Demands for racial impact studies grow amid de Blasio rezonings
Tommy Torres is used to watching friends and families move away from the State Assembly’s 53rd district, encompassing Williamsburg and Bushwick. It’s an exodus that the Democratic district leader says has taken place little by little over the last few decades, as rising rents and rapid development slowly rendered the neighborhood unaffordable to longtime residents.
But the pace of that displacement quickened noticeably in 2005, Torres said, after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration approved a rezoning in Williamsburg that paved the way for the building of dozens of high-rises along its waterfront.
“That started the whole thing,” Torres said. “Luxury developments started being constructed, and our black and Latino families just couldn’t keep up.”
In the years that followed, median gross rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed almost 69 percent, or from $949 to $1,603, according to a 2015 study by Leo Goldberg. At the same time, the area’s Latino population plummeted by 27 percent, while its white population increased by 44 percent.
“Luxury developments started being constructed, and our black and Latino families just couldn’t keep up.”
Tommy Torres, Democratic district leader of the State Assembly’s 53rd district
For housing advocates across the city, Williamsburg now stands as a cautionary tale of a neighborhood rezoning gone awry. By failing to take into account the full impact that an influx of market-rate units and new development would have on the area, critics argue, officials unintentionally accelerated the rate of displacement among minority residents, ultimately leading to racial segregation.
And yet, more than 10 years and a new Democratic mayoral administration later, many advocates believe the city is continuing to make the same mistakes. As Mayor Bill de Blasio pushes forward with his Housing New York Plan, which involves rezoning up to 15 neighborhoods in a bid to increase the city’s affordable housing stock, Torres and others are calling on the administration to take a harder look at the racial aspect of the process.
Calling for a racial impact study
“I think at the root of all the rezonings and their challenges, is the city’s refusal to address demographic change and the racial impact of the rezonings,” said Alex Fennell, director at Churches United For Fair Housing, which is leading a campaign to get the city to conduct a racial impact study as part of its rezonings. “And it’s fully within their capacity to study that.”
To be sure, rewriting the rules that shape development in a city of eight million is a complex endeavor, and it’s not exactly clear to what extent land-use actions have contributed to the demographic changes that have taken place in neighborhoods like Williamsburg. Experts note other factors that can heavily influence displacement, such as economic shifts and natural human migration.
De Blasio officials are also quick to point out the difference in approach between Bloomberg-era rezonings and those being conducted now.
“The question is, how many will be displaced? The numbers don’t lie.”
Robert Camacho, chairman of Community Board 4 in Bushwick
Elizabeth Rohlfing, a city spokesperson in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, described the administration’s approach as a “comprehensive process that combines data and policy analysis with extensive community and stakeholder engagement,” noting that many of the rezonings have relied on input from residents and local officials themselves.
Rohlfing also noted the record clip at which the city has been building and preserving affordable housing: more than 34,000 affordable homes were financed in 2018, up almost 10,000 units from the year before.
But critics like Fennell remain unconvinced. In their experience, rezonings have the potential to accelerate speculation and development in a neighborhood, which can in turn lead to higher rents and increased levels of tenant harassment and evictions. And those changes can be especially devastating in low income and minority areas, two features that characterize many of the neighborhoods de Blasio has targeted in his rezonings.
So far, the city has approved rezonings of five neighborhoods as part of its HNY plan, including Downtown Far Rockaway, East New York, East Harlem, Inwood and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Two more, in Gowanus and Staten Island’s Bay Street, are currently awaiting approval.
“The question is, how many will be displaced?” asked Robert Camacho, chairman of Community Board 4 in Bushwick, another neighborhood slated for a rezoning by the Department of City Planning. “The numbers don’t lie.”
Problems with the current process
In particular, Fennell and others want the city to add a racial impact component to its City Environmental Quality Review, a key part of the rezoning process that mandates that officials identify any potential adverse environmental effects of a proposed land-use action, such as on air quality or traffic. It also includes a methodology for predicting what it calls indirect or “secondary” displacement — “the involuntary displacement of residents, businesses, or employees that results from a change in socioeconomic conditions created by the proposed project,” according to the CEQR technical manual.
But critics argue that the CEQR is hindered in its displacement analysis by a number of flawed assumptions.
For one, the manual dismisses outright any areas where gentrification and displacement are already occurring, maintaining that a rezoning could make the situation no worse. For another, it considers only low-income tenants living in one-to-four unit apartments vulnerable to displacement, excluding those in larger buildings.
“Colorblind policies achieve essentially the same results as policies that are actively or overtly segregationist.”
Alex Fennell, director at Churches United For Fair Housing
Finally — and most importantly, according to Fennell — the manual makes no explicit demands that the city study a rezoning’s specific racial and ethnic effects.
“This is a bigger issue than just the number of affordable units or income brackets,” Fennell said. “It’s an issue about whole neighborhoods, about whole communities. And if we don’t talk about it as such, we keep creating policies and systems that only harm our communities.”
Fennell’s concerns over the CERQ reflect the findings of a report issued last year by the Pratt Center For Community Development, which also described the process as flawed. After examining five of de Blasio’s most recent rezonings, the study found that the technical manual led officials to conclude “no impact” in all cases, even in areas where they acknowledged a significant vulnerable population.
One such area was East New York, where the city approved a 2016 rezoning despite calculating almost 50,000 residents to be at risk of displacement. Officials, for their part, said that many of those residents would remain at risk with or without a rezoning, and that affordable housing constructed under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing initiative would help alleviate any pressure because it requires developers to dedicate a certain numbers of new units to low-income residents.
“For years, communities facing major development projects have suffered under false findings of ‘no adverse impact,’” Renae Widdison, one of the report’s co-authors, said in a statement on the report’s conclusions. “If we are going to address displacement, we need to understand how and where it’s happening.”
A Fair Housing Act violation?
Another area where advocates have been calling for a more comprehensive CERQ process is Inwood, the latest neighborhood to be approved for a rezoning under de Blasio’s HNY plan. In August, the city passed a proposal to redevelop 59 blocks in the largely working-class and Latino neighborhood, though not before many residents and activists came out against it.
Now, a group of those residents are challenging the rezoning in court, arguing in a lawsuit that the city failed to conduct a thorough environmental review. During the planning phase of the rezoning, the group had asked that the city specifically look at a number of areas of the community that could be affected, including the impact on preferential rent leases, minority- and women-owned businesses and racial displacement.
“We made clear demands on the city to study these impacts as well as many others,” said Philip Simpson, a local attorney who helped file the suit in December. “The city’s response was to say no, the City Environmental Quality Review manual does not require us to study any of these things.”
Simpson and Fennell both agree that the city’s refusal to include a thorough vetting of race and ethnicity-related impacts as part of the CEQR has put it in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the federal law that bans housing discrimination based on race, religion and other protected traits. That argument served as the partial basis for CUFFH’s own lawsuit against a Bloomberg-era Broadway Triangle rezoning, which called for the redevelopment of an eight-block industrial site on the border of Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick in 2009.
“We have to fight. You saw what happened with Amazon, so there’s ways.”
Tommy Torres, Democratic district leader of the State Assembly’s 53rd district
In the suit, CUFFH and a coalition of community stakeholders argued that the city failed to further its fair housing obligations by not looking at patterns of racial segregation in the area, which is home to a large black and Latino population. The court battle dragged on for 10 years and in 2017 the de Blasio administration settled, agreeing to set aside 375 affordable units for low-income residents.
Simpson, who called this the “disparate impact theory” of discrimination, said his group is exploring a secondary lawsuit against Inwood’s rezoning on similar fair housing grounds.
“Colorblind policies achieve essentially the same results as policies that are actively or overtly segregationist,” Fennell said. “At the end of the day, the effects are the same.”
Rohlfing, however, highlighted that the city is doing more than most to guarantee affordable housing for its residents. She pointed to the HPD’s recent “Where We Live NYC” project, a citywide fair planning initiative that it rolled out last year after U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would delay its own nationwide fair housing assessment.
Ultimately, Fennell said she wants to build a coalition of community organizers and housing advocates around the issue of race and rezonings. In January, she joined Camacho and Torres at CUFFH’s racial impact campaign launch, an event that also featured support from city and state officials like State Senator Julia Salazar, whose district spans from Williamsburg to East New York, and newly-elected Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
“We have to fight. You saw what happened with Amazon, so there’s ways,” Torres said, referring to the retail giant’s recent decision to cancel its plan to build a second headquarters in Long Island City after locals there opposed it. “If our community comes out, and gets involved, and we protest, we can get the city and the state to do more for our black and Latino communities here.”
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