clear that communities of color have been forced to bear the burden of ad-hoc, racist, and economically discriminatory development, and while the CPC is not exclusively responsible for this, it certainly has played a role in the exploitation and gentrification of these communities by cozying up to real estate developers throughout the ULURP process.
Ultimately, much of the CPC’s failure to actually serve the people of New York City can be attributed to its deviance from its founding principles. The CPC was initially established with the valiant goals of preventing a handful of politicians with ties to special interests from making executive decisions on land use, and ensuring that the city had a comprehensive master plan that was formed in conjunction with city residents. Commissioners were to be appointed by the mayor (and later, by borough presidents and the public advocate) for their “independence, integrity, and civic commitment.”
However, it is clear that the CPC has failed miserably at achieving these goals, as New York City still does not have a comprehensive plan. Additionally, many members of the CPC are neither independent nor committed to the communities that they claim to serve. Out of the 13 individuals currently appointed to the CPC, seven have direct connections to for-profit real estate. When a majority of the people making decisions about land use in our city have connections to developers, it is hard to believe that the CPC is an “independent” body, especially when the CPC has consistently sided with the interests of the real estate industry over the interests of working class people of color. Lastly, there is often a fairly significant disconnect between CPC commissioners and community members, making the CPC an unreliable advocate for the true needs of working class communities of color. Due to this, the CPC plays a fundamentally different role in in New York City than the role it was meant to play; instead of ensuring that land use decisions are in line with a comprehensive plan, the CPC now is essentially a group of real estate professionals that have the first binding vote in the ULURP process.
Cea Weaver represents everything the City Planning Commission was supposed to be. Unlike over half of the CPC’s current members, she is fiercely independent from the real estate industry, as she has served as a tenant activist leading the fight for stronger rent controls in New York City. Her work preventing evictions and preserving rent control with the Housing Justice for All coalition has been deeply responsive to the needs of tenants in working class communities of color, by keeping thousands of tenants in their homes across the city and state. Weaver, the campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice for All coalition, successfully led the fight to win stronger rent protections for tenants across the state, causing evictions to decline by 18 percent between June 2019 and January 2020.
Weaver also has a long and storied history of civic engagement in our city; she has been a champion for many local, community-led housing initiatives, as she helped to build the Crown Heights Tenants Union in Central Brooklyn, which is now one of the most successful community tenant initiatives in the city. Additionally, Weaver understands that solving the housing crisis does not mean that we have to constantly upzone working class communities, as this inevitably leads to luxury development. She understands that this means that we instead must fight for universal rent control and invest in social housing programs such as community land trusts, public housing, and limited equity co-ops, an important perspective that has been all but missing from the CPC until now.
The fact that many powerful real estate industry figures, such as James Whelan of REBNY, are speaking out against Weaver’s nomination to the CPC proves that Weaver is truly independent, as she has no ties to real estate special interests or developers. Instead, she has ties to tenant organizers on the ground, who have long been overlooked in the CPC’s decision-making processes on land use issues. As a commissioner, she will fight to make sure that rezonings do not lead to the displacement of Black and brown working class communities by actually connecting with organizers on the ground, a trait that is nearly absent amongst current CPC commissioners. And in a city where nearly two thirds of the population rent their homes, it is absolutely vital that we have a tenant advocate who believes that housing is a basic human right on the CPC fighting for our communities.
Additionally, unlike most of the members of the CPC, she is an urban planner by trade, making her particularly qualified to actually consider if a given rezoning will lead to a more equitable distribution of resources in our city. Currently, only one member of the CPC, Larisa Ortiz, has a degree in Urban Planning (though some others have degrees in architecture), making Weaver’s appointment to the commission even more important to the future of our city.
The real estate industry already has seven seats at the table making the first binding decisions about land use proposals for our city.
It’s past time that the tenant movement gets just one.
I hope that the City Council listens to tenants and approves Cea Weaver to the City Planning Commission to ensure that the voices of the 65.1 percent of New Yorkers who rent their homes truly have a seat at the table. New Yorkers deserve a CPC commissioner who firmly believes housing is a human right, and I hope the City Council upholds this basic value.
Katelin Penner is a junior at Wesleyan University and a housing organizer in New York City.