SoHo residents seek diversity, yet are fighting housing plan

Proposed rezoning highlights difficulty of integrating a city known for its diversity, but remains divided

Published Mon, Apr 5, 2021 · 05:50 AM

New York

AS A child growing up in SoHo, Akeela Azcuy remembers seeing her father, drummer Rashied Ali, talking music with neighbours like renowned jazz performer Ornette Coleman, who lived over on Grand Street.

Artistes of all incomes and backgrounds had descended onto the formerly industrial New York City neighbourhood to make use of the open space, great light and extremely tolerant neighbours: Because the buildings were mostly empty, painters could freely stink up the hallways with smells of turpentine, and musicians like Ms Azcuy's father could practise for hours without interruption.

Decades later, Ms Azcuy still lives in the neighbourhood, which has lost much of that artistry - and diversity.

SoHo is now better known as a glitzy retail and dining district, one where it is easier to find a table at a restaurant than a reasonably priced apartment. And it is decidedly white.

A plan to bring new development to SoHo and NoHo, its sister neighbourhood, aspires to change that. A proposed rezoning would allow 3,200 additional apartments over the next 10 years, including approximately 800 affordable units in an area that had fewer than 8,000 residents in the 2010 census. And by doing so in a place internationally synonymous with affluence and style, it could also become a symbol for racial and economic integration everywhere.

Tuesday, 12 pm
Property Insights

Get an exclusive analysis of real estate and property news in Singapore and beyond.

But longtime residents are pushing back against the plan, saying that it will bring big retailers and more modern high-rise buildings that will change the character of the neighbourhood, known for its 19th-Century architecture and cobblestone streets. They say they support increased diversity but contend that city officials are overstating the number of low-cost apartments that would be created, a claim the city disputes.

The battle might be a sign of what's ahead as American cities begin to reopen and confront the realities of inequality and segregation exposed both by the pandemic and the racial protests over the summer - and the economic pressure from emptied office buildings, closed businesses and falling revenue. Any new construction could be a welcome gift to offset these burdens. And the Biden administration has introduced an infrastructure plan that includes US$200 billion for building and improving affordable housing nationwide.

Affordable housing

The proposed rezoning highlights the difficulty of integrating a city that is known for its diversity, yet remains divided from one neighbourhood to the next. The rarity of such a proposal is twofold: that there is space in prime Manhattan for new housing construction, and that a white, wealthy neighbourhood would be expected to shoulder changes that are usually relegated to other communities.

"The pandemic and the movement for racial justice make clear that all neighbourhoods must pull their weight to provide safe, affordable housing options," Vicki Been, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said in a statement last year when the city made its recommendations public. In an interview recently, she underscored that the jobs and housing opportunities created by the rezoning would be critical to New York's post-pandemic recovery.

Under the proposal, developers would have to set aside 20 per cent to 30 per cent of new housing as affordable, though the exact rent levels have not been determined. The plan would also amend commercial zoning, including replacing an outdated regulation that requires new retailers to get special permission to occupy ground-floor space.

The rezoning proposal is nowhere near final. In the meantime, residents of all opinions are trying to make their voices heard before the planning department presents a proposal that will go to the City Council and the mayor later this year. For those who oppose the plan, the debate has put them in an uncomfortable position: Their opposition can be seen as a barrier to diversifying the neighbourhood.

"I'm very sensitive to the whiteness of us all," Frederica Sigel, a member of the local community board, said at a meeting last year. "I think the thing that's great about New York City is that every neighbourhood contributes something different, and so what we're contributing in SoHo with our cast-iron buildings and the scale and cobblestones and art, I don't feel that we should be responsible for producing as much affordable housing as other neighbourhoods." "But I want to live in a diverse neighbourhood," she added.

In an interview, Ms Sigel clarified her comments, saying that stringent city requirements, not the wishes of residents, were to blame for the homogeneity. Much of SoHo and NoHo have been designated as historic districts, granting older buildings protections and offering few opportunities to create affordable housing, she said.

City planners say that simple economics - there is little demand for office space in SoHo now - will induce developers to build housing, not commercial space.

Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that "it is genuinely fair to wonder how this neighbourhood could possibly get any whiter or wealthier." He stressed that the plan would "finally bring permanently affordable housing to blocks that currently only have market-rate apartments".

And now that the neighbourhood has become a bastion of wealth, some current residents and housing rights activists question what preservationists are trying to protect.

"Some will argue that any new housing in SoHo would be out of character with the neighbourhood," said Aaron Carr, the founder of Housing Rights Initiative, "but I'd argue that the neighbourhood of SoHo is out of character with New York."

Some of the most striking scenes of last summer's Black Lives Matter demonstrations unfolded in the neighbourhood. Protesters, challenging the police killing of George Floyd, marched past luxury stores like Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel that looters later vandalised; for weeks afterward, the neighbourhood's storefronts were shielded by plywood.

Business interests

Some current residents, including Ms Azcuy, who is Black, are sceptical that the city's efforts are truly aimed at increasing diversity, and think the main goal is to cater to the neighbourhood's business interests. She still thinks about the Black residents that she grew up with who have been displaced. "The city hasn't laid out a plan to keep people of colour in their homes in our community," she said.

Any new affordable apartments would be assigned via lottery, and applicants will face daunting odds: From 2013 to 2020, New Yorkers submitted over 25 million applications for only 40,000 such apartments that had become available throughout the city.

The average asking rent for a two-bedroom apartment in SoHo is over US$8,000, according to the Department of City Planning; that is about US$2,500 more than the median city household earns in a month.

Regardless of income level, SoHo is an attractive place to live. Emmanuel Felton, a reporter at BuzzFeed News, moved to SoHo in part because of the comparatively smaller police presence. Before moving to New York, he had once been woken up by a SWAT team trying to enter his apartment, looking for a previous occupant. "It's ridiculous that you have to move to a neighbourhood like this not to be overly policed as a Black guy," he said.

Last summer's protests, however, and the subsequent increased police presence in SoHo made Mr Felton realise he would start being seen more as a target than a neighbour. After one evening of looting, he was afraid to leave his apartment without ID. "I wasn't going to be a Black man walking around SoHo without proof that I lived here," he said.

Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor and author of Loft living: Culture and capital in urban change, said a fear of losing control is what may be moving some of the opposition.

Longtime SoHo residents fought for spaces for artistes to live and work "and they don't see them as a benefits or privileges - they see them as hard-won gains, not the status quo", Prof Zukin said. She added: "There's a scale issue of whether the neighbourhood controls what's built, or whether or not there's a citywide force from the outside. How do you get racial justice in this place?" NYTIMES

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to



Get the latest coverage and full access to all BT premium content.


Browse corporate subscription here