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The not-so-natural process of Williamsburg gentrification

So, how well did the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning work in terms of providing affordable housing? How far along is gentrification? Some sobering observations, if not a full statistical analysis, emerge from an analysis by graduate students at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. The report, Gentrification and Rezoning, Williamsburg-Greenpoint, was produced in conjunction with The New York City Community Council. (Link to full 18MB report.)

For example, the study concludes that inclusionary zoning—which provides increased development rights in exchange for including affordable housing—has worked well on waterfront parcels, where there is both public land to be used and sufficient space to build back.

However, on smaller upland parcels where there’s less room to build bigger overall, “the inclusionary program does not appear to be enough of an incentive to encourage the development of affordable housing.” Instead, developers have taken advantage of the existing 421-a tax exemption, which, until reforms go into effect next year, does not require affordable units in exchange.

Though the city committed “to facilitating construction of 3,548 affordable units” through multiple programs, the city’s March 2007 estimate that it was 57% complete toward the goal “may be a bit optimistic,” according to the study.
(Photo by Bob Guskind/Curbed)

Decline and rise

The area suffered disinvestments in the 1960s and 1970s, after the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway put a gash between neighborhoods and waste transfer sites and other noxious uses came to the waterfront. Deindustrialization continued. However, the neighborhood’s proximity to the East Village, one stop on the L train, and copious vacant warehouse/industrial space, drew artists.

Government (in)action helped: Illegal residential conversion and weak zoning enforcement contributed to, as well as was a symptom of, the hot housing market.

In the wake of the influx of hipsters came bars, “boutique clothing stores, upscale restaurants, dance clubs, yoga studios,” all the better to sell luxury condos.

Most of the new development in Williamsburg involves smaller units “for upper-income single or couple households,” geared to Manhattan transplants, selling a certain version of the good life. They’re “a far cry from the needs of many of the neighborhood’s existing residents.”


Displacement is caused by several factors, not merely rising housing costs. The study also cites “demolition, structural damage to existing buildings caused by new construction, and harassment.”

While no neighborhood statistics on displacement were evident, “[a]necdotal evidence suggests that doubling up is a growing trend that is not fully captured by the [citywide] Housing and Vacancy Survey." Elderly residents of smaller rental properties--which are not regulated--are being increasingly displaced when new owners jack up rents, so the tenants wind up moving in with other family members. This particularly affects the Hispanic and Asian communities on the South Side.

Besides the elderly and immigrants, the study also points to displacement among the Hasidic community—though the information is sketchy—and among the artists who gave Williamsburg its identity.

A cruel paradox

The study notes that those who own homes may see their properties rise in value on paper but find it hard to pay increasing taxes. While unmentioned is the possibility of tapping home equity, the study points out a cruel paradox:
As homeowners struggle to pay taxes, they can peer out of their backyards at the looming new luxury buildings and their new neighbors who may not pay property taxes at all.

Trading jobs for housing

One of the most provocative sections involves the intersection between loss of manufacturing/industrial jobs and the increase in luxury housing:
Between 1991 and 2002 Greenpoint lost 628 manufacturing jobs and 630 industrial jobs; Williamsburg lost 2,802 manufacturing jobs and 2,353 industrial jobs (NYC DCP “G-W Land Use and Waterfront Plan”). While this would be a significant finding on its own, it is even more telling that no other nearby North Brooklyn neighborhood experienced the same kind of loss. This suggests that the industrial sector overall was stable and that something specific was happening in Greenpoint-Williamsburg. The culprit was the strong housing market putting pressure on Greenpoint-Williamsburg.

I’m not completely convinced that it all had to do with housing—we’d have to see statistics about deindustrialization in adjacent neighborhoods—but the argument is potent: manufacturers who owned their buildings made a lot of money selling their properties to residential developers. With a stroke of a pen, the rezoning vastly increased land values, so it was easy to sell to speculators.

However, as the study notes, it’s not a win-win:
The loss of industry has meant a loss of employment opportunities for lower wage employees and a loss of the ‘walk to work’ culture of the neighborhood.

Bottom line

While gentrification and rezoning have led to new stores, goods and services, and a more vibrant street life, “there is also a significant disservice to existing residents in the decrease in affordability of goods, and long-term businesses being displaced by businesses to serve the newer population.” Williamsburg still lacks a “full-service grocery store”—though, unmentioned, arguably Tops on N. Sixth Street qualifies.

Commercial gentrification means that there’s less space for shops selling affordable products and poorer residents must pay more or travel to find lower cost goods. So, in the end, the difference between the bodega and the cheese store, the laundromat and the “urban spa,” might be seen as emblematic of a divided community:
The Williamsburg that has been home to these residents contrasts with the Williamsburg that is being marketed to new residents. Williamsburg is a diverse neighborhood and has served many different ethnic, racial and other communities for many years. However, interviews with longterm residents, our commercial study and our research on residential displacement suggest that Williamsburg is beginning to disproportionately serve new, upper-income residents.

A gentrification process may seem natural, but, as the study suggests, policies, explicit and implicit, make a difference. Had the city fully considered the effect of its housing policies on jobs, it might have done more to keep areas zoned for manufacturing, an issue resonating today with the plans for the New Domino.

Had the 421-a tax break, long overdue for reform, been changed earlier, it would have driven more affordable housing and fostered more economic diversity. And, as with Prospect Heights and Atlantic Yards, the city might not have to rely on megaprojects (with a privately negotiated affordable housing bonus) to deliver affordable housing but instead would have recognized that the tax system was already producing market distortions.