REVIEW: Zoned Out
By Katelin Penner
Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City, Revised Edition Edited by Tom Angotti and Sylvia Morse New Village Press 192 Pages $22.95 (paperback) Nearly 110 years ago, in 1916, New York City became an early adherent to the municipal zoning code, seeking to address technological developments like the steel-frame building and the Otis elevator that enabled buildings to shoot up into the sky. But as Tom Angotti and Sylvia Morse so eloquently argue in their revised version of Zoned Out!: Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City, zoning quickly became a tool to do much more than simply regulate the size and location of buildings. In fact, the legal framework New York City used to justify its zoning laws came from a Virginia Court of Appeals case authorizing Richmond, Virginia to create a zoning code, a case that was also used to justify racial zoning schemes in the pre-Village of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty Corp (1926) legal environment. And, as scholars like Juliana Maantay have noted, New York’s 1916 zoning code itself had many discriminatory elements, seeking to isolate manufacturing activity from wealthy residential areas, subsequently creating new industrial zones in areas populated by people of color, immigrants, and the working poor.
Yet New York City has done little to reckon with, or even change, these racist housing policies, despite an abundance of time and evidence. Instead, the modern real estate industry, hungry for profits, land for new development, and buyouts from municipal government, has captured the past several mayoral administrations, pushing forward an agenda of rezonings that trades manufacturing and mixed use districts for luxury housing development, major tax breaks for developers, and the weakening of tenant protections. In the nearly fifty years since New York City’s 1975 financial crisis—an event that coincided with the era of decline of industry in the American city and the rise of an austerity regime— its economy has become dominated by the FIRE industries (finance, industry, and real estate). Thus, as Angotti, Morse, and their co-authors argue, in a city that has tried to sell itself for centuries as the “real estate capital of the world,” zoning is heavily influenced by the real estate industry, centuries of racist housing policies, and the goals of city politicians propped up by real estate donors and other growth machine proponents. These zoning policies do not have race-neutral implications: they lead to mass displacement amongst working-class people of color, especially in neighborhoods already undergoing gentrification.
While most of Zoned Out remains unchanged from the initial, 2016 publication, Angotti and Morse’s updated edition contains a new preface, contextualizing the book’s chapters to New York City’s political environment in 2023. As the authors note, community organizing around development continues to have great influence over zoning policy. In Sunset Park, a predominantly Latine waterfront neighborhood in South Brooklyn, UPROSE, a local environmental justice group successfully mobilized to defeat Industry City, a proposed industrial to commercial rezoning. In Northwest Queens, a grassroots coalition including the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) came together to successfully fight the city’s deal with Amazon for a new headquarters in Long Island City. And yet, as the authors note, Mayor Eric Adams’ housing and planning policies revolve around tax cuts to developers, limitations on public review for zoning changes, and other items on the real estate industry’s agenda that have caused harm to communities of color in the past. As a result, New York City is clearly at a crossroads. Will decision-makers finally address and actively work towards repairing decades of racist, classist, xenophobic housing policy? Or will the real estate industry and the city government continue to dig in their heels, leading to yet more displacement of Black and Brown New Yorkers?
In the first chapter of Zoned Out, author and co-editor Tom Angotti provides an important, digestible explanation of land use in New York City. As Angotti notes, New York City’s failure to adopt a master plan, or a long term framework to manage change, growth, and shifts in an urban area, means that zoning is often the primary tool planners use to shape land use in the city. And, as Angotti correctly notes, zoning, a tool that is primarily used to determine how much can be built in a specific area, is insufficient to address long term challenges the city faces, such as climate change, displacement, or even health disparities. Instead, zoning addresses issues of supply and demand, theoretically allowing developers to build more housing stock in areas where increased demand has led to a rezoning proposal, with little regard to the needs of long-term residents of a given community. This conception of zoning as a simple, economic equation allows planners to see it as a “race-neutral” tool, despite the fact that New York City’s zoning policies have a long history of protecting property values in wealthy, white neighborhoods, while also creating substantial displacement pressures in predominantly Black, Latine, and Asian neighborhoods.
Zoned Out’s chapter on the now infamous 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning, written by Phillip DePaolo and Sylvia Morse, is a clear example of the harms that zoning disguised as planning can cause. Greenpoint and Williamsburg, two neighborhoods at the northern tip of Brooklyn, have long histories as working class residential neighborhoods, with a strip of heavy industry along the neighborhoods’ waterfront along the East River. Both neighborhoods were home to diverse immigrant communities, as Greenpoint became a hub for recent arrivals from Poland, while Hasidic Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans created communities in Williamsburg. These new migrants were initially able to find employment in the neighborhoods’ manufacturing facilities, working at Schaefer Beer, Standard Oil, or the Domino Sugar Refinery. However, as New York City began to face the national trend of urban deindustrialization throughout the 1960s, many factories in both Williamsburg and Greenpoint shuttered, leaving long-term residents without jobs. Several years later, artists who had been priced out of Manhattan began crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, as the neighborhood’s abundant loft space and low rents attracted creatives to North Brooklyn. By the 1990s, the arts scene was booming in both Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which attracted real estate capital to the neighborhood. The resulting speculation and the city’s acquiescence to de facto residential conversion made it difficult for manufacturers to remain, despite the mostly industrial character of the neighborhood and community support for industrial jobs.
As North Brooklyn began to gentrify, residents of both neighborhoods created their own plans for their future, centering the preservation of industry, environmental remediation, the creation of green space, and housing affordability. While these community-led plans were lauded by local advocates and ultimately approved by the New York City Council in the early 2000s, they did not align with the simplistic, supply/demand logic that then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning (DCP) was advancing at the time, especially in working class communities of color. As a result, DCP began to pursue its own plan for the North Brooklyn waterfront that centered real estate profit and increased housing density at the expense of local industry. As a result, the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning created serious displacement pressures on long term residents, especially those living in the predominantly Latine Southside. Rent regulated housing units were demolished or removed from the regulated market and thousands of Latine tenants were priced out of their homes, with the Latine population falling by 18% in the rezoning area over a time period where the city’s Latine population increased by 10%. Alarmingly, as the authors of Zoned Out note, the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning is not an outlier, as similar zoning actions in Harlem, Chinatown, and countless other neighborhoods have disproportionately harmed people of color living in these communities.
To the authors of Zoned Out, the impacts of these rezoning actions, particularly in communities already undergoing gentrification, are not surprising. They argue that upzoning actions often lead to speculation in the city’s land market—a crucial aspect of housing economies in cities across the United States. Since upzoning confers unearned value to rezoned parcels, it allows developers to construct large, increasingly profitable buildings on a given lot. The very act of upzoning leads to speculation in any land parcel that may be seen as “underutilized,” whether a vacant lot that has lain fallow for decades, or a rent-regulated apartment building that isn’t built up to the maximum floor area ratio (FAR) of the lot it sits on. This land speculation can lead to the demolition of buildings, the construction of luxury towers, or even the preservation of vacant lots, as developers sit on land until they are able to make maximum profits. Additionally, the conversion of land parcels from industrial use to residential use can have a particularly large impact on urban economies, as it further accelerates the deindustrialization of many American cities, causing job loss and economic restructuring around industries like finance, insurance, and real estate. As urban economies from Atlanta to San Francisco continue to become more reliant on the profits of real estate developers, the impacts of gentrification will only become more devastating.
Ultimately, Zoned Out provides a refreshing alternative perspective on the role of zoning in the American city. For the past several years, the zoning conversation discussion in planning circles has centered around the role of zoning in knee-capping housing supply, with books like M. Nolan Gray’s Arbitrary Lines arguing that the liberalization of zoning laws would resolve the contemporary housing affordability crisis by simply creating more housing. However, as researchers like Yonah Freemark have shown, the housing market is much more complicated than a simple supply and demand graph. Studies on upzonings have shown that they conclusively lead to a general increase in land values, but do not strongly indicate that per-unit housing costs decline or lead to more housing affordability. Zoned Out focuses directly on the people who are the most frequently harmed by rezoning actions—working class and poor people of color, whose stories are often obscured in contemporary planning discussions or camouflaged by the way city planning departments project displacement impacts.
Zoned Out masterfully explains the weaknesses of our current system, but could be improved by dedicating more pages to laying out concrete solutions to address the city’s land use crisis. It would have been particularly interesting to see a longer discussion on what a comprehensive planning process would have looked like, especially as Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso continues to engage in a serious comprehensive planning initiative, seeking to assess the needs and conditions of every neighborhood in the borough. As early experiments in comprehensive planning continue in Brooklyn, it would be valuable to hear the authors’ thoughts on an initiative that seeks to ameliorate decades of racialized housing policy, planned shrinkage, and uneven development. This book however provides the essential foundation for understanding the processes of racialized housing policy and uneven development that must be contested.
Katelin Penner is a second year graduate student at CUNY-Hunter College’s Masters in Urban Planning program studying social housing, community organizing, and vacant land in New York City. Her writing has been featured in the Hunter Urban Review, Next City, and City Limits. She is a proud resident of North Brooklyn, an amateur urban gardener, and an enthusiastic member of her local community board.