A new report shows how two Brooklyn rezonings disproportionately forced out people of color, resulting in the loss of thousands of black and Latino residents even as the overall populations in those neighborhoods grew during the same period.
Commissioned by Churches United For Fair Housing (CUFFH), a grassroots community organization in Brooklyn, the study examines demographic changes in the aftermath of two controversial rezonings under the Bloomberg era, that of Park Slope and 4th Avenue in 2003 and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront in 2005. According to census data, Park Slope saw a drop of 5,000 black and Latino residents between 2000 and 2013 despite an overall population growth of over 6,000 during that same period. Even more dramatically, Greenpoint and Williamsburg saw a decrease of roughly 15,000 Latinx residents between 2000 and 2015, when overall population grew by 20,000.
In the case of Park Slope, the zoning was selective: the city elected to protect the brownstone-rich parts of the neighborhood while reserving the most density for Fourth Avenue, where most of the Latinx community resided.
The findings, which were released Wednesday, come as fair housing advocates prepare to lobby for City Council legislation that would mandate New York City to perform a racial impact study as part of the rezoning process. Introduced in May by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the bill is intended to stem the effects of gentrification, and its concept has been invoked in several rezoning battles, from Harlem to Inwood, where residents have sued to overturn the neighborhood's contentious 2018 rezoning.
"Huge numbers of black and brown residents are being displaced and being replaced with wealthier white residents," said Alex Fennell, the network director of CUFFH, which is one of the supporters of the bill.
For all of its affordable housing efforts, the city is "still not fundamentally solving the problem," she added.
Despite its popularity among housing activists, to date, the bill has garnered the endorsement of only four city council members, along with the Comptroller Scott Stringer and State Senator Julia Salazar.
On Wednesday, Williams and Stringer, as well as community activists in Brooklyn and Inwood, took part in a rally at City Hall to call on the City Council to hold a hearing on the legislation.
"We have a city that is displacing the very people that stayed and made it what it is today," Stringer said, in a statement. "We now need a new housing plan that doesn’t segregate."
New York City has historically suffered from entrenched segregation, with dozens of neighborhoods dominated by a single race or ethnic group. Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed the housing divide as the driving factor behind segregation in the city's public school system. Although the problem came well before de Blasio, housing advocates have criticized the mayor for targeting predominately low-income minority neighborhoods for rezonings. Last year, an analysis by Politico found that roughly three-quarters of the 86,324 new and preserved housing units financed during de Blasio's first term were in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are black or Hispanic.
Fennell said the pattern prompts an obvious question: "Why aren’t rich white communities being asked to take on rezonings?"
The administration has defended its rezoning strategy by arguing that it is simply seeking to maximize the number of affordable units: investment in lower-income areas, where land is cheaper, can produce more housing than higher-priced neighborhoods. In 2016, the city passed mandatory inclusionary housing, which requires developers to set aside up to 30 percent of all units in new market-rate buildings in rezoned areas for affordable units.
Even well-intended policies can produce unjust outcomes. For decades, the city has sought to promote the interests of local residents by giving them priority in affordable housing lotteries. But a federal lawsuit recently revealed that the practice has exacerbated segregation, putting the city in violation of the civil rights-era fair housing law which prohibits residential discrimination.
For its part, the federal government has failed to hold municipalities accountable for segregation. Under President Obama, the scrutiny from the Department of Housing and Urban Development increased as cities were asked to show what they were doing to reduce racial disparities. But that effort has since been derailed by the Trump administration officials.
“We’ve been in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 for quite some time with these rezonings,” Williams told City Limits. “It’s clear that Trump is just a terrible person and obviously his policy reflects that. I always have to make sure we remember that these problems predate Trump.”
Like several other cities, New York elected to pursue its own fair housing assessment regardless of HUD's change of course. In 2018, the de Blasio administration announced a planning initiative called Where We Live. But after issuing some preliminary findings, the city has yet to release a set of recommendations of how to address the inequities.
In a statement, Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, credited the de Blasio administration for "fighting displacement with record levels of affordable housing, free legal services, rent freezes, and programs to combat harassment."
Citing the Where We Live initiative, she added that the administration was "examining the legacy of segregation and deepening our commitment to policies that promote fair housing and inclusive neighborhoods."
Fennell said the city has plenty of data on segregation but has over the years persisted in coming up with a race neutral solutions, such as relying on income requirements tied to affordable housing, which have been criticized as being too high, rather than identifying and protecting low-income demographic groups vulnerable to displacement. She said the bill would essentially force the city to tackle race and segregation head on, rather than indirectly.
"Especially when it comes to zoning and urban planning, race has always been central," she said.