It’s Who You Are Not What You Are

I'll admit I'm a little busy and a little burnt, so this is just the usual blog reaction piece rather than a researched essay. I was amused to read a review of bed and breakfast inns in Brooklyn in the Daily News today. Amused because if such establishments are located in residential zoning districts, as they all appear to be, they are illegal — they violate the zoning resolution. Then again, so are tens of thousands of small businesses in New York City, often because they are located on one block of a commercial street (zoned C1) instead of the next block over (zoned C2), and a large share of the growing number of people working at home. I know this because I was once a project director for a NYC Department of City Planning research project to fix all this, that was ready to go complete with recommendations, but which the Department didn't have a political mandate to release.  The recommendation for bed and breakfast inns was…

To permit them in one-family homes, provided they at least corresponded with the state building code rules specifically enacted for bed and breakfasts, which I found researching the state statues.  So most of those in the articles would have been allowed, if the project had been followed through and in the unlikely even that the City Council approved it.  The Department managers who wasted their time on my project, in meetings to come up with conclusions and recommendations, decided to punt on the legality of all those rented out rooms and apartments in multiple dwellings — something that came back to haunt DCP in the Trump apartment-hotel issue.  I tried to find some useful rules calling places where lots of people own second homes they rent out, such as the Hamptons and Orlando, but came up empty.

Now that they have outed themselves, how much trouble are these Brooklyn Bed and Breakfasts in?  It depends on arbitary and personal politics.  Because one reason any reform with a hard clear line between what is and is not allowed won't fly in New York is because having a lot of rules on the books that are seldom enforced is a way to have different rules for different people.  And that is what our political class likes.

Are these people the wrong race?  The wrong class?  Have they expressed any political opinions other than gratitude to our wonderful incumbents?  As long as they play the game, they are probably free to break the rules.  For others who are actually in the game as main players, no rules apply.  More importantly, the title of the article is "Brooklyn's upscale inns offer places for a relative or a local escape." The key word being "upscale." No problem with that, right?

I wrote about the different rules for different people here, a two-year-old essay I still think is worth a read.

Back when I was at City Planning, before I got completely fed up and left, I sort of became the leading expert on use and parking regulations, so the zoning help desk started referring people to me.  I'd get calls from people looking to open perfectly harmless businesses, businesses that I knew were open in similar locations throughout the city.  But I was advised to say "get a lawyer" rather than offer any advice, because I was told they might personally sue me if they opened in a place that was technically in violation, and then were financially harmed by an enforcement action. 

One call I remember was a person who wanted to open up a B&B in Harlem.  I told her it was illegal under zoning.  She was Black, she told me, and lots of other B&Bs were already operating in the area, all owned by Whites.  It killed me to say it, but I told her that even so if she was to open she risked an enforcement action and going broke.  But there was a city planning project to address the issue, I told her.  In 1998 or 1999.