Zoning, Academia, and UDL Teach-Ins

As students, we often hear nebulous terms tossed around in lectures, heated conversations, and especially on Twitter rants. The kinds of phrases I’m talking about are the ones that you have a grasp on, but may struggle to provide a precise definition when asked directly–or maybe, at this point, you’re too afraid to ask. This can be frustrating, but also restrictive. When you don’t possess the vocabulary used in a certain discourse, it can be difficult to truly participate and enact change.

We can be quick to employ these academic-sometimes-bordering-on-pseudo-intellectual terms in everyday conversations but seldom take the time to really unpack the meanings of these phrases, their political and social implications, and their origins in a historical context. The problem here being that many of these socio-political concepts can’t be reduced into concise, elevator-pitch-length definitions. To really get a hold on broad subjects surrounding urbanism, it’s important to not just read about them, but talk about them, walk through them (both physically and didactically) and ask questions about them, too.

An an institution that seeks to extend accessibility of education and awareness of issues relating to urbanism, we ought to be conscious of the ways in which academia, and its accompanying language, can exclude certain demographics from joining the conversation. Even those who may have the resources to learn about these ideas aren’t always sure of what to do. It begs the question: how can you really invoke change if you aren’t really clear on the terms that are being used?

Enter Urban Democracy Lab’s teach-ins. The purpose of these UDL events are to provide a dialogue between students, activists, and scholars in order to to come together and understand these weighty concepts in a place that isn’t intimidating—an opportunity to ask: “So what exactly does one mean when they talk about ‘Market Urbanism’?” Always free and open to the public, these panels provide a space for those who want to listen to experts, ask questions, and contribute to the conversation.

Teach-In on Zoning and Urban Development

Left to right are Samuel Stein, Jon Ritter, Paula Crespo, Zishun Ning, and moderator Jonathan Marty. Credit: NYU Urban Design and Architecture Society

The topic for March? Zoning and Urban Development. Any student who’s taken an urban studies course has probably come across these terms, whether discussing current legislation, the history of affordable housing, or the logistical side of city planning. Even if you haven’t taken a met or urban studies class, zoning may have cropped in various social, political, and economic contexts.

With this teach-in, UDL aimed to untangle the various impacts that zoning has had on the development of cities, as well as shed light onto zoning’s fraught history as an exclusionary tool.

Moderated by UDL student board member and gallatin junior Jonathan Marty, the event took place on March 6th, 2018 in the Gallatin student lounge. Panelists included Paula Crespo, Senior Planner at the Pratt Center for Community Development; Zishun Ning, activist and Founder of Youth Against Displacement; Jon Ritter>, Professor of Urban Design and Architecture at NYU, and Sam Stein, Professor of Urban Studies at Hunter College and PhD student at CUNY.

Defining the Terms about Zoning

It would be hypocritical of me to go on any further and not define the terms used in the piece.

Here are a few phrases that I’ll be referring to from here on out:

  • Upzoning: According to the William & Mary Law Review, “’Upzoning’ is a change in zoning classification from less intensive to more intensive; “downzoning” refers to the opposite phenomenon.” The change may be in use, bulk, or height.
  • Inclusionary Zoning: “A means of using the planning system to create affordable housing and foster social inclusion by capturing resources created through the marketplace.” The term refers to a program, regulation, or law that requires or provides incentives to private developers to incorporate affordable or social housing as a part of market-driven developments. This can be achieved either by incorporating the affordable housing into the same development, building it elsewhere, or contributing money or land for the production of social or affordable housing in lieu of construction.
  • Red-lining: The Federal Reserve defines red-lining as the “practice of denying a creditworthy applicant a loan for housing in a certain neighborhood even though the applicant may otherwise be eligible for the loan. The term refers to the presumed practice of mortgage lenders of drawing red lines around portions of a map to indicate areas or neighborhoods in which they do not want to make loans.” Often this practice is used to steer families of color away from predominantly white neighborhoods.
  • Market Urbanism– “Market Urbanism” refers to the synthesis of classical liberal economics and ethics (market), with an appreciation of the urban way of life and its benefits to society (urbanism). We advocate for the emergence of bottom up solutions to urban issues, as opposed to ones imposed from the top down.
  • Area Median Inciome (AMI) – The median income for all cities across the country is defined each year by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The 2017 AMI for the New York City region is $85,900 for a three-person family (100% AMI).

Teach-In Presentations

In quintessential professor fashion, Ritter kicked off the event by showing a thorough presentation of zoning’s origins in New York City, as well as some of its more prominent ramifications. He outlined some of the most fundamental laws in city planning history including the 1916 Zoning resolution, which was adopted as a model to control the size and bulk of buildings in reaction to the chaotic, rapidly developing urban landscape in the early 20th century. As high-rise buildings, such as the Equitable Life Insurance building (1915) went up, many citizens expressed concerns over the obstruction of light and air. This resolution called for buildings (skyscrapers, in particular) to be set back as they increased in height, in order to make them less imposing on the city.

Ritter also pointed to the 1961 Zoning Amendment, which divided the city into residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas. This amendment was notable for introducing an incentive for zoning by encouraging developers to include privately owned public spaces, such as a park, plaza, or green spaces, in their plans.

To provide some context, as the character of urban neighborhoods underwent drastic shifts as a result of industrialisation of the early 1900s, zoning was conceived as a way to designate different areas for exclusive and segregated uses, Ritter explained. This created certainty for investors, but also instilled a fear of vacancy in shop-owners who worried that the commercial sector may take over.

At best, zoning sought to protect the everyday city dweller from a rapidly industrializing environment. Zoning regulations functioned as a way to balance light and air at a time when rapid urban development obstructed citizens’ quality of life. Initial zoning laws also aided to protect the individual against the right of the property owner, who might otherwise want to build as tall and wide, or as commercially as possible.

At worst, zoning contributed to the social segregation of cities. Red-lining, in particular, is a zoning tactic that racially excludes demographics through loaning practices. Another detriment of zoning is that is can reduce potential areas for residential spaces.The fear with zoning here being that the government might not back mortgages in the desirable, or ‘un-lendable’ parts of the city.

Paula Crespo spoke next. She responded to Marty’s question: “As a planner, how does zoning rear its head in NYC politics?”

Zoning, Crespo argued, can be used as a mechanism to leverage the private market. She also discussed de Blasio’s controversial Housing plan, which recently expanded its goal to preserving or creating 300k units of affordable housing. This plan takes sets of neighborhoods and essentially plans for a large up-zoning. The gripe of the neighborhoods affected, Crespo elucidated, is that this plan will build some affordable units, but only at the minimum amount of affordability (somewhere between 70-80% of the market rate). In short, this plan isn’t doing enough to address New York City’s affordable housing crisis.

Stein spoke next on a piece he recently wrote on the same topic in Jacobin, entitled “De Blasio’s Doomed Housing Plan” wherein he argues that “by embracing inclusionary zoning, mayor de Blasio gets to put forth a big, bold plan for reducing inequalities without challenging capitalists.” The main criticisms, which he outlines in his article, are that 1) not enough low-cost housing is being produced and 2) the affordable housing is not actually all that affordable for most New Yorkers.

Stein believes that the real problem with inclusionary zoning is that it “marshalls rich people into places that are already experiencing gentrification.” In doing so, this plan renders neighborhoods completely transformed and results in few cheap apartments. He goes on to contend that rent-regulated apartments do exist, and that the upzoning of neighborhoods ultimately benefits developers, who get new contracts for construction, not the residents in need.

Stein takes issue with this plan, but he also offers up a solution: only use inclusionary zoning on vacant lots, or in neighborhoods that don’t have any pre-existing affordable apartments. If the proposed legislation would dial down the area medical income levels, or AMI, the plan could extend to an even larger demographic in need of affordable housing. Stein elaborated by arguing that land values are continuously inflated, and that rather than preventing the cycle of speculation from perpetuating, inclusionary zoning accelerates this urban growth machine and provides an unsustainable quick-fix solution to a long-term, systemic problem.

Zishun Ning spoke on the particular case of Chinatown. In 2008, Bloomberg passed an East Village rezoning measure which, to the dismay of many residents, excluded large portions of chinatown/LES even though they all belong to the same community board—CB3. This exposes some of the racism that can take form in re-zoning legislation.

Ning also called attention to massive displacement happening in Chinatown where residents are being pushed out as a result of skyrocketing rents and exploitative landlords. This is most pressing in the case of 83-85 Bowery, where the entire building has recently been evicted due to a landlord’s lack of accountability and resulted in a hunger strike carried out by the tenants. Ning lays out the Chinatown Working Group’s demands: Protection and restriction of public land, an a call to stop colluding with landlords, and stop using intimidation tactics to displace residents.

Marty then points to Tom Angotti’s recent publication, Zoned Out, where the author illustrates how inclusionary zoning exists in a land market, rather than a free market, and thereby contributes to the snowballing effect of gentrification. He essentially argues that upzoning can harm poor neighborhoods, rather than benefit them. Marty points out the ways in which the city uses up-zoning in primarily low income and immigrant areas and how Angotti’s work causes us to question whether market urbanism housing is a normative good. Marty then asks panelists for their opinion on density, and for their alternative to this line of thinking.

Crespo provides insight into a process for progress: in order to change the paradigm of market driven urbanism, a radical shift is necessary especially with help from a serious groundswell of community organizing and grassroots efforts.

In response to the idea of increasing density, Sam Stein points out the flaw in the line of thinking that “simply adding more supply reduces costs” and argues that as long as land is treated as a commodity under capitalism, plans to increase density will only increase rent. Only a de-coupling of those two, he asserts, will cease to perpetuate the cycle of relationally valuing real estate and land.

Ning is not against development as a whole, but encourages us to always keep in mind,“Whom is this being developed for? Is it for the wealthy or is it really for the community?”

In response to the question, “What are the impacts of the plan?” Sam Stein wants us to carefully consider which neighborhoods are being selected for rezoning, and why. He reasons that rezoning is permanent, but subsidies are temporary. When subsidies disappear, market grade housing crops up. He uses the example of the East village, which was down-zoned but as a result placed pressure onto neighboring chinatown and the LES. He calls this, “displacing displacement,” and asks, “Is it then a good idea to upzone wealthy neighborhoods?” To which he replies, “well, it’s not the best.”

Marty underscores zoning’s fraught history with blockbusting, and score mongering real estate agents but then alludes towards the future, and asks panelists what they envision for upcoming models of affordable housing and sustainable rezoning plans.

Crespo offers some retrospective wisdom from her experience as a planner, and hopes that she will be less compromising for anti-displacement demands in the future and make less concessions to the city in order to gain more for residents.Crespo references a recent victory—a certificate for no harassment—which will hopefully make a dent in redevelopment policies and help communities on a day to day basis, she hopes.

Stein believes that a lot of things can be done within the current legal framework, AKA, not all hope is lost.

Ning underscores his previous point of considering “What side are people on? What is the incentive to ethically and sustainably zone portions of the city?”

>How You Can Help

With all of this in mind, the future of combating detrimental zoning measures is daunting. Of course, acknowledging complicity is important. But then taking the steps to do something about is more difficult. What can students do to help?

Here are a few steps and organizations you can participate in:

  • Learn about tenants rights organizations
  • Find out about any local anti-eviction campaigns
  • Attend local community board members, you can locate and find yours here.

Advocacy Organizations for Tenants

  • Legal Aid Society – Offers free legal services regarding housing to low-income individuals and families.
  • Make the Road New York – Provides attorneys for targeted advocacy, education and representation in housing court and landlord-tenant cases. – Bushwick, Brooklyn: (718) 418-7690; Jackson Heights, Queens: (718) 565-8500; Port Richmond, Staten Island: (718) 727-1222
  • Met Council on Housing – Hosts free tenant clinics and a tenant rights hotline. (212) 979-0611
  • New York Communities for Change – Uses on-street organizing and legislative advocacy to preserve and expand affordable housing. (347) 410-6919 ext. 270
  • Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition – Develops and supports tenant associations, holds workshops on housing rights and cultivates active housing committee members for participation in larger citywide activities.
  • Pratt Area Community Council – Offers 1-on-1 tenant counseling, tenant rights workshops, legal clinic and assistance to buildings that want to create or strengthen tenant associations. (718) 522-2613
  • Tenants & Neighbors – Provides tenants with information and referrals, educational resources, training workshops, organizing support, leadership development, and campaign coordination support. (212) 608-4320 ext. 314

Other Organizations

  • Cooper Square Committee: The Cooper Square Committee’s mission is to work with area residents to contribute to the preservation and development of affordable, environmentally healthy housing and community/ cultural spaces so that the Cooper Square area remains racially, economically and culturally diverse. (212) 228-8210
  • GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side): GOLES is a neighborhood housing and preservation organization that has served the Lower East Side of Manhattan since 1977. We’re dedicated to tenants’ rights, homelessness prevention, economic development, and community revitalization. (212) 533-2541
  • Youth Against Displacement>: A group of young people across NYC to fight displacement by demanding community-led rezoning plans and the “gentrifier-in-chief” Mayor de Blasio step down. youthagainst.displacement@gmail.com