Dubious gentrification study will backfire on New York City

Rezoning opponents use bad science to stifle growth

New York News Analysis /
Feb.February 26, 2021 09:00 AM
(iStock/Photo Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

(iStock/Photo Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Imagine you wanted to stop denser housing. What would be your strategy?

You would spread word that new housing would be unaffordable to locals and cause their own rents to rise. You would demonstrate, demonize developers and run candidates on a Real Estate is Evil platform.

And you would back up your argument with a study — manipulated if necessary.

No anti-development playbook is complete without a study. Nothing turns anecdotes into facts, and predictions into certainties, quite like scientific-looking analysis does.

What if the evidence contradicts your claims? Worry not. You can finesse data to say just about anything. The expression “lies, damn lies, and statistics” doesn’t come from nothing.

Anti-development activists in New York City have played this game well. City planners, not so much.

Case in point: the 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Some of the apartment buildings it yielded had income-restricted units, but many did not, because the Bloomberg administration and City Council incentivized, rather than mandated, affordability.

The northern Brooklyn rezoning has since been weaponized by opponents of market-rate housing. Key to this effort is the nonprofit group Churches United for Fair Housing, which blames the zoning change for driving Latino residents out of the area. Needing a study to underpin their claim, it conjured one up.

The big takeaway of the analysis, released in 2019, was that over 15 years the rezoned area added more than 20,000 people yet lost 15,000 Latinos.

The study had two major flaws that were either unnoticed or deliberately ignored by advocates, politicians and many reporters.

Most obviously, it counted population changes beginning in 2000, five years before the rezoning passed the City Council, and part of South Williamsburg that was not rezoned.

Second, it omitted that the area’s Hispanic population had been falling since 1990.

In a nutshell, it cherry-picked data to blame the rezoning for a trend that had been happening for 15 years.

Even folks who don’t know the first rule of statistics — correlation is not causation — should have figured that out.

City planners certainly did. They put out their own study, which pointed out that the Hispanic population decline slowed down after the rezoning. That is, the residents who Churches United said were pushed out by the rezoning were actually more likely to stay after it passed.

Could it be that the thousands of new apartments gave all the newcomers flocking to Williamsburg somewhere to go besides existing housing, so they were less likely to displace Latinos?

A smaller potential factor is that some residents took note of the gentrification and became more inclined to stay — even if many disliked the Starbucks, trendy bars and other changes that came with the hipsters and the yuppies.

Some observers offer that hypothesis to explain research showing that low-income children in gentrifying areas of New York City from 2009 to 2015 were more likely to stay in their neighborhood than low-income children in non-gentrifying areas. In both cases, poor children changed addresses a lot, but they were less likely to leave areas where property values and incomes were rising.

City Planning buries the lede

The Department of City Planning’s view is that if new housing is not built in gentrifying areas, newcomers will outbid locals for existing housing.

As noted above, the agency’s own study debunked Churches United’s. But City Planning buried the key findings on page 24 of a 57-page, generically titled report and made little attempt to promote them. Another agency report, innocuously named “The Geography of Jobs,” tucked a key statistic about low housing growth hurting affordability into page 27. No rallies, no op-eds, no media blitz, no political campaigns. After all, it’s an agency of planners, not publicists.

Mayor Bill de Blasio knew the facts and had a platform to amplify them, but instead focused his media appearances on more politically beneficial topics such as providing legal assistance to fight evictions. In that void, Churches United’s fiction has become fact in the minds of advocates and local elected officials.

At a hearing last month, City Council members confidently cited the study to undermine the testimony of administration officials, who corrected the politicians timidly and politely — and were dismissed as naive wonks. It was a crucial lost opportunity.

Churches United stands by its study and criticizes that of City Planning officials.

“By not looking at earlier time frames, they ignore the speculative behavior that often occurs before rezonings and often drives low-income residents out before zoning changes are implemented,” said Maxwell Cabello, the group’s senior land use and policy analyst. “Our report was intentional about addressing these qualitative and well-known aspects of developer-driven rezonings while also working within the limitations of what data is publicly available.”

But it’s impossible to know what, if any, “speculative behavior” was caused by a potential rezoning years in the future. The Bloomberg administration did not even exist until 2002. Countless other factors cause population changes. There was a recession in the early 2000s, for example, and the rent-stabilization law incentivized landlords to replace tenants; it no longer does.

I think Churches United means well. While NIMBYists oppose development for selfish reasons, Churches United tries to help the disadvantaged. It just mistakenly blames upzoning for making the city more expensive, when in reality it does the opposite.

Brooklyn boom

In New York City, gentrification typically means an area gets whiter. I saw it happening before it showed up in the Census data. Well into the 2000s, whenever Brooklyn-bound subways opened their doors at my stop, Grand Army Plaza in Park Slope, virtually every white rider would exit. A decade later, about half would stay aboard, bound for Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.

Fort Greene gentrified too. For decades I have biked past its stately brownstones and sweeping shade trees to play tennis in Fort Greene Park. In the 1980s and 1990s, white folks were few and far between. Now they are everywhere. Many have British or French accents. They moved into Bedford-Stuyvesant too, a once unimaginable trend.

There was no big upzoning, no building boom, in these historically Black neighborhoods. But critics of rezoning did not blame the lack of housing construction for the displacement of minorities. That would have contradicted their narrative.

Similarly, little housing was added to white neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, which — given the law of supply and demand — became increasingly unaffordable to young New Yorkers.

One analysis found that from 2010 to 2018 the city added only 19 dwellings for every 100 new jobs. As employment boomed and housing didn’t, white people pushed out into minority neighborhoods, where rents were half as much and crime had fallen precipitously.

The de Blasio administration is now making an overdue push to allow more housing in heavily white Soho and Gowanus. The City Council and advocates for the working class support these efforts because more low-income New Yorkers will be able to move into these so-called high-opportunity neighborhoods. The research — the honest research, that is — predicts the newcomers’ children will reap lifelong benefits.

Calls are growing to upzone other wealthy areas. By law, that would require affordable housing in new developments. Local opposition motivated by NIMBYism, racism or plain old self-interest make these fights difficult, but they are worth pursuing.

Proponents of adding housing in rich districts can cite data to show why. But they cannot turn around and tout pseudoscience when it suits their political agenda or preconceived notions. Not only does that undermine their credibility, it hurts their constituents.

Think about it. As New York recovers, people will continue pushing out to where housing costs less. Absent new zoning and new development, they will bump others from existing homes. This has happened before. If we ignore that history, we will be condemned to repeat it.





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