Residents of low- to middle-income communities of color have resisted various neighborhood-level land use applications which they say will fuel gentrification and increase rents.

Adi Talwar

Inwood, the site of a controversial rezoning plan approved in 2018. Critics of the proposal pushed for it to include a study on how the rezoning would impact racial demographics of the neighborhood.

Following years of advocacy, the New York City Council passed legislation Thursday that would force the city to assess the racial and ethnic impact of land use proposals that reshape existing communities.

The measure would specifically require the city to create an “equitable development data tool” to report an area’s racial, ethnic and income-level demographics while analyzing housing security, local quality of life, neighborhood affordability and other factors. The analysis would help determine the likelihood of a land use overhaul displacing long-time residents.

Residents of low- to middle-income communities of color have resisted various neighborhood-level land use applications which they say will fuel gentrification and increase rents.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a former Brooklyn councilmember, spearheaded the legislative campaign and published a report Wednesday describing the need for racial impact studies.

“Land rezoning in our City has made it incredibly difficult for many New Yorkers to find—and keep their—homes,” reads the report from the Public Advocate’s Office. “Most of the time, the land zoning process is initiated without the input of community residents, and it is conducted without consideration for how it will impact a neighborhood’s racial and ethnic composition.”

Williams compared the Racial Impact Study to the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR), an analysis conducted as part of the city’s land use review process whenever a developer requests a variance or the Council considers a rezoning. The CEQR assesses the potential impact of a land use proposal on air quality, vehicle traffic volume and emissions, but does not specifically examine the potential for displacing New Yorkers, especially people of color, from their homes.

If signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the racial impact law would take effect in June 2022, six months into the next mayor’s first term. Under the law, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Department of City Planning (DCP) would be required to create the data tool, conduct the analysis and publish the results of the study.

“This law can fundamentally change how our city approaches land use, how we grow and develop, how we create new opportunities without harming long-standing communities,” Williams said Thursday. 

Large-scale rezonings pursued by Mayor de Blasio have focused on lower-income communities of color, such as East Harlem, East New York and Far Rockaway, as part of a plan to create or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing citywide. Critics of those projects say the upzonings have created too few truly affordable apartments for existing residents while developing market-rate housing that has attracted wealthier, often whiter, newcomers. 

The de Blasio administration is now backing two other upzonings in predominantly white and wealthier communities compared to previous land use overhauls — one in Gowanus and another in SoHo/NoHo. The new law would not take effect until well after the council votes on those two land use applications, but leaders have commissioned a private racial impact study for the Gowanus proposal.

The Gowanus plan has encountered criticism from fair housing advocates and public housing residents who say the city has not included enough funding for needed repairs at local NYCHA developments. The city’s current proposal includes up to $52 million for repairs in the Gowanus and Wyckoff Houses, despite an estimate that capital improvements will cost nearly $300 million.

Local tenant leaders and lawmakers have called on the city to commit at least $132 million for the two NYCHA campuses. 

“The City needs to step up,” said Gowanus Houses Tenant Association President Ed Tyree at a rally June 15. “NYCHA needs to step up. Our developments have been neglected for too long. Those who are in office, and those who want to be in office need to pay attention and make sure that we get the capital funding we need and that the money gets spent in the right way. This rezoning needs to benefit Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens or it shouldn’t happen.”