Three members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio turn their backs on representatives of the Department of City Planning at a rezoning hearing last Thursday night while preparing to deliver their testimony directly to other audience members.
Protest Disrupts City’s 'Sham' East Harlem Rezoning Hearing

A crowd of members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio marched into an East Harlem Zoning planning meeting on Thursday night, December 15, to “express the voice of the women, men, elderly, girls and boys that would be the most affected by Mayor de Blasio’s luxury housing plan.” The meeting was a public hearing convened by the de Blasio administration. Families, including small children and babies, all members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, decked out in light blue T-shirts, lined the walls of the hearing room at the Silberman School of Social Work. Following a verbal struggle in which officials on-hand attempted to bar these community members from speaking despite the fact that they had signed up, members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio won their right to speak. Department of City Planning (DCP) representatives were forced to retake their seats and hear the group’s testimony. All three speakers turned their backs to the panel in protest, facing the audience as they gave their testimonies.

This protest by Movement for Justice in El Barrio began in the second half of the hearing which began at 6pm with a presentation on the draft scope of work by the DCP, outlining issues to be analyzed in the Environmental Impact Statement for the East Harlem rezoning, the next step in the official rezoning process. The DCP presentation was followed by comments from elected officials about the plan, including from City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, limited public comments, and followed by a short break. It was after this break that Movement for Justice in El Barrio was scheduled to speak and won the right to do so.

The organization began their intervention by expressing “unconditional opposition” to the Mayor’s rezoning plan. Movement for Justice in El Barrio was consistent in its criticism that it has made since their first protests of the plan over a year ago that the great majority of new apartment units created under the Mayor’s plan will be “designated for rich people”, despite the fact that the De Blasio administration calls it an “affordable housing” plan, and that they are “100% opposed to the plan.” This protest follows previous official meetings where Movement has testified about their opposition to the Mayor’s plan and has protested.

The de Blasio administration contends that the rezoning of East Harlem will allow for the creation of affordable units in a neighborhood where the overall number of units for low-income residents is decreasing. This new housing will be accompanied by what they call improvements to the area. The issue of affordability has been a major point of contention, with critics from multiple groups questioning how affordable the new units will be to current residents of East Harlem.

Long-term, low income immigrant member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Ruben Florencio stated, “We also do not want trees or parks in exchange for his luxury housing plan. We do not want what you call ‘beautification plans’ because our beloved Barrio is very, very beautiful and we want to preserve it exactly the way it currently is.” Mr. Florencio added “The Mayor and his Department of City Planning want to exclude the voices of the sector of the community that we, the most humble, represent.”

DCP officials have stated that their goal for the scoping meeting is to find out what issues need further analysis and study. They say they want to hear from community members to create the most comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, including in-depth study of possible negative impacts, leading up to the official decision-making regarding land use, or the ULURP process.

The community members from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, including small children, came out to protest the Rezoning hearing on a frigid night because, Mr. Florencio said, “We know that this hearing is a sham to make it appear that you, the representatives of the bad government of Mayor de Blasio, listen to the residents of El Barrio.” In addition, Mr. Florencio argued that they are 100 percent against the “Mayor’s luxury housing plan,” because, he said, it favors big developers and rich landlords evidenced by that fact that “REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York) supports the Mayor’s luxury housing plan.”

In addition to benefiting real estate developers, Mr. Florencio added, “The Mayor’s plan would destroy the beautiful that makes East Harlem be El Barrio by replacing it with a culture of money.” Shouts of agreement could be heard from the crowd, “that’s right!” Chants started up, ringing out across the room, “El Barrio is not for sale, It is to be loved and defended!”

At an October hearing where the DCP first presented the outline of rezoning plans in East Harlem, they laid out a goal to “preserve important East Harlem buildings and reinforce neighborhood character.” This continues to be a goal, DCP says, as they move further along in the scoping and EIS process. Whether this “neighborhood character” reflects the “cultures” of East Harlem that Mr. Florencio and Movement for Justice in El Barrio speak of remains to be seen. Other groups have also raised concerns that an East Harlem rezoning will change the unique character of the neighborhood and its residents.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio was also there to call for the immediate implementation of their own 10-Point Plan to Preserve Rent-Stabilized Housing. This plan, they say, is the result of 8,000 East Harlem residents coming together through a “Consulta del Barrio,” or community consultations carried over the course of a year. Salome Leon, member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, alerted all in the room that their organization had distributed their 10-Point Plan to the Mayor, the Department of City Planning, the Borough President, Community Board 11 and others. She said “After waiting a year, we received a letter this month, full of lies and signed by the Department of City Planning and the Commissioner of HPD telling us that what we are asking the de Blasio administration to do is already being done.” Community Board 11, she added, ignored the plan and “in that way excluded the humble people of El Barrio.” Neither DCP nor CB11 were available to comment on the group’s 10-Point Plan.

Ms. Leon made the organization’s case for why they believe that preserving rent-stabilized housing is vital: “The Mayor should do something to preserve the rent stabilized housing that already exists and where many poor people currently live because day after day we are at risk of being displaced because the bad landlords who tend to not make repairs with the objective of displacing us and Mayor De Blasio’s department of housing (HPD) fails to enforce the housing laws to ensure that these bad landlords comply with the city’s housing laws.” The organization and its members argue that with luxury housing as the vast majority of new development, landlords will want to “cash in”, they say by increasing their displacement efforts and illegally pushing units out of rent stabilization charging high rents that current tenants cannot afford to pay. Organization members point to rezonings and massive displacement in other “hot markets” like Chelsea and Williamsburg as support for their arguments. Ms. Leon then read out the organization’s 10-Point Plan.

Jose Garcia, Movement’s third and final speaker spoke plainly about who will benefit and who will not from the rezoning: “The mayor claims there will be beneficial effects for our community. Perhaps there will be benefits for the Mayor when the big developers who stand to profit from displacing our community make large financial contributions to his campaign.” He also spoke of “disastrous effects” that this “luxury housing plan” will have, foremost among them the secondary displacement of long-term low-income rent-stabilized tenants from their homes in East Harlem. He added that the plan will completely transform El Barrio, displacing small businesses and street vendors and replacing them with “Starbucks, 7-11 stores and other corporate chains.”

The Department of City Planning made the case that they are taking residents’ various concerns, especially those about affordability, into account as they move forward with the EIS process. In addition the city will be carrying out a study of secondary displacement, caused by changing socioeconomic trends in the neighborhood – just the kind of displacement decried by Mr. Garcia and the other speakers from Movement for Justice in El Barrio –  as outlined in the scoping document.

After Mr. Garcia’s testimony, chants rang out in the room, beginning with “El Barrio is Not For Sale, It is to be loved and defended!” and “We will not be moved!” Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio distributed “Why We are Here” fact sheets to evidently eager audience members reaching out to receive more information. These chants continued for another 15 minutes during which no further business could be conducted. Forty minutes after members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio arrived, they marched out, loudly chanting “Ni un paso atrás, la lucha seguirá” or in English, “Not one step backwards, the fight will continue!”

The day after the protest, lifelong Barrio resident, proud Puerto Rican and member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Marielena Hernandez spoke about what comes next for the group. She explained that the organization will hold a retreat at the beginning of the New Year to plan next steps in their fight against the rezoning of East Harlem. Ms. Hernandez, speaking from the kitchen of her rent-stabilized apartment on East 115th Street in the heart of El Barrio, said "We say ‘la lucha seguirá’ because we will not stop fighting. We will continue expressing the fact that we will not be duped nor will we be moved!"

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Tricia Schultz is a special education and English as a New Language teacher who has worked for Jobs with Justice and labor unions.