In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to transform huge swaths of New York City with one ambitious goal: to “make our neighborhoods stronger and more affordable.”
His administration hoped to do that through rezonings, which would create thousands of new apartments—a good chunk of which would be below-market rate—in various communities, all while working toward the mayor’s ultimate goal of creating or preserving 300,000 “affordable” apartments by 2026.
More than four years since that policy was unveiled, his administration has rezoned six neighborhoods (no small feat, but well short of the 15 it originally aspired to), with two proposals nearing formal review and another study in the works. But in recent months, the work of realizing these rezonings has stalled as community groups and lawmakers have pushed back on those plans.
In December, a state judge annulled a 2018 rezoning of Inwood, finding that the city failed to fully consider how land use changes would impact the Manhattan neighborhood. Two weeks into 2020, a proposed rezoning of Bushwick was effectively killed after the local City Council members, who had favored a plan crafted by residents, could not reach a compromise with City Hall. And soon after that, Bronx Councilmember Rafael Salamanca announced that he would oppose rezoning a stretch of Southern Boulevard, citing a recent study that says land use changes disproportionately displace black and Latino residents. The de Blasio administration—two months after Salamanca announced his opposition—says it will not pursue a rezoning of the Southern Boulevard area.
Some of these efforts could still eventually come to fruition; the Inwood ruling is under appeal, and a proposal for Gowanus is currently on track. But the stalled rezonings have undoubtedly dealt a blow to de Blasio’s signature housing policy. Those zoning changes were expected to create about 50,000 below-market-rate units with 7,000 to be financed in Bushwick and Inwood alone. Now, with two years left in his tenure, it’s unclear if de Blasio will reach that 300,000-unit goal.
To date, his administration has created or preserved 147,933 low- and-middle income apartments. In 2019, it financed just 25,889 apartments, which was a substantial dip from the 34,184 it financed in 2018—last year was the first time the city saw a decrease in the housing it financed from years prior.
City Hall spokesperson Jane Meyer tells Curbed that the administration’s housing plan is still on track. “We have a robust pipeline of affordable housing projects which extends beyond the current administration and will enable us to meet our 300,000 goal regardless of other land-use changes,” she says. While she did not point to specific projects or programs that are anticipated to pick up the slack, those efforts could include major city-backed housing projects (such as a development in Far Rockaway where earlier this month the city financed 793 new affordable units), and initiatives like building infill housing on underutilized New York City Housing Authority land.
Yet there are some parts of the city where residential development is limited or legally cannot exist without overhauling the area’s zoning framework.
“Without the rezonings, you will get fewer units over the long run,” says Matthew Murphy, the executive director of the NYU Furman Center and a former official at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “It’s not just an issue for this administration; I think it’s the issue of recognizing that NYC is in a housing shortage, and that’s going to take a mix of affordable housing and market-rate housing to help get us out of this statutorily defined crisis.”
The big picture, Murphy stresses, is that new construction in New York City has struggled to keep pace with population growth since the middle of the 20th century. The city’s vacancy rate for rentals is 3.6 percent, which means roughly 36 out of 1,000 units are vacant at a given time, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. That vacancy rate, of course, plunges for the city’s lowest priced units; apartments under $800/month, for instance, have a vacancy rate of just .9 percent, data shows.
In mapping out where that sorely needed affordable housing will be built, a balancing act must occur between displacement concerns and equitable placement throughout the city, say tenant advocates. Rezonings spur gentrification anxieties and displacement fears, leading to fierce community opposition. Oftentimes, neighborhood rezonings beef up building heights and density on major thoroughfares to enable new construction. These plans impose an affordable housing mandate on new residential units through a mechanism called mandatory inclusionary housing, which is facing renewed scrutiny.
Over the years, de Blasio’s rezonings have taken heat for predominately occurring in low-income, minority communities. Christopher Walters, a rezoning technical assistance coordinator with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, says that by doing this the administration is “putting the burden of absorbing new density for the city on these types of communities where displacement concerns are very real.” Instead, a comprehensive, citywide framework is needed to ensure the city is planning growth more equitably, he says.
That debate over ensuring that a mix of neighborhoods create new density and affordable housing is playing out intensely in Soho and Noho, where longtime locals and housing advocates have butted heads over the future of the sought-after, mostly white community. A recent study of the area, where most lofts are legally reserved for artists, explores zoning reforms that could potentially prioritize the creation of affordable housing.
The pro-housing group Open New York has put forward its own vision for Soho and Noho that could lead to the creation of 3,400 new homes, nearly 700 of which would be below-market-rate. But at a series of recent community meetings, opposition to new housing has been vehement—and for city officials watching this unfold, it signals an uphill battle.
Will Thomas, a board member of Open New York, says there’s an “unfair dynamic” at play with the rezoning process, where the voices of wealthier residents can either have too much weight or the concerns raised by lower-income communities are minimized.
“The administration doesn’t see rezonings of wealthy neighborhoods as politically possible,” says Thomas. “The problem with that is there is a lot of resentment generated when you ask [low-income, minority] neighborhoods to accommodate all of the city’s growth.”
That tension has led some lawmakers to draw a line in the sand for their districts. Salamanca, who is the chairman of the Council’s Land Use Committee, effectively hit the brakes on a likely rezoning of Southern Boulevard before a formal plan was even developed.
The Department of City Planning studied more than 130 blocks in Crotona Park East and Longwood, which encompasses part of Southern Boulevard. A rezoning proposal there could bring thousands of new apartments (including a chunk of affordable ones) to major transportation corridors, but Salamanca says he fears changes there will ultimately accelerate rising rents and displace the neighborhood’s mostly minority residents.
“In my council district, I am doing my part to bring in affordable housing units; the administration has to focus on and look at other communities that can do their fair share and add density,” he told Curbed in an interview. During his tenure, Salamanca says more than 5,000 units of affordable housing have been created and another 2,000 preserved in his district. While several infrastructure needs are already being addressed—upgrades to sewer and water mains are in the works, along with several street redesigns and park projects—the district still has unmet needs, but Salamanca says he is in a position to carefully weigh the risks versus the rewards of a neighborhood rezoning.
Two month’s after Salamanca announced his opposition to a rezoning, the Department of City Planning said in a February email to planning participants that “the city is not undertaking an area-wide rezoning at this time” but that its study of the area “will serve as a guide to the community and property owners who may pursue land use changes.”
In a recent interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio said that he is committed to building affordable housing in a mix of neighborhoods across the city, but also noted that during the remainder of his mayoralty he will be focused on pushing rezonings his administration perceives as the most “viable” to make it through the city’s often contentious land use review process. He alluded that Soho and Noho are currently not on that list.
“We have to create affordable housing everywhere if we’re going to keep this city a city for everyone,” said de Blasio. “What I want to be very real about in the next two years is where are the things that we are absolutely certain there will be the support for in the [review] process to get it done? Because I got two years to work urgently on these issues and I’m going to put my energy in the places where I’m convinced we can get something done.”