Land Use Decisions Have Life and Death Consequences

New York City remains the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but its effects are being felt differently across neighborhoods. As ANHD's  previous analysis  shows, this virus is hitting low-income communities of color the hardest. The neighborhoods with the highest range of positive COVID-19 cases in the city are home to communities of color whose residents are disproportionately employed in frontline service occupations and face among the highest rates of rent burden and overcrowding. These communities – the epicenters of the epicenter - are home to the largely invisible workforce that is keeping New York City running in this moment of crisis, and they are the ones who are bearing the brunt of its impacts. Recent data released by the City’s Department of Health shows that Black and Latinx New Yorkers are dying at twice the rate of whites - making clear that this pandemic is not only a public health crisis, but a crisis of racial and economic justice as well.   

Among the host of historic inequities behind the disparate impact of COVID-19, one is particularly striking: the string of hospital closures that took place in these communities over the past few decades. At least 18 hospitals have closed all of their inpatient services in New York City since 1998 - leading to the loss of thousands of hospital beds - with two-thirds of those closures occurring in the outer boroughs. A look at the data shows that the majority of these outer borough hospital closures fell in lower-income communities of color that bear the brunt of the coronavirus crisis today. These community hospitals catered to neighborhood residents, many of whom lack private insurance; the mass closure and downsizing to outpatient services means less access to necessary health services, especially in a time of crisis. Households without health insurance have few options if they get sick, other than visiting the remaining public hospitals, adding to the likelihood of exposure to coronavirus and the further straining of the healthcare system. 

COVID-19 and Hospital Closures in NYC, Map by Lucy Block

While community hospitals were being closed in low-income communities of color, hospitals in wealthier sections of the city were being converted into luxury residential buildings, further depleting the city's overall supply of hospital beds. Of the 18 hospitals that closed in the last two decades, over 40% have been replaced by residential developments, most of them with rents or sales prices that are astronomically out of reach for the average New Yorker. At the site of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, where countless poor New Yorkers received care during the AIDS crisis, now stands Greenwich Lane, a luxury condo building. Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, a community medical facility known as America’s first teaching hospital, was replaced by 5 River Park where a studio apartment was recently sold for $1.15 million.

In Queens, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, the closures of St. John's Hospital, Parkway Hospital, and Mary Immaculate Hospital have led to massive overburdening of nearby medical facilities. Each of the neighborhoods where these hospitals were once located in have some of the highest rates of COVID cases in the city. The former site of St. John’s Hospital is located just blocks from Elmhurst Hospital - the same hospital that has seen among the most COVID-19-related deaths in the country. What stands in its place now is Queens Pointe, a market-rate apartment building. The former site of Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica - another COVID-19 hotspot - was transformed into a residential development in 2009. Nearby Parkway Hospital, which once served low-income Queens residents, was also torn down to make room for a residential building in 2008.

As these hospitals continued to serve poor and uninsured New Yorkers, financial restructuring and an inability to pay their bills contributed to a spate of closures in the late 2000s. The deprioritization of hospital infrastructure and subsequent development of residential - particularly luxury residential buildings - on these former hospital sites is the direct result of the City’s land use decisions. The Bloomberg era saw a pattern of high profile rezonings of both public and private land to facilitate luxury residential development, with few if any public benefits secured in exchange for the enormous value these conversions provided to private real estate developers. The prioritization of profit over community need has left a long-lasting legacy across New York, and communities of color have continued to face the brunt of it through displacement, housing instability, job loss, and health disparities. Communities and advocates have long said that these land use decisions have life and death consequences; we as a city are now forced to reckon with the consequences of those decisions in this moment.

The story of hospital closures follows an all too familiar pattern of disinvestment and a lack of resources in low-income communities of color throughout the city, combined with a focus on luxury housing development that doesn't come close to serving New Yorkers most in need. While the details may vary in terms of which private and governmental entities are driving the decision-making, the general story is the same: capital investment and land use decisions have led to an inequitable distribution of resources and opportunity across our city. Whether it’s access to critical infrastructure, good paying jobs, or truly affordable housing free from the risk of displacement and overcrowding, the failures of our planning processes have exacerbated inequality within New York City in a way that is playing out in life or death terms today.

ANHD has called for bold, immediate policy solutions to the COVID crisis - including rent relief, hazard pay, and increased worker protections regardless of immigration status – to support frontline communities in this vital moment. But as we begin to imagine our future in this new COVID reality, we must acknowledge the failures that helped bring us here and commit to a comprehensive planning approach that centers equity and uses a full range of land use, budgeting, and policy tools towards the central goal of reducing the structural inequities that this crisis has laid all too bare.

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Frontline Communities Hit Hardest by COVID-19

Update, April 9, 2020: Since publishing this blog, we have updated our map with new data on COVID-19 cases, adjusted other layers to mirror the more specific zip code geography, and added data on overcrowding. In addition to zip codes, the analysis below refers to United Hospital Fund neighborhoods, which were used in the initial data that NYC DOHMH published on COVID-19. You can still see those neighborhoods in the original map we published on April 1, 2020.

 

New York City is facing an unprecedented crisis as it becomes the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals are beyond maximum capacity, workers have run out of the personal protective equipment they need to stay safe, and 40% of New Yorkers can’t afford to pay rent this month as businesses across the city shutter. While day-to-day life has slowed down, the City’s basic needs are still being met by an invisibilized workforce.

The service workers who keep our city running – home health aides, nurses aides, food service workers, and warehouse staff, among others – are at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Using data released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, an analysis by ANHD finds that high rates of positive COVID-19 cases are concentrated in neighborhoods where many of New York’s frontline service workers reside. These neighborhoods are disproportionately communities of color, and they correspond to both high rates of positive COVID-19 cases and high rent burden. COVID-19 is starkly revealing the racial and economic inequity that’s deeply embedded in our city’s socio-economic infrastructure. This pandemic is not only a public health crisis, but a crisis of racial and economic justice.

Neighborhoods with the highest range of positive cases are home to communities of color whose residents are disproportionately employed in frontline service occupations and face among the highest rates of rent burden - meaning they are spending 30% or more of their total income on rent - in New York City. Not only are frontline workers risking their lives, they’re still worrying about paying their rent in the midst of a global pandemic. For the purpose of this analysis, ANHD defines the frontline service workforce as an aggregate of workers employed in the following occupations: Healthcare Support, Food Preparation and Serving, Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance, and Transportation and Material Moving Occupations. This is the workforce that has been deemed essential by the State of New York and includes nurses aides, restaurant workers, and warehouse and delivery workers.

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Neighborhood Findings

Across the city, outerborough neighborhoods with high rates of positive COVID-19 cases are also home to the frontline service sector workforce.

Western Queens, where Elmhurst Hospital is located, has the highest rate of positive COVID-19 tests in the City and received over three times as many flu-related emergency room visits in one week than any other neighborhood. Elmhurst Hospital is considered the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, having seen 13 coronavirus-related deaths in the span of 24 hours last week. Western Queens has among the largest shares of residents working in service occupations in New York City, while 61% of residents are rent-burdened and the neighborhood is the third most overcrowded. The two hardest hit zip codes in New York City - 11368 and 11373 - are located in Western Queens, with 62% and 79% nonwhite populations, respectively.

In the Bronx, Highbridge/Morrisania has one of the highest rates of positive COVID-19 diagnoses and ranks second highest in the city for threats to affordable housing. It also has the largest share of residents working in frontline service sector occupations and the second largest share of people of color in New York City. The adjacent neighborhood of Crotona/Tremont - also part of the South Bronx - has a high rate of COVID-19 diagnoses, and it is also the most rent-burdened in New York City. It has the second highest density of service workers; and it has the fourth highest density of people of color across New York City. Together, these neighborhoods highlight a clear relationship between pre-existing inequity and where the virus is hitting hardest.

East New York, Brooklyn – with one of the highest rates of COVID-19 – also ranks in the top ten neighborhoods citywide for density of service workers, rent burden, and people of color.

Manhattan overall is hit less hard by positive cases. However, neighborhoods with higher positive cases – for example, Inwood and Washington Heights – also have higher percentages of service workers, greater rent burden, and more people of color. Staten Island is the one borough that doesn’t follow this trend, but that may be due to different density patterns or availability of testing.

Low- and moderate-income workers, in particular workers of color who are already marginalized, are likely to face the most dire fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. A statewide eviction moratorium gives many renters relief from immediate homelessness, but does nothing to resolve what happens when the moratorium is lifted and people are still out of work. For frontline workers who are putting their lives on the line, the ability to pay rent still looms over their heads. The correlation of rent burden to COVID-19 impact shown in this map highlights the urgent need for our government officials to provide real relief to renters, rather than wait for the health crisis to subside and hope for the best. ANHD proposes bold, immediate policy solutions to support our frontline workers. Rent relief, hazard pay, and increased worker protections available to all regardless of immigration status are all necessary to ensure that the people who keep New York running are protected. Our current moment requires a fundamental shift in the status quo. The health of our city and the lives of our neighbors depends on it.

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Who's Left Out When We Don’t Serve 30% AMI?

If the City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan doesn’t serve 30% AMI, MIH will leave out nearly 30% of New Yorkers. ANHD’s new map – WHO GETS LEFT OUT, WHEN WE DON’T SERVE 30% AMI? – shows the areas where MIH serving below 40% AMI is most critical for the local residents. Below are the maximum incomes and hourly wages that each AMI level can serve as reported in the City’s study.

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