The Dream Revisited

An Inclusionary Tool Created by Low-Income Communities for Low-Income Communities

by Rafael Cestero | November 2015

When New York City helps finance the construction or renovation of affordable housing, it requires that in half of the affordable units the property developer give a preference to income-eligible residents of the community district where the property is built.  Fair housing advocates recently filed a lawsuit against the City, arguing that this community preference policy perpetuates segregation.  Although I share the commitment to furthering fair housing, I believe the lawsuit is misguided and actually threatens an important policy tool in the City’s efforts to maintain stable, diverse neighborhoods in the face of continuing gentrification and housing price increases.

In the 1980s, when the city was struggling to improve conditions in neighborhoods that had suffered from disinvestment, it created the community preference policy in response to demands from low-income residents who insisted on their right to be able to stay put and to benefit from the redevelopment after years of watching the neighborhood’s infrastructure and services deteriorate around them.  Residents in neighborhoods across the city formed block associations and community organizations to participate in the redevelopment process and to try to ensure that as they worked to improve their neighborhood they wouldn’t in turn be forced out by those very improvements. 

The community preference policy reflects a belief that redevelopment is not just about building affordable housing, but about building communities. To rebuild the fabric of a neighborhood, it is essential to start with the people who are there, to recognize the claims of those who want to stay and to participate in that redevelopment. The policy was at its creation and remains now an important part of assuring community boards and community organizations in low-income neighborhoods that redevelopment is not aimed at removing current residents against their will through new investment but is designed instead at ensuring those residents who want to can stay, participate in redevelopment, and enjoy the benefits of new investment.

As the City’s economic fortunes improved and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) shifted from seeking to attract investment to creating mixed-income communities and to preserving affordable housing in the face of rising market pressures, community preferences became an important tool to prevent displacement.  Affordability is now an acute issue in every corner of New York City.

I understand where the fair housing advocates are coming from.  Residency preferences have been and continue to be used to exclude lower-income households and black and Latino families from white, wealthy, suburban enclaves.  But there are very few neighborhoods in New York City that are the exclusive bastions of the wealthy.  And low-income residents of relatively high-income neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side or the Lower East Side are saying that to protect the fabric of the low-income community as rents continue to rise those neighborhoods are even more in need of community preferences than neighborhoods such as the South Bronx.

New York City differs from most of the rest of the United States in that nearly two-thirds of the city’s residents are renters.  One factor that has historically made this predominantly rental market work so well in New York City is the stability of residency in the City’s communities.  In some other localities, people oppose rental housing because they associate it with transiency.  Most renters in New York City, however, are not transient.  Renters live in the same New York neighborhoods for 40 or 50 years—they want to stay there.  And that neighborhood stability is an important part of the argument for community preferences that is often overlooked.  I may have the same income as another applicant, but if that applicant has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years and is facing displacement because of the loss of affordable units, it makes more sense for that long-term resident to be able to remain there and support the stability of the neighborhood’s social fabric than it makes for me to be able to move in.

There are pressing concerns related to continuing high-levels of metropolitan area racial and economic segregation.  Tearing up New York City’s community preference program, however, will make things worse, not better.  Indeed, we should arguably be more focused on the fair housing implications of gentrification, on the large numbers of black and Latino households being displaced from neighborhoods with rising economic fortunes such as Williamsburg or the Lower East Side through the loss of rent-regulated housing units and other affordable housing.  Community preferences play an important role in allowing the residents who have made up the fabric of many New York City neighborhoods to remain, and they enable New York City to continue to be the thriving, diverse city we love.

Rafael Cestero is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) and its for-profit development subsidiary, CPC Resources, Inc. CPC tweets at @communityp.

More in Discussion 17: Community Preferences and Fair Housing