Zoning is Not Just for Urban Planners!

Zoning laws, ultimately controlled by the City Council, directly shape the built environment of New York City neighborhoods. But one could argue that the zoning process undermines participatory democracy in any local government, including New York City. Though the process is theoretically open to a public approval period, zoning documents are dull and wonky, typically written for insiders — politicians, city planners, ambitious advocates. But zoning, which dictates what kinds of housing, stores, and buildings are allowed to be built in any given space, has an enormous impact on the affordability of the city. By manipulating the zoning laws and providing developers with powerful tax-related incentives, city governments can encourage some kinds of development over others.

Rezoning issues have been at the heart of almost every headline project (Willets Point, Atlantic Yards, Domino Sugar, East Midtown/Grand Central..the list goes on…) built under the Bloomberg administration. Though there is a process for public review of rezoning documents, under this administration the local government hasn’t appeared very interested in the results of these community forums.  Neighborhood groups have had very little input, compared to say, Bruce Ratner, in shaping how their communities are rezoned and in what kinds of development end up being built. This is a problem, and this is why groups like ANHD have put the zoning code front and center in issues they are fighting for this mayoral election season. ANHD is demanding that mayoral candidates put forth a position on mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would force the hand of developers to build affordable housing. (Check out this policy brief they released last year for background.) This is also why CUP has created a series of tools and workshops to explain the zoning law and the urban land use process to community groups so that they can more strategically insert their voice.

We’ve written before on this blog about rezoning in Bushwick, and the impact it could have on the neighborhood’s residents. Basement units, like we featured on the blog yesterday, could all be legalized through a change in the zoning code – and the effects on housing affordability could be huge.

The Crown Heights Assembly, a people’s assembly of neighbors fighting for housing justice in Crown Heights, has also focused on illuminating the off-putting zoning process. They’re working together with their members to a) educate around the impact that rezoning would have on the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and b) provide talking points for public forums to residents who want their voices heard.

Check out this great graphic CHA created that breaks down what it means when the city says things like “R7” and “FAR.” And pay attention to the candidates’ answers when they talk about mandatory inclusionary zoning. Knowledge of these terms and processes is a powerful tool to effectively organize for more affordable housing in our city, and we support those groups working to democratize this procedure.


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