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Post-Covid 19 development must be bold and inclusive

By Rebecca Karp

The coronavirus has created deep uncertainty around the future of our region. But when the legacy of this crisis is written, perhaps we will see it for what it said about us in equal measure to what it did to us.

Covid-19 has exposed the deep economic fault lines present in our region for decades, where Black and Latinx workers and lower-income communities experience mortality rates double that of their white and higher-income peers.

The pandemic is far from over, but as we think about what a vital recovery looks like, the real estate industry has a tremendous opportunity– and the unique capability– to help create a more equitable and resilient future.

REBECCA KARP

How so? In today’s environment, more will be expected of developers than ever before. Sometimes these expectations won’t be fair or attainable, but developers will nonetheless need to do all they can to both take care of their businesses and be transparent in their community engagement.

That means being freshly attuned to the struggles of their communities; striving to make development a more inclusive process; and ensuring that projects deliver local jobs, affordable housing, and improved infrastructure so we’re prepared for the next disaster.

First, as soon as it is safe to do so, we urgently need development to put New Yorkers back to work, and promote equitable access to jobs.

Real estate development has the ability to get thousands of people back to work. Jobs, at a range of skill levels, offered and made accessible to local residents, are key to equitable economic development. Programs like Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) provide excellent workforce development and job training for the construction and development industries.

As the real estate industry resumes work, continuing to partner with local organizations and commit to accessible hiring practices will help ensure job openings are filled during a time of record unemployment and demonstrate the industry’s commitment to local needs.

Second, the City and developers need to work together to get the right projects moving, in a true public-private partnership.

But it can’t just be luxury housing—we must invest in the infrastructure we need to ensure that our region is more equitably shared, and more resilient when crises hit.

Public transportation, environmental preparedness, affordable housing—these are the things that make for a more prosperous and equitable region. One effective P3 model was carved out pre-COVID with HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which NYCHA leveraged in addressing hundreds of millions of dollars in urgent capital repairs. RAD and P3s like it can be boosted to include resilience measures as we build upon the lessons learned from the Covid-19 crisis.

Third, there’s nothing that creates equity more than good, safe housing.

Our housing crisis has gone from bad to catastrophic. It is the industry’s obligation to both work with City agencies like the Department of Homeless Services, NYCHA, and HPD to help them expand capacity, and prioritize local housing needs in projects across the five boroughs. These agencies also need to do their part to expedite project reviews and promote smart policy to advance housing projects in new ways.

Fourth, we must commit to a more equitable land use and development process.

Prior to this crisis my team at Karp Strategies, the urban planning consultancy I lead, conducted a feasibility study for the developers reenvisioning the Long Island City waterfront. What we found is the economic importance of balancing two fundamentals in the project vision: creating a mixed-use framework that allows the district to thrive as a commercial center and hub for innovation, while also ensuring the benefits of that plan include local and vulnerable residents.

Achieving this balance is more critical than ever as we think about the transformative projects that must move forward to help stimulate recovery in New York: large-scale efforts like YourLIC, the Two Trees River Street development, the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project.

Finally, developers need to be more community-driven than ever.

The people who need the most right now must be at the table from the start; community engagement can’t just be window-dressing but an integral focus of every project. To be successful – especially in a resource-constrained environment – development plans must meaningfully and transparently include community stakeholders.

We know developers will not be able to solve all problems – nor should that be our expectation. But development can be a critical force in shaping our economic recovery as we look to achieve both short- and long-term goals.

New York has been devastated by this crisis, but New Yorkers are resilient, resourceful and creative. Now we must work collaboratively to build an equitable, resilient future.

Rebecca Karp is the chief executive of Karp Strategies, a city-based urban planning, community economic development and real estate advisory firm.

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