Community Building and Housing Affordability in a Diverse and Equitable City

By Ronald Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA

In a report entitled “One New York-The Plan for a Strong and Just City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, building on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s NYC2030 plan, has added and emphasized the issue of equity and human rights to the environmental and sustainability focus of Bloomberg’s  initiative. The goal of the mayor’s plan is an admirable one with worthy goals and objectives.

New York City, under de Blasio’s leadership, has one of the most progressive City administrations in decades. All of the City’s citywide elected representatives plus the most diverse and representative City Council in our history are collectively focused on and supportive of progressive and affordable housing efforts. Nevertheless, the City’s housing initiatives tend to rely primarily on the market, with all of the constraints of that approach. In particular, the unintended consequences of the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary housing proposals as they now stand will, I believe, lead to land speculation, harassment, accelerated displacement of manufacturing jobs, and the loss of low- and moderate-income housing unless they are aggressively refocused to meet the needs of the diverse neighborhoods of the city. This has to be done without compromising the mayor’s stated objective of expanding the supply of very low-, low-, and moderate-income housing, and with acceptance of the idea that “no action” is not an alternative.

Despite the City’s proposed housing and development initiatives, there appears to be only minimal City, State, and Federal financial resources to carry out truly affordable programs that meet the needs of low- and moderate- income New Yorkers. Given the partisan political divide on the national level, the Federal government cannot be relied on for any substantive financial support for housing and community development and other people-focused activities.

To address its “One City” agenda, the City must find creative programmatic approaches with innovative financing strategies and new revenue sources coupled with City support for community-based development initiatives to target and leverage the city’s efforts.

In this and other arenas, the City is hampered by its limited powers to act, much of which is retained by the State. New York City, for instance, relies on New York State to initiate and approve rent and tenant protections and many housing finance-related laws. Most of our housing finance initiatives and the sources of revenue needed for housing production require some State or Federal financing, as well as, State legislative and Federal administrative approvals.

The City, therefore, is dependent on its own limited revenue sources and its ability to leverage private financial resources. One of these powers is the power to zone, and one technique the City is pursuing is mandatory inclusionary zoning. It requires that in particular zoning areas, the developer set aside a fixed percentage of residential units being developed for low- and moderate-income families.  Rents of the remaining units are increased to subsidize rents of the lower-priced units.  Developers are also allowed to build more units under inclusionary zoning bonus provisions. In addition, the City needs to use some of its own financial resources to further subsidize the cost of housing for very low-, low-, and moderate-income families.

This neo-liberal public-private partnership has some benefits for lower-income families, but also entails some unintended consequences. The initial intent of inclusionary zoning was tofoster racial integration in predominantly white areas. Under the mayor’s plan this tool is being adopted to leverage private dollars to achieve affordable housing. While well-intentioned, the plan has resulted in some unintended consequences that I believe will, and have, already undermined the mayor's intentions. The plan:

            *   Fosters a partnership with the “the establishment” rather than establishing a “partnership for change” advocating for and developing a more cost- effective and beneficial social housing programthat recognizes that housing is not a commodity and should be thought of as right; and

            *    Has triggered a wave of speculation, solicitation, harassment, displacement, and gentrification in anticipation of larger-scale development opportunities than presently are allowed.


The proposed zoning changes apply primarily in predominantly low- and moderate -income communities of color, which are slated to be rezoned. This, in turn, accelerates sorting out and segregation of communities based on class and race. 

The plan thus becomes principally a tool to build market-rate housing in these areas, leading to displacement of low- and moderate-income residents. In essence, when only 25-30% of the units to be built are economically accessible to residents of low-income communities of color, development will lead to displacement, albeit perhaps bringing some level of economic integration. At present, the City also  has not proposed mandatory inclusionary housing in predominantly white areas, meaning that black and Latino areas will be integrated but segregated white communities will be left as they are. This is a prescription for displacement and economic apartheid. Rather than being a tool for integration inclusionary housing may very well be a tool to achieve hyper-segregation –a serious unintended consequence of the Mayor’s initiative. So in addition to direct and deeper financing of low- and moderate-income housing, we need a citywide zoning text amendment for mandatory inclusionary housing, one not limited only to areas to be rezoned. 

Partnering with the private sector means that the mayor needed to include within the administration those whom the private sector trusted. Even when they are well-intentioned and many are, they are often oblivious to the needs, fears, desires, and capabilities of low- and moderate-income communities.  They join  those already in City government, appointed and hired by more conservative administrations whose disdain for community-based efforts was never far from the surface.  For years the Department of City Planning opposed efforts to develop more equitable planning programs, opposed community-based planning, and fought off attempts at adopting mandatory inclusionary housing in Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Far West Side, and other areas of the city.

The fear of displacement, of losing one’s home is palpable in every community I work with and visit. At the same time the asset base in those areas is invisible to many whose value systems are so different that they are unable to see or understand the communities they deem to be undesirable. The opportunity structures, the assets that presently and historically exist in these neighborhoods, are overlooked, ignored, and disrespected. The auto repair shop, the bodega, the small factory are all facing displacement to make way for the mall, corporate chains, and new high-rise, predominantly market-rate housing.  For example, I believe that the City Planning Department’s proposed rezoning actions that do not engage and listen to local area residents will have an adverse impact on manufacturing and existing locally owned and operated small businesses, threatening the fine- grained character of many of our commercial strips.

Neighborhoods throughout New York City are experiencing a severe shortage of housing for very-low, low- and moderate-income individuals and families, dramatic increases in rent, and increased harassment of tenants, homeowners, and business owners. Property owners are being aggressively solicited to sell their holdings. This sometimes unscrupulous speculation, fostered in part by the specter of zoning incentives to build more dense housing, has led to a dramatic increase in land costs, accelerating fears[KM1]  of displacement and a loss of community identity. These issues are compounded by the fact that while housing and real estate costs have increased dramatically, wages and wealth creation for many New Yorkers have remained stagnant.

If left unaddressed, this situation will continue to plague the city. Inaction is not an option.

The mayor’s proposals for affordable housing have opened the door for addressing this complex and critical issue. The administration correctly recognizes the fact that if the market is left to its own devices, widespread displacement will continue apace.

Many of the progressive community-based development groups, environmental justice, community economic development advocates, and others who over the years have played a key role instabilizing and revitalizing their neighborhoods are ready to partner with the mayor to address these complex issues.

However, in order for such a progressive partnership to emerge the following nine initiatives need to be woven into a holistic and integrated strategy.

·      First, we need an anti-displacement, anti-speculation initiative -- a policy that is aggressive and functions citywide to protect people, jobs, and small neighborhood businesses. This would include establishment of a “non-solicitation order,” directing real-estate agents to stop making offers to homeowners, small business owners, and manufacturers who have not initiated or specifically expressed a “willingness or a desire” to sell.

·      Second, enhanced legal assistance, tenant/homeowner advocacy, and organizing efforts need to be established. We need to provide, as the mayor has proposed, legal assistance to tenants, property owners, and small business owners to counteract harassment or victimization by landlords or by speculators. But we need to dramatically expand this program to include funding of community and tenant organizers, and other professionals needed to make such a program citywide and enforceable. Also included should be funds set aside to assist homeowners by providing them with foreclosure counseling.

·      Third, the City needs to develop and maintain an enhanced data base of perpetrators of violations, harassment, and speculation. Anyone doing business with the City or benefiting from any City action, including seeking of a building permit, should be required to certify that they have not engaged in speculation, harassment, and/or direct or indirect displacement.

·      Fourth, community-based planning should precede zoning. The City Planning Department should work with community boards, community-based development organizations, environmental justice organizations, and local community leaders to undertake:

o   An intensive and expedited community-based planning process that could lead to identification of local affordable housing opportunities, retention and enhancement of a community’s existing stock of affordable housing and its commercial corridors, and reinforcement of the area’s cultural identity.

o   Working with the City, these groups should identify needed infrastructure investment that could enhance the area’s ability to retain and expand its supply of affordable housing and provide economic opportunities to bridge the economic divide that exists. The City Planning Department should be required to coordinate its work with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s new “neighborhood planning unit” that has developed an excellent foundation for honestly and respectfully engaging communities in the planning process. Manufacturing and commercial areas should be protected to stem real estate speculation, the intrusion of non-manufacturing uses, and the loss of jobs, which exacerbate economic disparities.

·      Fifth, the City should partner with existing community-based development and other frontline community organizations to develop their communities. Community partnerships need to be ongoing and engaged past the rezoning process in order to be effective. The City needs to partner with and utilize trusted community-based organizations in the development process, as well as the planning process. Permanent affordability and dedication to continual use in the public interest should be a prerequisite for receiving City-owned land and other resources. The City should recognize the fact that these entities tend to recirculate every dollar invested in them in the communities that they serve, generating local jobs and raising the income of area residents.

·      Sixth, the administration, working with the City Council, should confront the State of New York and vigorously advocate for strengthening tenant protection laws, eliminating the vacancy decontrol laws, reforming the 421a program, and adopting anti-speculation laws. Where they can act on their own, the City Council should adopt programs such as an anti-displacement initiative similar to one in San Francisco, and presently under consideration by the City Council of New York.

·      Seventh, the City needs to develop and adopt programs to protect against harassment, displacement, and demolition. And we need to adopt programs that enable those who were harassed and displaced to have the right and opportunity to return to their communities.

·      Eighth, the imposition of a “pied-a-terre residential tax” on units not occupied year-round should be adopted. These taxes would provide disincentives for displacement and speculation while. The revenues generated would  mitigate the adverse effect these developments have on the city’s real estate market and on our  poorest residents. It would also assure that improvements in low-income neighborhoods would allow low-income residents to benefit from them rather than be displaced.

·      Ninth, the administration working with communities, should advocate for the adoption of a Tobin Tax or Robin Hood Tax to raise the monies needed to deal with a range of issues especially ones that address human-scale development needs in the face of climate change: housing, living wage jobs, community economic development, education, and the fostering of social cohesion and social inclusion. (A Tobin Tax is a tax on financial transactions –and would require STATE OR FEDERAL approval.) 

These points are meant to build upon and to enhance ideas the administration has proposed. They are intended to achieve the objectives the mayor has so eloquently put forward. Residents and community-based organizations dared to develop and advocate for the changes that have reversed the decline that New York City faced in the 70s, only to find that their constituents and their communities today face the specter of displacement because of the success of their efforts.

I believe that the administration needs to spearhead development of a progressive coalition composed of frontline housing and community organizations. Working with the Mayor, it would develop and launch an effective program for affordability that benefits all New Yorkers. New York and other cities across the country need such leadership as well as the resources to bridge the social and economic divides between peoples. This administration and its policy makers, as well as designers, planners and activists, must address these issues. The outcomes of their work will play out in each of our neighborhoods. The administration needs to summon the courage and creativity to set aside today’s “false partnerships” and “piecemeal interventions.” It should rise to the challenge and address community-building and housing affordability challenges through approaches leading to “human-scale development” and the satisfaction of community needs. By recognizing each community’s assets, and respecting their identity and unique qualities, we can , build a diverse, equitable, and exciting city.


In 1983, Ron Shiffman and Paul Davidoff led a talented team of planners from Queens College and Pratt Institute that proposed development of a Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program and Housing Trust Fund for New York City. Mayor Koch appointed a committee to review the proposals, which were subsequently rejected by the City. The team was comprised of Mary Brooks, Brian T. Sullivan, Phil Tegeler, Eva Hanhardt and Frank DeGiovanni. 


Shiffman also served as a mayoral appointee to the New York City Planning Commission from 1990-1996.