Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City has moved to transform neighborhoods and carve out room for sorely needed affordable housing in communities with significant concentrations of Black and Latino residents. Like in many other American cities, white, wealthy areas seemed out of reach, even as the population boomed, rents soared and homelessness rose.
But as his administration enters its final weeks, the mayor is pursuing a different and politically challenging approach that could reshape the future of housing in a city where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown.
The City Council on Tuesday is poised to consider the first of two proposals that could bring thousands of new homes — including many affordable ones — to relatively white and rich neighborhoods.
The first plan the City Council will consider is one of Mr. de Blasio’s most sweeping. It targets Gowanus, a one-time nexus of heavy industry that is now nestled among Brooklyn’s most affluent brownstone communities. The second, which the Council is expected to vote on next month, targets SoHo in Lower Manhattan, an upscale neighborhood known for its chic boutiques and cobblestone streets.
Both plans rely heavily on optimistic projections about how many affordable homes would actually be built, and, even in an ideal scenario, may not do nearly enough to stem the city’s housing crisis. They have drawn opposition from groups in each community who question the city’s assumptions and motives.
In Gowanus, some residents fear encouraging major development near one of the most polluted waterways in the city is environmentally irresponsible. In SoHo, neighbors worry chain retailers and an influx of commercial buildings could erase the area’s character.
But the focus on those neighborhoods represents a remarkable shift for New York, one of the most expensive and segregated big cities in the country. The pandemic has only deepened the crisis, leaving many people without jobs and struggling to afford rent.
“These are big deals,” Mr. de Blasio said at a recent news conference, adding he expected both plans to be approved. “This is a big moment. And what it says is: This is a city committed to the right kind of development.”
The plans highlight an unusual conundrum for New York: that even in one of the nation’s densest cities, where new residential towers seem to constantly pop up, there is still not enough housing, particularly for its lowest-income residents.
Between 2000 and 2017, New York City added 643,000 new jobs, but only permitted around 390,000 new housing units, according to city figures. Nearly one-third of households in the city spend at least half of their income on rent, according to a 2017 housing survey.
That leaves fraught battles over which neighborhoods should take on more responsibility.
Mr. de Blasio has relied on rezoning — changing the rules of the type and amount of development allowed in an area — as a key piece of addressing the housing crisis. But his successful rezoning efforts have so far all been in parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that are lower income and have relatively few white residents, fueling fears about gentrification and displacement.
The plans in Gowanus and SoHo also illustrate the complexity of what is considered affordable. In Gowanus, the plan includes a 950-unit development that is billed as “fully affordable.” And while 50 percent of its units would be affordable, on average, to families of three earning $51,200 a year, another 40 percent of the units could be reserved for families earning $81,920 to $122,880 a year.
Historical zoning patterns have reinforced segregation in many American cities, leaving many desirable neighborhoods close to business districts or public transit out of reach for many residents.
Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, rezoned large swaths of the city and increased density in Black and Latino neighborhoods, while reducing it in white neighborhoods, said Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director of the New York University Furman Center and an urban planning professor at the university.
“This has been something that has been true in the city and it is something that happens often politically in communities across the country,” she said.
But in recent years, some elected officials have used the racist legacy of zoning to make broader pushes for more density across many neighborhoods, including in richer, whiter areas, said Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who studies land use regulations.
In 2018, the Minneapolis City Council voted to eliminate single-family zoning and allow residential structures with up to three dwelling units — like duplexes and triplexes — in every neighborhood. This year, city officials in Berkeley, Calif., also voted to end single-family zoning.
In New York, the mayor-elect, Eric Adams, has said that he would also support rezoning wealthier parts of the city to allow for more affordable housing and is in favor of the Gowanus and SoHo plans.
“We need to look at those sacred cows like SoHo and other parts of the city where we used these methods to keep out groups,” Mr. Adams said in October on “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Barika Williams, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a coalition of housing organizations, said the housing crisis was “something we all need to take on and all need to tackle and we should be looking at every single neighborhood in New York City.”
Though the city has cited the need for more affordable housing to generate support for the Gowanus and SoHo plans, the dynamic in the two neighborhoods is not the same.
In Gowanus, a massive cleanup of its notoriously filthy canal has made development even more alluring. The development plan calls for parks and shops and an estimated 8,000 housing units — about twice as many as Hudson Yards, a high-end development on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Roughly 3,000 units would be considered “affordable.”
Brad Lander, a city councilman representing parts of Gowanus and one of the main proponents of the rezoning, said it represents how the city could incorporate community priorities, like boosting funding for existing public housing developments. The city has agreed to spend roughly $200 million on repairs and upgrades to two public housing complexes near the rezoning area.
“I feel great and I think the community feels great about this rezoning,” he said.
Opponents, however, have questioned the wisdom of ushering so much development in a part of the city that has been contaminated with pollutants for so long.
Debbie Stoller, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and is part of a group fighting the plan, pointed out that the plan makes way for thousands of market-rate and luxury apartments. She said it amounted to a giveaway for developers, who would be able to take advantage of state tax incentives.
“Nobody in this community is against the idea of creating more affordable housing in Gowanus, or even creating more housing in Gowanus,” she said.
The criticisms echo those lodged in SoHo. The plan, which also includes part of the adjacent NoHo neighborhood, would allow 3,200 additional apartments over the next 10 years, including approximately 800 affordable units in an area that had fewer than 8,000 residents in the 2010 census. The plan would also allow for more commercial development, including offices and retail.
Some SoHo residents worry that the commercial rezoning will increase the number of chain retailers. And many say that more development could accelerate gentrification in surrounding communities like Chinatown.
“We need to target white affluent communities to build affordable housing, to build equity and diversity,” said Christopher Marte, who successfully ran for the City Council seat representing Lower Manhattan, including SoHo, by campaigning against the rezoning. “I believe this plan is going to do the opposite of that.”
Carlina Rivera and Margaret Chin, the two council members currently representing the rezoning area whose support is crucial for its passage, said in a statement that it was important that SoHo and NoHo “generate their fair share of affordable housing” but said they were still working with the city to refine the plan.
Under rules implemented by Mr. de Blasio, developers must set aside a modest percentage of residential units as affordable homes in the rezoning area. But whether developers will do so depends significantly on their ability to take advantage of tax breaks, some of which are set to expire next year, said Eric Kober, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute.
Mr. Kober said he supported the passage of the plans, noting that they would “produce some housing.” But he said not all developers may be able to make the financial numbers work, limiting the overall effectiveness of the rezoning program.
“You can’t force any property to make a money-losing investment,” he said.