As the wave of gentrification continues to extend outward from Manhattan, the struggles of low-income renters being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods has become a major social problem. With more than half of New York City’s renters paying more than a third of their income in rent and the homeless population rising dramatically, there is a growing consensus among City politicians and citizens that the government needs to take action. This consensus was demonstrated in the landslide election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran an inspired campaign that focused on addressing income inequality as well as building much more affordable housing. Now in the process of trying to deliver that affordable housing, however, de Blasio has run into serious opposition from unions, low-income renters, community boards, and elected officials across the city, many of whom supported his campaign. Most recently, a large and growing coalition has come out against his proposed “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” bill, arguing that it does not do enough to help low-income New Yorkers afford housing, and if not improved, may actually worsen the displacement and homelessness problem it intends to address.
Under “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” (MIH), the city would require real estate developers to include a certain percent of affordable apartments in each new building built in “up zoned” neighborhoods. “Up-zoning” means that developers are able to build bigger and taller buildings, making their properties more lucrative. By using up-zoning and MIH together, the mayor would take advantage of the ambition of New York developers, by luring them to certain areas with the “up-zone” and then requiring that they build at least some affordable housing. The rationale behind this strategy is that rents are high and rising in New York and low-income people are being displaced because there are so many people—especially higher-income people—who want to live here and everyone is competing over a limited supply of housing. So if the supply of housing is increased and Affordable Housing is guaranteed, there will be more places for everyone to live, less competition driving up rents, and less displacement of low-income people.
The neighborhoods targeted for the up-zone and MIH plan include East New York, East Harlem, Inwood, Flushing West, Long Island City, the Bay Street Corridor in Staten Island and the Jerome Ave Corridor in the Bronx, with more to be announced. All of these neighborhoods are far from the wealth centers of mid- and downtown Manhattan and are very low-rent and low-income compared to the rest of the city. Many of them, however—particularly the Bronx, East New York, East Harlem, and Inwood—are not expected to remain low-rent and low-income for long. These neighborhoods appear to be next in line for gentrification, with more and more millennials moving in each year, slowly increasing competition for housing and as a result, rents. Thus, by up-zoning these neighborhoods and mandating the creation of Affordable Housing within their borders, the administration is attempting to shield the low-income residents of these neighborhoods from becoming refugees of the fast-approaching tidal wave of gentrification. They hope to act one step ahead of gentrification and ensure that it does not cause mass displacement.
In spite of MIH’s noble intentions, low-income renters and community groups in these neighborhoods are coming out in droves to protest against it. Their opposition is simple and undeniable—because of the way MIH is drawn up, they would be unable to afford the “Affordable Housing” built. The most stringent of MIH’s three proposed requirements for the Affordable Housing component of new buildings would require that 25% of a building’s units be rented to households making an average of $46,620 a year (rents would be no higher than one-third of a family’s income). In East New York and East Harlem, the average household income is about $33,000. Therefore, the vast majority of people currently living in these re-zoned neighborhoods would be disqualified from renting even the so-called “Affordable” units in the new buildings.
For these people—the neighborhood’s lowest-income and most vulnerable to displacement—re-zoning with MIH would not expand the supply of housing. All it would do is vastly expand the number of higher-income people moving into their neighborhood and competing for housing. These new arrivals might initially gravitate towards the thousands (6,000 is the official estimate for East New York) of newly constructed units, but as news of the neighborhood’s “revival” spreads, and new restaurants, bars, and cafés pop up, many will start to eye the townhouses and brownstones on attractive residential streets where low-income people currently live. Property values will skyrocket and many long-term, low-income tenants will be priced out or evicted to make way for gut-renovations and Zillow postings. These people, being unable to qualify for the new “affordable housing” in the area, will be forced to move, causing a huge disruption (longer commute or new job, new schools, new community, etc.) to their already difficult lives and bringing New York City one step closer to being a place where low-income people cannot reside.
If the de Blasio administration truly wants to help low-income New Yorkers stay in their homes, they need to do a better job at tailoring this policy so it works for each and every re-zoned neighborhood. The mayor is right to want to build Affordable Housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, but this Affordable Housing must actually be affordable for the people living in the neighborhood. We live in a time when those with wealth and political power actually want to invest in low-income, often majority-minority parts of the city. People increasingly don’t mind and in many cases prefer living in ethnically and economically diverse areas. This new investment and economic and ethnic desegregation can and should benefit low-income residents. It is well documented that crime decreases and services improve when investment comes into a low-income neighborhood. It is also well known that low-income people’s chances of economic improvement increase dramatically when they live in mixed-income areas as opposed to homogenously poor enclaves. None of these benefits matter if affordable housing is not available for the people who need it most. MIH needs a deeper affordability option, and City Council is currently working on a plan to accomplish that. Once MIH has been improved and passed, it is incumbent on the City to engage with these communities, take their needs seriously, and come up with a re-zoning plan that works for the residents of each neighborhood. Going forward, the City must ensure that low-income people will be able to stay once their neighborhood has improved.
For a report on speculation and displacement beginning to occur in East New York, see: http://citylimits.org/2016/03/10/some-suspect-east-new-york-rezoning-has-triggered-speculation/
For an update on the MIH debate in City Council, see: http://citylimits.org/2016/03/08/council-identifies-5-sticking-points-for-de-blasio-rezoning-plan/