With the rallying cry “El Barrio is not for sale! It is to be loved and defended!", East Harlem residents kicked off a protest today in the heart of El Barrio at the corner of East 116th St. and Lexington Avenue. They demonstrated against what they are calling “Mayor De Blasio’s luxury housing plan” and the displacements it will cause in this low-income community. Eighty-year-old Puerto Rican Sonia Villes, a lifelong resident of El Barrio, said, “This rezoning plan will tear our community apart and destroy the beautiful culture that makes El Barrio so unique.” Ms. Villes, a leader of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a local tenants’ rights group, is not alone in her concern. Members of the organization and other neighborhood residents gathered at the protest organized by the group to call for an end to the De Blasio administration’s planned rezoning of East Harlem and to release their own plan to preserve rent-stabilized housing.
The protest comes on the heels of the City’s release of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan which gives more details about the mayor’s rezoning plan. Community members came out clearly against a rezoning plan in which 70-75% of all new units will be market-rate, luxury housing. Residents say thousands of luxury apartments with market-rate rents and higher-income residents will put added financial pressure on long-term low-income tenants and small local businesses currently contributing to the fabric and culture of El Barrio. Residents and business owners argue they will be priced out of their homes and communities, and ultimately displaced. Ms. Villes agreed, adding, “The landlords will act more aggressively towards the long-term low-income tenants with the sole objective of driving us out if the rezoning plan is implemented.”
Josefina Salazar, a resident of El Barrio and member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, further explained that the new housing units would not be for current residents of El Barrio. “We are against the mayor’s ‘luxury housing plan’ because these supposedly ‘low-income’ apartments are for people who earn an average of $46,620 to $62,150 for a family of three,” continued Ms. Salazar. “The majority of us do not earn anything close to those salaries, and thus do not qualify for those apartments because as poor people, we cannot pay those high rents.”
Local residents also complained about what they say are other unfair aspects of Mayor De Blasio’s housing plans, including the privatization of New York City Housing Authority parking lots and community spaces so that real estate developers can build on them, allowing fifty percent of the new units to be rented at market rates, rates inaccessible to East Harlem residents. Residents argued this will make conditions worse for current NYCHA tenants and does not address the issue of preserving affordable housing. Maria Aguirre, another member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, suggested, “The mayor should implement our ten-point plan to preserve rent-stabilized housing instead of unfair plans like these.”
Throughout last spring and summer, and earlier this fall, Movement for Justice in El Barrio organized Consultas del Barrio, a series of community-wide meetings and workshops, to clarify and better understand the planned rezoning. According to Movement member Sandra Ramirez, “In these meetings, we exercised our self-determination, and as intelligent, critical thinkers we developed our own, independent position on the rezoning. We have the right to decide for ourselves what is best for our community and will not let the city pull the wool over our eyes.” The result of these broad consultations was clear opposition to rezoning and the creation of a community-generated ten-point plan for the De Blasio administration to preserve rent-stabilized housing. The group has invited the mayor to meet with them to discuss their plan, but Mayor De Blasio has refused to do so.
During their ten-year history, in addition to challenging large and small El Barrio landlords and multinational corporations, Movement for Justice in El Barrio was at the forefront of the struggle to challenge previous East Harlem rezoning efforts under Mayor Bloomberg.
The protest ended as Ms. Salazar led the crowd of residents and onlookers in the chant, “We are here and we will not be moved!”
Liz Roberts is an activist and writer. She works with War Resisters League and does Palestine solidarity work.