‘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.‘
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 systems, cash 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.