Housing politics in urban America have taken a surprising turn. On the one hand, we have YIMBY leader Sonja Trauss winning national acclaim in Politico magazine this week for promoting “a new solution for rents that are too damn high.” On the other, we have New York City’s “progressive” Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio was elected to enhance the city’s affordability but instead has promoted gentrification and displacement, particularly in the city’s communities of color.
Fortunately, Alessandro Busa’s new book, The Creative Destruction of New York City, sets the record straight. Focusing on New York City, Busa shows how a mayor swept into power to reverse Mayor Bloomberg’s pro-gentrification agenda instead expanded these destructive policies.
It is a depressing story. I was thrilled when de Blasio was elected and had high hopes for what he would accomplish on housing.
But Busa shows how de Blasio betrayed his 2013 campaign theme about New York City becoming a tale of two cities. Busa describes how de Blasio’s housing agenda would end this “two cities” split by eliminating the non-affluent section.
Upzoning for the Elite
In July 2011 I reviewed Julian Brash’s “Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City. Busa builds on Brash’s argument that Bloomberg used the upzoning of over 33% of the entire city to create luxury neighborhoods. He also expands the “luxury city” analysis beyond the familiar stories of the transformation of Hudson Yards (formerly Hell’s Kitchen) and Williamsburg to additional neighborhoods like Coney Island.
Busa’s chapter on Coney Island is a sad read. Fans of Coney Island’s historic legacy could find themselves shouting expletives in angry response to Busa’s detailing of how the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations used rezoning to help transform/kill Coney Island’s unique amusement park character.
Upzoning can be a force for affordability or gentrification. It is a force for affordability when used, as in Seattle’s HALA program, to combine increased development with increased affordability. This is also the principle behind San Francisco’s HOME-SF.
But as Busa shows—and I recommend buying this book for his chapter “Rezoning New York City” alone—New York City’s last two mayors have used upzoning to advance gentrification. Upzoning to allow new highrise towers creates gentrifying impacts that onsite affordable units cannot balance. Further, the affordable units Bloomberg and de Blasio connect to highrise development charge rents far too high for most existing community residents.
Busa notes that New York City has pushed upzoning in not yet gentrified neighborhoods while downzoning affluent neighborhoods. That’s an approach the most libertarian of YIMBYs would reject as unfair.
Why is the “progressive” Bill de Blasio trying to gentrify low-income East Harlem and East New York while shifting affordable housing away from affluent neighborhoods? What happened to the mayor’s commitment to economic diversity?
I’m writing a book on the national urban housing crisis coming out in fall 2018 that parallels Busa’s analysis of Bill de Blasio. The mayor’s betrayal of working class communities of color is especially distressing.
And it is even worse than Busa reports. His book went to press before the de Blasio administration announced plans to build luxury condos on the city-owned Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights. Here we have a site that could add affordable housing to a rapidly gentrifying, majority African-American community, and the mayor favors million dollar condos.
Busa shows that Bloomberg and de Blasio are equally contemptuous of community input. When you read stories of resident outrage against upzoning plans in the city’s remaining low-income communities, it’s because these mayors do not listen. Far from becoming the “anti-Bloomberg,” Mayor de Blasio treats communities that disagree with him with contempt.
Busa does not offer a happy story, but it is an honest one. It is an account of how a mayor viewed as a left-wing radical by some in the business community has long cozied up to the real estate industry.Busa shows how we should not have been so surprised by the mayor’s real estate-driven housing policies; they were evident on close inspection prior to his election.
Unfortunately, de Blasio’s progressive credentials gets him support in low-income communities that Bloomberg could never win—-that backing is then used by the mayor to promote gentrification and displacement rather than reverse it.
De Blasio’s political approach has served him well; he will easily win the Democratic nomination for mayor next week and coast to re-election in November.
The New Face of Harlem
The only part of the book I question is Busa’s discussion of “the Commercial Gentrification of 125th Street” in Harlem. He notes how local businesses on that historic street in Harlem’s center have been replaced by “Old Navy, CVS, Starbucks, Radio Shack” and a long list of other chain stores.
These chains came in because commercial rents “soared almost 300%” in the early 2000’s. This closed local businesses and opening the door to national chains (Busa says in 2012 there were 338 chain stores in all of Harlem, a remarkable number).
The replacement of local businesses on an iconic street is a terrible development. But the national chains cited above and others Busa lists are hardly the go-to businesses for the “gentry.” Instead, they are targeted to residents of Harlem’s 24,000 public housing units and the thousands more low-income and working-class people living in subsidized housing in the community.
What happened on 125th Street is more “corporate homogenization” than “gentrification.” Harlem’s ongoing residential gentrification could see these chains as transitional, eventually giving way to more high-end businesses.
Alessandro Busa has performed a major public service in exposing the actual policies of New York City’s soon to be re-elected mayor. There are a lot of books on New York City gentrification. What distinguishes this book is its heavy reliance on facts. Busa does not rely on people’s opinions of mayoral policies; he lays out what the official documents state. Progressives who have been slow to criticize “their” mayor will hopefully find The Creative Destruction of New York City a real wake up call.
Busa’s powerful new book confirms that a mayor elected to reverse Bloomberg’s vision for an upscale New York City instead expanded it. Progressive New Yorkers should approach de Blasio’s second term with trepidation.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses how to combat gentrification in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San FranciscoFiled under: Book Reviews