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.


Friday News Round Up

  1. Two Trees Management (David and Jed Walentas) released their (ridiculous) plans for the Domino Sugar Factory site this week. The plan still has to be approved by the city, and would require significant rezoning. City Limits has gathered several articles documenting the forgotten history of the Walentas family of developers and the Domino Sugar Factory site. Expect more on this from us next week.
  2. The Riverdale Press has been releasing a series of articles on the problem with recieverships in foreclosures. This is a very important issue that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, particularly when so many multifamily buildings are in foreclosure and managed by receivers  UHAB and our allies have been sounding the alarm about the need for reciever reform for quite sometime. Check out this article which details several buildings in which we organize, and be sure to read the whole series!
  3. Mayor Bloomberg’s emphasis on using data to improve our city got lots of attention this week, and the attention is deserved. One of the less exciting aspects of our job (or more exciting, depending on your preference) is combing through mortgage documents and building histories online. The incredible amount of information about their homes and their cities that New Yorkers can access through the internet is revolutionary. It allows the city to improve code enforcement and building oversight, but it also informs the organizing that we do and the struggle for a more just city in an important and empowering way.
  4. Bloomberg Businessweek, on the other had, has gotten lots of negative attention for this racially insensitive and classist magazine cover. The illustration, like much right-wing coverage of the on-going housing crisis, places blame on low-income, minority homeowners while ignoring the big banks and sleazy lending tactics that are the real culprits.
  5. The Furman Center released “Sandy’s Effects on Housing in New York City,” a brief fact sheet with a self-explanatory title. They point out that the cost of Sandy will not be fully known for quite some time, and that many homeowners have not realized the extent of damage to their property. That said, their findings: 55% of people who applied for FEMA aide were renters with a median income of $18,000. People affected were older, whiter, and poorer than the city on average. More NYCHA buildings were damaged than even EXIST in any other large public housing authority in the country.

Finally, two events you should attend! Tonight, our own Dan Desloover and Brent Sharman will be participating in an Urban Homesteading Roundtable at the New School. They will discuss engaging public power to fight for new housing ecologies in the face of the housing crisis.

And if you follow our blog closely, you will know that we wrote just a few days ago about the privatization of public housing. If that’s an interesting subject to you, be sure to join Columbia and Hunter professors Peter Marcuse and Tom Angotti as they address that very subject at the Brecht Forum this Saturday.


Evaluating Ed Koch’s Affordable Housing Legacy

Photo by: New York Daily News
Photo by: New York Daily News

On Friday, former Mayor Edward Koch died at the age of 88. To some, he embodied the city of New York — vivacious, tenacious, and fearless.  To others, especially those in the LGBTQ and Black communities, he was aggressive, alienating, and insensitive.

When Koch was elected, New York City was experiencing an unprecedented urban crisis marked by violence, poverty, and a notorious fire during the 1977 Baseball World Series. During the game, nearby apartments caught fire, which destroyed much of the housing stock in the South Bronx — nearly 80% of some blocks. The blaze, now an iconic symbol of the state of housing in New York City in the late 1970s, was started by tenants trying to heat their buildings themselves. Many buildings in the South Bronx had been abandoned by their landlord due to insurance payoffs or defaulted mortgages. While the city took ownership of many of these buildings, they did not have the capacity to properly manage the spaces.

In 1985, Koch entered his third term with a new housing initiative. He pledged to rebuild the South Bronx by making a 10 year and $5.1 billion commitment to constructing or repairing 252,000 housing units.  Koch’s plan successfully rebuilt many Bronx buildings, empowered tenants, and expanded affordable housing. While he receives much credit for this plan, it is necessary to remember that his policies were only in response to the industrious resident organizing that turned numerous abandoned buildings into livable squats long before  Hizzoner ever set foot in the Bronx.

In the wake of the 1970s housing crisis, tenants took charge. They formed local organizations and used federal dollars to pay the staff.  Many of the tenants also decided to own their buildings by turning them into cooperatives.  UHAB was instrumental in supporting tenants reclaim and reconstruct their homes. In doing so, they pressured the Koch administration to allocate more money into these endeavors and trust that tenants have the capacities to manage their buildings. Tenant associations and local community groups saw value in buildings that Ed Koch desperately did not want NYC to own. His housing policy was a response to sustained community organizing, and this is what needs to be celebrated.

Ed Koch’s plan laid the groundwork for his successors. It is possible to see Ed Koch in Mayor Bloomberg’s 10 year Housing Marketplace to create and preserve 165,000 affordable housing units by 2014.  Like Koch, Bloomberg does not think the city should manage buildings, but is using the economic power of the city government to incentivize private developers to create affordable housing. Using practices that harken back to Ed Koch, Bloomberg has prioritized development in New York City and wooed major landlords. But New York doesn’t have a development problem anymore, it has an affordability problem.  Many of the housing developments that the Bloomberg administration has partially enabled (Domino Sugar, Atlantic Yards, Willets Point) are controversial projects with questionable affordability measures. Bloomberg is mayor of a different New York, and with ubiquitous speculation and soaring rents, the Koch framework  leads to city-sanctioned gentrification.

As housing advocates and tenant organizers, it is nearly impossible to imagine what we would be doing today if it weren’t for Ed Koch, as the Hizzoner certainly changed the face of affordable housing development in the city. Nevertheless, we think it is important to question the assumptions that New York City political leaders make about their proper role in housing today. By the end of this year, we will have a new mayor.  With that, we wonder: How will the new mayor’s housing policy reflect Koch’s legacy? And, What will we think of the housing marketplace, once Bloomberg’s pro-business attitude is less palpable and his critics have shifted their focus to Gracie Mansion’s new resident?  Only time will tell…

Enough False Promises of Affordable Housing Development!

Brooklyn Clergy Turn Against Barclay’s Center, via Fort Greene Patch

There is a major lack of affordable housing in New York City, and everyone knows it.  When the government pushes large scale development projects, it is often the promise of jobs and affordable housing that win community support for the project. In the case of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn (the site of Barclay’s Center, the new Nets arena) developers promised to build over 2,000 units of low and middle-income housing. But as the arena’s construction is nearing completion, where is the affordable housing?

The lack of follow-though on affordable housing development is nothing unique to Brooklyn or to Atlantic Yards.  The same thing is occurring all over the city.  Willet’s Point in Queens is currently under development under the premise that the creation of affordable housing would be prioritized. According to the Wall Street Journal, however,

The companies would first spend years building a hotel and a large retail center in the area before moving on to constructing the housing in an unproven and polluted site near Citi Field.

Where are the priorities in NYC’s urban development?  Who is setting the agenda?  And how is the community manipulated in the process?

This week, Crain’s NY published another article highlighting community anxiety over abandoned promises of affordable housing at the former Domino Sugar site. Originally, one-third of the housing development would be set aside for affordable housing – a whopping 660 units.  CPC Resources Inc. and its partner, The Katan Group, are now selling the project to Two Trees Management, and it is unclear whether or not they will uphold the promise of affordable housing.

As usual, communities impacted by these development sites are fighting back! “Any developer or investor who wants to purchase Domino without committing itself to the 660 affordable units, should really think twice,”  Isaac Abraham, a Williamsburg community leader and housing advocate, told Crain’s NY.  And in Fort Greene this week, clergymen protesting against Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner created a new faith-based group made up of 25 Brooklyn congregations. The group, called Committee for Arena Justice,  is calling on New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to pressure Ratner maintain his commitment to job creation and affordable housing for the community. The Fort Greene Patch reports,

We need jobs that can sustain families and not jobs selling hot dogs,” said Councilwoman Letitia James, D-Fort Greene. The criticism comes less than a week after Forest City Ratner opened up online pre-registration for hundreds of mostly part-time event positions at the arena.

The clergy are calling for a boycott of the arena until the developers “treat the community with respect.”  Committee for Arena Justice is holding a meeting at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church at 484 Washington Ave in Brooklyn to plan upcoming protests against Barclay’s Center, particularly against the grand opening featuring co-owner and rap-legend Jay Z.

As tenant organizers, we see false promises constantly – from banks promising to sell buildings to affordable housing developers to landlords who swear they’ll make the necessary repairs.  We understand the frustration about the real lack of affordable housing and investment in communities and support the boycott!  We look forward to supporting this effort!