East New York Faces Rezoning

Protest against rezoning in East New York. Photos by Steven Wishnia.East New York became the first neighborhood to be rezoned for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary zoning plan on April 20, when the City Council passed the rezoning by a 45-1 vote. Councilmember Inez Barron, who represents the neighborhood’s southern side, was the only dissenter, while Rafael Espinal, who represents its northern side, endorsed the plan. 

“Twenty percent of my community earns less than $15,000 and will not be reached by this plan,” Barron told the Council. “There is no guarantee that developers will build affordable housing if they don’t want those subsidies.”

More than 7,000 new units are planned for the rezoned area, more than 150 blocks on the neighborhood’s northern side along the A/C and J/Z subway lines. The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has said the first 1,310 apartments built must be affordable to people making less than $70,000 a year. About 43% of those are slated for people making less than $41,000, including 12% for those below $23,350.

“The affordability levels are so out of reach for local residents that it’s meaningless,” says Pete Nagy of New York Communities for Change. The neighborhood’s median income is $35,000, and one-third of households make less than $23,000.

“Overall, this was the best possible plan,” says Espinal. “It’s just not feasible to build every single apartment at those levels.” Neighborhood residents who make up to $50,000 or $60,000 are “just as much at risk of being displaced,” he adds.

The three main reasons he supported the plan, he says, are that East New York has a huge unemployment rate, the neighborhood desperately needs affordable housing, and the plan includes “major investments in infrastructure.” 

Many residents are wary. “What happens if you make less than $32,000?” asks Lorna Blake, a Trinidadian immigrant who works as a therapist with the intellectually disabled, at a May 7 rally on Fulton Street attended by about 60 people. The mayor promised affordable housing, she said, but “after all the town-hall meetings, we realized it was all a big lie.”

To increase the proportion of below-market apartments above the 25 percent required by inclusionary zoning, HPD will subsidize the construction of buildings that are “100 percent affordable, and at levels that target low and extremely low income.” Between 40 and 50 percent of those apartments will be slated for people who make less than $41,000. But a New York Communities for Change analysis released in March projected that even with subsidies from HPD’s Extremely Low & Low-Income Affordability program, only about 20 percent of the total new apartments built in the rezoned area would be affordable for people making less than the neighborhood median, and only 4 percent for the poorest third. Half—about 3,500—would be market-rate, in a neighborhood directly in the path of gentrification coming east from Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. At the May 7 rally, organization members carried an “Espinal Sold Us Out” banner, and handed out flyers saying he’d taken more than $200,000 in real-estate money in his 2013 campaign.

More than one-third of the households in the rezoned area are already spending more than half their income on rent, says a report issued earlier this year by the Coalition for Community Advancement, an alliance of neighborhood groups. In a key indicator of gentrification pressures, home-sale prices more than doubled between November 2012 and March 2015, the report says.

The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, a member of the coalition, said in a statement April 20 that the plan “contains some major victories for the neighborhood,” including protections for homeowners, small businesses, and manufacturing, and praised Espinal for helping negotiate them. But it was “extremely disappointed” that the number of units earmarked for the lowest income levels was “much less than we had hoped,” and that “anti-displacement measures and protections were also not as strong as we wanted them to be.” 

“I know firsthand what happens in these rezonings,” says Debbie Medina, a community organizer from Williamsburg who is challenging incumbent state Senator Martin Malave Dilan in the September Democratic primary. “They’re going to start pitching tenants out. I know because that’s what happened in Williamsburg.”

The East New York rezoning is not like the 2005 rezoning of Williamsburg, Espinal responds, and building new apartments in the area is the only way to ensure affordable housing. Because most apartments in the neighborhood are in buildings too small to be rent-stabilized, he explains, it’s hard to protect current tenants.

“This is a neighborhood that is going to be gentrified anyway,” he says. “If we sit back and do nothing, we’ll see that market forces are going to have a more negative impact.”

At the May 7 rally, Onleilove Alston, executive director of Faith in New York, voiced the common plaint of people from gentrified neighborhoods. “I lived in this community when we went through the crack epidemic,” she told the crowd. “Whose East New York is this?”