Brooklyn’s new borough president doesn’t care about the ‘character’ of your neighborhood. That’s ‘not more important than putting people in homes

Since at least the 1960s, New Yorkers have been obsessed with the “character” of neighborhoods, or better said, their neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs, an urbanist who spent her life studying cities, famously tangled with the “power broker” himself, Robert Moses, as the planner wanted to build an expressway through the West Village, ripping up charming townhouses along the way. She even published a long essay about the soul of urbanism in the pages of Fortune Magazine as part of her campaign, resulting in her masterpiece book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

But Brooklyn’s borough president, Antonio Reynoso, is fed up with the city, one that he says only builds in poor neighborhoods that are predominantly inhabited by communities of color, while wealthier neighborhoods, sometimes filled with NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard, anti-development residents), can resist change because of their political clout. Reynoso doesn’t seem to be shying away from the more than six-decade-long conversation of “neighborhood character;” to him, character shouldn’t matter when your city is missing hundreds of thousands of homes. And maybe the same should be said throughout the country, given our housing crisis is a by-product of a vast supply shortage, estimated to be anywhere between roughly two million and seven million homes. 

“We have a housing crisis,” Reynoso tells Fortune, “and the character of your neighborhood is not more important than putting people in homes.” 

Maybe initially the urge to preserve a neighborhood’s character was a good thing—after all, it came as a reaction to the aggressive construction of highways in the 1950s and ’60s that gutted entire neighborhoods and displaced thousands of people and businesses. These urban renewal efforts, by Jacobs’ account, failed to actually house more people, and their effects in segregating poor people and communities of color are well-documented. But eventually, the preservation urge went too far, as many well-intentioned efforts do. Consider the California Environmental Quality Act: enacted in 1970, it was supposed to prevent harm to the environment from development, but it’s become weaponized to block housing, whether it be new construction or infill, when it interferes with a neighborhood’s preference—a standalone failure at the root of California’s housing crisis. 

In New York, neighborhoods that don’t want anything to change, ever, have embraced this notion of “character” as a protective quality, to the extent that it even appears in the city’s environmental review code. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to it. “In a neighborhood character assessment,” it begins, “one considers how elements of the environment combine to create the context and feeling of a neighborhood and how a project may affect that context and feeling.”

Communities within New York’s five boroughs have cried “character” in opposition to anything under the sun, from luxury housing to low-income housing, to high-rises (or really anything greater than 10 stories tall)—even objecting to the redevelopment of an old parking garage that was apparently “cherished” into condominiums. In the early 2000s, concerns over “character” coupled with worries about gentrification led to broad rezonings, mostly in wealthy neighborhoods, to effectively block higher-density housing, which New York desperately needs. Politico once called the massive rezoning, aligned with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reign, an effort to “reinforce neighborhood character.”

But it’s in those neighborhoods, and frankly, every neighborhood, the city needs to build in, to Reynoso’s point. New York City’s home prices and rents are substantially higher than national averages; recent data shows that rental vacancies across the city are nearly non-existent, with the lowest vacancy rate in more than 50 years; and the pipeline of new private housing units in the state is depressed, at best. That’s why Reynoso, alongside City Council Member Erik Bottcher, have created a “housing league” of sorts for elected officials that want to build all over, as the New York Times first reported. Bottcher’s district includes the Greenwich Village and Chelsea neighborhoods, which happen to be some of the very neighborhoods that were down-zoned decades ago and are among the most affluent in the city, with average home values around $1.5  million. 

The specific tasks of the league are still up in the air, as Reynoso says he wants to get input from other pro-development politicians before revealing specifics and strategy. So far, it appears the league will act as a cheerleader, or rather a visible backer, for the pro-development crowd. Members could release public statements addressing local politicians countering development or stand with those pushing for new construction in neighborhoods resistant to change, according to the Times. But the borough president’s involvement is also potentially significant since the position gives him some input on land use decisions. 

But Reynoso doesn’t want to waste his time or the league’s on convincing NIMBYs. “If you are a NIMBY, just for the sake of it, then I’m not here to convince those people,” he says. “I’m not going to be expending resources and time convincing people that just don’t want to build.”

He still lives three blocks from his childhood home on the south side of Williamsburg, where he, his father, mother, and two sisters lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of a Section 8 housing building, after his parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic in the late 1970s. 

Four decades later, it hasn’t gotten any easier for individuals, couples, or families moving to, or living, in the city. His goal with the housing league is to create a place where elected officials can come together, and show that there are politicians who support housing development—and more of them than you’d think. Reynoso described the league as visible support, whether that be for Hochul or Adams, so they know there are local officials that want more housing built. “More housing means that we can stabilize our rent crisis, our housing crisis,” he said. If the city doesn’t build, “New York is going to be one for the rich or the poor,” where its population either relies on rent-stabilized or rent-subsidized housing, or can afford costly, market-rate housing. 

Still, Reynoso is up against some formidable opponents, even if he won’t say so (when Fortune asked about his greatest obstacle, Reynoso named information not local control or NIMBY-ism). Even the mayor, and the governor, despite constantly emphasizing a need to build their way out, can’t get past local control and the objections of highly intelligent, affluent residents. Last year, Governor Kathy Hochul’s plan to build 800,000 new homes in the state over the next decade stalled over suburban opposition; her new plan is avoiding the suburbs and seemingly local control. Mayor Eric Adams, who was once the Brooklyn borough president himself, proposed to rewrite zoning regulations so vacant offices can be converted into housing during the summer of last year; parts of that plan seem to be proceeding, albeit slowly.

Reynoso said his decision to form the league “mostly stemmed from the fact that last year the state came back with no housing agenda,” he said. “I think that’s going to set us back significantly, and we can’t have that happen again.”

The word crisis seems to have lost its meaning in the city, Reynoso said, but no one is addressing it as a crisis. If a tsunami were to hit the city, everyone would respond in a manner resembling the crisis itself, he said. But that’s not happening with the housing crisis, the homelessness crisis, or the migrant crisis. “I want to give it meaning again,” he said, and that means taking every single opportunity to address the problem and putting everything on the table. 

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