The risky consequences of Inclusionary Housing at Brooklyn’s Pfizer site
The power to zone is a key mechanism New York City has to leverage private financial resources when building much needed affordable housing. To take advantage of that power, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been pursuing Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) policies, which requires developers to set aside a certain percentage of affordable housing for low and moderate income New Yorkers. That’s the mechanism being used at the Pfizer site in Brooklyn, located in the Broadway Triangle, an area bordering the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant. If approved, the proposed rezoning will allow for 1,146 apartments, 25 percent of them set aside as affordable.
At a cursory glance, the plan has some genuine benefits for lower-income families, which is part of the mayor’s broader affordable housing vision of a public-private partnership with the real estate establishment. However, upon closer look, this plan has damaging consequences that the de Blasio administration has overlooked – as is the case with much of its housing plan.
In fact, if the current rezoning for the Pfizer site is approved, the massive project will be a prescription for displacement and economic apartheid. In particular, the unintended consequences of bringing 4,000 new residents into the area with such a massive project, I believe, will lead to land speculation, harassment, accelerated displacement of manufacturing jobs and the loss of low- and moderate-income housing. To avoid that, the plan will need to be aggressively refocused to meet the needs of such a diverse area that includes African American, Latino and Hasidic Jewish families.
The administration correctly recognizes the fact that if the market is left to its own devices, widespread displacement will continue. However, when it comes to the Pfizer rezoning plan, even members of the City Planning Commission have also raised serious questions at the public hearing about the size of the apartments, and about whom the intended beneficiaries will be. In addition, they raised questions concerning the potential for displacement of people and manufacturing jobs that would be accelerated by the proposed zoning action.
Despite a predicted $1 billion increase in property value if the rezoning is approved, the developer is planning to make only 1-in-4 of the residential units “affordable” – the legal minimum. Given the developer’s poor track record of meeting prior commitments to racial and economic integration, these issues are of even greater import. Even then, such “affordable” units will still be unaffordable and out of reach to much of the community at risk of displacement, especially those residing in the immediate area, many of whom live just outside the boundaries of Community Board 1. The community preference procedures set in Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and 421a tax incentive program will not apply to them because they reside in a different community board. This pattern of exclusion mimics the gerrymandering of the Pfizer area’s re-zoning plan by New York City a few years ago – which is the subject of an on-going anti-discrimination proceeding in federal court.
Out of all the communities in the area, the plan will only favor a subset of the Hasidic community leaving black and Latino families out altogether. That will only exacerbate the area’s longstanding racial segregation and further exclude black and Hispanic residents from these North Brooklyn neighborhoods. This is, in short, a prescription for displacement and economic apartheid, rather than being a tool for racial and economic integration – a serious consequence of how the mayor’s initiative is being implemented.
To address these complex issues, the administration must partner with community-based development and environmental justice groups, fair housing advocates and others. Community integration can only happen with a commitment to community-based planning that precedes zoning and to making community groups’ partners in development as well as in planning.
Anti-displacement, and legal assistance for tenants are all good policies and should be expanded. But to ensure real progressive results in creating affordable housing, permanent affordability and racial and economic integration should be a key prerequisite for receiving city-incentives and other resources. Otherwise, our city will be helping to finance continued community segregation.
Ronald Shiffman is an award winning city planner, architect, professor, author, and co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development. He is also a former member of the New York City Planning Commission and a member of the Board of Race Forward – the Center for Racial Justice Innovation.