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Demographic Deception: de Blasio’s SoHo/NoHo Plan

Last week, the City ‘certified,‘ or issued its final proposal for the massive upzoning of SoHo, NoHo, and parts of Chinatown. The voluminous documents contained numerous inaccuracies, falsehoods, and mischaracterizations, designed to sell this obscene real estate giveaway to the Mayor’s real estate benefactors as a boon to social justice and equity. But if you look closely, the documents actually reveal (quite inadvertently) a fundamental truth which undermines the entire argument for the plan, and debunks a contention by the plan’s supporters who’ve sought to silence truth-telling about its actual impacts.

Click to read.

In March, Village Preservation issued a study showing that (among many other things) new residential developments under the City’s plan, even if they include “affordable housing,” would actually be less diverse overall in terms of who they house, housing people with higher average incomes and paying higher housing costs, than those currently living in the neighborhood, thus negating the entire rationale for the plan (the study also showed that the plan was likely to result in the destruction of a considerable amount of existing affordable housing sheltering hundreds of lower income residents; a follow up report in May showed that the plan offered so many incentives and loopholes for not including affordable housing in new developments that it was likely to result in few if any affordable units being created).

The rezoning area (red cross hatches) and the 7 census tracts with which it overlaps (the rezoning area plus the area within the blue outline). While the tracts include adjacent sections of many different neighborhoods, the City and supporters of the plan only objected to including vulnerable residents of Chinatown and Little Italy in our analysis.

To do that, we used the smallest publicly available unit of demographic data for the area in question: census tracts. The census tracts don’t line up exactly with the rezoning area, so we made clear that we used all 7 census tracts that overlap with the rezoning area, and that the area they covered (and our demographic information reflected) buildings which were all either within the boundaries of the rezoning “or a 1,000 ft. radius” — a standard distance used to measure impacts from rezoning, whose effects are universally understood to be felt beyond the strict bounds of the rezoning (we also included a map of the rezoning area and a link to a map of the 7 census tracts, so everyone could see for themselves exactly what was included in both areas).

Well based upon the howls which followed from supporters of the upzoning plan (including from the Mayor’s office), you would think that this was the worst political cover up and deception since Watergate. We were accused of lying, skewing the data, and purposely including poorer and more Asian-American blocks in Chinatown directly east of the rezoning area, as if we determine the boundaries of census tracts (none of these critics, by the way, seemed to object to those census tracts also pulling in additional adjacent blocks and buildings in high-income and predominantly white areas of Greenwich Village, the South Village, and NoLita, nor the blocks of SoHo and NoHo which were not included in the rezoning). Critics pointed to this to try to dismiss the findings of the report, which quite clearly and damningly showed that even if the City’s plan had the projected results, it would actually make the neighborhood richer, whiter, and more unaffordable than it is now (though it also showed it would not have the intended results — much less affordable housing than projected would be created, and many existing affordable units would likely be destroyed and current low income residents displaced, none of which the City admits or accounts for about its plan).

Click to read.

But fast forward to the City issuing their final plan and analysis on May 17, and what do we find? Under “Indirect Residential Displacement” (a potential impact the City is legally required to measure and account for with such a rezoning), it said:

Indirect residential displacement is the involuntary displacement of residents that results from a change in socioeconomic conditions created by a proposed action. Indirect residential displacement could occur if a proposed project either introduces a trend or accelerates a trend of changing socioeconomic conditions that may potentially displace a vulnerable population to the extent that the socioeconomic character of the neighborhood would change. To assess this potential impact, the analysis will address a series of threshold questions in terms of whether the project substantially alters the demographic character of an area through population change or introduction of more costly housing. The assessment will be performed for the ¼-mile study area (emphasis added) as well as neighborhood-level subareas within the study area.

The quarter mile radius required to be studied for impacts actually takes in even more of neighboring Chinatown than the 7 overlapping census tracts we examined.

So the City itself admits that to assess the impact of the rezoning, one must look 1/4 mile beyond the boundaries of the rezoning itself — even deeper and farther east into Chinatown than our analysis did, which critics (including the City itself) claimed was some demographic sleight of hand intended to skew the results. So apparently, the problem wasn’t that we included too much of less-wealthy, less-white Chinatown in our analysis; it was that we included too little.

This also supports our claim from our March report that the area directly adjacent to the southeast “Housing Opportunity Zone” where the City proposes the largest upzonings (to the highest density legally allowable for the State of NY for residential development) is especially vulnerable to secondary or indirect displacement. We looked at just a small part of the area the City now acknowledges must be examined for displacement impacts and found it was majority Asian-American, mostly lower to moderate income, and had an especially high concentration of rent regulated affordable housing, which the rezoning would increase pressure upon (over 1,250 units housing thousands of people in this one small especially vulnerable adjacent area alone). As per the report:

But lest one think the City is suddenly being guided by the facts, think again — the acknowledgement that a 1/4 mile radius is required for measuring demographic impacts (as required by law) hasn’t stopped them from continuing to try to skew the demographic data to support their false narrative. Elsewhere in that same document, the City tries to pretend that ONLY rich people paying exorbitantly high housing prices live in the rezoning area, when in fact a considerable percentage of longtime residents of modest means hold on in affordable rent regulated housing which faces a vastly increased chance of demolition if the plan is passed. The City consistently cites figures about income levels, race, and housing costs in the rezoning area to justify their characterizations. But a tiny footnote about that data reveals the depths to which the City will sink to hide the truth in order to sell their plan. It says:

Source: New York City Department of City Planning — Population Division, American Community Survey, 2015-2019, Manhattan Block Groups 45001, 47002, 490001, and 55021 were aggregated to approximate the SoHo/NoHo Study Area (emphasis added).

The five census tracts the City uses to represent the rezoning area, which leave out predominantly Asian-American and predominantly lower-income blocks.

This tells us two things : 1) their supposed demographic data about the rezoning area actually left out in their entirety two of the 7 census tracts, including two blocks within the rezoning boundaries that are majority Asian-American, with the highest concentration of low income residents and some of the highest concentration of rent regulated housing within the rezoning (confirmed by the Department of City Planning in email communications), and 2) in the 5 of 7 census tracts they did use, they merely “aggregated” the data to “approximate” the rezoning area, though they consistently present it as reflecting direct and unvarnished data on the rezoning area. In fact, it purposely excludes some of the most vulnerable people most likely to be displaced or otherwise negatively affected by the rezoning, and only “approximates” data about those it does actually count or include.

Walk-up tenements with rent regulated housing and majority Asian-American residents on one of the blocks within the rezoning area which the City left out of its demographic analysis (yet somehow we’re accused of skewing the data).

To bring this all back to people, here are the figures we found showing what the demographics are for the 7 census tract area, as opposed to what they would be for the new residential developments in the rezoning area, even if they include affordable housing (which they most likely won’t):

Even if you remove that one census tract we included which the critics claim so skews the data for the area by including all those residents of nearby Chinatown and Little Italy (the ones whom the City was actually forced to legally admit should be counted as part of any study of the impacts of the rezoning), here’s what you get:

White 72.8%
Asian 14.3%
Latino 7.4%
Black 2.1%
2 or more races 3%

As you can see, even when limited to these 6 census tracts (which pull in a lot of additional residents from predominantly white and wealthy adjacent blocks in Greenwich Village, SoHo, NoHo, NoLita, and the South Village, and none in Chinatown, while excluding blocks in Chinatown that are in the rezoning area), residents of the current neighborhood are still less wealthy, in many ways more diverse, and paying lower housing costs, than those who will be occupying the new residential developments under the Mayor’s plan, even if they include affordable housing (which they likely won’t, in which case the difference between the level of diversity among current residents and the lack of diversity among new ones will be considerably more dramatic).

The statistics don’t lie. The City, and the supporters of its rezoning plan, do.

Find out more about the SoHo/NoHo Upzoning plan here, and urge city officials to oppose it here.

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