Running for mayor back in 2013, Bill de Blasio promised to put an end to the destructive displacement of low-income communities supercharged by the developer-friendly housing policies of his predecessor. Under Mayor Bloomberg, rezoning in almost 40 percent of neighborhoods led to rampant high-end development, causing rents to skyrocket in many corners of the city. From 2007 to 2011, even as the median renter income fell by 6.8 percent during the Great Recession, the city’s median rent rose by 8.5 percent. The city was cleft in two, the haves driving the have-nots out of neighborhoods they had been living in for generations. Taking office, de Blasio was supposed to put a halt to all that, or at the very least slow it down.
But three years later, neighborhood turnover hasn’t slowed at all. Areas like the South Bronx, once considered outside the reach of luxury housing development, have seen rents rise by a third since 2013, and the number of homeless families remains at record levels.
In investigating the suspicious and (some might say) obvious similarities to Bloomberg’s, a new book claims that de Blasio not only embraced the flawed policies of the former mayor, but has targeted for development many of the same communities he pledged to help in the first place.
“There is much more continuity with past policies than most supporters of this administration will admit,” writes CUNY professor Tom Angotti in the introduction to Zoned Out!, the first major academic work to look at de Blasio’s housing policy in the context of New York City’s long history of development. “Indeed, Mayor de Blasio’s approach to planning and housing follows the long tradition of government acquiescence to the carving up of the city into separate enclaves for rich and poor, for black, white, and brown people, creating many other mini enclaves.”
Zoned Out!, as the title suggests, traces the history of New York housing policy back to the 1916 decision by the Board of Aldermen to develop the city through zoning: specifically, by way of the Zoning Resolution, a set of rules dictating building heights and uses and governed by the thirteen-member City Planning Commission. Because the commissioners were political appointments, and rezoning to be done piecemeal, neighborhood by neighborhood, it became easier for developers to sway the outcome of zoning decisions in directions that would promote development on cheap land while leaving wealthy neighborhoods intact — a reality that continues today.
“The real estate interests [in 1916] clearly preferred zoning as a tool,” Angotti told the Voice. “It was more flexible in terms of regulation; it could be targeted to their immediate interests, which at the time was stopping new development around Fifth Avenue, around the upscale stores.” (Back then, developers feared that new, larger buildings on Fifth Avenue would blot out light and make midtown less attractive.) “Since then, there really hasn’t been a major debate about comprehensive planning in the city.”
As the book’s narrative progresses, it lays out how moneyed interests exploited the decentralized, often arbitrary zoning process to turn industrial, typically low-income areas into mixed-use residential neighborhoods and luxury developments. Bloomberg’s administration was fond of the practice: In his twelve years in office, almost 140 zone tracts were reclassified. As a result, neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Harlem transformed practically overnight into havens for condos and retail malls, displacing thousands of longtime working-class residents. And even though the City Charter calls for bureaucrats to consider community input when considering rezoning a neighborhood, the Bloomberg administration often either failed to consider community recommendations or moved ahead without acknowledging the cascading displacement that regulation changes would trigger. These conditions, Zoned Out! argues, have remained largely the same under de Blasio — it’s a matter of degree, not difference.
“There’s no requirement to actually consider or alter plans after community input,” said Sylvia Morse, the book’s co-editor and an urban planner herself. “These systems are very good at absorbing these instruments so that the development machine can keep churning.”
The de Blasio administration aims to build 80,000 additional units of affordable housing within the next ten years, one of the mayor’s marquee initiatives. The new housing policies, passed amid contentious debate this spring, require that for any change in zoning or the maximum allowable height of a building, a certain amount of affordable housing must be provided based on a formula of possible incentives. The Bloomberg administration settled for 20 percent affordable units in luxury housing development. The de Blasio plan calls for up to 30 percent in some cases, and the development of all-affordable units in others. However, critics have pointed at the levels deemed “affordable” as being well above the incomes of the existing neighborhood residents. De Blasio’s plan targets East New York, East Harlem, Fordham Heights, and Flushing — all of which will have to be rezoned to increase housing stock, even when a plurality of the community in each would be unable to afford the so-called affordable units.
“These areas were chosen because through years of lack of investment and infrastructure, they haven’t yet really been developed to the extent developers want them to be,” Morse told the Voice. “It’s harder for the city to get to the numbers they’ve set for affordable housing without targeting these neighborhoods.”
The mayor insists that his housing policy will solve the ongoing dispossession of poor communities of color and has stepped up efforts to help keep residents in their homes by investing in legal representation for tenants facing eviction. City Hall claims that since de Blasio took office, evictions are down by 24 percent, while the number of tenants taken to housing court who get legal representation — the lack of which often leaves renters vulnerable to predatory evictions — has gone from 1 percent to 25. But many still remember the rezonings of the Bloomberg years: Market-rate development in low-income communities nevertheless led to widespread displacement, no matter the affordable housing that got baked into development rules.
Recently, a major 355-unit housing development in Inwood was defeated by a local uprising against the project, which community organizers dubbed a “Trojan horse for gentrification” — despite the inclusion of 175 units of affordable housing. Inwood’s city councilman, Ydanis Rodríguez, vetoed the project after considering the general impact such a housing development would have. This resistance has created a serious roadblock for the administration. Since taking office, de Blasio has successfully pushed through a single neighborhood-wide rezoning, in East New York. City Hall claims it’s already well ahead of its affordable-housing goal, however, having secured financing for almost 53,000 affordable units.
Whether those units will do anything to alleviate New York City’s ongoing housing crisis remains to be seen. But the worst hit by developers’ continuing plunder, the homeless, face a crisis of their own: As of August, 60,000 people were living in shelters. A third were children.