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Rethinking Growth: One City/One Future’s Blueprint

Back in late March, One City/One Future, a group of community advocates and planners, labor unions, scholars, and others released A Blueprint for Growth that Works for All New Yorkers. Many of the Blueprint’s ideas and strategies have been bouncing around for a while, and some have already been put to work in other cities. But given the sour economy, it’s a good time to present them to the public in a consolidated way. As the Mayor’s office and business lobby groups like the Partnership for New York City plan for the future by re-jiggering the standard pro-business agenda, the One City/One Future agenda shows us what real progressive planning looks like. Furthermore, the Blueprint has the potential to re-orient the discussion about what role the municipal government should play in bringing about a more balanced, equitable future for all New Yorkers.

Tweaks and Nudges vs. Real Intervention

You can’t argue that the Bloomberg administration has been unconcerned with issues of social equity that the Blueprint tackles head on: poverty, affordable housing, etc. Indeed, the former has been feted in liberal circles for its “innovative” approaches to such thorny problems. Keep in mind, though, that the driving concern here is with the city’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. Inadequate housing stock— the reasoning goes—keeps talented people from coming, and if already here, from staying. While perhaps bad in and of itself, poverty leads to neglected neighborhoods, dirty streets, and crime: the forces, in other words, that destroy a city’s quality of life and further strain its stock of human capital.  More technically speaking, the affordability crisis and the wage gap point to market inefficiencies, which if uncorrected, will do significant damage to the city’s “brand.”

Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.

So what to do? In addition to the standard tax breaks for corporations, have the municipal government tweak incentive programs so that developers will voluntarily and profitably build affordable housing. With some state and federal assistance, provide the infrastructural improvements that nudge the market towards a better allocation of resources, such as housing and jobs. Of course, now there’s quite a bit more urgency to it all. The task for city policy makers seems to be, above all else, to protect the city’s tax base.  They need to not only keep corporations here, but attract new ones, especially in the so-called “knowledge sector.” It sounds like common sense, now that a chunk of that tax base on Wall Street has vaporized, and probably won’t ever return to form. Restore growth first, and with the right policy adjustments, the jobs and the housing will come. Presto, equity issues solved. 

The One City/One Future Blueprint looks at things much differently. It doesn’t discount the realities of global economic competition, and more specifically, the deep economic restructuring that this competition over the years has entailed. Nor does it deny that the growth the city has seen recently has its upside. But the fact of the matter is that more than anything else, New York is now a “low-wage, high cost” city.

“If New York City were a country,” reports the Blueprint, “it would rank as the second most unequal in the world, second only to Namibia.”  Nearly half of the city’s renters are “carrying a high housing cost burden, meaning they pay more than a third of their income for rent every month.”  There’s something systemic going on, something structural. 

When the problem is conceived this way, tinkering with the old pro-growth agenda won’t do. As the Blueprint points out, years of market-oriented development policy has contributed to the very problems planners now confront. Incentives, tax abatements, and aggressive neighborhood rezoning have led to dramatic additions to the local skyline, no doubt, but these policies have also driven up real estate prices, driven out manufacturing, and produced a never ending supply of low-wage, non-union jobs that can’t support individuals, much less a family. As Mike Fishman, President of SEIU Local 32BJ (the buildings service workers union that has endorsed the Blueprint) said in a mid-May conversation with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, over the last couple of decades we have seen the erosion of the social compact between the city and its working classes. By insisting on enforceable claw backs in incentive programs, mandated affordable housing, a city-wide minimum wage, along with other programs that raise the wages of workers in the city, Fishman said, the Blueprint will give the city what it needs, which is “a good, stable wage base.”

Indeed, the Blueprint proposes to actively intervene in the marketplace, in ways that ensure that the vast wealth this city produces makes it way down the ladder. By Mayor Bloomberg’s own admission, New York has become by and large a “luxury city.” If the recommendations of the Blueprint become policy, New Yorkers will have committed themselves to an economy and a culture that is far less one-sided.  

Shaping the Debate

The rub, of course, is getting it done. The most basic of its equity proposals, a city wide minimum wage, will require a considerable fight. At a May 14 forum hosted by One City/One Future, both Robert Lieber, Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, and Kathryn Wilde, of the Partnership for New York City, predictably raised the issue of capital flight. For its part, the 70,000 strong 32BJ is calling on local elected leaders and candidates to accept the principles of what it calls a “New Deal for New Yorkers”—a framework that, like the Blueprint, calls for mandatory inclusionary zoning, living wages on publicly subsidized projects, and not just jobs, but good jobs when the city economy starts going “green”—before any endorsements are handed out.    

What about the Blueprint’s call for the beefing up of community boards, so as to make them effective advocates for the neighborhoods they represent? The main obstacle here is City Hall, which, barring the unforeseen, will not see a changing of the guard next year. It is nothing if not developer friendly, even if all those stilled construction cranes and auctioned off condos speak eloquently to the folly of such an attitude. As advocates of economic development cum real estate development, Bloomberg and Co. look at community boards, and they’re reminded of how slow and unpredictable the development process can be. That process is something they want streamlined, not democratized.  

It should help that some of what is proposed has proved workable in other cities.  Another high cost city, San Francisco, passed a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2002, and a minimum wage law in 2003. It still stands, and any slowdown there has little to do with higher wages for restaurant, security, and home health workers. With its Office of Neighborhood Development, Portland, Ore. has encouraged more citizen input on a range of development issues, including gentrification. Recognized community groups become part of the planning process, and the city even provides them with a professional planner they can call their own.

For too long in this town, the city government has seen its job as making life simpler and cheaper for businesses, not more stable and secure for its middle and working classes. The 50-plus proposals that make up the Blueprint are geared to turning this equation around and getting public power back on the people’s side. Getting the legislation passed that will get us there will be tough enough. It might be made easier if we embrace, alongside such practical struggles, a wider project geared toward progressive political education, especially about the necessity for democratic and comprehensive planning, backed by a municipal government that is attentive to the needs of all New Yorkers.  

Mike Fishman, of local 32BJ, suggested where we might start. In response to a Crain’s New York Business about how the Bloomberg Administration, with backing of business community, has been “beefing up its capacity in strategic and business  development,” Fishman wrote in a letter to the editor that it was time for a new approach.

“With one out of every four jobs linked directly or indirectly to the city,” he wrote, “City Hall has the power, and the responsibility, to update our economic development policies so they are in line with today’s economic reality.” Unless we change these, we’ll be dragged “back into the same economic mess we’re trying to climb out of today.” More fundamentally, Fishman told Brian Lehrer, it was time to find ways to use the “political power of the city to make things better.”  

And my hunch is that most New Yorkers will prefer their city become more like San Francisco or Portland than Namibia.


Richard Wells


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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