Hundreds of Cultural Workers Denounce Inequity in NYC’s Real Estate Development

Over the last two decades, the average monthly rent for an apartment in New York City has increased by almost 40%. Meanwhile, New Yorkers’ home purchasing power has steeply declined, and wages have largely remained stagnant. But private luxury residential and commercial construction skyrocketed

This jarring discord between the shortage of affordable housing options in the city and the relentless expansion of luxury real estate is at the crux of an open letter denouncing “New York City’s inequitable development.” Penned jointly by two NYC-based cultural advocacy groups, the Architecture Lobby and Art Against Displacement (AAD), the petition was first published in the Architect’s Newspaper yesterday, April 22, on the occasion of Earth Day. 

High-end construction “has prioritized developer profits and design over the possibility of a more affordable and diverse city,” the letter’s authors write.

“Designers must work collectively to cease their complicity with dispossession — for the sake of our vulnerable communities and the climate crisis; against larger systemic injustices reproduced by the built environment; for the future of human health, welfare, and equity; and for the value and aesthetics of architecture,” they say.

Similar inequities are plaguing commercial real estate, as small businesses are increasingly driven out of central locations. In the art world, groups like AAD, the New Arts Dealers Alliance (NADA), and the NYC Artist Coalition have been campaigning for months to pass commercial rent stabilization

The missive calls on the design community to advocate for policies that secure commercial spaces for local businesses, guarantee housing as a human right, and “reign in the unbridled greed of the real estate lobby.” More than 170 artists, professors, urban planners, writers, designers, and architects have signed their names, including Bureau gallery owner Gabrielle Giattino; New York Review of Architecture editor Nicolas Kemper; and artists Tauba Auerbach, Michael Rakowitz, and Xaviera Simmons.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, artist, architectural designer, and activist Zazu Swistel, one of the letter’s writers, said one of their goals is to show how many people working with the built environment are just as incensed by the current system.

“Artists are super angry about this level of violence development,” Swistel said. “But there are also people within this industry who are building these buildings who are opposed to it. How can we bring these artists and architects together in an interdisciplinary way?”

The need for affordable housing in New York City is dire. As of February 2021, 55,501 people lived in municipal shelters; thousands more sleep on the street. More than two-thirds of those living in shelters are families, including nearly 18,000 children. Yet so-called “affordable units” in the city, the open letter says, “are rarely affordable and always far too few.” A review by THE CITY of 18 million applications to the NYC Housing Connect system found that low-income applicants faced the most competition in the affordable housing lottery. 

“They’re earmarking units for people who make gentrification-level wages,” artist Vanessa Thill, another co-writer of the letter, told Hyperallergic.

Despite this egregious neglect of a basic human need, luxury condos continue to rise, and many of them remain empty. In the words of Derek Thompson for the Atlantic: “In Manhattan, the homeless shelters are full, and the luxury skyscrapers are vacant.”

As the letter’s authors note, the boom in luxury construction is not just a driving force of gentrification and displacement, but a detriment to the cultural richness and diversity the city has long prided itself on. Between 2000 and 2015, for instance, the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg lost around 15,000 Hispanic residents, even while the overall population rose by 20,000, the New York Times reported.

“With each developer-driven project, the city loses its aesthetic vibrancy and, more importantly, its affordability — pushing out black, brown, and indigenous communities, precarious workers, and artists, who author the unique cultures and environments that developers prize and capitalize on,” says the open letter. 

The authors outline a series of recommendations: policymakers should ban government subsidies for private developers; campaigning for tenant rights; and supporting community-driven ownership models such as Community Land Trusts (CLTs), designed to ensure long-term housing affordability. 

In the current model, says Swistel, “the city uses buildings as a means to make monetary gains.” 

“The developer gets to put up a massive tower and at the same time, they have to update the sewage lines in the neighborhoods, for instance,” she told Hyperallergic. “It’s a deal. The city is constantly cutting a deal.”

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