How to Use Land

Don't worry, it makes sense to someone (reversezone)

Don't worry, it makes sense to someone (reversezone)

NYC Housing Policy Tools Series

Over the next few weeks, as we prepare for the Trump Era, I will spend time on various housing policies in NYC in order to help frame the the affordable housing crisis.  I have picked four topics related to NYC housing laws: rent regulation, zoning, occupancy, and property taxes.  I concede that there are other policy tools that could be included (particularly around financing) but these four tend to have an immediate impact on the most people.  The hope for this blog series is to explain the current policy tool kit in New York, but also to show why questioning the underlying assumptions about housing policy might be able to expand it. 

Part 2 of 4: How to Use Land

Unlike rent laws, zoning laws in NYC fall under the city’s purview, which makes them a very popular and powerful tool for its elected leaders.  Mayor Bloomberg rezoned nearly half of the city during his administration and Mayor de Blasio passed two significant inclusionary zoning plans earlier this year.  However, everyone from radical libertarians to the Obama Administration have criticized zoning regiments (in NYC and other cities) for being a major factor in the affordable housing crisis. 

The appeal to local elected officials is easy to understand – zoning can steer public policy in a certain, albeit ambiguous direction while enticing the private sector to pay for it.   It has the rhetorical promise of revitalization and the practical guarantee of profit – just the type of policy-win with little immediate political downside that an elected official covets.  

This also shows the central problem with modern zoning as a public policy tool.  It outsources too much public policy to the whims of the private sector and special interests and has many clumsy side effects that undermine other public policy goals.  

Zoning has become an incumbent-favoring, technocratic process that focuses on incremental adjustments rather than strategic objectives. To be fair, the latter is what the process was designed to do because urban planners, particularly in NYC, ignored public input and caused massive, lasting damage to many neighborhoods in the middle of the 20th century.  But rather than understand why we need zoning or question what we want zoning to accomplish, participants have lost sight of the larger opportunities it presents.

There have always been ‘natural zoning laws’ in every civilization dictated by the same impulse that drives real estate now – location, location, location. New York City became a trading powerhouse in the 18th and 19th centuries because it had a deep, safe harbor with a long coastline.  Industry naturally developed around the North (now Hudson) River and East River because there was quick, cheap access to shipping. Merchants and financiers centered close to the ports, which is why Wall Street formed where it did. Immigrants settled in the Lower East Side because it was close to port and trade jobs.  Wealthier residents built large estates further north to escape the smells and disease-incubating congestion of the downtown. You can trace any city’s development along similar economic activity driving locational decisions.

However, since Manhattan is an island, people started running out of space for building things.  That scarcity created more competition for land-use and more thoughtfulness about what should go where.  It also created the economic rationalization for taller buildings (more on that in our next section.)

This made New York City the first major city to enact zoning laws in 1916. Perhaps surprisingly, public health was the primary motivator and political justification. People recognized the risks to placing intensive industrial factories next to residential quarters, and they worried about newly created skyscrapers blocking out the sun and fresh air from vast swaths of city streets. The first zoning laws attempted to address these concerns by separating types of land-use and limiting the scale of a building on its lot. 

Our current zoning laws are based in on the 1961 plan, which firmly separated land-use into residential, commercial, and industrial areas. It gave some incentives for higher density in commercial and residential towers, but largely instituted low-density everywhere else. That means that much of the city outside of Manhattan and parts of Queens and Brooklyn, is low-density and car-dependent.  It means that virtually the entire the city is extremely segregated by land-use type, which has exacerbated racial and social segregation. It also means that much of our policy framework on zoning remains tied to 60 year old assumptions from when the city was still an industrial, blue-collar economy.

In short, we have a highly-technical, complex process built on outdated or entirely irrelevant policy thinking.  There have been some periodic reforms of our zoning laws, most notably with the introduction of the bottom-up ULURP process as a reaction to top-down urban renewal programs.  Mayor de Blasio’s experience with his Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans show how difficult it is to even tweak the margins of the process.  But the plan also shows how lessons learned from the previous zoning mindset can create better policy today.

However, it is unlikely that there is enough political interest in writing an entirely new zoning plan for NYC.  The public and private centers of power in the city are too invested in the current process to willingly allow such a dramatic shake up.  Though the system seemingly allows for public input and can indeed slow down major developments, a highly connected and well-capitalized private interest can still get what they want in the end.  This type of gaming isn’t altogether shocking or even wrong. Preventing the process from working for a broader public good is.

If we could rewrite a 2017 Zoning Plan, what then would it look like? First, we would absorb the lessons of the 1916 plan – public health should be a major consideration of zoning.  Second, we would absorb the lessons of the 1961 plan – what type of public infrastructure are we designing to serve the city? We are a post-industrial city, so what does that require? Finally, we should think bigger than before and ask new questions – what do we want our city’s civic identity to be? The public good must stop being an empty rhetorical concept and become the starting point for anything in the built environment.

Here are just a few quick ideas that have either been suggested or should be suggested already:

Public Health

  •  Transit Oriented Development zones should have as-of-right double density within 15-min walking distance of the 470 MTA subway stations.
  • Density bonuses for giving funds or expertise to designated public projects for parks, hospitals, emergency services, or elderly services.
  • Inclusionary housing requirements expanded to include options for elderly, disabled, or homeless facilities.

Public Infrastructure

  • Community District quotas for public infrastructure – waste management facilities, MTA outposts, public schools, homeless shelters, etc.
  • Mandatory funding for climate resiliency to develop in potentially threatened neighborhoods.
  • Mandatory multi-purposing for public buildings – combining new schools with retirement centers, police facilities with social services, etc.

Public Good

  • Require mixed-use zones for commercial and residential developments, with small-business support bonuses.
  • Rezone existing areas for mixed use and encourage redevelopment of old infrastructure along mixed-use policies.
  • Minimum requirements for affordable housing units in every Community District based on census track per capital income and means-testing.