Residents Oppose East Harlem Community Board Vote on Rezoning Plan

Liz Roberts Nov 24, 2015

East Harlem community members last night vocally opposed Mayor De Blasio’s rezoning plans, amidst growing opposition from Community Boards across the city. Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio came out in force to demand that Community Board 11 (CB11) cast an unequivocal and unconditional “no” vote against the new amendments to Mayor De Blasio’s rezoning plan that residents call his “luxury housing plan.” When the board did indeed cast a vote of “no with conditions,” member Maria Mercado said, “We won’t be deceived by this vote because the Community Board’s conditions still prioritize the development of luxury housing in our beloved Barrio.”

Sandra Cruz of Movement for Justice in El Barrio testified that, because CB11 had voted in favor of rezoning in the past under Bloomberg, they feared a vote of “no, with conditions” was an invitation for back room deals which would lead to gentrification and displacement. For this reason, they were not asking for changes or conditions to be put on the rezoning plan; they were calling for an unconditional “no” vote.

Community members also opposed conditions they said still allow developers to build majority luxury housing, which they said will have a devastating impact on El Barrio. Maria Aguirre said, “They can’t pull the wool over our eyes with their conditions.”

The group argues the Community Board doesn't listen to the community. Since the beginning of the year thousands of residents have been opposing the rezoning vehemently, through Consultas del Barrio, an unprecedented consultation process organized by Movement for Justice in El Barrio. However their opposition has fallen on deaf ears.

When the Board announced they were voting on a resolution stating “no, unless conditions are met,” tenants were angered by what they called the Community Board’s “yes, disguised as a no,” and members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio and other community supporters chanted, “We want you to vote a firm NO!”

One “condition” that CB11 called for is a “50/30/20” plan for the creation of new housing with 50% for market-rate/luxury housing, 30% for moderate income residents, and 20% for affordable housing. Community members say this Community Board does not represent the voice of this community because the conditions are just a variation of De Blasio's rezoning plan, giving a green light to developers to build majority luxury housing. They point out that 80% of all new units will still be beyond the means of the low-income people of color community of El Barrio. Movement for Justice in El Barrio member Maria Mercado said CB11's plan "will destroy the beautiful culture that currently exists by gentrifying every block throughout East Harlem.”

Movement for Justice in El Barrio critiques the mayor’s “Housing New York” plan, calling it a “luxury housing plan”, or a “housing plan for the rich” because 70-75% of all new units created will be market-rate, luxury housing. They say thousands of new luxury units with high rents will signal to other landlords that they can increase  residential and commercial rents, resulting in the displacement of long term low-income tenants and small local businesses. This in turn will have a significant impact on the culture of East Harlem.  Residents say it has happened before in East Harlem and elsewhere in the City, and with the planned rezoning it will happen again.

Ms. Cruz testified saying, “the majority of us don’t earn high enough incomes and don’t qualify for those apartments. We can’t pay those rents because we are poor.” The plan would set aside 25-30% of all units as “affordable,” but residents say the average income range for a family of three to live in these apartments, $46,620 to $62,150, is well out of reach for current East Harlem residents, citing the East Harlem area median income (AMI) for a family of four, $33,600.

After the vote of “no, with conditions” members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio unfurled posters reading, “Rezoned East Harlem = Displacement; We Will Not Be Moved!” as they chanted “El Barrio is not for sale. It is to be loved and defended!”  Maria Aguirre responded to the vote saying, “this is just a way for them to look like they are supporting the community until they get their conditions, and then they will be in favor of the mayor’s revised ‘luxury housing plan for the rich’,” The large group of members marched out chanting, “sell-outs.”

This latest vote comes as many New Yorkers are questioning what critics call the De Blasio administration’s aggressive housing and homelessness policies towards low-income people of color in El Barrio and across the city. Movement for Justice in El Barrio member Ana Rodriguez stated, “Our neighbors are under attack. It’s not just rezoning. It’s the way they’re treating the homeless and what they’re doing to people in public housing, too.”

First, they say, under the leadership of Commissioner Vickie Been, Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the city agency tasked with preserving rent-stabilized housing through enforcement of the housing code, is in fact contributing to displacement by turning a blind eye when landlords deny services to tenants. Second, they level strong critiques at Mayor De Blasio for privatization of land that currently belongs to NYCHA, in other words, public housing. Finally, Ms. Rodriguez complained about the criminalization of the homeless in El Barrio and other similar communities.

The group says all of these policies are being carried out in El Barrio and other similar low-income communities citywide. Ms. Rodriguez said, "We are in this together. We will not be moved and we will not duped.”

It is within this context that the organization spoke out last night and had a strong presence at last night’s meeting, another step in their public campaign against rezoning, which was kicked off three weeks ago in El Barrio at a protest and press conference, after the community developed a 10-point plan for the preservation of rent-stabilized housing in East Harlem and beyond. If enacted, they say, the community-generated recommendations – developed during the series of community-wide Consultas del Barrio convened by the organization, beginning last spring– will make systemic change in the enforcement of the housing code, reversing the trend toward displacement of low-income immigrant and people of color communities.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio member Rosa Garcia explained, “When we tenants have had to live with bad housing conditions for years, some people are finally driven out, which makes it easy for landlords to raise rents. After they do that a couple times, the rents get high enough so they’re not stabilized anymore and that’s for good, permanent.” Real enforcement of the housing code as laid out in their 10-point plan, explained members, will help preserve thousands of units at risk of displacement and deregulation.

The same day that Movement for Justice in El Barrio members mounted their press conference, November 6, Mayor De Blasio was forced to respond to their critiques to the press. The Mayor appeared to skirt the issue by refocusing attention on public housing, which is not directly endangered by rezoning, and commenting that “There’s some good things that come with gentrification.”

Last night’s meeting follows two recent meetings of Community Board 11, where community residents have expressed strong opposition to the planned rezoning: a November 9 hearing and the November 17 meeting of the Full Board. At the latter meeting, a large contingent of Movement for Justice in El Barrio members, including many children, attended, giving testimony, speaking out against the rezoning, and delivering copies of their ten-point plan to the members of the Community Board.

At the close of yesterday’s Community Board meeting, Maria Mercado, a member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio said, “We are not fooled by their vote and we know the struggle for dignified housing and against this luxury housing plan will continue until we win. We will not let our beloved Barrio be sold off to the highest bidder.” They say the Mayor is disregarding community concerns because when recently asked about community board opposition, he responded that the plan was too important and that he and his administration were “going to keep moving full speed ahead.” The group plans ongoing activities to protest the mayor’s rezoning plan and to promote their own 10-point plan to preserve rent-stabilized housing.

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


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