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City must study racial impact of rezonings, housing advocates say

December 4, 2019 Victoria Merlino
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Housing advocates and lawmakers rallied on the steps of City Hall Wednesday to demand the city do more to recognize the toll that large-scale rezonings take on communities of color.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has championed large, transformational rezonings in up to 15 low-income neighborhoods throughout the city. Since 2016, the City Council has approved six of the rezonings proposed by de Blasio, including one in East New York.

Public advocate Jumaane Williams said the city does not sufficiently assess the impact of the new zoning regulations on communities of color before beginning the land use process.

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“Race is a difficult issue to talk about. But we were elected to talk about difficult issues,” he said.

Williams introduced a bill in the City Council in May that would direct the Department of City Planning to conduct “racial impact studies” when considering a rezoning. The projects have been criticized for hastening gentrification by creating more market-rate housing that is unaffordable to long-time residents. Opponents say the rezonings price existing tenants out of their communities.

The transformational plans currently go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, as well as an environmental review, but there is no dedicated study to determine how allowing new development would affect the ethnic and racial makeup of the larger community.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks outside City Hall. Photo: Victoria Merlino/Brooklyn Eagle

“What we know is that in city rezonings, they should be more like a medicine commercial than anything else,” said Councilmember Antonio Reynoso said. “They should say, ‘City rezonings are great. But common symptoms are displacement, racial segregation, increased housing rental costs, speculation and segregation in our schools.” The city is currently studying a rezoning of Bushwick, which is in Reynoso’s district.

State Sen. Julia Salazar, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and housing advocates like Churches United for Fair Housing echoed similar sentiments during the press conference. Bronx Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr., who is the chair of the Land Use Committee, said that he supported the bill.

Advocates pointed to the 2003 Park Slope rezoning as one example of gentrification in action. The neighborhood saw a decrease of 5,000 black and Latinx residents between 2000 and 2013, according to a new report from Churches United for Fair Housing, as the community grew by 6,000 residents in the same period. The neighborhood also lost 1,470 rent-stabilized housing units.

Park Slope’s rezoning brought more market-rate and luxury development to the area. In its wake, the neighborhood started to become a more desirable home base, a 2003 New York Times article noted. Though de Blasio, then one of Park Slope’s councilmembers, was satisfied with the rezoning, he expressed disappointment at the time “in its failure to require builders to provide a certain amount of moderate-income housing in exchange for the right to build taller structures on Fourth Avenue,” according to the article.

More than 15 years later, de Blasio’s administration is the target of similar criticism. Reynoso, Williams and others slammed city leadership Wednesday for contributing to gentrification and the housing affordability crisis.

Williams said that although the city claims it is building “affordable housing” —  rezonings, under de Blasio’s housing plan, must include a subset of mandatory affordable housing — the ratio of new development sold at market rate is too high.

“Just recently in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, they put advertisements for their affordable units. A studio apartment: $2,156,” Williams said to loud boos from the crowd.

The Mayor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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