Mayor de Blasio has announced — and launched — an ambitious housing plan in which his stated goal is to preserve and build 200,000 affordable apartments over the next 10 years. He has also targeted a number of areas in the city for rezoning and redevelopment, with housing being a critical component of the plan.
But history has taught us that rezoning is almost always a precursor to gentrification. And gentrification is nothing less than the displacement and replacement of one class of people by another, “higher” class, the destruction of the gentrified area’s previous character and history, and the severe financial and emotional disruption of the lives of people on the frontlines of this process. It is the perpetuation of the “tale of two cities” that Mayor de Blasio campaigned against so eloquently two years ago, when he was elected by a landslide.
Not surprisingly, the mayor and city administration have declared that there will be minimal displacement and that affordable housing will be built for people of all income levels, including those who already live in the areas being rezoned. They have also announced funding for legal recourse that will be available to people and businesses who may be vulnerable to targeted harassment and eviction.
But for any rezoning to take place with minimal disruption and avoidable dislocations, the city needs to do the following:
Anti-Harassment & Anti-Displacement Policies
Recognize that rezoning creates speculation and produces overnight increases in the value and price of the land in the area targeted for change. The city must then immediately put into place an effective, enforceable and adequately funded system with severe penalties to deter developers, landlords and others from harassing tenants or participating in any activity that would result in residents and/or small businesses being forced out.
Pass & Fund Intro 214
In addition to the above measures, pass Intro 214, a piece of legislation currently wending its way through City Council, that would provide full legal counsel to all tenants in New York City whose incomes fall within 200 percent of the federal poverty level and who are litigants in eviction, ejectment or other proceedings in Housing Court. While the funding the mayor recently announced focuses on this type of activity in the rezoning target areas, Intro 214 will be a permanent right that will continue to protect tenants well into the future.
Preserving Current Jobs & Creating Career-Path Jobs
Construction in the areas being rezoned must be with union labor and must create good jobs for local residents; it is essential also to include preserving the variety of jobs already existing in communities. Most of the neighborhoods targeted are lower-income areas with high unemployment and underemployment. Rezoning should provide apprenticeship opportunities and other meaningful employment for residents, enabling them to afford the homes being built.
Real Community Participation & Visioning in the Process
Community residents, business owners and other stakeholders must be an integral part of the entire process: visioning the rezoned community, developing the plan and implementing it along with city agencies and developers. The success during the 1990s of the Bronx community group Nos Quedamos in ensuring that the Melrose Gardens neighborhood was properly redeveloped is a testament to what can happen when community stakeholders, the city and developers collaborate in designing a community’s growth such that the current residents and businesses are the central focus.
Housing That Is Truly Affordable to Residents
The federal government has defined affordable housing as a unit in which no more than 30 percent of a household’s income is spent on rent. This means that in Community Board 4 and Community Board 5 in the Bronx, where the median annual income is $25,000, monthly rent should not exceed $624. However, too often, we have seen that where “affordable housing” is built, it is not affordable to most of the residents in the area being rezoned, and they are forced out of their homes and communities. Our communities need more housing and for current affordable housing stock to be preserved. This means warehouse buildings and apartments should be returned to the pool of affordable housing. We want neighborhood improvement and welcome others to join us and help enrich our already rich and diverse neighborhoods. However, we insist that “mixed income” development include us, not exclude us.
And finally, our communities want the city and Department of City Planning to slow the process down and extend it to allow adequate time and space for community stakeholders to develop a community-based vision that will form the basis for the redevelopment of the area. The decisions made today will affect our communities for decades to come and should include all the components that preserve current jobs while adding career-path, sustainable new jobs; green space — community gardens, refurbished parks and community social spots for seniors; permanent housing for seniors, veterans, fixed-income and other vulnerable low-income people; and investment in school buildings, after-school programs, improved access to health services, lighting and other resources the community deems a priority for its growth and development.
Fitzroy Christian is a member of the Leadership Team of New Settlement Apartments’ Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) project and has been a resident of the southwest Bronx for 40 years.
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