By Flávia Leite

The New York City Council recently approved by a vote of 43-0 the de Blasio Administration’s East Midtown rezoning plan. It marked the final step in a torturous journey begun when, in the waning days of his mayoralty four years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forward, then withdrew for lack of political support, an earlier rezoning plan intended to modernize a 73-block business district anchored by Grand Central Station.

The big reason that this second rezoning push succeeded where the first one faltered: a painstaking commitment to securing community input and buy-in. This commitment should also guide the de Blasio administration as it struggles to get to “yes” on rezoning more than a dozen other communities across the city, a key element in its ambitious affordable housing plan.  That’s a major conclusion of the Center for New York City Affairs’ newly published policy briefon de Blasio’s rezoning/affordable housing efforts.

The brief focuses on the ups and downs of several proposals involving rezonings in Inwood, a traditionally working- and middle-class community at Manhattan’s northern tip.  A year ago, the City Council overwhelmingly rejected a proposed “upzoning” in Inwood to permit construction of a 23-story residential and commercial building – the first private project put forward under the de Blasio Administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, a citywide framework for creating permanently affordable housing if substantial new housing is allowed by zoning changes. The proposed Sherman Plaza development encountered stiff resistance from local residents and elected officials unimpressed with the developer’s affordable housing pledges and worried that the market-rate housing in the project would drive up neighborhood rents.  Meanwhile, “Inwood NYC,” the Administration’s far broader rezoning proposal for the community, has undergone a process designed to assuage similar misgivings before the City’s formal land use review of it begins.

For years New Yorkers have watched battles play out among long-time, low-income residents, private developers, and public agencies.  Low-income renters who live in communities that have suffered from long-term disinvestment fear that new investments and improvements will spur gentrification and displacement. Private developers, searching for developable land at a good price, want to invest in new areas. Public agencies and officials trying to address the city’s affordable housing crisis seek to create opportunities for new housing through rezonings while also stimulating economic growth. Such struggles will continue to play out as the Administration moves ahead with its rezoning plans, in Inwood and elsewhere. (Indeed, just days after its Midtown rezoning victory, the de Blasio Administration’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem got a thumbs-down from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, on the grounds that it was likely to intensify gentrification. The rezoning is now awaiting City Council action.)

There’s good cause for both hopes and fears about these rezonings. Mandatory inclusionary provisions will, by law, generate new affordable units, something the city desperately needs. At the same time, however, recent history suggests that the changes that rezonings can produce in neighborhood character tend to push rents up and push longtime residents out. There are a variety of reasons for that, including steep rent increases in non-rent regulated units, capital improvements that can raise regulated rents, and, in some cases, outright harassment by landlords. The net effect can be a loss in affordability, including rent-regulated, units despite the City’s best affordable housing intentions.     

The Center’s policy brief outlines strategies that City and community leaders can employ to ensure that new development adequately protects and benefits neighborhood residents.  Our examination of proposed or completed rezonings in Inwood, East Midtown, and also in the Brooklyn communities of Williamsburg-Greenpoint and East New York tells us that path to both creating and preserving affordable housing lies through:

  • Making rents in “mandatory affordable units” conform more closely to the actual incomes of residents of neighborhoods targeted for rezoning (not to the usually far higher “area median income” that encompasses income earned citywide and also in the suburbs);

  • Instituting more robust, comprehensive, and pro-active action against rent hikes and landlord harassment as a way to protect residents of communities where rezonings are proposed; and

  • Engaging those communities in an inclusive, far-reaching, and transparent process of planning for their own future, including the identification  of public infrastructure priorities to be approved as part of any rezoning package.

The East Midtown rezoning process in particular earned high marks from participants and outside observers alike for just such thorough and inclusive local planning.  In large part that’s because the steering committee named by the de Blasio Administration to oversee the process not only included a broad range of local stakeholders; it also drew on the expert guidance of a team of professional planners.  Clearly, neighborhoods like Inwood and East Harlem are far different, demographically and economically, from office building-heavy East Midtown. But should such differences really make any difference? To our minds, there’s no reason why East Midtown’s rezoning shouldn’t set the standard for similar efforts, marked by well-informed and meaningful public engagement and delivery of public benefits, in other, lower-income communities, too.