‘The way in which land is rezoned in this city has subsequently made it difficult for many New Yorkers to find a home, let alone stay in their homes,’ Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who co-sponsored the bill, said at a hearing last week. Advocates expect the legislation to come before a full City Council vote by April of this year. 

Sadef Kully

Among several signs of protest against the 2018 Inwood rezoning plan, which faced legal challenges from community groups who asked for a racial impact study to accompany rezoning and assess the risk of neighborhood displacement.

In the coming weeks, fair housing and tenant advocacy groups will work to garner more support from City Council members on legislation which would force the city to study the impact of land use decisions on a neighborhood’s racial and ethnic demography.

Intro 1572 was introduced at the end of 2019 by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Bronx Councilmember and Council Land Use Chair Rafael Salamanca, after an extensive two-year campaign by housing advocates. A revised version of the legislation, Intro 1572-A, is expected to come before the full City Council for a vote before April of this year, according to housing and council sources. 

Rob Solano, executive director at Churches United For Fair Housing (CUFFH) ― among the organizations pushing for the legislation ― is looking to garner the support of at least 30 councilmembers to ensure the bill passes the City Council vote, and avoids a potential mayoral veto. Currently, 22 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, council records show.

The bill would add a new section to the City Charter that would require certain applications which trigger the city’s public land use review process, known as ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), to include a racial disparity report examining things like neighborhood demographics and displacement trends. It would apply to both private and public projects—including city-initiated rezonings—that span a minimum of four adjacent blocks of property, or where the proposed land use action would increase floor area ratio by at least 50,000 square feet or alter the site’s zoning by at least the same amount. The report’s findings would be distributed to the councilmember whose district the project is located in, the public advocate’s office and the City Council speaker, as well as posted online for the public.

According to the bill, the racial disparity report would need to examine a number of existing socio-economic demographics within a half-mile radius of the project area, looking at things like existing housing conditions, the number of rent-stabilized or rent-regulated units, rent burdened households (which pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent), median rents in the neighborhood, as well as home prices and eviction rates. It would need to include neighborhood education levels and household incomes, and the applicant would also be required to outline racial, ethnic and socio-economic trends in the area for every five years during the 20-year period before the application was filed.

Proposed residential developments would have to show projected rent amounts for all units, along with an analysis of household incomes needed to afford those units without causing tenants to be rent-burdened. The report for proposed commercial projects would need to include projected industry sectors and occupations, the projected number of jobs and median wage levels for those jobs, as well as analyze the racial and ethnic makeup of those industries.

Lastly, the report would have to identify measures the applicant would use to mitigate any disparities or risk of neighborhood displacement the project might bring, such as the city’s program to target landlords with a history of tenant harassment, the Right to Counsel program or workforce development initiatives.

“The way in which land is rezoned in this city has subsequently made it difficult for many New Yorkers to find a home, let alone stay in their homes,” Public Advocate Williams said during a City Council hearing on the bill last week. “The rezoning process coupled with the [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program], as it is currently drafted, has led to massive gentrification, exclusion and displacement across this city because the process does not take into account the potential effects land use could have on the racial makeup of a neighborhoods.”

The bill is just one example of the ways elected officials are calling for the city to reassess its land use and city planning decisions through the lens of equity. In December, Speaker Corey Johnson introduced citywide comprehensive planning legislation which would center the use of the city’s budget, land use and policy tools around racial and socio-economic justice. It would require the city to produce a 10-year comprehensive plan—assessing short and long-term risks, economic and racial disparities, infrastructure needs and the impacts of development and investment decisions within the five boroughs—and requiring new projects to align with the goals of that plan.

Typically during a public or private rezoning or large development project, the city or the applicant must do an environmental review to assess the impact a proposal may have in the surrounding area. The environmental impact statement (EIS), a detailed document produced after the environmental review, does not factor in the impact on race or ethnicities within a neighborhood. Housing advocacy groups such as the Pratt Center for Development have argued the process is flawed because it overlooks the effects of development on residential displacement.

Fears about community displacement have been especially prominent in the public debate over city rezonings, many of which have been met with fierce resistance –– and some, with lawsuits –– from the neighborhoods where they’ve been proposed. Since 2015, the de Blasio administration has approved seven rezonings: East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Inwood and Bay Street in Staten Island. Over the past year, efforts to rezone parts of Southern Boulevard in the Bronx and Bushwick fell apart.

During the virtual hearing about the racial impact legislation last week, Department of City Planning (DCP)  Executive Director Anita Laremont acknowledged the contention that has emerged over city rezonings, but cautioned against tying those rezonings and new construction with changes in demographics and displacement. “New York City’s diverse residents move and the composition of neighborhoods change over time because of a variety of factors in ways that cannot be forecasted with accuracy,” she said.

Councilmember Salamanca asked whether the city has looked back at rezonings after they were approved to see if patterns of displacement emerged.

“We do think it’s critical to understand demographic trends and changes in the housing supply and affordability in neighborhoods throughout the city,” said Department of City Planning attorney Susan Amron, adding that the city does do such reviews, just not through the environmental review process. “We do that through vast numbers of other programs and other analyses that we do on a regular basis.”

Salamanca pressed further, citing the 2005 Williamsburg rezoning under the Bloomberg administration as one example of a city-initiated land use action that impacted a neighborhood’s racial and ethnic makeup. He pointed to a CUFFH report which found the area lost 15,000 Latinx residents between 2000 and 2015, despite an overall population increase in those neighborhoods during that time. The zoning changes “exacerbated previous displacement pressures rather than alleviating them,” the report found.

Amron responded by reiterating the idea that the movement of certain demographic groups could not be linked definitively to a rezoning.

“We maintain that we cannot find any causal link between our rezonings and gentrification. We understand that gentrification is a force at work, but we don’t have evidence that our rezonings exacerbate that,” said Laremont.

Williams also questioned Laremont on the success of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, one of the de Blasio administration’s key strategies to incentivize developers to build affordable housing.

“I’ve been told [MIH] would make it better, but the math never seemed to work out at that point, if you bring in 100 units and 70 of them are market and 30 affordable, some of them are on the higher echelon. How does that help the affordability in that community, aren’t you just bringing more people at market rate?” asked Williams.

Laremont argued that if the development in those communities is not regulated through MIH or  rezonings, then only market-rate housing would be created, unfettered and unregulated.

Williams pushed back against the officials’ assertion that displacement could not be linked to zoning changes. “When these things are presented, they are presented as causal. They are presented that [if] we build this rezoning, there is a causation that will make this community and this city better. That is what’s presented to us,” he said. “Now, after the fact, we want to pretend that we weren’t presented with this causal equation.”

Several members of housing advocacy and community groups—Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, CUFFH, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and Inwood Legal Action–– testified at the hearing about the impact of rezonings on longtime residents and small businesses in the neighborhoods they serve.

Christian Fitzroy, a CASA member and resident of the Bronx —where the city rezoned Jerome Avenue in 2018 — says that impact includes “thousands [of] families who have to relocate, often to environments worse than the ones that they left,” as a result of the rezonings.

“And that’s just because New York City has intentionally, consistently and contemptuously disregarded the impact of its rezoning on communities of color, deliberately ignoring the evidence of the harm it has caused to thousands and thousands of people,” Fitzroy said.