Court Voids Inwood Rezoning

In what Inwood housing organizers called a major victory, a state Supreme Court judge on Dec. 19 voided the de Blasio administration’s plan to rezone the neighborhood, ruling that it had “admittedly failed to take a hard look at the relevant areas of concern identified by the public.”

The rezoning, approved by the City Council in August 2018, would have let developers erect taller buildings in parts of the neighborhood, on the condition that 25 percent of the apartments built be affordable. Judge Verna Saunders held that in preparing the environmental- impact statement for the plan, the administration ignored residents’ concerns about eight issues, including how it might displace racial minorities, small businesses, and tenants with preferential rents. She ordered the office of the deputy mayor for housing and economic development to study those issues.

“We’re setting a precedent saying that this is not how we’re going to do it,” says Paloma Lara, an activist in the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition. “When you’re doing 75 percent luxury housing, you’re completely changing the makeup of the neighborhood— and not providing enough affordable housing.”

“We’re setting a precedent saying that this is not how we’re going to do it,” says Paloma Lara, an activist in the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition. “When you’re doing 75 percent luxury housing, you’re completely changing the makeup of the neighborhood— and not providing enough affordable housing.”

“The city refused to study common-sense impacts,” says Karla Fisk of Inwood Legal Action, the group that brought the suit. It also did not release the final environmental- impact statement until more than two months after the Council approved the rezoning.

The decision came after a two-pronged campaign of community organizing and legal action. That campaign, under the umbrella of Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale, encompassed tenants, policy wonks, and Dominican immigrants; the neighborhood’s faith community, including Altagracia Faith and Justice Works; Met Council, the Mirabal Sisters community organization, and the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association; the Communist Party and Uptown for Bernie; and locals from the Laborers and Ironworkers unions, who said that the developers who would build the housing used nonunion contractors with histories of wage theft and poor safety records.

At a victory rally after the decision, Chris Nickell, a staffer for state Sen. Robert Jackson credited “organizers, nerds, the faith community, and unions.”

Inwood residents began planning for a possible rezoning several years ago, says former Met Council organizer Nova Lucero. But the catalyst for organizing was the city’s planned spot rezoning of Sherman Plaza in 2016, which would have allowed a 17-story luxury building at Broadway and Sherman Avenue. Community pressure inspired City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez to switch sides and oppose the project, scotching it. That victory “kept hope alive for people,” says Lara, and gave organizers a base to work from when the city announced the rezoning plans.

“We brought east and west of Broadway together,” says Lucero. Inwood’s east side is largely working-class and Dominican, its west side more middle- class and white. Bringing together immigrants who spoke little English and people with Ph.Ds conversant with urban-planning jargon like “upzone from R-7A to R-9 with 25 percent MIH at 60 percent of AMI” was “one of the hardest challenges,” says Lara.

For the linguistic differences, “we made sure to have translators,” says Lara, and the coalition also held some town meetings in Spanish. The coalition depended a lot on the bilingual Spanish-speakers “to keep the monolingual ones informed,” says Inwood Legal Action cochair Paul Epstein.

The working-class immigrants were primarily concerned with preventing displacement and creating “Inwood-affordable housing,” housing for people who made less than $50,000 a year, says Lara, while middle-class residents worried about historic preservation and environmental concerns.

“Sometimes we had to call it a night and come back,” says Lucero. But “we made it an important part of meetings to get to know each other,” she adds, and the meetings worked hard on reaching consensus on what people wanted and what they thought was winnable.

About 30 percent of Inwood residents make less than $30,000 a year, and more than 9,000 households have temporary “preferential rent” discounts. The 2019 rent-law reforms meant that landlords couldn’t end those discounts when the tenant’s lease expired, but they would still be able to charge a new tenant the maximum legal rent—an incentive for harassment, says Lucero.

The rezoning also threatened to displace the neighborhood’s small businesses, of which more than half are owned by immigrants and more than a quarter by women. The original plan would have allowed buildings up to 14 stories tall on the “Commercial U”—the neighborhood’s main commercial strips, on Dyckman Street, Broadway, and West 207th Street. That particularly endangered businesses in one-story buildings, including at least two supermarkets and the Albert’s Mofungo House restaurant, says Lara.

The City Council deleted those three streets from the rezoning it approved. That protected the buildings from being torn down, but it didn’t protect the tenants in them from being harassed, says Epstein.

Another key, says Lucero, was “we had to communicate what we are for.” The result was the Uptown United plan. Released in February 2018, it demanded that half the new apartments built on upzoned land be affordable for households making less than about $35,000 a year, with measures to protect small businesses and rent-stabilized tenants.

“We’re not NIMBYs,” says Lara. “It’s not that we didn’t want a rezoning. We wanted one with community input and knowing that there wasn’t going to be any displacement of working-class immigrants and small businesses. We wanted to tell the city this is possible.”

The city largely dismissed those concerns, says Epstein. He originally was neutral, believing he could use his connections with neighborhood residents and experience in city government—he was a productivity-improvement specialist in the Koch administration—to create common ground, but eventually decided that the administration wasn’t interested.

“No matter how many people came to meetings, they never once gave the community a voice,” he says.

Inwood Legal Action was formed by people who “couldn’t let go of that we didn’t win the rezoning,” says Lara. But the groundwork for the suit’s success success, Epstein says, had been laid by the hundreds of comments residents made on the city’s draft scope for the environmental impact statement in the fall of 2017, and on the draft statement released the next spring. The issues those comments raised included “almost everything that was in the lawsuit,” and the city “dismissed everything twice.”

“We wouldn’t have been able to sue if the city hadn’t ignored what we requested,” he adds. “If we hadn’t done all that preparation, we wouldn’t have had a basis for any of this.”

The Inwood suit succeeded where a previous challenge to East Harlem rezoning failed, Epstein says, because it was contesting the administration’s refusal to look at those issues, rather than asking the court to overrule its judgment. Also, Inwood Legal Action’s connection to Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale helped persuade the judge that it had the legal standing to sue, that it was representing a significant segment of the community and not just 15 disgruntled individuals.

“It takes the whole community, not just a bunch of lawyers,” he concludes.

The de Blasio administration has filed notice that it plans to appeal.