New York City's Trying to Fight Gentrification Before It Happens

The city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help keep certain neighborhoods affordable. But it might be making things worse.
by | May 11, 2016
Brooklyn, New York (FlickrCC/Herve Boinay)

Atlantic Avenue in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood not far from John F. Kennedy International Airport, isn’t exactly picturesque or inviting. It's a six-lane road carrying heavy trucks past auto dealers, fast-food restaurants and abandoned industrial properties. The neighborhood it borders has been in decline for decades, as blue-collar jobs disappeared and white flight emptied much of its housing.

Now New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to make East New York, and Atlantic Avenue in particular, the test case for his latest strategy for making the Big Apple affordable for people at all income levels. To do that, de Blasio and his administration want to harness the forces that have transformed other Brooklyn neighborhoods into upscale enclaves.

The city is using a combination of zoning changes and public works projects to entice developers to come to East New York. By opening up new areas to residential sites and relaxing some costly rules, the city would better enable developers to build lucrative, dense projects. But there's a catch: From now on, large projects will have to set aside a quarter or more of their units for low- or moderate-income tenants. The city, meanwhile, will develop affordable housing on its own property in the neighborhood, and it will also build a new school, add a community center, upgrade parks, improve streetscapes, install broadband and offer support services for existing residents.

It’s an ambitious undertaking -- not just for its scale but also for the amount of coordination it will require across city departments -- and could serve as a template for transforming the other 14 neighborhoods where the mayor wants to increase affordable housing.

But the same forces that are raising rents across New York could also jeopardize the city’s efforts in the neighborhood. Property values in East New York are already shooting up, because of the area’s transit access and its proximity to other gentrifying neighborhoods. The long-discussed plans for improvements from the city also make the area more attractive to wealthy residents and developers.

Carl Weisbrod, chair of the City Planning Commission, said the city has to intervene before the area prices out its current residents as well as other lower-income people who might want to move there.

“If we do nothing, gentrification is just going to occur, and poor people are going to be displaced,” he said. “That is just the reality. One of the reasons we wanted to address the issue in East New York is … we believe we can cushion that and reduce the impact.”

Not everyone is convinced. In fact, some advocates think parts of the plan could make things worse.

One point of contention is the so-called set-aside ordinance, otherwise known as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which lets the city decide whether to require a developer to build 25 percent of its units for poorer households or 30 percent for slightly more affluent households. Thirty percent of the city's residents make less than $25,000 a year. But under the rules, families making up to $52,000 could qualify for lower-income units, while households making as much as $95,000 could qualify for medium-income units.

“Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is not an affordable-housing plan but a gentrification plan,” the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants’ rights group, wrote in its April newsletter. “Building new housing that is 70 to 75 percent market-rate housing in low-income communities of color will only fuel gentrification.”

Weisbrod, however, defended the income thresholds, noting that a family with a teacher and a police officer might seem well-off but would nonetheless have a hard time finding a place to live in the city.

In fact, Weisbrod said New York’s set-aside ordinance is one of the strongest in the country and should serve as a national model. The law makes it difficult for developers to build their affordable units off-site, and it doesn't let them simply pay a fee instead of building the units. The income thresholds are tied to percentages of median income and change as that number rises or falls. That way, Weisbrod said, the neighborhoods where that housing is built will have mixed incomes for a long time.

“As the neighborhood gets better, the impact of mandatory inclusionary zoning would assure that a percentage of the housing … would be affordable forever,” he said. “You’re not just providing affordable housing for the time. The commitment is that the housing is permanently affordable.”

Still, Weisbrod and other city officials say they recognize the anxiety the plan could cause. They've tried to address those concerns by, for example, sharing the status of promised projects on a city website so residents know the amenities that they're promised will actually materialize.

“Neighborhoods throughout the country and probably throughout the world fear change. They are wary about development. They are worried [about] increased development and more people. Partly they’re wary because public investments don’t always accompany increase in density, so existing services get overcrowded. We recognize that,” he said, noting that the city held 100 neighborhood meetings in developing its plan for East New York. “I can’t say we satisfied them on everything, but we heard a lot from them, and that did guide our thinking.”

*Correction: The caption on this story previously stated that it was taken in East New York, Brooklyn. It was actually taken near Park Slope, Brooklyn.