‘Many communities throughout New York City have seen major land use actions that have exacerbated rather than worked to alleviate displacement pressures, oftentimes in low-income communities of color.

Sadef Kully

A coalition of housing advocates rallied at City Hall on Dec. 16, decrying the city’s rezoning proposals as racist.

Racial justice in land use is long overdue. The past year has been an extremely challenging time for many New Yorkers and has led to demands for racial justice to guide systemic changes to emergency response systemscash bail, the City budget, and the multitude of structures that have historically reinforced systemic racism. 

While New York City relies heavily on the New York State government to fund and support critical infrastructure like our public housing, public transit system, and many other services, the city government does control local land use and zoning decisions. Since the City Council controls this deeply important process, it is critical that we center racial justice in all of their future decisions on land use.

Many communities throughout New York City have seen major land use actions that have exacerbated rather than worked to alleviate displacement pressures, oftentimes in low-income communities of color. In November of 2019, Churches United for Fair Housing released a report outlining how previous neighborhood rezonings have led to massive displacement of Black and Latinx families. For example, the 2005 Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront rezoning opened up massive housing development along the historically industrial north Brooklyn waterfront. While the area added roughly 21,000 residents from 2000 to 2015, the Latinx population decreased by over 15,000. This report examined similar demographic changes after the 2003 4th Avenue rezoning in Brooklyn, and numerous other rezonings have led to similar results as well.

Another important finding from this report is that in areas near major rezonings and new development, the low-income Black and Latinx residents that have remained were those living in public and social housing. This seems to support what many advocates have pointed out—programs like 421-A and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing fail to provide housing affordable to those with the greatest housing needs. In fact, new housing development can actually increase rents in older housing stock, which could be why the thousands of new luxury housing units in Greenpoint and Williamsburg exacerbated rather than alleviated displacement pressures in those neighborhoods.

Meaningful investment and policies designed to serve those most in need is the only way out of New York City’s housing and homelessness crisis. Unfortunately, the city has depended on aggressive rezoning of low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods instead of taking a hard look at how to address historic and current racial inequities in housing.

Recently, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson published a report and proposed corresponding legislation that would require New York City to streamline its planning processes into a more unified, comprehensive one. This report specifically mentions the fact that racial disparities have emerged in New York City as a result of uneven zoning policies and identifies comprehensive planning as a response to these inequities.

We are hopeful that comprehensive planning will be part of addressing racial inequities that we have seen come from ill-advised rezonings. However, racism in zoning exists because of specific and purposeful policy, so it must be addressed with the same level of intentionality if it is to be reversed. While comprehensive planning is necessary and a step in the right direction, the city would still benefit from specifically studying how land-use actions relate to deepening and/or creating disparities along racial lines.

To address this, legislation has been introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and I (Councilman Salamanca Jr.) that would require racial impacts be studied for future land use applications as part of the public review process. As part of the public review process, numerous topics are studied, including environmental impacts, displacement risks, and traffic. The Racial Disparity Report legislation merely asks that projected ethno-racial demographic changes are studied as well so that the city and communities can delineate between racially exclusive and inclusive proposals before zoning proposals are decided upon.

To be clear, this legislation is not a silver bullet. Nor is comprehensive planning or simply properly funding NYCHA. These tools should be leveraged in concert with each other to chip away at the monumental task of ensuring every New Yorker has access to safe and affordable housing in their communities. Studying racial impacts of intentional local land use changes is an important first step towards a more racially equitable and just housing landscape in New York City.

Rafael Salamanca Jr. is the councilmember for the 17th District of the New York City Council, representing the South Bronx, and serves as chair of the Land Use Committee. Maxwell Cabello is the senior land use and policy analyst at Churches United for Fair Housing.

5 thoughts on “Opinion: NYC Must Consider the Racial Impacts of its Land Use Decisions

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful article.
    A coalition of organizations around the city are calling for a city wide moratorium on the virtual-only ULURP , on equity and access grounds. We were there at City Hall on December 16th.
    We believe every proposed rezoning should include a racial impact study.
    Developers and elected officials like Councilmember Brad Lander have been waging a campaign of deceit, portraying themselves as caring about affordable housing but their actions prove otherwise. They hold back critical information from the community such as the EIS till the last moment and believe neighborhoods and community members are unable to grasp the genius of their urban development plans.

    They want to remove the community from the process and centralize the power a little like Robert Moses.
    The current Gowanus Rezoning and the proposal to build affordable housing on Public Place Site is a good example.
    Public Place Site AKA Gowanus Green is one of the most contaminated and polluted sites in New York State. Yet Councilman Lander wants to put a school and affordable housing there.
    Let’s get real about social justice, putting poor people in a polluted flood zone isn’t the answer. Are we creating a new Love Canal?
    Brad Lander is running for NY Comptroller. If he wins he will own it, New York City’s own version of the Love Canal.
    Those folks in affordable housing will be the new victims of political lies and developers greed paying the cost with increased rates of cancers , asthma and other infirmities.
    Isn’t it the Comptroller ‘s job to help keep us out of harms way?

    If politicians care so much about affordable housing why is it such a mess. Why do our neighbors in NYCHA live with lead and mold?
    Is the answer to give NYCHA away in a public private partnership? Doubtful!
    Hey de Blasio and Lander stop the Bait and Switch , stop robbing communities of their choice and giving it to developers.
    Support a moratorium on Citywide Rezoning until there can be true community input and racial intact studies.
    Let’s have a serious discussion about affordable housing starting with saving true public housing like NYCHA.

    • The more studies you do the less that will get built in NYC. Which is o.k. by me because I think that NYC is at the limit of what are 100+ year old infrastructure can handle. 8.3 million people in enough.

  2. The basic assumption underlying both this article and the comments to it is that the law of supply and demand does not apply to housing- that is, that increased supply never lowers rents. Thus, as little housing as possible would be built (except, of course, for government-run housing for the poor).

    If supply and demand were irrelevant to rents , the decline in demand caused by COVID-19 and the lockdowns would not have affected rents. Instead, in places like Midtown and the Financial District where demand decreased most (i.e. areas with lots of young, mobile people and proximity to office jobs that have disappeared) rents decreased. In the rest of the city where there are fewer jobs, rents were pretty stable. Thus, it is now VERY obvious that the law of supply and demand DOES apply to housing, and that the entire theory justifying anti-housing policies is false.

    So if more housing generally lowers rents, it logically follows that refusal to allow new housing keeps rents high. So if there should be a “racial impact statement”, it should be for neighborhoods that refuse to allow new housing, not for upzonings that allow new housing.

  3. The outer-borough home market has also proven more stable. Home prices of course dropped but have slowly rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels depending on the neighborhood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *