When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his 10-year housing plan last year it was in fact two plans — one for new housing development and the other for keeping rents down and preserving neighborhoods. The two plans contradicted one another and it appeared that the development plan would be the priority. Unfortunately, events have proven that to be the case.
To be clear, the administration has taken some small but important steps to preserve existing affordable housing. De Blasio supports renewal of the rent laws, additional funds for public housing, permanent housing instead of homeless shelters and more legal support for tenants facing eviction. However, all of these measures are too little and too late. By the time they take effect, many more people could be displaced by the new development advocated by the mayor — following the pattern established during the 12-year rule of Michael Bloomberg.
De Blasio’s housing plan promises to create 200,000 units of “affordable” housing and help preserve neighborhoods. Forty percent of these units would be in new construction and the rest would be to preserve existing housing. However, the mayor’s $7.2 billion 10-year capital plan for housing would be dwarfed by the $30 billion that private developers are expected to spend, investments that will jack up the cost of land and existing housing, and displace residents and businesses. Almost half of the city’s funds would be spent in the last six years of the program, after the next election, when a new mayor could easily change the whole game plan.
Stop the Rezoning!
The mayor’s main vehicle for backing new development is zoning. Bloomberg proposed an unprecedented 140 zoning changes that opened the door to a building boom. While 160,000 units of “affordable” housing were created, many more affordable units were lost to the gentrification that followed. De Blasio is proposing 15 zoning changes, starting with East New York in Brooklyn, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and Flushing in Queens.
Zoning is a regulatory scheme that controls how much can be built in any location. The Department of City Planning (DCP), a mayoral agency, typically proposes zoning changes in neighborhoods that real estate investors believe are “ripe” for development. Every zoning change starts with a study. As soon as the department announces that it’s studying an area, investors get the signal that land values will be going up. If they haven’t already done so, they move in, buy up land and buildings, evict tenants and make the neighborhood unaffordable to existing residents and businesses. By the time the study is done and the formal proposal is ready to start the seven-month-long public approval process, change is already under way. In the approval process community residents can testify at public hearings, but these are theater, not serious dialogues. The local community board, which has no planning staff or budget, has a vote but it’s only “advisory.” If any preservation strategies have been promised along the way, by the time the final vote is taken there’s not much left to preserve.
Slow Down the Process or Halt It?
Housing and community activists are publicly taking aim at the city’s zoning strategies. On March 11, activists demonstrated at City Hall demanding that the mayor “slow it down” and first work with communities to plan for all their needs. The action included groups that had previously cheered de Blasio’s rezoning schemes, like the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers, a city-wide coalition composed of 98 nonprofit housing groups active in low- and moderate-income communities.
The first big test of the mayor’s plan was in Astoria Cove, Queens, where rezoning gave a huge boost to a luxury condo developer while producing a minimum number of “affordable” housing units, dashing the expectations of de Blasio supporters. The next test was in East New York. When the city unveiled its preliminary zoning plan for this neighborhood in recent months, opposition was forceful and widespread. Activists there say that speculators have already moved into the neighborhood and moved people out. Next up after East New York is Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, a large Latino neighborhood where community organizers are preparing for a similar battle.
While many organizers want serious community planning before any zoning changes, others are questioning whether a planning process controlled by DCP will truly represent their needs and lead to anything but the zoning the city wants in the end. In Crown Heights, the Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) got wind that their local community board was encouraging the city to do a rezoning study. Anticipating that it would follow the usual formula promoting development, MTOPP protested at the community board to stop the zoning study before it starts. MTOPP’s goal is not just to slow down the rezoning but to stop it in its tracks.
According to Alicia Boyd of MTOPP, “the track record shows that DCP studies will become law. They are known to have adverse effects on communities of color.” MTOPP has started doing their own community plan “to ensure that the community’s voice will be heard,” says Boyd, “without the risk of people in our community being displaced and our homes destroyed.”
A Tale of Two Parking Lots
While the neighborhood zoning and planning dramas play out, the mayor is shoring up his support from developers. His endorsement of higher densities has pleased his allies at the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, where density usually translates into higher profits. De Blasio is floating an ambitious proposal to build housing at the Sunnyside Yards in Queens, a huge undertaking that would require deep public subsidies and investors looking for top returns. De Blasio’s planning director, Carl Weisbrod, whose career has been in real estate development, has been working overtime to cement a rezoning in East Midtown that will make some wealthy landowners there quite pleased.
If the evidence of DCP’s gifts to developers and zoning attacks on neighborhoods are not enough to prove what the real priorities are, check out the agency’s latest scheme to help maximize profits for developers. The proposal, “Zoning for Quality and Affordability,” proposes to jiggle existing zoning requirements to increase the amount of usable space that can be built in areas that were supposed to be preserved under the zoning. Aside from the giveaways proposed, the report is all about the number of square feet and profit, without a hint about what might be good for the people who live in the buildings. For example, DCP proposes to reduce parking requirements for low-income and affordable housing, citing lower levels of car ownership among these populations. Yet it does nothing to restrict the generous parking permitted in luxury housing.
Tom Angotti is professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate (MIT Press, 2008).
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