Note: A version of this piece was published in the May 6, 2016 edition of City & State Insider: http://nyslant.com/article/opinion/east-new-york-plan-could-be-blueprint-for-preventing-gentrification-in-buffalo.html.%5D
On April 20, 2016, the Big Apple’s City Council adopted rezoning plans for a 190-block area in Brooklyn – called the “East New York” neighborhood. The New York Times’ editorial staff characterized the legislative action as “saving a New York neighborhood from gentrification.” Such praise may be premature and overstated. Community activists claim that measures do not go far enough to protect current low-income residents from displacement. Regardless, the “East New York” plan provides Buffalo’s Common Council with an excellent framework for tackling a subject that was shamefully ignored by Mayor Byron Brown’s Office of Strategic Planning when developing the proposed “Green Code” (officially known as the Unified Development Ordinance).
This blog has previously expressed concerns regarding the adverse impact of the expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus on the nearby low-income communities, and aspects of the Green Code that – if not modified or eliminated – would accelerate gentrification. [See, for example, my “gentrification with justice” post, as well as my piece on the “unjust and unlawful disregard of Fruit Belt residents.”] I have also described my frustration with the City of Buffalo’s long history of non-compliance with the letter and spirit of the State Environmental Quality Review Act [SEQRA]. The recent approach taken by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration regarding gentrification underscores just how poorly Buffalo residents and low-income neighborhoods are being treated.
The Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement [DGEIS] prepared by Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning – accepted in February without any changes by the Common Council – fails to address or acknowledge the issue of gentrification and involuntary displacement of low-income residents when new development brings more affluent individuals to an existing neighborhood. [Perhaps you’ll have better luck than I have in finding that proverbial needle in the DGEIS haystack: DGEIS – Green Code – accepted 02-16-16 .]
That was not the case in NYC. Although its lead agency ultimately concluded that the proposed rezoning was not expected to result in a significant adverse impact with respect to direct or indirect displacement of residents, the Final Environmental Impact Statement [FEIS] for the East New York rezoning plan includes a detailed analysis of the potential for residential displacement in its chapter addressing “Socioeconomic Conditions.” Note: The FEIS also looked at the potential for direct and indirect “business displacement.”
An even starker contrast is found in the effort taken by the respective cities to include within their new zoning laws provisions to protect against what the New York Times called “the crushing rents and tenant displacement” that can transform working-class neighborhoods. The proposed Green Code, now under consideration by Buffalo’s Common Council Members, does not appear to contain any measures meant to directly curtail the undesirable impacts associated with gentrification.
In contrast, Mayor de Blasio’s recently adopted “East New York Community Plan” – which includes a zoning proposal, strategies for housing and affordable housing, opportunities for business and growth, and plans for new and improved community services – contains the following tools intended to save the Brooklyn neighborhood from gentrification:
** A new mandatory inclusionary housing law that requires developers in rezoned areas to set aside up to 30 percent of units in new buildings for lower-rent apartments. Additionally, the de Blasio administration hopes to extract enhanced levels of affordability from new construction through tax breaks and subsidies.
[Note: The de Blasio administration considers housing “affordable” if a household spends no more than a third of its total income on housing costs. Critics claim that what is being called “affordable housing” will be too expensive for the vast majority of current residents, and that encouraging new development would continue to drive out long-time residents. See this chart and that chart for a breakdown of projected dwelling units and data regarding “area median income.”]
** Preservation of the existing neighborhood character by continuing to allow low-scale homes and row houses on residential side streets.
[Note: The 190-block neighborhood includes more than 11,000 residential units, with the majority of the units comprising one- and two-family houses, and with 70 percent of the units housed within smaller residential buildings containing five or fewer units. According to the Coalition for Community Advancement, “52% of East New Yorkers are Black and 37% are Hispanic.”]
** A $12 million small homes preservation fund to protect the neighborhood’s dwindling stock of one- and two-family homes with loans and grants for major systems repairs and to allow a “whole home retrofit” to increase energy efficiency, enhance living conditions and reduce operating costs.
** Preservation of existing affordable housing by preserving all existing government-assisted housing, and enhancing marketing and outreach efforts to owners of buildings that are not currently government assisted.
** A commitment to set aside some of the new commercial spaces for discounted rates for local entrepreneurs.
** Reduction of proposed building heights on the neighborhood’s commercial streets, and the scaling back on proposed industrial zoning changes that residents feared would push out factories and machine shops in favor of hotels and music venues.
** Capital investment by the City of $267 million to construct a new 1,000-seat school, a community center and child-care center, and to improve sidewalks and playgrounds, and broadband Internet access for businesses and free public Wi-Fi.
** Protection of tenants by targeting code enforcement and increasing the number of housing inspectors, providing free legal representation to East New York tenants facing harassment, and working with the new Tenant Harassment Task Force to take action against landlords who harass.
** Promotion of local economic development by designing programs to support small businesses and community facilities located in affordable housing developments, expand opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses in the affordable housing development industry, and explore opportunities to connect local residents to career training and job opportunities in affordable housing.
These “tools” may not all be workable in Buffalo, or appropriate for inclusion in the proposed Buffalo Green Code. But they provide an excellent starting point for discussion and analysis by Buffalo’s Common Council, residents and business leaders as the Queen City moves closer toward preparation of a “final” environmental impact statement, and the legislative body for New York State’s second largest city decides whether to adopt, modify, or reject the proposed new zoning and development ordinance.
There is no logical reason for Buffalo’s belated anti-gentrification discussion to only consider the measures adopted for East New York. Fairness dictates that effective steps be developed to ensure that the number of new housing units characterized as “affordable” are actually affordable and accessible to Buffalo’s low-income families. And consideration should be given to other potential anti-displacement measures, such as the following new tax policies and programs promoted by Brooklyn’s Coalition for Community Advancement:
+ Good Neighbor Tax Credit – to provide tax abatement to owners of 2 to 4 family homes that maintain the tenancy of low income renters
+ Lower water and sewer fees – for owner-occupied small homes owned by a low income family.
+ Moratorium on tax lien sales of liens on owner-occupied 1-4 homes, and the availability of options to low-income owners to enter into agreements that debt will be paid in full when the property is sold, transferred, or refinanced, or entry into an agreement to maintain affordable rents for their rental units in exchange for reducing or forgiving debt.
+ Flip tax – impose higher real estate transfer taxes on 1 to 4 family homes that are owned less than 12 months and where sales price is greater than 100% of original purchase price.
+ Cease and Desist Zone – prohibit solicitation of owners by brokers, realtors and speculators.
With All Due Respect,