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How NYC rezonings spur ‘racialized displacement’ throughout the city

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Housing advocates and pols are pushing for a racial impact study for city rezonings

The City Council approved a controversial rezoning of Inwood in 2018.
Craig Ruttle/AP Photo

A new study lays bare the inequalities spurred by city-led rezonings, and points to the dire need for the de Blasio administration to study the racial impacts of land use actions poised to reshape New York City neighborhoods, elected officials and housing advocates said at a Wednesday rally.

The “Zoning & Racialized Displacement in NYC” report, compiled by Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFHH), used U.S. Census data to analyze two major Bloomberg-era rezonings. The findings revealed that the 2003 Park Slope and 2005 Williamsburg rezonings displaced thousands of black and Latino residents as the neighborhoods’ populations grew.

Between 2000 and 2015, Williamsburg and Greenpoint saw a population increase of more than 20,000, but simultaneously saw a decrease of about 15,000 Latino residents, according to the report. In Park Slope, there was a decrease of 5,000 black and Latino households between 2000 and 2013, even as the area’s population grew by more than 6,000 during that same period.

“Racialized displacement has followed neighborhood rezonings in New York City,” said Alex Fennell, CUFFH’s network director, during a Wednesday rally on the steps of City Hall. “Colorblind policies that pretend this is not a race issue have gotten us where we are today and it’s well past time not just to stop this, but to reverse it.”

Advocates and elected officials are pushing the City Council and the de Blasio administration to support a bill introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that would mandate the city conduct a racial impact study for land use actions that require an environmental review. Under the bill, draft and final environmental impact statements crafted by the City Planning Commission must include analysis on the “potential direct and indirect racial and ethnic residential impacts of the proposed action” and if the proposal would “affirmatively further fair housing within the meaning” of the federal Fair Housing Act.

“Rezonings are one of the primary drivers of gentrification, which leads to displacement,” said Williams. “Rezonings are so sure to pass and so sure to be beneficial to developers that even the announcement of a [review process] leads to rampant speculation that coincides with a rise of harassment and displacement.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal to create and preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026 has so far spurred six rezonings in East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Inwood, and Staten Island’s Bay Street Corridor. Three others are on the immediate horizon in Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Gowanus neighborhoods, and for a swath of the Bronx’s Southern Boulevard. City Council member Rafael Salamanca, who represents the Southern Boulevard area and holds the influential role of chair to the Council’s land use committee, is a notable backer of Williams’ bill. Salamanca vowed to oppose any potential rezonings in his district without a racial impact study.

“I made it very clear to city planning, if you cannot get this racial impact study done, this rezoning on Southern Boulevard is dead on arrival,” said Salamanca. “My recommendation is [for the city to] get your act together and stop wasting people’s time.”

Housing advocates and elected officials rallied on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday.
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

North Brooklyn’s Councilmember, Antonio Reynoso, and State Sen., Julia Salazar, along with City Comptroller Scott Stringer, also support Williams’ bill.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, 37 percent of the five boroughs was rezoned for both high-density growth and the preservation of low-density neighborhoods. CUFHH’s study says its research indicates that wealthier white populations were downzoned, like with Park Slope’s 2004 rezoning, while other neighborhoods with largely low- to-moderate income minorities were up-zoned with a density boost, as with Williamsburg’s 2005 rezoning. But if Williams’ bill is passed, the racial implications of such undertakings would be clearer and enable more equitable community planning, charge neighborhood advocates.

“A mandatory racial impact analysis would promote inclusivity and reduce segregation, prevent litigation and strengthen the community’s voice in city planning,” said Cheryl Pahaham, a Northern Manhattan Is Not Sale member and Inwood Legal Action co-chair whose group is suing the city over the 2018 Inwood rezoning.

A racial impact analysis would be an additional step to the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) that assesses the impacts of a proposed project on a neighborhood. That environmental review process has been criticized for often being way off base from its projected impacts.

For instance, a 2005 environmental review predicted that Greenpoint and Williamsburg would experience a loss of 1.1 million square feet of manufacturing space, but 2015 data shows that the neighborhood actually lost 5.3 million square feet of manufacturing space, according to CUFHH’s report. A 2003 review projected that Park Slope would not lose a single rent stabilized apartment, according to the study, but by 2013, the neighborhood had lost 1,470 rent regulated units, data shows.

To complicate matters, there is no mechanism in the CEQR process that mandates officials re-examine those projections for accuracy once a major land use change has come to fruition. This means that the city is not fact checking its predictions and learning from failed or successful projections, and therefore, its environmental reviews are not being held accountable.

Salamaca says he is pushing for the Council’s land use committee to hold a hearing on Williams’ bill in the coming months. Council Speaker Corey Johnson has yet to take a position on the legislation; he is monitoring the bill as it goes through the legislative process, according to a Council spokesperson.

The de Blasio administration, despite stalled federal housing policy, has launched its own segregation study that’s expected to land before the end of the year, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. In a statement to Curbed, Mayoral spokesperson Jane Meyers stressed that the de Blasio administration is taking a multi-pronged approach to fighting displacement, and that the results of the study will enable the city to better promote inclusive policies.

“This administration is fighting displacement with record levels of affordable housing, free legal services, rent freezes, and programs to combat harassment,” said Meyers. “We are examining the legacy of segregation and deepening our commitment to policies that promote fair housing and inclusive neighborhoods. We look forward to reviewing this legislation and working with our partners to promote equity and fairness.”