The Effects Of Gentrification & Sustainable Planning In New York City

The United States has an ever-growing problem with affordable housing. Since 2002, across the entire US, only 28 affordable housing units are available per 100 families in need of it. These families cover the lowest 30% of the local median income of their area, making anywhere between $20,000 to $40,000 annually (1). To combat this problem, efforts have been taken to increase affordable housing in increasingly more environmentally sustainable ways. Yet as neighborhoods continue to be revamped and rezoned, more and more people are being forced out of their homes.

Why? A lack of truly affordable housing and a flawed definition of what “affordable” actually means.

Let’s look at New York as an example. As it stands, families that make above $40,000 a year qualify for the housing that’s labeled by the city as affordable. While this may sound great on paper, this income cap is far higher than the actual income many families make, forcing them to either move to even poorer areas or paying up to 60% of their income in rent (1).

The newest ongoing project for New York, the rezoning of Jerome Avenue, cites the phrase “affordable housing” 36 times in Draft Scope of Work and “permanently affordable housing” 10 times (2).

Yet both of these terms provide no objective numerical marker of what affordable means.

Instead, the emphasis is placed on making the surrounding area more “environmentally sustainable” by increasing apartment development and tearing down unused land.

While one could assume that those who do not meet the cut off would simply find another area to live, the current policy simple doubles the amount of people who are competing for the same low income homes. This is perhaps the single largest issue that local communities have been the most vocal about, with several stakeholders taking to the streets for local protests (3).

The biggest barrier to increasing those eligible for housing comes from the subsidies that are used to ensure that the housing happens. Contracting out the creation and maintenance of these building to private companies does save money and increase overall profits, but does little to create a more flexible housing plan as many contractors would simply withdraw from the project if forced to go any lower than existing income requirements.

Due to a moratorium on public affordable housing, subsidy based private contracting has become the norm in sustainable urban design. This moratorium not only prevents new public housing from being created but also prevents the repair and renovation of existing public housing projects, leaving private subsidized housing as the only available option (4).

Jerome Avenue’s project is part of a wider initiative by the city to create private contracts and expand housing for middle income families. Just six months after efforts began to rezone East New York we saw two things.

First, discussions in that neighborhood about people unable to afford their rent and having to move and second, a push for more rezoning projects like East New York’s.

A general trend can be seen across the United States where urban planners are either willfully ignoring the social impact of sustainable development (5) or are unaware of the impact altogether. This directly affects sustainability as planners create projects for the wrong demographic, encouraging programs like car based developments in areas with wide scale public transportation use, or uprooting large plots of trees to make way for upscale apartments (6).

Ignoring this problem now will simply make effective social and environmental urban planning increasingly difficult. If the problem truly does stem from lower income area being less sustainable, encouraging policies that simply shuffle people around to lower income areas will do little to fix the problem.

By focusing more on issues such as climate change and increasing the amount of open green spaces, other injustices that lower income communities face become ignored. These issues, such as toxic waste dumps, congested bus depots, and factories that produce massive amounts of waste, affect everyone.

Yet as the price of rent goes up, the awareness of these problems seem to go down, resulting in an alarming trend for urban development.

References

1. Urban Institute (2015), The Housing Affordability Gap for Extremely Low-Income Renters in 2013, http://www.urban.org/research/publication/housing-affordability-gap-extremely-low-income-renters-2013/view/full_report
2. New York City Planning Commission (2016), Jerome Avenue Rezoning, Draft and Scope of Work, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/applicants/env-review/jerome-avenue/draft-scope-of-work.pdf
3. Decolonize This Place (2016), Communities in the Bronx Take a Stand Against Gentrification, And Activists From Across New York Join the Campaign to Defend Jerome Avenue, http://www.decolonizethisplace.org/content/7-about/16_pr_defendjeromeave_0927.pdf
4. Center for Urban Pedagogy (2009), What is Afforable Housing?, http://welcometocup.org/file_columns/0000/0011/cup-fullbook.pdf
5. Clark University (2008), From brown to green? Assessing social vulnerability to environmental gentrification in New York City, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1068/c08126
6. American Anthropological Association, Wiped Out by the “Greenwave”: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-744X.2011.01063.x/full

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