Democratize ULURP

By Ben T

To Give the Affordable Housing Movement a Foothold, Make ULURP More Democratic

Capitalism’s default solution to the housing crisis is to build more supply, but that is a false solution, because what it really does is put more money and power into the hands of the wealthy capitalists—the bankers, real estate developers, and their political clients—and leaves working people with both less control over our own communities and little to no improvement in our financial well-being through making housing more affordable . The real path towards having decent, affordable housing available to everyone involves public investment in policies that regulate or eliminate the market, such as rent control and public housing.  Given that those are solutions not necessarily in control of New York City government, New York City socialists, being left with the limited tools at government’s disposal, should advocate for revamping the Universal Land Use Review Process (ULURP) by making it more democratic and giving it real teeth. ULURP is the process by which the city decides what can be done on what land in the city.

As the price of rental housing in the greater New York metropolitan area continues to rise roughly twice as fast as overall inflation [1] and the city’s homeless rate is now the highest it has been since the great depression, the DeBlasio administration has made tackling the housing crisis a central goal, by enacting a plan of creating and/or preserving 300,000 units of affordable housing, using a combination of mainly-market driven approaches, and spending substantially more than has ever been spent to do so. Optics aside, however, without adequate metrics to measure the success of this policy, like say, what a reasonable slowdown in the ever-increasing average rental prices of NYC housing would be, all we can grapple with is its underlying ideology: if we build enough market-rate housing, there will be enough affordable housing for everyone.

As socialists we know this ideology is absurd. In a future where a city like NY becomes more affordable, more people from the suburbs are likely to move here, seeking the benefits of city life, such as professional opportunity andcultural richness. At some point, given the limits of the city—physically, buildings can only be built so high and aesthetically, there are strong arguments for building them even lower still to allow for things like adequate daylight—the supply that can be built is limited, but the demand for such supply, I would argue, is nearly limitless. So we simply cannot build our way out of the problem.

This approach also implies that state and federal inaction on things like repealing vacancy decontrol and building more public housing is warranted, because only the free market can resolve the affordable housing crisis.  Therefore, when politicians in Albany or Washington punt on doing things to force the market to act in a way more beneficial to tenants, they can argue their hands were tied. We know that these policies serve a real purpose of continued enrichment for the ruling class of the US and the world, and only relatively recently has this ideology of invisible hand, market-driven solutions crowded out all the others in New York’s political soil. By letting this ideology go without a direct challenge at the city level, we, as NYC socialists, risk ceding the entire debate in the city’s mainstream political discourse.

In my opinion, we are wasting considerable energies pushing for policies at the state level that can easily be dismissed as impractical while allowing the city’s market-driven approach to continue to empower the actors most diametrically opposed to the real, structural solutions to the housing crisis, imbuing them with the profits that the increased development opportunities of upzonings provide. Take the recently-approved neighborhood rezoning in Inwood, which saw arrests at protests by local residents and has drawn criticism over worker treatment. That rezoning was recently revealed to have substantially benefited two developers, Taconic Investment Partners and Madd Equities, who together spent in excess of $200,000 lobbying for the rezoning, and one of whose principles was sentenced to 18 months in prison and 10 years probation for fraud charges related to a Medicare scheme in Florida.

By expanding our current housing campaign to include city-level policy prescriptions for democratizing and strengthening a community-based approach to development in NYC, we, as socialists, have an opportunity to directly confront market-centric advocates and regain the debate. We also will be participating in a sustainable tradition of community development in NYC that has been dying for a shot of democratic energy and strength that the DSA-NYC is uniquely situated to provide.

The issue is also very timely; the City Council’s 15-member Charter Review Commission is currently considering whether or not to propose strengthening ULURP via ballot questions in the 2019 general election. This follows the Mayoral Charter Review Commission just recently deciding not to do so in its own referenda for this year’s general election, but flagging it as a potential problem meriting further study. So over the next year or so there will be plenty of chances to credibly make our voices heard on this issue, with the real possibility of achieving our desired outcome.

Currently ULURP’s community based approach is located in community boards and 197-a proposals (plans, often counter-proposals to looming rezonings, that community boards and others may submit, always in an advisory capacity, but which at least require a public hearing and enshrine a community’s vision of a neighborhood undergoing rezoning). Community boards in the city were originally created in 1951 as community planning boards with the support of then-Borough President (later Mayor) Robert Wagner, with the central purpose of helping to improve community input on land use decisions. Despite this goal, their input was, and has remained, only advisory.

At the time, borough presidents enjoyed effective veto powers over construction projects in their jurisdictions by a “gentleperson’s agreement” that the other borough presidents would defer to the president of the borough of the project in question on the Board of Estimate. This meant that the veto power over a given proposal lay with just one person who was deeply dependent for reelection upon the jobs and patronage any major project created, and thus highly predisposed toward any development project, regardless of the social costs. ULURP, the seven-month, six-stage process that a project requiring a zoning change, disposing of city land, or certain deed modifications must undergo, was created in 1975 in response to the power of Robert Moses who unilaterally dictated the shape of the city. Community boards have always played a prominent role in ULURP, but their role has remained advisory.

After the Supreme Court ruled the Board of Estimate unconstitutional, resulting in the charter revision of 1989, the role of the Board of Estimate in approving or rejecting land use proposals was simply transposed to the City Council, which adopted the same “gentleperson’s agreement” between council members and hence left the easy road to rezonings relatively intact. And while the revised charter envisioned an expanded community-based planning process, with so-called 197-a and 197-c plans that were designed to enshrine community-based development goals for a specific project or neighborhood rezoning, their role is also exclusively advisory, which perhaps explains why only 17 have been submitted to the city since 1989.

What would a more democratic ULURP look like? Taking the veto power over major projects and neighborhood rezonings away from a single individual and returning it to as representative a group of voters as possible. The affected community districts could vote following vetting and put out an advisory statement by their democratically elected community board. Right now, community boards are appointed in an opaque manner; they must be directly elected. They should be paid and term-limited, like any other elected official of the city. They should have final say over land use projects that require rezonings and ULURP, not simply the sole city council member of their district; moreover, in the event that a proposed rezoning rises to the level of a so-called neighborhood rezoning, their vote should be advisory, and subject to the final approval of the voting public within that community board’s jurisdiction, through an online ballot similar to the way that participatory budgeting votes are administered.

This solution would not only democratize the land use approval process in our city, it would ensure that decisions ostensibly aimed at creating affordable housing were thoroughly weighed against the potential downsides of such projects, all by the very constituents those projects would affect most. No longer could the grail of unlimited housing supply be wielded by the bankers, real estate developers, and their political clients as a cudgel to beat back socialists advocating for market controls such as reinvigorated rent control and fiscal policies such as public housing. The fact that the city council already has a charter review commission looking at this exact sort of issue over the coming year means that we will have constant opportunities to meaningfully intervene and indeed win on this issue. And no longer would socialists’ considerable energies have to be spent exclusively on long-term, state-level, seemingly-impractical projects without local, shorter term and more pragmatic stepping stones that are ideologically and strategically consistent with these longer term strategies.

[1] According to both CPI and CPI-U statistics from BLS, the rent of primary residence component of overall CPI is rising about twice as fast as the overall basket of goods in the CPI, steadily, over the past 10 years, regardless of seasonal adjustment.