Gotham Gazette

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How Development Should Be Decided in New York City

vanbramer carlos

City Council (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

We are at a critical turning point in New York City’s history. Large-scale development projects, pushed by big real estate interests and the business class after September 11, 2001, did not give New Yorkers the promised security to avoid the Great Recession, or the next crisis, COVID-19. Meanwhile, a lack of investments in social programs shredded the social safety net New Yorkers were told would save them if they lost their jobs or homes.

If there is any time to insist on accountability before approving massive developments, it is now. That is why we oppose Industry City and YourLIC in our respective City Council districts.

We cannot allow for more displacement and suffering to befall our most vulnerable constituents based on empty promises alone. Yet the real estate lobby (REBNY) and the business class are trotting out the same failed talking points and pushing our City Council colleagues to overrule us.

This is unsurprising. The business class loves “member deference” when it aligns with their interests, and rail against it when it does not. But what is remarkable is how some of our colleagues who should know better agree with them. They say the stakes are too high for us to decide alone, despite us having won the confidence of our constituents at the ballot box and knowing our communities intimately.

Our colleagues are right about one thing – the stakes are too high. According to some estimates, 1.4 million New Yorkers are at risk of eviction because of COVID-19. Around 100,000 are already homeless. Half of all immigrant New Yorkers are unemployed, even though they represent half of all essential workers. And while our most vulnerable neighbors lost their lives and livelihoods, billionaires profited off their misery and are doing better than ever.

The dangerous precedent we must undo is not the Council’s tradition of member deference but our deference to developers. Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. If we give developers a blank check in Brooklyn and Queens, despite lacking any accountability to their neighbors to deliver on their promises, we will re-create the very conditions that put New Yorkers in harm’s way to begin with.

Many things must change about how we make land use decisions. The city’s process - ULURP - is flawed and Council members are not always right. But member deference creates accountability at the ballot box, where it belongs. Eliminating member deference would disconnect the votes of our constituents from the decision-making process and give power to whoever can lobby and organize the Council best, regardless of the merits of any proposal.

In other words, member deference prevents the rich and powerful from pushing through projects over the objections of local communities. Ending member deference, during the worst economic crisis in a century when New Yorkers are calling for change, would make our city into a playground for the wealthy again and further displace working class New Yorkers, especially our Black, Latino, and immigrant neighbors.

Every year, developers promise New Yorkers jobs in exchange for our support. But proof matters more than promises, especially now. If we are to prevent the next economic crisis, we must insist on accountability, and resist the siren calls of economic collapse from the ones most responsible for it.

City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Van Bramer represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @CMenchaca & @JimmyVanBramer.

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