An Open Letter on the SoHo & NoHo Rezoning

To Mayor Bill de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Vicki Been:

CC: Council Member Margaret Chin, Council Member Carlina Rivera, and Borough President Gale Brewer

We are organizations fighting for housing justice in New York City, writing to urge you to build on the work begun by the Envision SoHo/NoHo program and commence an equitable, housing-focused rezoning of these neighborhoods that could be completed by the end of your term. Our city, which is by one measure the second-most segregated in the country, has long been a tale of two cities: Black and brown New Yorkers face higher rent burdens, longer commutes, more severe overcrowding, and were at higher risk of eviction and displacement than their white counterparts even before the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic, with its disproportionate impact on New Yorkers of color, has only exacerbated the inequality of our segregated city.

Racial segregation and housing injustice in NYC did not occur by accident — they are the result of decades of housing policy choices by generations of political leaders, and are reinforced today by development patterns and land use planning practices that effectively make meaningful racial and economic integration impossible. You have an opportunity to finally take a first step in reversing this trend by rezoning SoHo and NoHo, two of the wealthiest enclaves in the city — and set a path forward for New York’s elected officials to follow in the years to come. A Racial Impact Study in the environmental review process would be an additional tool to begin to undo the harm caused by over a century of land use policy rooted first in overt racism and then shielded by color-blind language.

The status quo of land use in New York is stacked against working-class communities of color in favor of wealthier, privileged neighborhoods that have rejected change for too long. New Yorkers in Inwood, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and East Harlem have had their concerns politely dismissed, while those in wealthier neighborhoods with the resources for extensive lawsuits and lobbying efforts get their way. A rezoning of SoHo and NoHo would be the first neighborhood rezoning in a wealthy, white neighborhood under your administration. (The proposed rezoning of Gowanus offers another opportunity for your administration to rezone a wealthy, white neighborhood. Your administration should in no way limit yourself to only one such rezoning.) While it may be politically expedient to shoehorn the city’s housing growth into low-income and industrial neighborhoods, it will never be equitable or just — and is contrary to the underlying premise of an inclusionary housing program. We must rethink the assumption that rezonings in wealthy, white neighborhoods are politically impossible if we are going to make good on the promise of racial and economic justice.

Progressive housing platforms across the country — from President Obama’s AFFH rule implementing a key aspect of the Fair Housing Act, recently rescinded by President Trump, to your own administration’s Where We Live NYC report — have pointed out the injustice of concentrating new affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods, and recognized that rezoning wealthy, exclusionary enclaves for greater affordable housing is necessary to remedy this injustice. By rezoning SoHo and NoHo, you have a chance to finally start the process of integrating our city, and to set an example for other progressive leaders across the country during this moment of unprecedented energy and support for racial justice.

Integrating SoHo and NoHo would not just be a victory for housing justice and your legacy on housing integration — it would mark a key step forward on school integration. These neighborhoods are a part of Community School District 2, which includes some of the most resourced and popular schools in the city, that serve a lower proportion of children of color and low-income students than NYC schools as a whole. These schools — not just the elementary and middle schools, but even several high schools considered among the best in the city — prioritize admission for students who live in the district, further entrenching privilege and limiting upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers of color. By planning for the effects of a rezoning on school diversity and working collaboratively with the Department of Education, Superintendent Chumney, and equity-minded student and parent groups to create an intentional student-assignment policy responsive to the effects of the rezoning, you can act decisively to integrate our schools and create an example for the rest of the nation of how to pursue racial equity as a municipal leader.

Rezoning SoHo and NoHo also presents an opportunity to take climate action and create much-needed transit-oriented, affordable housing at a time when City and State budgets are stretched thin. SoHo and NoHo are among the most transit-rich neighborhoods in the city, with substantial capacity on the subway lines that pass through. As such, new residents of SoHo and NoHo are less likely to commute by car than nearly anywhere else in the metro area or the U.S. writ large. Given the long commutes that many Black and brown New Yorkers face to reach jobs in Manhattan, new affordable housing in lower Manhattan would mean both reduced carbon emissions and significant increases in quality of life for working New Yorkers.

Furthermore, given the unconscionable lack of support for new affordable housing in the last City budget, it is unlikely the City will be able to meet its affordable housing needs without rezonings in wealthy neighborhoods. When your administration initiated the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, it also acknowledged that the policy works best in areas with high market rents that can most effectively cross-subsidize affordable housing — not in lower-income communities like those that have been rezoned up until this point. Rezoning SoHo and NoHo would not only cross-subsidize affordable housing in SoHo and NoHo; it would also allow the City to focus our housing budget on areas most in need of investment.

Our organizations have come together to say rezoning SoHo and NoHo before the end of your term is a moral imperative. Your legacy on racial justice and affordable housing is at stake.

Signed,

Ascendant Neighborhood Development

Churches United for Fair Housing

Citizens Housing and Planning Council

Community Service Society of New York

Cooper Square Committee

Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation

Fifth Avenue Committee

Habitat for Humanity NYC

Hester Street

Hope Community, Inc.

Housing Rights Initiative

New York Appleseed

New York Housing Conference

Open New York

Regional Plan Association

Riseboro Community Partnership

Settlement Housing Fund

St. Nick’s Alliance

Supportive Housing Network of New York

Teens Take Charge

This Land is Ours Community Land Trust

University Settlement

Written by

Open New York is an advocacy group working for more housing in New York City. Let’s open the city we love to all. You can find us at http://opennewyork.city

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