Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new book argues that poor communities of color are hurt by the city’s zoning and housing policies.
New York City is often romanticized as a mecca of multicultural urban living. But as diverse as it is, residents from very different backgrounds don’t often live in the same neighborhoods. In fact, New York is in second place after Milwaukee as far as black-white segregation goes.
Today, historical color lines are being redrawn through a concentration of wealth and the displacement of communities of color. In New York, that phenomenon may be spurred in part by the city’s well-intentioned land-use policies. Various types of rezoning—upzoning and mixed-use zoning, for example—have inadvertently but disproportionately harmed poor neighborhoods. That’s the central argument of Zoned Out!, a new book edited by Tom Angotti, an urban planning professor at the City University of New York, and housing advocate Sylvia Morse. CityLab caught up with the two for a conversation, the highlights of which are below.
Why did you write this book?
Angotti: The book came about as a result of engagement with communities that were concerned about proposals to rezone their neighborhoods. [They] had many questions about the proposals that the city was putting forth.
Originally, a group of us met with attorneys, examining the possibility of bringing a lawsuit against the city based on the Fair Housing Act, on the assumption that the city’s zoning and housing policies had a disparate impact on communities of color. That litigation hasn’t happened yet, but that was one of the other things that led to the production of the book.
Morse: This book really comes out of lessons of New Yorkers who’ve been organizing for the past 15 years, and sometimes longer.
Explain your main argument against the city’s current zoning approach.
Angotti: Zoning is a systemic policy to protect neighborhoods that are predominantly white and homeowner neighborhoods—the whiteness is more important than home ownership, actually. It’s done to promote development when it is economically of interest to developers in communities of color.
When the rezoning occurs to encourage new development, it drives up land values and rents, and forces out people who are already living in existing affordable housing. Despite any token amount of affordable housing the city might finance or sponsor within these neighborhoods, more affordable housing is lost than is gained through the rezonings. That’s the basic argument.
Race has everything to do with it. There are two aspects to racial discrimination: when it’s conscious and purposeful, and when it’s systemic. We’re talking about the systemic aspect of it here. People are doing it whether or not they understand what they’re doing.
Morse: If policies are not explicitly anti-racist, then they are perpetuating racism.
Could you elaborate on the historical context for this phenomenon?
Angotti: [History] demonstrates that the city’s housing and development and zoning policies have produced a segregated city. They have had racial consequences, even as the city proclaims that they are race-neutral and color-blind. That was an important part of the argument: That this [phenomenon] is not simply a function of the current mayor or even the last three or four mayors. This has very deep historical roots. What we do is demonstrate how the current mayor and the previous mayor have very carefully followed tradition.
Morse: I think urban renewal is one where there are a lot of parallels with the mega-development projects these days. I think [of] the specific history of the use of the Housing Act of 1949 to target communities of color and use [the word] “slum” as a proxy for race.
We see a lot of that happening now, where if people are living in poverty, and if those people are people of color, their neighborhoods are immediately labeled as needing a certain kind of investment. Rather than that investment in social programs, that investment comes in the form of subsidies for developers that are going to make a ton of private profit. I think there’s a direct line between that history of urban renewal projects like Lincoln Center to what we’re seeing today.
Angotti: Donald Trump is returning to that narrative, when he talks about helping the inner city.
You mentioned “slums” as code for communities of color. Are there more contemporary examples of such code in urban planning parlance?
Angotti: A few years ago, I was asked by a group of activists in Sunset Park in Brooklyn to look at an area that was proposed for upzoning. The city planning department was claiming that on certain streets, the land was “underutilized.” I went there to look, and I saw these occupied buildings. It looked like a pretty normal street to me. But to the planners, they were “underutilized.”
Subconsciously, I’m sure what they were assuming is that a developer could come in and take these buildings, knock them down, and build twice as much, and provide twice as much housing. Since the criterion used is always quantity instead of quality, then having twice as many housing units is twice as good.
That’s just one concrete example, but I think it’s embedded in the culture of the city planning department. These are buzzwords that conceal. What I think they mean is that portions of neighborhoods are invisible. Those people living in those places really didn’t matter.
Morse: There’s frequently an argument made that this is about density, and density is more efficient, and density will make things more affordable, but you’re not seeing arguments that single-family townhouses in Greenwich Village are underutilized when comparable buildings have been subdivided into SROs [single-room-occupancy housing] in other neighborhoods. In fact, you’re seeing those SROs in Bed-Stuy being reconverted back into single-family homes. I think that density is another code word there.
Something else we talk about in the book is the watering down of the word “affordable.” Affordable housing used to imply that it was housing for people who had less money, who needed help affording housing. Now, it basically means anything that meets the federal guidelines for rent not costing more than 30 percent of household income, and really there’s a lot of room to obscure which groups you’re serving through affordable housing. I think that’s a very New York City-specific context. Of course, we still have the old school, low-density NIMBYism, which we talk about [in the book].
The book also mentions how efforts to promote mixed-use zoning and Transit Oriented Development [TOD]—generally seen as beneficial by urbanists—can can cause displacement. Explain?
Angotti: The history of mixed-use zoning in New York City is an interesting one. When the zoning resolution was first installed in 1916, it really only applied to a portion of Manhattan. It very clearly had an effect of helping to preserve land values in Manhattan. [In] the rest of the city, a mixture of uses were permitted because there really wasn’t that much interest by the elites in restricting development outside of lower Manhattan.
That’s why, for example, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, two of the greatest historic mixed-use districts, sprouted up. Long Island City is another one. If you go back to Jane Jacobs and her discussion of mixed use, these were model neighborhoods. These were neighborhoods that planners ought to have studied and understood. [In] Williamsburg, over a third of the people used to walk to work at a certain point.
In 2005, the city introduced its rezoning plan in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and the waterfront, so that they can now be a new-mixed use zone. In rationalizing this, they quoted Jane Jacobs. But it’s a scam. They put this mixed-use zoning instrument forward as a way of preserving mixed use when it actually has the opposite effect.
It’s back-door residential rezoning. In Williamsburg, and if you look at those mixed-use zones, they’re all residential now. Why? Because the planning department knew that when land owners were given the choice between industrial or commercial rents versus residential rents, they would take residential—especially in a neighborhood that is targeted for major new real-estate development as Williamsburg and Greenpoint were.
Morse: Just on the example of TOD, I think what we’re talking about is not challenging the concept. We’re talking about the application. In New York City, where we have the real-estate market that we do, it’s complicated.
Angotti: It’s really development-oriented transit that they’re talking about.
You’re also critical of the argument that upzoning in New York is a way of creating more affordable housing.
Morse: The simplest way of putting it is that [argument] applies this theory of supply and demand. It’s a total oversimplification and assumes that all supply is created equal and that there’s one block of demand, when in fact we’re talking about a global city.
To give it a most hyperbolic example, the homeless person in New York City is in the housing market, theoretically, as is an oligarch from another country who is buying a pied-à-terre. Clearly, if you simply increased the supply, it’s not going to be a rising tide that lifts all boats and not everyone will be able to access that increased supply. That’s part of the reason it doesn’t work.
The other thing is this myth that any housing can happen in the free market. In New York City, land is expensive and nothing is going to be built without some form of government intervention prioritizing certain kinds of housing over [others], usually through some form of subsidy, whether it’s government-backed mortgages or tax incentives.
The other thing that we argue is this: If you look at [former Mayor] Bloomberg’s housing plan, most of the units that he was able to chalk up to his policies were the result of preservation, rather than new development. That’s because new development is more expensive and takes up more space.
Angotti: There’s ample evidence that the rezonings over the last couple of decades have coincided with a loss of more affordable housing units than the affordable units created after those rezonings. That is an incontrovertible fact. The majority of housing that is truly affordable to low-income people has been a result of preservation.
In [Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s affordable housing plan for the creation of 200,000 new units, publicly we get the impression that through his rezonings these affordable units are being created. City Hall even gave figures that show that the vast majority of the affordable housing units the city hopes to create are not as a result of rezonings.
Even the 20 to 25 percent that may be available and built under mandatory inclusionary housing obscures that 80 percent or more are going to be luxury housing, market-rate housing. They don’t talk about the 80 percent market-rate. They talk about the 20 percent affordable.
So what’s an alternative strategy for ensuring that housing is affordable?
Morse: Rent stabilization is one of the most effective programs that we have and that is not subject to federal subsidy. It’s just been undermined through reforms at the state level and also through illegal practices and zero investment in enforcement.
The new so-called affordable units are subject to the same tools or lack of tools we have for enforcing those rent regulations. ProPublica has done tremendous research on many of the new units created through 421-a. Other programs have been completely deregulated, and the proliferation of preferential rent clauses and leases and all kinds of things undermine the affordability of these units. If we’re not focusing on protecting the rent stabilization that we have now, what new affordable units that we build are also going to be at risk of being lost until we invest in that kind of enforcement.
Morse: One thing that’s important to understand about rent stabilization is that it also includes tenant protections that market-rate tenants don’t have. Obviously, they are frequently violated, but [it often includes] protections against harassment, guaranteed lease renewal, [measures] that support tenant organizing. Often the burden falls on the rent-regulated tenants to lead much of the tenant organizing, because market-rate tenants are more fearful of landlord retaliation.
Also, a few years ago, the Mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity did an analysis of poverty in the city, and they included rent stabilization. It showed that living in rent-stabilized housing was keeping thousands and thousands of families out of poverty, by making sure that they were not as rent-burdened.
So, what is the best way, in your opinion, to go about planning New York City to ensure it’s growing in an inclusive way ?
Angotti: New York City is the only major city in the country that has never had a comprehensive plan. It doesn’t do planning—they do zoning. [Zoning] is all based on very local land analysis, and planning is concerned with everything about a community, healthcare, education, transportation, water quality, air quality. People do care about that and want to participate.
So, the first [strategy] is engaging communities in long-term comprehensive planning for their neighborhoods. That by itself doesn’t guarantee anything, because there are bad plans, there are good plans. But it’s a way of giving neighborhoods that have not had the power over their futures that power. Community boards need to be beefed up. They also have to be held accountable to inclusive social justice criteria, just as central government does.
We have a section of the city charter that enables communities to develop their own plans, Section 197-a. I spent a good part of my career working with communities to develop these 197-a plans and submit them to the city planning commission for approval. I used to get calls all the time to assist communities in doing their plans. Nobody calls me anymore. And if they do, I tell them, “Don’t waste your time, because the city basically rakes you over the coals, and runs you through the hoops. You finally get your approved plan, and then they throw it away.”
Then the second proposal is housing in the public domain, which means not just public housing, but providing support for housing to the people who need it the most.
Morse: What we’re talking about is the city prioritizing racial and economic justice and anti-racism. If we’re going to be a beacon of tolerance and diversity and justice, if we’re going to be a sanctuary city—that has to include being a place where people can afford to live. That starts with giving people the ability to make decisions.