OPINION: In New York City, Mayor de Blasio’s Rezonings Amplify Inequalities
Tom Angotti, professor emeritus at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, writes how the rezonings reinforce the chronic “color blindness” in city policy.
Tom Angotti is professor emeritus at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is also co-editor of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City (UR Books, 2017).
The big deal that would have handed out subsidies and tax breaks to Amazon fell through when grassroots opposition in Queens neighborhoods led one of the wealthiest men in the world to pick up his marbles and leave. This unprecedented U-turn followed a deal negotiated by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo behind closed doors, typical of the many deals that we are told will bring us jobs and housing. While the Amazon debacle quickly achieved national notoriety, New York City for years has had intense land use battles. In fact, the Amazon crash followed a string of tough fights by neighborhood groups that opposed the mayor’s proposals to rezone their communities.
Mayor de Blasio originally proposed to rezone 15 neighborhoods that hadn’t been touched by previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s zoning blitz, which included some 140 rezonings that typically combined windfalls for big real estate with protections for well-to-do areas. The new neighborhoods targeted by de Blasio were predominantly low-income communities of color, which allowed the mayor to frame the rezonings as part of his “Tale of Two Cities” commitment to end the city’s growing levels of inequality. To sell these rezonings, the mayor would guarantee new “affordable housing” through the new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing regulation (MIH) that would require all developers in rezoned areas to provide 20 to 30 percent of new units as “affordable.” However, as detailed in the book I co-edited with Sylvia Morse, Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City, MIH is being used as a Trojan Horse to promote speculative development while the affordable housing is not affordable to most neighborhood residents. Affordability levels are based on income levels in the entire city and suburban counties, which are invariably much higher than those in the rezoned neighborhoods.
Every one of the mayor’s rezoning proposals, from East New York (Brooklyn) to Inwood (Manhattan) faced enormous pushback from grassroots groups and it is doubtful he will reach 15 rezonings in his 8 years as mayor. The political price that the mayor, city council members, and borough presidents have had to pay has been high, and at least one account has speculated that those setbacks would negatively impact the mayor’s potential presidential run.
The rezonings have raised awareness of the perils of a speculative real estate market that is out of control. Zoning is supposed to be the city’s best mechanism for regulating development, but instead it is used to promote development whenever and wherever investors want. The rezoning fights highlight the deep-rooted resentment that tenants and homeowners feel over the pressures of this overheated land and housing market. Such pressures and prices drive the processes of gentrification and displacement. The mayor who ran against the “Tale of Two Cities” seems to be pushing the “luxury city” that he scorned his predecessor for advocating. His rezonings reinforce the chronic “color blindness” of city policy which habitually re-segregates neighborhoods instead of coming to terms with one of the most racially segregated and economically unequal cities in the nation.
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