Zoning: A Quieter Kind of Story

To be perfectly honest, before this past week, zoning had never really been an issue that I seriously considered. It wasn’t health policy, immigration reform, or any of the other “hot” policy topics that I held near and dear to my heart.

However, a confluence of factors drove me to explore the nuts and bolts of zoning.

First, I came across this story, profiling 75-year old Gum Gee Lee’s story of how she, her husband, and her disabled daughter were evicted from their San Francisco Chinatown apartment so that it could be remodeled and sold as a luxury unit. This process is commonly referred to as gentrification.

Her words stuck with me: Upon stepping into the newly renovated, $759, 000 apartment unit for which she once paid $778 per month, she said,

If I won the lottery, I would buy this place –even if it cost me more…Because even when I dream, I still think about this place.”

Also, I was in the middle of doing research on federal emergency response in New York City’s Chinatown in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and I repeatedly stumbled across Chinatown residents in New York pushing for a “Special Zoning District.” What role did zoning play in Gum Gee Lee’s story? Why was it a focal point in every policy recommendation about NYC’s Chinatown that I came across?

According to the New York City Department of Planning, zoning is a “key tool for carrying out planning policy.” To be more specific, designating a neighborhood or area as a specific “zone” carries with it a set of rules for what developers, landlords, and other commercial/housing bigwigs can do.

Useful terms before moving on: (you can find a more in-depth examination here)

  • - A zone can be commercial, residential, industrial, or mixed use, and zones differ mainly in terms of the building height and density of “dwelling units” or living spaces.
  • - Usually zones are named in a [letter][number] style, e.g. R6; the letter indicates the type of development (Residential, Commercial, Manufacturing) and the numbers reflect the density that is allowed, with higher numbers representing a higher accepted density.
  • - Upzoning means that the height and density of new buildings can be increased, which promotes new development. This means that private developers, hotels, and other commercial entities can come into a neighborhood and build higher, build more, and build for the wealthy.
  • - Downzoning, on the other hand, means that the amount of allowable building space is capped at a lower number, thus preventing the construction of luxury high-rises and maintaining a neighborhood’s local businesses and resident demographics.

Why is this so important? Because zoning regulations essentially control how much a neighborhood can be developed, a neighborhood’s zone can be a critical factor in enabling or preventing gentrification, thus making zoning an important concern for residents such as those in major Chinatowns across the United States.

Zoning determines whether low-income apartments can be transformed into luxury high-rises or whether large commercial brands can swoop in and replace smaller mom-and-pop stores. Zoning, essentially, can lead to either the displacement or preservation of lower income communities.

In 2008, East Village –a community where the income bracket is generally higher than those found in the Lower East Side and Chinatown –was downzoned: Building heights and unit densities were capped, affordable housing was incentivized, and hotels and dorms no longer received zoning bonuses. Chinatown and the Lower East Side were markedly excluded from this rezoning.

Because developers now faced more restrictions in East Village in terms of how they could build and develop, Chinatown and the Lower East Side were now more vulnerable: Without the downzoned privileges that East Village enjoyed, these communities –where a great number of low-income, immigrants worked –became more attractive targets for luxury development. Unlike the East Village, neither Chinatown nor the Lower East Side zoned in a manner that allowed them to incentivize renovating pre-existing buildings; instead, demolition became the developers’ preferred choice.  Consequently, as more of the Lower East Side and Chinatown became developed for commercial interests, the neighborhood physically changed, affordable housing dwindled, and residents were pushed out.

Some important numbers:

  • 1. According to the 2010 Census, over the past ten years, New York City’s Chinatown “lost 17% of its Chinese residents, or some 6000 Chinese New Yorkers.” This drain has been exacerbated in part by forced evictions just like that of Gum Gee Lee’s. On a broader timesale, this drain also stands as the culminating result of the economic losses sustained by many Chinatown small businesses, garment factories, and employees in the wake of September 11th.
  • 2. Between 2002 and 2009, an estimated 9000 rent-regulated areas in Chinatown were replaced and their residents displaced.
  • 3. Moreover, in a 2010 report and survey, more than 83% of Chinatown residents have seen their rent increase between 2007 and 2010.

A downward spiral of gentrification is thus set in place by zoning and its implications. Zoning, in its essence, shapes neighborhoods and cities. This is why residents in New York City’s Chinatown have been pushing for a Special-Zoning District designation.

What would such a designation do? It would ideally include “anti-demolition, anti-harassment and anti-eviction provisions as well as limits on the kinds of businesses that can open in the neighborhood.” Special-Zoning would protect small business owners. It would also install provisions that allow for affordable housing that would provide for lower income, immigrant families.

Otherwise, how many other Gum Gee Lees will become evicted because their landlords want to turn a profit? How else can residents stop the changing tide of gentrification? How many more small businesses will lose to conglomerates that swallow up the once-distinct faces of neighborhoods?

And the larger questions: What will become of our Chinatowns? What will happen to their communities? Are these spaces destined to become relics of the past? And if this can happen to such a distinct part of America’s urban landscape, what other communities, what other parts of our cities, are at risk?

For Further Reading: