Emma Whitford | May 13, 2015
A celebratory mood prevailed at yesterday’s rally for affordable housing in East New York’s Highland Park, where hundreds of housing activists, union representatives, students, clergy members and long-time residents gathered to protest increasingly “crazy” rents and demand fair rezoning.
As a local high school marching band (the PS 137 Soul Tigers) stepped in formation nearby, activists from as far away as the Rockaways took to the stage to send a message to developers who see their neighborhoods as new “frontiers” for gentrification. The crowd roared when Jamaica, Queens resident Darnel Lyles took the mic. “This is one fight!” he declared. “One struggle! The people who are making decisions get scared when Queens comes to meet up with East New York. When East New York and Queens meet up with the boogie-down Bronx. That’s the power!”
East New York is the first of fifteen low-income neighborhoods scheduled to be rezoned as part of de Blasio’s $41 billion affordable housing plan. In February, the mayor released an initial blueprint for rezoning in East New York’s Cypress Hills neighborhood and adjacent Ocean Hill in Bed-Stuy, which calls for the construction of 7,000 new apartments by 2030, plus an additional one million new square feet of commercial space.
The number of affordable units is still being hashed out, but the vast majority of the new housing will be market rate.
The rezoning outlined in de Blasio’s Sustainable Communities: East New York plan encompasses the area around the A/C, J/Z/L Broadway Junction station, a choice that reflects the mayor’s “Transit Oriented Development” approach, which encourages a higher density of development around heavily trafficked train stations.
From Broadway Junction, commuters can get into Manhattan in half an hour—a boon for current residents, but also a selling point for real estate brokers. Last summer one real estate agent said the response to new listings in East New York “has been tremendous. Everyone is heading East!” A 2014 report on Sustainable Communities by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the kind of transit-oriented development being pushed by the de Blasio administration in East New York “has the potential to spur gentrification and displace residents in low- and moderate-income areas.”
Wary of the swift pace of gentrification in nearby Williamsburg and Bushwick, many East New Yorkers argue that de Blasio’s proposed “affordable” apartments are hardly affordable for the average East New Yorker. According to the advocacy group Faith in New York, most of de Blasio’s planned affordable units are calculated for incomes of $42-67,000 per year. In East New York, the Area Median Income (AMI) is just $32,000 per year.
Last summer Shai Lauros of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation told us, “As it’s written, the [citywide] unit percentage breakdown amounts to a median rent of between $1,050 and $1,670, with 8% of the 200,000 units for rent at $630.” Whereas, “Affordable rents for this community typically range from $375-625. This could contribute to displacement.”
Rama Campbell, 49, has lived in East New York for her entire life, and she’s already noticing the telltale symptoms of gentrification. “It is a transition right now,” she told us last night. “Rent is getting crazy. There’s no more middle class. Now either you’re rich, or you’re poor.”
Dennis Taylor works for the Saboath Group, an East New York tenant’s rights nonprofit, and has lived in the neighborhood for 29 years.
“We are getting new residents here, who have been priced out of Williamsburg and Greenpoint,” he told us. As gentrification creeps east, longtime residents are stretched thin: “We see people who are living in double-up situations that can’t afford ‘affordable’ housing,” Taylor said.
Last night’s rally and march, hosted in part by the Real Affordability For All (RAFA) coalition, called on Mayor de Blasio to meet with East New Yorkers before the rezoning plan is finalized, to ensure that their needs are addressed. For starters, RAFA wants 50% of the units in each new building to be truly affordable for East New Yorkers. They’d also like to see official protections against long-term tenant displacement.
De Blasio’s affordable housing plan outlines, albeit vaguely, Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ), which will serve up slightly more affordable housing than Bloomberg’s old 80/20 Inclusionary Zoning plan.
To supplement his course of action on zoning, De Blasio recently urged Albany to reform but not eliminate a ’70s-era tax abatement program known as 421-a, which gives developers temporary freezes on their real estate taxes in exchange for building affordable housing. Though many affordable housing advocates want 421-a to expire in June, the mayor is proposing an increase in the required percentage of affordable housing for using the subsidy, to 25% and 30%, depending on the neighborhood.
Rachel Rivera moved to Cypress Hills two years ago, after being displaced by Hurricane Sandy. “I’m a single mother of six kids, and I love this area,” she said from the stage. “This is my stomping ground. I want to stay here. But now I’m getting harassed by my landlord. They’re saying that I’m not paying rent, even though I have proof, and they’re not fixing anything in the apartment. But I’m not going to give up. We need affordable housing for families like mine.”
RAFA also wants assurance that local unionized construction workers will benefit from the inevitable explosion of construction jobs in East New York. Paul Muhammad of Mosque 7C in East New York and the Nation of Islam put it this way: “We want to build affordable housing that’s for us, but also by us. Like FUBU.”
Local 79, which represents construction and general building laborers, and Local 28, which represents sheet metal workers, were among the biggest crowds at the rally, alongside Local 1974, which represents drywall tappers.
At dusk, the Soul Tigers reassembled to lead the march two blocks south to Arlington Village—a housing complex on Atlantic Avenue that is, according to Faith in New York, “One of the many properties developers are rushing to buy, speculating on the displacement to come.” The two-story 210-unit complex has remained largely uninhabited since its construction in the 1940s, to house World War II veterans. In March, developer Bluestone purchased the entire complex for $30 million, the Real Deal reports.
According to the real-estate website, Bluestone is looking to redevelop the property for affordable housing. However Brahilda Bevis, who has lived in Arlington Village for 38 years, told us through a translator that she fears she will be evicted when her lease runs out this year. According to Bevis, “They told me I owe two months rent, even though I showed them that I had paid the last month. They are robbing me.”
Filling the sidewalk, and with a significant police escort, the marchers chanted, “Working families under attack/ What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” It was dark by the time everyone reached the paved path that cuts through Arlington Village’s factory-like brick apartment buildings, peppered with boarded-up windows. Illuminated by a single spotlight they started a call and response: “Who’s house? Our house!”
Construction worker Brian Pearson of Local 79 grew up in Brownsville, on the border of East New York. He told us he’s committed to building “truly affordable housing” in the neighborhood so that “kids, like my daughter, don’t ever have to experience… the shelter system.” Skipping over to Arlington Village last night, jabbing with his fists, Pearson said that he was feeling a strong sense of unity. “When I know I got family, I’m going to fight just a little bit more than I’d normally fight by myself,” he said. “It just gives you that little extra Cha! Without the Red Bull.”
East New York’s final zoning plan is still being negotiated, with community board, borough president, City Planning Commission, and, ultimately, City Council reviews planned for the fall. You can read a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the 15-neighborhood rezoning plan proposal here.
UPDATE: De Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell issued the following statement:
“This is an opportunity for the residents of East New York to write their own neighborhood’s future. In the coming months, we will bring together all the threads that will help grow and empower this neighborhood: Mandatory Affordable Housing in all new developments, investments in community facilities, and protections for current tenants, including an unprecedented commitment to providing $36 million in free legal representation to combat harassment. At the center of all of this is a commitment to keeping East New York affordable for the people who live there today.”