An urban policy battle is taking place in the historic SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods of New York City. The conflict in question involves Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s new rezoning plan for the neighborhoods, which would purportedly increase the residential space in the area by adding 3,000 new apartment units. The proposal would also require new buildings constructed in the area to allot 25 to 30 percent of space to affordable housing units, as the 2016 Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy demands. Despite the seemingly progressive cause, the proposal would allow for the development of taller luxury buildings and the expansion of commercial zoning in SoHo and NoHo, further clearing the way for corporate interests and big department stores (Gothamist, 2021). The proposal’s initiative adheres to the idea of “inclusionary zoning,” which focuses more on opening up wealthier neighborhoods to a mixed-income population instead of disrupting lower-income areas and displacing locals (Truthout, 2020). As such, The City claims that these initiatives will diversify mostly white, higher-income neighborhoods; however, critics of the plan have doubts about how effective––or destructive––this proposal could actually be.
At a time when gentrification has sucked the life out of most once-vibrant and integrated neighborhoods in The City, preserving historic areas like SoHo can only occur through diversification and community-oriented action. Yet the rezoning policies that claim to strive for inclusion often fail by putting too much trust in developers’ integrity. A market based on continual growth will always put profit over people. At the very least, policymakers must set corporate interests aside to hold developers accountable to create neighborhoods conducive to healthy communities.
Theoretically, the rezoning plan sounds like it will foster a more socioeconomically diverse community in the affluent neighborhood. However, some locals and critics believe that the proposal disguises motives to further upzone the SoHo/NoHo area. Village Preservation, a non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining the architecture and culture of downtown New York, reports that much of the rezoning plan will actively hurt the neighborhood by displacing low to middle-income residents and marketing to a richer, whiter population.
Additionally, Village Preservation’s research argues that The City’s promise to include more affordable housing is a facade. Multiple loopholes in the rezoning policy actually encourage developers to forgo including any affordable housing entirely. These technicalities––including clauses that incentivize commercial development over residential development in areas projected for affordable housing, or those that waive the affordable housing requirement in any development with less than 25,000 square feet of residential space––only make it easier for developers to upzone the SoHo/NoHo neighborhood (Village Preservation, 2021).
Assuming that developers will follow the most profitable path, as real estate interests have clearly taken over the design and makeup of most urban areas, the proposal as it stands today isn’t protecting the needs of lower-to-middle-income SoHo/NoHo locals, nor is it genuinely opening up the neighborhood to a more diverse population (Next City, 2019). These findings are unsettling, but they’re unsurprising in the ongoing history of forced displacement and exclusion along class and racial lines in New York.
It’s painfully evident by now that gentrification has impacted most New York City neighborhoods through decades of destructive urban policy that has displaced lower-income residents, stunted communities’ cultures with homogeneity and created islands of exclusion all over the metropolitan area (Berkeley News, 2019). In New York, this shift is generally due to a few key factors. The first goes back to Mayor Ed Koch’s housing policies in the 1970s, which focused on privatization and unequivocal gentrification, using tax cuts and new development to prioritize corporations and the rich over New York locals (Brick Underground, 2018). Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued this legacy in the 2000s, explicitly viewing The City as a luxury product and operating it like a private company in order to advertise to more businesses (New York Times, 2003). These political motivations continue to contribute to misdirected affordable housing policies, which in some cases cater to households earning well above the neighborhood’s median income. The resulting upzoning––which prices locals out of their homes even with reserved space for “affordable” housing––has led to the ruin of many city neighborhoods (Brick Underground, 2018).
If the aims of policymakers were to create vibrant neighborhoods, rezoning could help facilitate diversification. However, the decades of redlining and exclusionary urban policy in New York City mean these efforts must look to nontraditional solutions to avoid upzoning. Policymakers can’t rely on businesses and developers to care about the diversity and health of neighborhood communities––profit will always be their bottom line. The only way New York City politicians can ensure that inclusionary zoning proposals actually fulfill their stated purpose is to extricate themselves from corporate interests; until then, rezoning won’t accomplish much in terms of diversifying neighborhoods.
The integration of affluent, mostly-white neighborhoods like SoHo and NoHo is necessary, but there shouldn’t be any room for loopholes in these rezoning policies. The existing incentives for developers to adhere to the well-intentioned motives behind these laws are insufficient. If The City wants to facilitate healthy and thriving neighborhoods, opening up these areas to a more diverse population is the way to do it; however, policymakers will have to hold developers accountable and pass more regulation to truly protect their constituencies.