City Limits’ Executive Editor Jeanmarie Evelly recently sat down with Vicki Been, former deputy mayor of housing under Mayor Bill de Blasio, for a conversation about the role of community engagement in solving the housing shortage.

Adi Talwar

City Limits’ Executive Editor Jeanmarie Evelly interviewing Vicki Been, faculty director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and former deputy mayor of housing under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For decades, housing production in New York has lagged behind population growth, a shortage that’s hit crisis levels in recent years: the city’s housing vacancy rate was just 1.4 percent in 2023, the lowest it’s been in half a century, while the homeless shelter population has more than doubled since 2022.

But new development is often met by community opposition. Last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Housing Compact proposal, which would have required localities across New York to meet certain development targets, was met with significant backlash and hit a wall. Locally, a plan to house formerly incarcerated people with health needs in the Bronx, called Just Home, has drawn intense opposition, as has a seemingly less controversial proposal for 244 units in South Slope, on the Arrow Linen Supply Company site.

Right now, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is facing a major test in winning the public’s support, as his City of Yes for Housing Opportunity plan—which aims to build a little more housing in every New York City neighborhood—is in the middle of the public review process

City Limits’ Executive Editor Jeanmarie Evelly sat down last month with Vicki Been, faculty director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and former deputy mayor of housing under Mayor Bill de Blasio, for a conversation about the role of community engagement in solving the housing shortage.

Editor’s Note: the conversation below has been condensed, and edited for clarity.

City Limits’ (CL) Jeanmarie Evelly: I would love to talk about your work with the de Blasio administration first. His administration started out with a goal of rezoning 15 neighborhoods to increase development, and ultimately got eight over the finish line, including plans in East New York, East Harlem, Inwood, SoHo and Gowanus. How did you and the administration approach the neighborhoods selected for rezonings, and how did you involve communities in those plans?

Vicki Been (VB): I started in the de Blasio administration in February [2014]…Carl Weisbrod had started a few weeks before in [the Dept. of City Planning], and we worked very closely together to try to figure out where should we be thinking about opening up new housing. We were coming off of a time, many of you may remember, that the Bloomberg administration rezoned a tremendous amount of the city—over 20 percent of the city’s land. But much of that rezoning was actually downsized to make it more restrictive, rather than less restrictive.

So we wanted to open up opportunities for more housing. The first criteria that we used was, where do we have communities that are already thinking about this, that are already engaged, that have already done some of the work? We took a lot of heat from going first to East New York. People argued that we were sort of picking on lower income communities. But the reason that we chose to East New York is that East New York had gotten a planning grant from the federal government to engage in a comprehensive city plan, and they had spent several years already really thinking about what they wanted in their neighborhood, what they needed, what the deficits were, what all needed to be done.

We then experimented with a lot of different ways of community engagement, and some we got miserably wrong, and some we tried that were successful. The first thing that we did was go out to East New York on a Saturday, [we] took every one of about 20 commissioners of the agencies that would be involved in any way, from sanitation, to parks, to DOE, etc. We got everybody in the room and said, ‘Tell us what your needs are.’ But that wasn’t successful, because with 20 commissioners in the room, I think [people] felt a little overwhelmed and, and felt like we were talking at them.

So we regrouped, and tried to really engage the community with, ‘Okay, you’ve told us in your community plan, that traffic on this avenue is really a problem.’ So let’s think about how we integrate traffic improvements with what we were thinking about doing with housing. You’ve told us that you need a new school. We have a site here that’s suitable for affordable housing, what if we put a school site right next to it? We held over 100 meetings with the community, different community groups, and really tried to pair what we were doing, in terms of rezoning to add more housing, with what the community said it needed.

And so it was really, really listening to people in the community and trying to find win-wins that we could bring to the community to ensure that the housing wouldn’t be overwhelming, that the housing wouldn’t lead to overcrowded schools or more traffic. So that was why we went to East New York first; we really learned from that experience.

We were also very concerned…with fair housing. We can’t just put affordable housing in the poorest neighborhoods, they’re already overloaded in terms of all kinds of needs, all kinds of facilities. We need to be opening up opportunities in neighborhoods that have better schools, better transit, all of those things. And so that’s why SoHo, that’s why more middle income neighborhoods like Inwood, were chosen.

The community engagement piece is, I think, the hardest nut to crack because we tried all kinds of things. When I first went to [the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development], the Neighborhood Unit was part of the Development Unit and its job was really to get the variance or the zoning or the permit or whatever—it wasn’t doing neighborhood planning, by and large.

So I took it out of Development so that it wasn’t a service part of the agency, it was a visionary part of the agency. We made a separate Neighborhood Strategies Unit, and that unit’s job was really…to try to figure out how to do better community engagement, how to work with communities in a much more productive way to ensure that we were bringing both housing and the other kinds of things that went [with it].

Vicki Been and Bill de Blasio

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio and Vicki Been at a press conference in 2021.

CL: One of the biggest things that we always hear about, especially I think around some of the earlier rezonings, is fear of gentrification—this idea that, okay, new housing is coming in, but is it going to displace people? What would you say to folks who worry about that; and I would love for you to touch on mandatory inclusionary housing, and what that meant for the rezonings you were pursuing.

VB: Mandatory inclusionary housing said…if you get a change in the zoning or anything else that allows you to build more than you would otherwise be able to build, then we’re going to require that you do a certain amount of that housing as affordable housing. The idea there was, whenever people see a crane, and they see more housing going in, that they should rest assured that some affordable housing is going to come along with that. I think that that’s a really important principle.

But there’s lots of concern that the new housing will rent for higher rents because it’s new and it has different amenities and all these things, and that that somehow will increase the prices of the neighboring places … And that’s a reasonable point, a reasonable question. In 2019, we published an article at the Furman Center that we called “Supply Skepticism.” It was really about all of the different arguments that people were making about why they don’t want more housing. And so we tried to unpack the arguments. We tried to say, okay, what do we know about that argument? And what do we still need to know?

In the intervening years since 2019, there’s been a huge amount of research that’s been responsive to those issues. And what it shows—not uniformly, there’s a study in Minneapolis that provided mixed results—but all of the other studies show that when you build new housing, it does not increase the rents of the surrounding neighborhood. And also what it shows is that it does not lead to displacement. In fact, the research shows that when you have new housing, you see decreased rates of displacement.

So all of that research is pointing to: we need new housing, and that new housing is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. Of course we need to be very careful to make sure that there’s not displacement, that there [aren’t] landlords pushing people out hoping that they can raise the rents, that kind of thing, and we have a lot of those protections in place.

CL: Mayor Eric Adams’ City of Yes for Housing Opportunity plan is undergoing public review right now, the goal being “a little more housing in every New York City neighborhood.” What are your thoughts on his plan?

VB: I think asking for every neighborhood to step up and bear some of the burden of the city’s growth and the city’s housing needs is absolutely the right thing to do…there are some neighborhoods in New York City, some community districts in New York City, that have not seen a new house built in their neighborhood, a new unit built in their neighborhood, in years. So the sense of unfairness is palpable, and justified.

We’re not asking neighborhoods to all become Manhattan, right? … We’ve talked about so called ‘gentle density.’ We’re talking about…if a lot opens up, instead of putting a single family house, put a two family house. Instead of putting a two family house, put a four family house. Those are already in the neighborhoods, they’re just now zoned out.

CL: I did want to touch on the New York Housing Compact, which was Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to require localities meet housing development targets. It was quickly met with backlash and fizzled out. Do you have any thoughts on what went wrong there?

VB: We have to keep it in perspective. If you look at other jurisdictions that have tried to do major land use reforms, it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s not something that’s going to go over well the first time you mention it. California has been a leader on land use reforms. When Scott Wiener, who was one of the leaders on this, first introduced his proposal in 2015, you would have thought that California was going to fall into the ocean. And he still hasn’t gotten that particular proposal passed. So it takes a while. New Jersey has been trying to encourage [or] require suburban areas to accept more affordable housing for just about 40 years. So we shouldn’t criticize the governor for not landing a home run the very first time at bat.

That said, I do think that the need for more community engagement, the need to get more people on board was something that—a lot more should have been done. In the states that have passed substantial land use reform, they’ve spent a lot of time building coalitions: between the environmentalists and the traffic safety folks, and the health folks and community development folks, and the faith based organizations. It really requires a big tent.

So I think the governor in the future really needs to work on that. It’s not just that it’s really hard to do the first time out. But that these are really fundamental issues. You’re saying to your local government, ‘Hey, yeah, we let you control your land use for the last 200 years, but we’re going to take a little bit of that back.’ That’s not met with, ‘Oh, great.’ That’s not an easy thing to do.

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