Gotham Gazette

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A Portal Does Not Replace A Knock On The Door

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The mayor at a ground-breaking ceremony (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The Department of City Planning (DCP) has announced that it is resuming the city’s rezoning process after a five-month suspension due to the pandemic. But DCP has neither adapted the process that leads to significant land use changes to overcome the obstacles created by the pandemic nor the underlying structural racism embedded in land use decision-making. As DCP said in a recent statement reaffirming its commitment to dismantling institutionalized racism:

“We recognize that planning policies and zoning codes have acted for decades as bulwarks against fairness, inclusion and integration, and that they have played a large role in perpetuating racism and even violence against Black and Brown Americans…We are committed to unpacking and taking on institutionalized racism within the planning profession and examining our own role…”

If the city is to restart rezoning, it cannot be under the same structurally flawed process that it has acknowledged contributes to the disparities that have plagued this country since its inception. The current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing protests for racial justice have further exposed the fatal impacts of institutionalized racism on Black and Latino communities. Resuming this flawed process while there are still pandemic-created obstacles to outreach, education, community organizing, and public participation will cause further harm to these communities.

Community groups that DCP relied upon for “getting out the word” are swamped with the need to feed and care for residents in their neighborhoods during this pandemic and the mass unemployment that has resulted from measures taken to contain COVID-19. The city’s creation of an online portal to provide information on attending virtual DCP meetings is not sufficient and will exclude hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom are low income. A portal does not replace door-knocking. 

Additionally, budgetary changes have greatly impacted how the city will be able to respond to demands for more affordable housing. Beginning a zoning change now that relies on the current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) mechanism is extremely problematic and fundamentally unfair due to the draconian cuts to the city’s capital budget. The funding that would have been used to deepen affordability under MIH and provide additional services to remediate the negative impacts of a rezoning has evaporated. 

There are gaping holes and misguided instructions in the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) manual for gathering the information that goes into environmental impact statements - information essential for community boards, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council to accurately and fairly assess a zoning change before they vote on major land use changes (see more here and here).

These flaws hide the displacement and inadequacy of any anticipated affordable housing, and do not project how a zoning change will alter the racial composition of a neighborhood such as when older buildings are torn down and replaced with new “luxury condos.” The CEQR guidelines assume that tenants in buildings with six or more units are protected by rent regulation even though those protections are frequently evaded. Evictions, already highest in Black and Latino communities, are expected to rise as a result of the pandemic.

The CEQR guidelines are completely silent on the financial impacts a rezoning has on property values - critical information that communities and elected officials need when they try to negotiate with developers for more and deeper affordable housing, schools, libraries, and other community benefits.

In addition to providing resources and information essential to a fair zoning process, DCP must be creative and innovative to overcome the obstacles to communications and outreach created by the pandemic, which still threatens people’s health and undermines the existing public engagement process. 

The city cannot resume land use processes that will impact Black and Latino communities without a massive effort to engage these communities. City government must be driven by the imperative to bring BIPOC into the decision-making. DCP needs to innovate ways to communicate and there are a number of measures DCP can implement today: 

  • The city owns, controls, or can access buildings, spaces, and infrastructure in every neighborhood, from public schools and firehouses to bus-stop shelters and subway platforms. These spaces can serve as neighborhood touchpoints with maps, descriptions of possible buildouts, and other information to alert residents about land use proposals. 
  • Many of these spaces are already in use for emergency services for the community and can serve an additional function as a means of outreach for projects. DCP can create displays, take-away flyers, and other materials for distribution in these areas. It is important that language services and translations are also made available to accommodate residents who do not speak English. 
  • The city needs to extend the timeframe and expand the means of communication wherever possible, such as keeping hearings open so people can testify over time, and facilitating locations within impacted communities where people can submit written testimony, or safely record and submit in-person video testimony, a feature Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has used often during public hearings; and
  • If the city truly wants to improve engagement in these communities, it must provide funding and other resources to community-based organizations, now swamped with providing essential services, to augment their capacity to reach out to community members about proposed zoning changes and encourage them to participate in the process.

This pandemic has demonstrated that the city is capable of changing rules and laws quickly to accommodate extenuating circumstances. It is not merely that these are extraordinary times that require innovation in how governments must engage their residents in decision-making. Government must also be enlightened by the awareness of the long-term structural barriers to engagement that have excluded communities of color from full participation.

Tara Duvivier is Senior Planner and Adam Friedman is Director at the Pratt Center for Community Development, a Pratt Institute Research Center, which provides technical assistance in land use and community development in low-income communities and communities of color throughout New York City.

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