Editor’s Note: In the Skynomics Blog, I frequently discuss the subject of housing affordability in New York City. It thus piqued my interest when I learned about a group of New Yorkers who have become politically engaged through their organization, Open New York, to increase the city’s housing stock. This is Part I of a two-part roundtable Q&A with four of their members.
Casey Berkovitz is an Open New York board member and senior associate at The Century Foundation, a public policy organization. He tweets at @caseyberk.
Kyle Dontoh is a board member of Open New York and an independent strategy and transformation consultant. He tweets at @kynakwado.
Amelia Josephson is an Open New York board member and program manager at The Financial Health Network, a nonprofit that unites industries, business leaders, policymakers, innovators, and visionaries in a shared mission to improve financial health for all. She tweets at @JosephsonAmelia.
Will Thomas is the Executive Director of Open New York, an independent, grassroots pro-housing organization fighting for more housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
JB: What is the mission of Open New York, what is the history behind its formation, and what motivated you to get involved?
Our mission is simple: we want to build more homes in New York City, particularly in places with good access to jobs and transit connectivity—what we refer to as “high-opportunity” neighborhoods––that are not building enough.
We were formed in late 2016, and I joined in early 2017, so I wasn’t present from the very beginning, but what happened is that some folks who had interacted with each other––largely on Twitter—and had been talking about these questions about access to housing, exclusionary zoning, and the utter dysfunction of the status quo when it comes to land use, decided to get together and form a group to try and move the discussion.
They were all aware of the YIMBY movement that had started out in the Bay Area; so from the very beginning, they had a good idea of what they wanted to accomplish, although I would stress that it was never a question of copying that model wholesale. Still, New York is unique, but not so unique that, contrary to what the political and planning establishment seems to think, that we can’t draw lessons from the experiences of other cities.
I was unaware that this group existed, though, until I DMed one of the people in that original group who I followed on Twitter, asking what could be done to make YIMBYism politically appealing, and he told me some people had gotten together to tackle that very issue—and I guess you can say the rest is history.
I have some backstory from the very beginning––although, like Kyle, I haven’t been around since the group’s start. A critical mass of future Open New Yorkers met at the YIMBYTown conference in 2016 in Boulder, Colorado. We’ve always wondered to some extent why the YIMBY movement took off first in the Bay Area, as by certain metrics, New York’s housing crisis has been just as bad for even longer. On a per-capita basis, San Francisco frequently outbuilds New York––and has done so for eight out of the last ten years.
Enough New Yorkers met in Boulder and were inspired to start meeting and build a similar movement in New York––which is the seed that ultimately grew into Open New York. I personally got involved in 2018––but my journey to the pro-housing movement started in 2015 when I first moved to New York after college for an entry-level marketing job. I still consider myself extremely fortunate in finding a place to live––two of my friends had been sharing a relatively affordable East Village one-bedroom with a third roommate, who conveniently moved to Minneapolis just before I moved in. But our set-up was less than ideal––my friends slept in a bunk bed, I slept in a non-bedroom ‘office’ space without windows, and neither of our rooms had doors.
At that time, I had been reading a lot of Matt Yglesias, who turned me onto urbanist Twitter, which turned me onto Open New York––and it just gelled for me that we didn’t have to live like that, that in fact, it was perverse that I felt so lucky to live three-people to a pre-Civil War tenement. Then, in early 2018, Open New York specifically got involved in my neighborhood: to stop the GVSHP [Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation] from adding a downzoning as part a rezoning for a tech incubator space near Union Square, which is when I really started volunteering with the group. We successfully stopped the downzoning, and I realized how much impact simply showing up to these sorts of hearings could have. And I’ve been involved with the group ever since.
JB: So far, what have been the organization’s accomplishments? What do you feel went better than planned, and what things did you run up against that you did not expect?
We’ve been mostly involved in rezoning fights so far––both around individual projects and at the neighborhood level. So far, we’ve supported rezonings that will ultimately result in over a thousand homes across mixed-income and 100% affordable developments––and I’d consider those projects to be substantial wins.
That said, I think our largest accomplishment (so far!) is the inclusion of a substantial residential upzoning within the SoHo/NoHo rezoning. This has the potential to be the first neighborhood-wide upzoning of a wealthy, residential neighborhood––and in that sense would mark a very real contrast with the rezoning policies of the past, which have focused new growth in either low-income or industrial neighborhoods.
I would also say that Open New York has started changing the conversation in New York City housing and has helped shine a light on some of the dysfunctional aspects of the way we approach housing in this city, including the historic landmarking process.
One challenge that we’ve faced is that the mayoral administration burned a lot of political capital on rezoning lower-income neighborhoods of color (rezonings Open New York did not back because they don’t fit our mission of adding homes in whiter, more amenity-rich neighborhoods with low displacement risk). This meant that the rezonings we do back, in the wealthier neighborhoods of Gowanus and SoHo, have been received with more skepticism, and we and our allies have had to work harder to explain the difference between rezoning a wealthy neighborhood like SoHo that is the third-largest job center in NYC versus rezoning a lower-income neighborhood in upper Manhattan.
JB: It seems that much of your activities have been about engaging local leaders and the community in supporting the idea of loosening zoning regulations or in promoting new projects in New York. Overall, what kind of feedback have you gotten? How much is resistance versus agreement?
We’ve gotten a ton of positive feedback, actually! The nature of our advocacy is that most of our time is spent in venues where there’s opposition, but we’ve heard from all sorts of New Yorkers—regular neighbors, other community and advocacy organizations, people who work in and around government and have seen firsthand how broken our status quo is—who say they appreciate our advocacy and show up in various ways to support Open New York’s mission.
Of course, because we advocate for more housing in exclusionary neighborhoods, we’ve seen our share of resistance too. There’s a small group of people who have opposed the prospect of new housing especially forcefully, of course, but they’re a tiny fraction of the city, who unfortunately hold disproportionately large sway in our land-use politics. We’re working to change that.
I think something we’ve seen is just us showing up to lend support for a particularly contentious project will oftentimes give others the confidence to come out in support as well. There are a lot of people who want to see their neighborhoods grow, but the structural dynamics of in-person community input can usually make it easier for those opposing change to organize and then intimidate those who disagree. Having a few of your neighbors on your side can make a lot of difference in giving people the confidence to speak their minds.
JB: What do you see as the root causes of the housing affordability problem in New York? Is it plain old “NIMBYism” (“Not in my backyard”) in a crowded city? Or is it overly tight zoning and building rules?
The housing affordability problem in New York has several causes. We haven’t built enough homes to keep up with the rise in jobs and the number of folks who either want to move here or to form new households here. We’ve lost a lot of affordable units. And, of course, many New Yorkers, like folks across the country, aren’t being paid enough to afford housing.
We need to—using a shorthand term—“legalize housing” where it’s not already permitted, and we need to make it easier to build that housing by cutting down on the extensive (and expensive) land use planning processes. Even 100% affordable housing on City-owned sites takes several years to get off the ground, so we’d like to see those processes streamlined. We also have a problem where projects are held up by lawsuits, further delaying the bringing of new homes online for people who need them. And we need to provide adequate subsidies so that residents who aren’t able to afford market-rate units have the housing they need.
NIMBYism is absolutely an obstacle to getting every New Yorker the housing they have a right to. We’ve seen even 100% affordable housing trigger NIMBYism from folks who are worried about their views, or about noise from ground-floor community space. NIMBYism is especially vitriolic when it comes to shelters for unhoused New Yorkers. So, at the same time that we need to change laws and rules to realize our vision of abundant housing, we also need to change the conversation and change hearts and minds so that people get out of this scarcity mindset and start welcoming more neighbors to their communities.
In my opinion, the NIMBYism is why we have the overly tight zoning and building rules, so Amelia is totally right in suggesting this is a hearts and minds process. We need to organize and build political support for changing these regressive rules.
JB: More broadly, what kind of policies do you think the City should enact? Is there any low-hanging fruit that the City can do quickly that is not so politically charged?
To be clear, pro-housing rezonings in affluent neighborhoods should be the low-hanging fruit! It doesn’t cost the City anything to facilitate more housing development, and with MIH [Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning] or other inclusionary zoning policy in place, it often even facilitates affordable housing that would otherwise cost the City money. I do think there are citywide policy tweaks that are worth pursuing, even if they aren’t going to solve the housing crisis on their own without much-needed affordable housing funding or land-use changes: a reinstatement of the basement pilot program that was cut from the pre-COVID budget, ADU [accessory dwelling unit] legalization more broadly, permitting and Department of Buildings reform, that sort of thing. At the state level, lifting the FAR cap should be an easy item.
I would add ending parking minimums, which can really make it difficult for projects to pencil in the outer boroughs. Even under the current zoning, there are a lot of projects that would start to pencil if you could simply loosen the amount of parking that developers are required to provide. Places from San Francisco to Buffalo have ended these sorts of minimums, proving that it is politically possible. I also think a national consensus is starting to emerge around ending single-family zoning, and as so little of New York City is still zoned for only single-family homes, it should be easy enough to eliminate wholesale.
JB: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your mission and your work? Do you see the effects of the pandemic in terms of lower rents and housing prices as lasting into the future?
COVID-19 has impacted our work in a few ways. At first, the pandemic meant that construction and land use planning processes were halted altogether. Once those processes started back, the community engagement all took place virtually, as opposed to the in-person meetings we were used to attending. The switch to virtual meetings has been a boon to our members who want to be engaged and speaking up for more housing without having to commute to community board meetings all over the city after a long workday.
Across the city, virtual community engagement has seen a bigger and more diverse audience than the pre-pandemic in-person meetings. We’re very happy about that change, but unfortunately, a lot of the anti-housing voices who are used to dominating the land use planning process know that virtual engagement is taking away their edge. Opponents of the Gowanus Rezoning, which would add, in addition to market-rate units, 900 units of affordable housing, have even gone so far as to sue the City, arguing that the rezoning can’t proceed because the virtual hearings are invalid.
So the pandemic has prompted a very important and contentious conversation around how we engage the community and make that engagement accessible to folks who might not be able to sit in an auditorium for four hours on a weeknight. Looking ahead, we expect that the recovery from the pandemic will make the issues we fight for even more salient.
People who have lost income will need affordable housing more than ever. Construction and building services jobs will be key to getting New Yorkers back to work. We want to see New York come back from COVID better and more equitable than ever, and housing is a huge part of that. We’re bullish about New York City’s recovery.
Part II of the roundtable Q&A with Open New York will be posted on April 17, 2020. More posts on housing and zoning can be found here.