URBAN AGENDA: Rezoning rich and poor neighborhoods are two different things

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 2/20/2020, midnight
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to rezone 15 New York City neighborhoods in order to fuel new housing development has ...
David R. Jones Contributed

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to rezone 15 New York City neighborhoods in order to fuel new housing development has hit a rough patch, and people are blaming anti-development feelings.

De Blasio kicked off his first term as mayor with a plan to expand the city’s stock of both affordable and market housing, largely through rezonings to allow denser residential development. Now, halfway through de Blasio’s second and last term, only six residential neighborhood rezonings have been completed, and one of those has been blocked at least temporarily by a judge.

The city has also announced rezoning studies for five other neighborhoods, but only one of those is moving forward today – Gowanus in Brooklyn. The others have stalled or been abandoned or been effectively blocked when opponents won over the local City Council member.

Groups in low-income neighborhoods of color have opposed rezonings in their communities on the grounds that they don’t adequately redress past disinvestment; that they don’t include enough deeply affordable housing; and above all, that they could lead to displacement of low-income residents who are already straining to pay their rents.

These are all very reasonable objections. Neighborhoods like Jerome Avenue and East New York have enormous backlogs of disinvestment in parks, schools, and other amenities. Further, most of the new affordable housing that would come from these rezonings would still be too expensive for the neighborhood residents with serious rent burdens, despite the progress the city has made since the Bloomberg days. And although the displacement risks from rezoning are difficult to predict, residents are right to be cautious without stronger (and more expensive) protections than the city has been willing to offer so far.

Groups in richer, whiter neighborhoods, on the other hand, point to less urgent issues, like historical context, building height, and traffic. These concerns are not necessarily invalid, but if they were applied generally, they would bar virtually any proposal that could increase the housing supply. And they can often serve as a smokescreen for efforts to shore up property values to keep out potential low-income neighbors.

What’s worse, the city’s approach to rezoning so far has placed too much of the pressure on the most vulnerable places. Of the eleven areas proposed for residential rezonings, three have poverty rates close to the citywide average of 21 percent and seven have poverty rates well above average. Only Gowanus has a lower-than-average poverty rate, and it is a mostly industrial area being converted to residential use.

It is hardly surprising that groups in poor neighborhoods would respond skeptically when they are being given treatment that is almost never visited on rich ones. They deserve our support if they choose not to support a rezoning until the city increases resources for improved amenities or deeply affordable housing – or if they refuse to cooperate in rezoning process even with increased resources, simply on the grounds that the whole process is not being conducted with low-income neighborhoods’ best interests at heart.

But all this flows from the fact that the city’s low-income black and brown neighborhoods have not been fairly treated in the past and have few other avenues to affect housing development policy or other city investment decisions.