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Gowanus Could Become More Diverse After Rezoning, Racial Impact Study Finds

A family crosses the Union St. bridge over the Gowanus canal in the area proposed for rezoning.
A family crosses the Union St. bridge over the Gowanus canal in the area proposed for rezoning.
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood would likely become more diverse and less segregated under a proposal to allow more development in the neighborhood, according to a first-of-its-kind study on the contentious rezoning’s potential racial impact.

The analysis of the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan, conducted by a Columbia University professor with City Council staff, comes as the controversial proposal — previously delayed for months by a lawsuit — now makes its way through the city’s public review process.

The study also offers the first glimpse at the potential value of a Council bill passed just weeks ago requiring “racial equity reports on housing and opportunity” for rezonings in the future.

While that legislation will not take effect until mid-2022 and does not apply to the Gowanus plan, those backing the rezoning thought it was best to study the issue anyway. Those supporters include area Councilmembers Brad Lander and Steven Levin as well as the local housing nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee, which helped fund the study.

“If our goal is a more inclusive neighborhood, with meaningful opportunities for New Yorkers of color, then we need to find the courage to move forward thoughtfully. And I really believe this provides clarity about that,” Lander said of the new research.

The Gowanus plan aims to change development rules within an 82-block area along Fourth Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and 15th Street and stretching west to Bond and Smith streets.

The idea is to allow more residential construction in a neighborhood that has for decades been an industrial enclave centered on the toxic Gowanus Canal, which was designated a federal Superfund site in 2010.

The “Racial Equity Report,” produced by Columbia urban planning professor Lance Freeman, concluded that the rezoning would likely cause Gowanus, currently one of the whitest neighborhoods in the five boroughs, to “much more closely match the diversity of New York City rather than the [current] population of the local area.”

That’s partly because, under the zoning proposal, the neighborhood could gain as many as 2,950 housing units rented at below-market-rate prices through the city’s affordable housing lottery, out of a total 8,495 newly constructed apartments.

All but 380 of the lottery units will be set aside for households making no more than 80% of the area median income, which comes to $85,920 for a family of three.

The researchers analyzed the demographics of households eligible for those apartments as well as the racial makeup of previous affordable housing lotteries in majority white neighborhoods using data from an ongoing lawsuit over city policy to give “community preference” to lottery applicants already living in a neighborhood where new affordable housing is to be built.

Taking that all into account, the report estimates that 20% to 25% of the new lottery apartments under the rezoning would be rented by Black households, and 25% to 37% of them will be rented by Hispanic households

The neighborhood is currently one of only 10 districts in the city with more than 60% white residents.

Because of that, the report’s authors recommended the city give preference for the lottery to “more diverse community districts” beyond just Gowanus,” they said.

‘Low’ Displacement Risk Touted

Even with the new market-rate apartments, the report found, the neighborhood is set to become more diverse as measured by the “dissimilarity index,” a measure of segregation that quantifies the distribution of people by race.

“For all nonwhite groups, but especially Blacks and Latinos, residential segregation from whites will decrease,” the report said.

Gowanus is also a place where prices have risen so much already in the past 15 years or so, there are few lower-income tenants to push out. Many low-income families who remain in the area live in “protected” housing, such as rent-stabilized apartments and public housing.

“The risk of displacement by rising market-rate rents for Black and Latino families in the area is low,” the report found.

“This is now a majority white, upper-income community,” said Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, which is part of the development team for a 100% affordable housing complex, Gowanus Green, included in the rezoning plan. “It wasn’t a number of years ago when I moved into the area, but it is now.”

Michelle de la Uz’s group is looking to build affordable housing in Gowanus.
Michelle de la Uz’s group is looking to build affordable housing in Gowanus.
Courtesy of Fifth Avenue Committee, Inc.

Freeman of Columbia, who led the research, hopes the next administration sees the report “as a template” for New York’s big zoning projects in the future — especially because the city remains among the most segregated places in the country, he said.

“It is important to consider racial equity when undertaking these types of large land use projects,” he said. “Simply taking a race-neutral neutral approach is not always sufficient.”

Long-Due Analysis

Housing advocates have for years been pushing the type of analysis in the Gowanus report, and the mindset behind it could lead to big change in the way New York expands.

“That we are now, front and center, talking about race as tied to rezonings and what their impacts are — and how we should be considering the racial impacts in a rezoning — is, in and of itself, a huge shift,” said Barika Williams of the housing advocacy group Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development.

The change follows years of protests over rezonings that looked very different from the one in majority-white and wealthy Gowanus — an outlier in the recent history of neighborhood land use proposals.

Under the de Blasio administration, all neighborhood-wide rezonings have taken place in “low-income communities of color,” said Lander — East New York, Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Inwood and the Jerome Avenue corridor in The Bronx.

Before that, similar actions were taken during the Bloomberg years, including along Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, adjacent to the Gowanus rezoning area of today.

At the time, Lander led the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development corporation founded in 1978. He said he remembers asking city officials, “If we want to keep this a diverse neighborhood, where are we doing that?”

“The answer was ‘nowhere.’ We didn’t do it anywhere. And there was no study and relatively little conversation,” said Lander, now the Democratic candidate for city comptroller.

More recently, locals in Manhattan’s Inwood asked similar questions during that neighborhood’s controversial rezoning process held between 2015 and 2018.

An aerial view of the Gowanus Canal and areas proposed for rezoning, seen from the Smith and Ninth Street subway station, August 02, 2021.
An aerial view of the Gowanus Canal and areas proposed for rezoning, seen from the Smith and Ninth Street subway station, August 02, 2021.
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Cheryl Pahaham, an Inwood resident and member of local coalition Inwood Legal Action, said people were losing leases, being harassed by landlords or dealing with huge price increases. Black and Dominican families were hardest hit, she said.

“The displacement was happening, and we were afraid it would accelerate,” she said.

Pahaham and others asked city officials to look at the rezoning’s potential impact on housing for locals of different races. But “the city just ignored it,” she said. “They said they didn’t have to.”

Since then, Inwood Legal Action has been part of a coalition — which included Public Advocate Jumaane Williams as a major backer — pushing to pass the recent City Council bill.

Pahaham does not consider the Gowanus report perfect. She is concerned with its conclusions about the rezoning’s potential impacts on local industrial jobs — displacing businesses that often employ Black and Latino people at higher rates than whites — and questions whether future affordable housing will realistically go to Black and Latino households given that higher-income tenants have better chances of winning the housing lottery.

Still, she called it a report “done with integrity” and a good first step — that would have been very useful to her own community as they tried to negotiate with the city during their rezoning.

“It would have leveled the playing field. We would have had more honest conversations with our Councilman. And we could have together advocated for more deeply affordable housing,” she said.

Next Steps

The Gowanus report has come late in the rezoning process, which has been in the works for years and has already begun the formal Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, necessary to get a final green light.

Critics have questioned the environmental safety of the plan, particularly the Gowanus Green project, which will be built on a cleaned-up contaminated site once home to a gas plant.

They have also called for more units of affordable housing, as well as apartments available to even lower-income families, and pushed for the plan to address $274 million in needed repairs and maintenance at Gowanus’ two public housing complexes.

Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) at a rally for fair Gowanus neighborhood rezoning, Feb. 5, 2020.
Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) at a rally for fair Gowanus neighborhood rezoning, Feb. 5, 2020.
John McCarten/New York City Council

Some of those concerns appeared in a resolution from the Gowanus community board, which approved the land use changes with conditions under ULURP in June.

Next, mayoral hopeful Borough President Eric Adams must weigh in with an advisory opinion on the rezoning. Then it will go to the City Planning Commission, City Council and mayor for final approval.

The Gowanus rezoning and a similar effort to rezone SoHo — also a majority white neighborhood — are major pieces of de Blasio’s final attempt to cement his legacy on land use rules and housing.

As the process moves forward in Brooklyn, the report’s authors make a series of recommendations to “further advance racial equity” — a step beyond what would be required from racial equity reports under the City Council bill enacted recently.

The study calls for more efforts to preserve and maintain Gowanus’ public housing complexes, lowering income levels on future affordable housing and investing more in workforce development services to make up for industrial and auto-related jobs the rezoning will likely displace.

De la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee believes there is still time to take those recommendations and “be more rigorous in what we request and demand of government” — especially on behalf of people who don’t yet live in Gowanus, but could.

“Future people who are going to benefit from the affordable housing are often not a part of the conversation,” she said. “I’m hoping the report literally brings those folks to mind.”

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