A few months ago, I was part of a neighborhood committee that paid a visit to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to argue for the expansion of the TriBeCa Historic Districts. To some, given the neighborhood’s rampant fabulousness and its irreversible ascent into post-hipsterdom, this might seem like a vanity project of the one percent. Our argument, though, was not simply about the physical qualities of the place. The piece of the neighborhood we sought to have added to the district is home to a considerable number of rent-regulated apartments, and we think that its inclusion would have the effect of preserving the long-term housing prospects of these neighbors. The commission should find a way to protect a historic social ecology that has symbiotically taken root in the neighborhood.
Our argument went nowhere because the commission’s focus is on architecture, not people. We knew that the case for integrating historic and community preservation would not be entirely clear, but so what: We wanted to emphasize that certain principles about housing should be sacrosanct. The most fundamental ones are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: protection against “arbitrary interference with…privacy, family, [and] home,” and “freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” The declaration also stipulates an “adequate” standard of living, including housing and social services, participation in community cultural life, and a raft of other opportunities at the vital core of liberal democracy.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “progressive agenda” includes nothing that will displeasure the near left, it is strangely mute on a key component of his municipal ambitions: housing and the right to it. Getting more money into the hands of exploited workers and a little less into those of the plutocracy would redistribute wealth. Unarticulated in de Blasio’s 14 faultless points, however, is any idea about the redistribution of space, the primary raw material of wealth in the city. The mayor has come in for heavy criticism of a housing policy that not only relies primarily on subsidies to developers to induce trickle-down but also is likely to increase the physical gap between rich and poor. This worsening of the geography of privilege is evident not simply in the spiraling prices in Williamsburg or TriBeCa but in a policy that focuses on poor neighborhoods as the most logical locales for new housing for the poor. A case in point is the administration’s choice of East New York as one of three pilot sites for its policy. The neighborhood is already rife with speculation in anticipation of the city’s intervention, and the risk is that rising land prices will inexorably define affordability upward—and out of reach of many of the people already living there.
Like his predecessors, de Blasio is caught in a dilemma about what it means to plan the city. His proposal, “Housing New York,” has the revelatory subtitle “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” The replacement of planning by zoning is characteristic of the negotiation between public and private interests that’s the stuff of any urban-development policy. While there’s general agreement that all cities must have some structures of constraint, drawing the line between the perks of property and propriety is never easy. In New York, this operates in both the realm of ownership (public, private, collective, institutional) and the “right” to transform property in terms of its use, size, performance, and appearance. The basis for both the operation and the progress of our system is that each of these constraints is subject to change—through negotiation, technological and social evolution, corruption, and reconceptualization. Paradigms shift and accidents will happen: One idea of the city succeeds another.