Don't fret, de Blasio's zoning plan makes sense

New Yorkers who fear the mayor's proposal are afraid of change, but their neighborhoods are already changing

Crain's New York
January 19, 2016
by Rafael E. Cestero

For months, communities and politicians have debated the merits of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed zoning changes. Opponents believe that density, development and changes to certain zoning requirements will increase displacement of working-class New Yorkers and make the city less affordable.

The critics are wrong—because they consider the programs in isolation, and not in the context of the city’s history and its current affordable housing efforts. The more we put de Blasio’s plans into proper context, the better they look.

First, let’s understand how we got here. During the 1970s and '80s, swaths of our city fell victim to blight and abandonment that devastated entire communities. From the South Bronx to East New York, crime was rampant, buildings were abandoned and hundreds of thousands of people fled to the suburbs.

Instead of endorsing a policy of “planned shrinkage” to wall off failing neighborhoods, in the late 1980s Mayor Ed Koch launched an incredibly ambitious housing plan, which started the rebuilding and revitalization of our city.

Over the past 25 years, our city has prospered in ways it hasn’t in decades past. This unprecedented growth can largely be attributed to a legacy of investing in neighborhoods like East New York, Bed-Stuy, Melrose and Harlem—places that were scarred and stigmatized the most by disinvestment and flight.

But we have also become victims of our own success. We have seen private market development start to drive up the cost and demand for housing in low-income neighborhoods and fuel fears of rapid gentrification.

In reaction to these forces, the de Blasio administration is proposing sweeping changes to our zoning policies in an attempt to make the city more affordable.

When not viewing the plan in its totality, it is easy to pick apart the strategy as putting further pressure on low-income communities. When people see development and density, they assume what’s going on is gentrification.

Not so.

Right now private development is moving forward without any affordability requirement whatsoever. De Blasio would raise the bar by mandating that all private residential construction projects in rezoned areas have a certain portion of affordable units. These apartments will help lock in affordability for those neighborhoods, and taxpayer dollars that would have been spent can be freed up for other affordable projects in underserved communities.

In some cases, current zoning imposes unnecessary requirements—like parking lots at low-income senior housing where 95% of tenants don’t own cars. Money spent on parking lots means less money for actual apartments for seniors. De Blasio would change certain regulations so city-sponsored projects can be built more efficiently, and create more affordable housing.

The bottom line: The city will be building smarter and getting more bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

And this will be happening in concert with the initiatives already at work in the housing plan that finance new housing, preserve existing affordable housing, rein in bad landlords, protect tenants’ rights and enforce laws to ensure housing quality.

While it is understandable that some are rejecting these proposals because they don’t want their neighborhoods to change, the fact is that they are already changing quickly—forcing affordable housing to the fringes of our city.

If we say no to the reforms, then re-zonings will not happen, affordable housing will not be required in private construction projects, and the primary forces for change will be the unabated market pressures of gentrification that are pushing our neighborhoods out of reach for working-class New Yorkers.

With these strategies in place, New York will be equipped to harness the forces that are shaping our city while continuing a legacy of investing in the affordability and revitalization of our neighborhoods.

Rafael E. Cestero is president and CEO of The Community Preservation Corp. and former commissioner of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development.