To increase racial justice, upzone for equity

Theologian Willie Jennings often points out that a commitment to justice can be very well expressed in meetings of the local zoning board. In this article, Pablo Zevallos examines how zoning codes can help ensure neighborhoods with space for belonging for people across every divide – or they can reinforce the injustice built into our cities.

Mandatory inclusionary housing should be applied to rich neighborhoods.

Although criminal justice issues have been front-and-center in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, land-use policies, which often receive less popular attention, have also ingrained systemic racism. Research has found that higher-income, mostly-white communities have the most restrictive land regulations, which limit the size and type of housing that can be built. Constraining supply – that is, by limiting how much, if any, multifamily housing can be built – drives up prices, thereby heightening racial and income segregation.

This phenomenon is not new. In its 1926 decision upholding the validity of a Cleveland suburb’s zoning ordinance, the Supreme Court called apartments “mere parasite[s]” that, when built together, “destroyed” the character and desirability of a neighborhood. In the last three-plus decades, Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties have seen judicial rulings or substantial settlements in cases alleging racially exclusionary zoning practices.

While this problem is most associated with the suburbs, it would be a mistake to ignore it in cities. New York City is markedly more segregated than most other major cities in the country: The dissimilarity index, a common measure of residential segregation, finds that Black-White, Latino-White, and Asian-White segregation has remained constant in New York City since 1980, even as many other metropolitan areas across the country have seen modest desegregation since then. These statistics do not exist in a vacuum; they are partially a result of this city’s land-use choices, such as that by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to largely downzone majority-white communities in New York City.

Exclusionary zoning policies were never acceptable, and the Black Lives Matter era only highlights the obligation that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council have to pursue equitable desegregation.

The most accessible tactic the city government has at its own disposal is to repurpose a tool to date only implemented in low-income communities of color – Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, or MIH – for use in wealthier, majority-white communities. Created by the New York City Department of City Planning under de Blasio, MIH requires developers in certain areas to set aside a certain percentage of floor area for affordable housing in exchange for bonuses such as increased allowable height or bulk in their development.

So far, New York City has rezoned East Harlem, Inwood, East New York, Bay Street, Jerome Avenue, and Far Rockaway for MIH, with failed attempts in Bushwick, Flushing, and Southern Boulevard, and an uncertain path forward in Gowanus. These neighborhoods are largely working-class Black and Latino communities. Whether upzoning a neighborhood with an included affordable housing mandate empirically helps or hurts the goal of slowing gentrification and displacement, is a topic of feverish debate. What can conclusively be said, however, is that applying MIH exclusively in such communities perpetuates segregation. To the extent the “affordable” units produced are even affordable to community members in the first place, which they often are not, they lock low- and moderate-income residents of color in the same neighborhood without providing the option to move into wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods.

By contrast, applying mandatory inclusionary housing in wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods facilitates reaping the benefits of integration, of which there are many. In New York City, majority-white communities have greater proximity to subways, leading to much shorter commute times relative to more bus-reliant Black, Latino, and Asian American New Yorkers. Research ranging from decades ago through the present day has found that, when low-income city residents, predominantly (but not exclusively) of color, move to wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods, they are more likely to complete high school and attend college. Their lifetime earnings increase substantially.

In order to render these benefits possible, the mayor and the City Council must also modify the existing community preference policy. The concept behind the policy sounds simple: residents of the community district – that is, the boundaries of the neighborhoods a given community board serves – get 50% of the affordable housing built within said community district. However, given the intense residential segregation between neighborhoods, this policy also codifies segregation, and it stacks the odds against a resident applying for affordable housing outside of their own neighborhood. Based on who lives there currently, if you give preference to residents from, say, NoHo or SoHo, you’ll most likely end up with the housing going mostly to wealthier residents, most of whom are white, who may not be in as big a need for housing.

There is fierce debate over what exactly to do with community preference, especially given the belief in communities of color that affordable housing should go overwhelmingly toward that community. A reasonable compromise can be found in substantially reducing the community preference in wealthy areas while keeping a higher percentage in place in lower-income areas, based on the median income of the community district. This compromise would have the additional benefit of avoiding the Supreme Court’s strong hostility toward racially explicit government policies.

So New York City should do in neighborhoods like NoHo and SoHo what it did in East New York: upzone to increase allowable density, and mandating affordable housing in new buildings that take advantage of the added height. The group Open New York has put forth a strong plan to do just that: their plan would adapt the existing neighborhood architectural context to add nearly 700 affordable units in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. They also propose providing a preference for the neighborhood’s workers instead of its residents. This plan, which the city government should adopt, provides a template for doing the same in wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.

To be sure, pursuing desegregation policies does not relieve the city government of its obligation to fully invest in communities of color, and the individual choices of New Yorkers of color to live in any neighborhood – including staying in communities that are predominantly of color – must be respected. But there is clearly real demand for genuine housing choice: a survey by the Anti-Discrimination Center found that a strong majority of Black and Latino New Yorkers would consider pursuing affordable housing opportunities in communities outside their own.

Elected officials are incrementally moving in this direction. A proposal from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer would require inclusionary housing in all new developments, including in wealthy neighborhoods, throughout the city. And Councilmembers Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso have endorsed comprehensive planning as a means toward advancing equitable land-use policies. The recognition that wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods must help in producing affordable housing for this city is growing – and historic cobblestones are not a replacement for this need, as one Manhattan Community Board 2 member suggested in opposing a SoHo rezoning.

While upzoning with mandatory affordable units in wealthier areas will not create enough affordable units to end New York City’s segregation on its own, it is a necessary component of advancing housing justice and racial justice. Implementing it is one way that the mayor and the City Council can show they really are serious about combating systemic racism.

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