Editor's Note: This research brief is part of a joint research project by the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School and Brookings Metro.

New York City Implements Equitable Development Planning Tool For Land Use Policy

In recent years, New York City has been addressing racial equity on a variety of fronts. Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city enacted universal pre-K schooling, focused on preserving affordable housing, and advocated for a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, among many other actions. Combined with a stronger economy and increased government spending, including federal pandemic-related increases in Child Tax Credits and other spending, this led to a decrease in the city’s poverty rates. Many of these efforts were not exclusively directed at racial equity, but because of historic and ongoing institutional racial discrimination, universal anti-poverty programs can have a strong racial equity effect. Although poverty rates fell for all groups, poverty rates among Black, Latino, and Asian New Yorkers remained significantly higher than rates for whites.  

At the urging of many community organizations and leaders from communities of color, the city established the Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity (TRIE) during the COVID-19 crisis. TRIE created interdisciplinary teams from city agencies to focus on vulnerable neighborhoods and work with communities on a coordinated response. This work helped support the New York City Racial Justice Commission, which was charged with examining structural racism and then to recommend ballot proposals to amend the City Charter. Those proposals were approved in November 2022, including the establishment of an Office of Racial Equity, appointment of a Chief Equity Officer, and the production of biannual citywide and agency-specific Racial Equity Plans.  

In addition, the Racial Justice Commission wrote an equity-focused preamble, and made several recommendations that did not go into the final legislation, but remain part of the ongoing discussion about how to advance equity. These included actual regular use of racial and equity scoring, regular periodic collection of asset and debt data disaggregated by communities of color so that wealth status can be better assessed, and proactive anti-discrimination measures such as audit tests in housing, employment, and city contracting.

The City is also in the midst of developing analytic and other tools for specific policy issues, so that decision makers and community residents and leaders can be better informed on potential equity impacts, positive and negative, of policy decisions. And, in the contentious policy arena of large-scale rezonings for additional development (“upzoning”), in 2021 the City passed an innovative policy that now requires developers to conduct racial equity assessments of proposed rezonings.

Report Contents

Case Studies

Requiring racial equity reports on major land use proposals

One major power of the City, and of most local governments across the country, is the regulation of land use through zoning and rezoning, along with the review of major housing, commercial, and other real estate development proposals.

Land use and housing are a major area of dispute over potential impacts of real estate investment, displacement and gentrification, and their racial equity effects–as well as the historic exclusion of affordable housing development in higher income, majority-white neighborhoods in New York City. New York advocates viewed rezoning under Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio–promoted as an essential step to expand housing supply in the city–as significantly contributing to the displacement of low-income Black and Hispanic households. Progressive planners and philanthropies also supported community groups to map and track changes over the past decade, to raise awareness of these stakes.

In response to these concerns, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who cited enhanced enforcement of fair housing rules by federal policy makers, introduced a bill in May 2019 that required the creation of an “online equitable development tool with citywide, borough wide, and where statistically reliable data is available, neighborhood level and community district level data” to assess “how the proposed project relates to the goals and strategies to affirmatively further fair housing and promote equitable access to opportunity.” After the bill was debated and amendments were offered, it resulted in the City Council authorizing Local Law 78, which took effect in June 2021, “requiring a citywide equitable development data tool and racial equity reports on housing and opportunity.”

Learning from the Gowanus rezoning experience

The focus on the analysis of zoning impacts was driven significantly by the Council’s consideration of former Mayor de Blasio’s proposed major rezoning in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, a mainly high-income, white community. The rezoning was projected to “create 8,495 new dwelling units including approximately 2,950 affordable housing units,” created through mandatory inclusionary housing zoning rules which require affordable housing to be built in residential developments. The overall community plan also called for the rehabilitation of public housing units, development of parks, economic development assistance, and other steps. 

There were substantial efforts by community organizations and their allies that led to the equity focus in the Gowanus rezoning. Starting in 2013, the Pratt Center for Community Development worked closely with the emerging Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, a coalition of over 15 neighborhood groups, focused on affordable housing, economic development, and environmental justice issues. These efforts were also supported by private philanthropy.

The Coalition’s close and ongoing working relationship with the Pratt Center helped generate meaningful, equity-driven analyses of both problems and of potential solutions, and the organizing work of the Coalition helped shape demands that could be supported by the community and used by elected officials. This political energy also supported the de Blasio administration’s push for the rezoning. 

Although the new tool required by Local Law 78 had not yet been developed, at the urging of Council Members Brad Lander and Steve Levin, a Gowanus study was undertaken by the Council’s land use division with guidance from then-Columbia University urban sociologist Lance Freeman. In July 2021, an in-depth report concluded that “the diversity of the total populations added by the proposal” would likely “decrease current local levels of segregation.” The authors noted diversity could be further increased by adding more affordable housing units and lowering affordability levels, amongst other steps. The report argued that the likely economic development impacts of the rezoning and redevelopment proposal were harder to assess. The July 2021 report was described as a “first attempt” to “comply with the spirit” of the new law.  

The report was considered in the City Council’s approval of the rezoning plan in November 2021 by a 47-1 vote, overriding some community opposition (although community groups were split overall) and the opposition of the local Council Member. (Many city governments are reluctant to override a member’s preferences for the neighborhood(s) they represent, and this “member deference” in turn has been linked to inadequate production of affordable and market-rate housing.) The report also identified several city economic development, workforce, and business policies that could further racial equity not only in Gowanus, but city-wide.

Building the Equitable Development Data Explorer tool

New York City has since created a publicly-available online tool, the “Equitable Development Data Explorer, ” informed and influenced by the July 2021 report. The tool was developed by the Department of City Planning in close cooperation with the Racial Impact Study Coalition (RISC), which includes housing advocacy organizations from across the city along with civic organizations like the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association. RISC was a major advocate for the new law.

Starting in the summer of 2022, applications for larger rezonings or development projects will be required to file a “Racial Equity Report” along with an Environmental Impact Statement and other necessary reports. As of May 28, 2023, there were 48 pending actions that will require racial equity reports, although none had been completed.

The “Explorer” tool can be used not only by project developers, but by community organizations, researchers, or any interested member of the public. It has a wide range of data organized by city neighborhoods, including demographic, household education and income, rents and housing costs, health, access to transit, and education. Not all of these data elements have the precision required for racial equity impact assessment, but the database continues to develop, and more extensive use of it will be helpful to identify further gaps in the data.

Community advocacy, robust reporting, and ongoing monitoring will be keys to success

The Gowanus rezoning and the city’s passage of a broader law requiring equity analysis in major rezonings illustrates several major themes for successful racial equity assessment efforts. First, community organizing and advocacy, supported by high quality analysis, can articulate proposals that are meaningful to those most affected. Support for those proposals by advocates can in turn help elected officials to champion equity-oriented policy, while community organizing and analytic support can be used to monitor and critique proposed policy steps. 

The specifics of the rezoning equity analysis, in turn, illuminated the need for equity reporting as part of the regular land use and zoning process, not just done in one-off studies. And for that reporting to be meaningful, high quality, and transparent, the city is now having to invest time, resources, and staff into a database and tool to analyze equity as a regular part of land use decisions.

Finally, progress on the rezoning and the broader neighborhood plan will be monitored by a collective task force that includes the community groups who advocated for it. Cities have a checkered history of monitoring and enforcing community agreements to ensure developers live up to their initial promises, and the Gowanus task force will monitor both the developers and the city government on whether their promised goals actually are being met.