Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio speak out against Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to rezone East Harlem for luxury housing at a Nov. 17 meeting of Community Board 11.
East Harlem Residents Flood Community Board Meeting to Protest Rezoning Plan

Last night, members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio marched into a meeting of Manhattan’s Community Board 11 making a powerful public stand against the Mayor’s proposed rezoning of their East Harlem community. Movement for Justice in El Barrio shared their opposition as well as community-generated proposals to preserve rent-stabilized housing in East Harlem. Community members argued that Mayor De Blasio’s rezoning plan is a Luxury Housing Plan that will cater to newer, wealthier residents from outside East Harlem and cause the displacement of long-term, low income residents from their homes and community.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio, made up entirely of low-income residents of East Harlem, has engaged in broad community consultation and analysis of the proposed rezoning since early in 2015. They argue that the rezoning plan will create 70-75% new luxury housing and that these thousands of luxury, market-rate units will put pressure on long-term low income residents, small businesses and street vendors, forcing them out of their community. In addition, tenants argue that new units designated as “affordable” are not within reach of current East Harlem residents. In the plan, for the 25-30% of units set aside as “affordable,” the average incomes range from $46,620 to $62,150 for a family of three – well above $33,600, the East Harlem area median income (AMI) for a family of four. Community residents claim that these so-called “affordable” units, like the luxury units, are really designated for wealthier residents who do not currently live in East Harlem.

Through a series of community-wide Consultas del Barrio convened by Movement for Justice in El Barrio beginning in the spring of this year, residents of East Harlem came together and created a community-generated ten-point plan for the De Blasio administration to preserve rent-stabilized housing as an alternative to what they call the Mayor’s luxury housing plan. On Friday, November 6th,  Movement for Justice in El Barrio held a press conference where the 10-point plan was released in the heart of El Barrio, at the corner of East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. That afternoon the Mayor was forced to respond to their claims at a press conference, but he failed to address their main criticism: that his rezoning and luxury housing plan will displace long-term low income community members, benefit wealthy tenants and erode the culture of El Barrio. Instead, he commented that “there’s some good things that come with gentrification,” and he shifted the topic to East Harlem’s public housing units which are not directly threatened by the rezoning plans.

Movement member Julia Ramirez was clear: “The Mayor pays lip service to preserving existing affordable housing but he refuses to address our 10-point plan to preserve rent-stabilized housing. If he was really interested in preservation, all he would have to do is open up our plan and implement the recommendations that come straight from the mouth of the community.” Just hours after Movement’s November 6th press conference critical of the Mayor’s “displacement promoting policies”, in what residents call a “PR move", the Mayor’s office deployed employees to the same corner, Lexington and East 116th St., to hand out pro-administration propaganda. “If he cared about the issues of the residents of East Harlem, he would halt this rezoning and luxury housing plan and implement our 10-point plan instead,” said Maria Aguirre.

At the subsequent hearing of East Harlem’s Community Board 11 on Monday November 9th, the overwhelming community response to the Mayor’s rezoning plan was resounding opposition. However, just days later, at a meeting at New York Law School on November 13th, in response to the public outcry against rezoning, De Blasio’s Housing  Commissioner, Vickie Been’s message could not have been clearer: “You don’t stop development.” Residents complain that the administration is pulling out all stops to implement their rezoning plans no matter the public opposition they face.

Last night’s Community Board meeting in East Harlem was initially slated as a vote on the two new rezoning plan amendments, but at the last minute, the Community Board rescheduled the vote to next Monday with virtually no advance notice. Despite this last-minute change of the calendar, a large group of members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio attended in force, silently marching into the building holding signs that read “REZONED EAST HARLEM = DISPLACEMENT - WE WILL NOT BE MOVED!” and “East Harlem Against De Blasio’s Luxury Housing Plan.” Security officers attempted to block entry to the meeting saying that the people could enter but they could not bring their signs. Movement member Juana Gonzalez argued, “We have a right to be here and our signs display our message. We oppose the Mayor’s luxury housing plan!” Movement members decided to leave the signs outside and bring their voices into the Community Board meeting. They resumed their dignified march into the meeting room, fanning out across the room, lining the walls and doubling the meeting’s attendance. The focus of attention in the room shifted dramatically to the large group of community members there to speak against rezoning and to bring community-generated proposals for positive change. Community members were forced to demand translation at what was, in effect, an English-only meeting in the heart of Spanish Harlem with no translation provided by Community Board 11, despite the numerous monolingual Spanish speaking community residents in attendance.

After the struggle to gain entry to the meeting and after Movement had to step in to provide translation services, the Community Board then would not let members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio speak. Community members demanded their equal time to speak and after an intense stand-off, the two designated spokeswomen took the floor and those in the crowd sat up and took notice.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio member Maria Mercado explained, “we are against the Mayor’s luxury housing plan because it favors large companies and rich landlords, rather than the simple and humble people that live in our beloved Barrio. This plan is nothing more than a land grab for the rich.” These sentiments were echoed by Josefina Salazar: “We call on Mayor De Blasio to implement our 10-point proposal to truly preserve rent-stabilized housing in El Barrio and in this way preserve our beloved Barrio and prevent it from becoming a gold mine for large corporations and a paradise for the rich.” The audience burst into applause. Ms. Salazar then shared the community-generated 10-point plan with the members of the Community Board who had received it previously by mail for the previously held hearing on November 9. The plan has also been sent to the Mayor, the Department of City Planning and the Manhattan Borough President.

At the end of the community testimony yesterday evening, as Ms. Salazar led community residents in a rousing chant of “El Barrio is not for sale! It is to be loved and defended!” several members of Movement unfurled their hidden banners and proudly let the world know, “East Harlem Against De Blasio’s Luxury Housing Plan.” After leaving the Community Board meeting this evening, Movement member Raquel Hernandez repeated the group’s call for the Mayor to meet with East Harlem community members and to implement their 10-point plan to truly preserve rent-stabilized housing.

Liz Roberts is an activist and writer. She works with War Resisters League and does Palestine solidarity work.