A new bill would force the city to confront the racial impact of development

May 30, 2019 Chase Brush
Experts point to Williamsburg as a cautionary tale of displacement. Eagle photo by Chase Brush.
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New York City housing advocates’ ongoing fight against displacement and gentrification took a step forward yesterday, when Public Advocate Jumaane Williams introduced a bill that would force the city to confront the racial and ethnic impacts of neighborhood rezonings.

The bill, Intro 1572, would demand that the Department of City Planning conduct “racial impact studies” as it considers rezonings.

Rezoning deliberations currently revolve around the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure  — aka ULURP, the process that determines how land can be used in New York City —  and the Environmental Impact Statement — aka EIS, which evaluates the effects of those uses on the surround area.

Those existing processes do involve an examination of both physical and socioeconomic effects of any proposed rezoning — but they do not require that the city explicitly consider potential shifts in the ethnic makeup of the community.

“To combat racial segregation, we first need to study it,” Williams, who introduced the bill at a City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon, said in a statement. “Pretending it doesn’t happen as a result of rezonings amounts to the city turning a blind eye to the realities of the segregation and community displacement facing this city and the role city government plays in making it worse.”

The legislation comes amidst growing calls from housing advocates around the city to overhaul DCP’s approach to neighborhood rezonings, which have ramped up under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Housing New York agenda.

As part of its goal to create and preserve some 300,000 units of affordable housing across the city by 2023, the administration has overseen rezonings in five neighborhoods in the last four years — including Brooklyn’s East New York — with three others, including Bushwick and Gowanus, currently pending.

Housing advocates have pointed out the majority of these rezonings took place in minority and low-income areas, where the potential for displacement among longtime residents is high. Experts have long argued that rezonings have the potential to accelerate real estate speculation and development in a neighborhood, which can in turn lead to higher rents and increased levels of tenant harassment and evictions.

“This is something that I would say people who’ve taken a thousand-foot-look at what’s happening in rezonings think is pretty clear,” said Philip Simpson, a lawyer and Inwood resident who is fighting a recent city-led rezoning there. “There’s definitely a disparate impact, and the city needs to own up to it.”

By analyzing how a rezoning will play out along racial and ethnic lines, advocates like Simpson argue that the city can better combat the kind of gentrification that has swept up places like Williamsburg, which many now consider a cautionary tale. Following the redevelopment of its waterfront in 2005, the neighborhood’s Latino population plummeted by 27 percent, while its white population increased by 44 percent, according to a 2015 study.

The city’s EIS on the Williamsburg rezoning, which estimated that only 2,500 residents would be displaced by the rezoning, largely failed to account for that result, said Alex Fennell, director of Churches United For Fair Housing, a housing advocacy organization that worked with Williams to draft the bill.

“Those numbers, and the realities that we’re seeing, are too stark to pretend there’s not a relationship,” she said. “So what we want to do is get the data, get the information, so that we can have a real conversation.”

325 Kent Ave. in Williamsburg. Photo by Chase Brush.
After Williamsburg’s 2005 waterfront redevelopment, its Latino population plummeted by 27 percent, while its white population increased by 44 percent. Eagle file photo by Chase Brush.

Fennell said the exact methodology of the racial impact study is still being worked out, but she added that the bill would be an important first step toward holding the city accountable for the results of its land-use actions.

In addition to demanding that all EIS’s — both drafted and finalized — include an analysis of both direct and indirect effects of rezoning and development on the racial and ethnic makeup of a neighborhood, the bill would also require the city to indicate whether the proposed project furthers its obligations under the federal Fair Housing Act, which protects tenants from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home.

A representative for the mayor did not return a request for comment.

“The city has an obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, and that means to not just not segregate, but to actually take affirmative steps to provide access to opportunity and fair housing to historically marginalized communities,” Fennell said.

Still, some housing advocates said the bill doesn’t go far enough. Tom Angotti, an urban planning professor at the City University of New York and author of the book “Zoned Out!,” which examines the complicated history of rezonings in New York City, called the bill is largely “symbolic.” It only addresses part of a larger problem with the city’s approach to land-use planning, he said.

“The EIS itself is a very weak tool to force change, because it’s only a disclosure process,” Angotti said. “The city only has to say there will be a negative impact, and then move on. My greatest fear is that this only become another box that they have to check off when going through ULURP.”

Fennell, who joined Williams at a press conference announcing the bill yesterday as well as at a campaign launch on the issue back in January, agreed that the legislation represents just one step toward revamping the city’s overall planning process.

“There’s a really strong call right now for comprehensive planning in New York right now, which means creating one plan that has equitable distribution of resources, equitable distribution of density, rather than these spot rezonings,” she said. “So I think that that’s the ultimate goal.”

“But it’s also really difficult to have that conversation when we are not addressing race as a real factor in these decisions and these processes,” she added.

The next step for Williams’ bill, which is also backed by Councilmember and head of the Land Use Committee Rafael Salamanca, is to go through a committee hearing.

Chase Brush is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter and student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. You can follow his work on Twitter.

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