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Manhattan Institute

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Turning Food Deserts Into Oases: Why NY's Public Housing Should Encourage Commercial Development

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Turning Food Deserts Into Oases: Why NY's Public Housing Should Encourage Commercial Development

October 25, 2016
Urban PolicyHousingNYC

Executive Summary

Concern about ways to combat health problems affecting low-income Americans has included concern about areas with insufficient access to fresh food at reasonable prices, so-called food deserts. New York City has, for almost a decade, pursued a policy based on tax and zoning incentives to attract supermarkets to such low-income areas, which often include public housing.

Yet unlike neighborhood commercial districts, where sites for new supermarkets may be difficult to assemble, public-housing properties and the land on which they stand are owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)—potentially reducing the hurdles. Indeed, more supermarkets and other retail stores on NYCHA properties could improve the health of residents, enhance public safety, and help the dire finances of America’s largest public-housing authority. 

Key Findings

  • 180 of NYCHA’s properties are located in areas classified by the city as “underserved” (i.e., having less than 3 square feet of supermarket floor space per capita), with some large NYCHA properties located more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.
  • New commercial development, particularly supermarkets, on NYCHA properties could improve access to fresh food for low-income residents and increase retail-rental revenue for NYCHA, which faces a major maintenance-repair backlog.
  • New retail-rental development on the 50 NYCHA properties that are already eligible for special zoning incentives would likely yield an additional $6 million–$19 million in annual revenue to the city.

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Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute.

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