Inwood Residents Win Rezoning Fight, Now Face Bigger Plan

Met Council head Ava Farkas speaks against rezoning plan at rally in Inwood Aug. 6.Some 300 people packed the corner of Broadway and Sherman Avenue on Aug. 15, a steaming evening on the blocks where Broadway curves around the primeval stone wall of Fort Tryon Park and Washington Heights turns into Inwood. It was the eve of the City Council’s vote on a proposal to rezone the site at 4650 Broadway, now a two-story parking garage, to let a developer build a 17-story luxury building there in exchange for including some below-market-rate apartments. This crowd was loudly opposed.

City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez arrived about 6:45, entering a small U-shaped space inside police barricades to the accompaniment of an impromptu marching band and chants of “Ydanis, comprende, Inwood no se vende.” (Ydanis, understand, Inwood is not for sale.) His attempts to work out a deal for the site—letting the developer, Washington Square Partners and Acadia Realty Trust, build a bulkier building with about 350 apartments, on the condition that half be affordable, with 20 percent reserved for people with incomes of roughly $31,000 and another 30 percent at higher rents—had angered many in the community, who called the project a “Trojan Horse for gentrification.” 

At a rally on the same spot Aug. 6, Met Council director Ava Farkas listed the income tiers for “affordable” housing under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing zoning scheme—$31,000, $47,000, $62,000, and $89,000 a year for a family of three—and noted that one-third of Inwood residents make less than $24,000. “If housing is not being built for them, who is it being built for?” she asked. 

Rodriguez scheduled the Aug. 15 appearance to reveal how he would vote after the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition announced plans to picket his district office that evening. “We have not been able to get to a point where I feel it is in the community’s best interest to move this spot rezoning forward,” he said. “Therefore, I tell you that as of this moment I will not be supporting the rezoning of Sherman and Broadway.” Applause burst out before he finished the sentence.

The next day, Aug. 16, the Council, deferring to Rodriguez’s status as local member, voted unanimously against the rezoning. Land Use Committee chair David Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) said the city had been unable to reach a compromise with the developer on both the size of the proposed building and the rent levels.

Rodriguez indicated he’d decided to oppose the plan because “in this type of community,” it would create “pressure for landlords to increase rents.”

“This is why I voted for Ydanis, so he could listen to the people and vote against gentrification,” said local activist Estevan Nembhard.

“I feel like it’s a victory for us who helped educate the community. He felt the pressure. The community united. We’re thankful he listened to his constituents,” said Ana Rosario, a 31-year-old social worker.

Rodriguez said at the Council hearing that he was “lucky to represent a community that knows how to fight.”


Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (August 15)‘We’re already being displaced’

The 4650 Broadway site would have been the first spot rezoning under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which enables developers to build taller and bulkier buildings in exchange for including lower-rent units. Its defeat leaves the site’s developers with the right to build a 199-apartment luxury building, and Washington Heights and Inwood still facing a housing crisis. 

According to Rodriguez, 16,000 people were priced out of the two neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010, while only 250 affordable apartments were built there during the Bloomberg administration. They were also among the main targets for “predatory equity” landlords such as Pinnacle and Vantage, whose business model was to buy up “undervalued” buildings with rent-regulated tenants and try to force them out.

“We’re already being displaced,” says Ana Rosario. “You’ve seen it happen in Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, Long Island City, and Harlem. We don’t want it to happen here.”

She recently left her Vermilyea Avenue apartment and moved in with relatives. The landlord who acquired the building in April, she says, stopped accepting people’s rent checks and then sued to evict them for nonpayment. “Within a year, a lot of people have been displaced. There’s nobody left on the fourth floor.”

She was paying $1,062 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, and says it’s since been converted to a two-bedroom and now rents for $2,100.

“They just harassed us to the point where it wasn’t worth staying,” says Josmar Rojas, a 37-year-old personal trainer who left his one-bedroom apartment on Vermilyea Avenue after the landlord accused him and his partner of illegally subletting it. He had been there for 24 years and was paying $1,060. The two are now staying with Rojas’s cousin and looking for a permanent apartment. Their old home is going for more than $2,000.

Washington Heights and Inwood have more rent-stabilized apartments than anywhere in the city, according to a 2012 study by the Furman Center at New York University, with more than 85 percent of the about 65,000 rental apartments there regulated. More than half of the rent-regulated tenants were spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent—as were more than 70 percent of the market-rate tenants, whose rents averaged almost twice as much. Some estimate that more than one-fourth of neighborhood residents are paying “preferential rents” — less than the legal maximum under rent stabilization, but which can be raised to that level when their lease expires.

Rezoning opponents’ biggest fear was that even though the proposed building would contain some affordable apartments, it would stimulate gentrification by giving landlords a signal that they can charge much higher rents. “They’re sprinkling in some lower-priced housing, but what it really is, is a way for developers to get a foothold in the area,” Samuel Biagetti of Uptown for Bernie, part of the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition, said after the August 6 rally.

The rezoning would not bind the developer to include below-market apartments beyond the 20 to 30 percent required by Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, said a zoning adviser to the coalition who asked to remain anonymous. Any higher proportions would depend on agreements with the developer and the availability of subsidies. He called the claim that half the apartments in the project would be affordable “fantasies with no enforceability.”

“We know now that if we do not build affordable housing, we will continue to see members of our community forced from their homes by greedy landlords,” Rodriguez said Aug. 15. “If we do not take action by redoubling our efforts to preserve rent-stabilized units, putting in place the resources necessary to ensure every tenant who needs legal services has a lawyer, and ultimately building new affordable housing for those making as little as $15,000 a year, like many in this community, we will lose the human character of the neighborhood we love.”

Inwood and Washington Heights, once heavily Irish and Jewish, are now mostly Latino, especially Dominican. The blocks west of Broadway, historically more middle-class, show signs of gentrification, while the east is largely working-class. On the northwest corner of Broadway and Dyckman Street is a Starbucks; on the northeast, a 24-hour restaurant called Albert’s Mofungo.

On Sherman Avenue, a couple blocks north of the spot-rezoning site, are the Agua Azul bodega and Quisqueya Records, one of Manhattan’s few surviving record stores, specializing in bachata and old-school salsa and merengue. Men play dominoes in the neon light from the lawyer/tax-preparation office.


Bigger rezoning looms

With the rezoning of 4650 Broadway stopped, Inwood activists are now turning to a much larger land-use issue. The de Blasio administration’s plan to rezone the Sherman Creek area—the northeastern tip of Manhattan, east of 10th Avenue from 201st Street to 221st Street—is expected to begin the Uniform Land Use Review Process, commonly called “ULURP,” this fall.

“This is a preamble to the bigger picture,” Assemblymember Guillermo Linares, who represents the area, said after the Council committee’s vote. “If the approach to the rest of Inwood is the same, it’s the beginning of the end.”

Inwood is one of 15 neighborhoods slated for rezoning under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, along with East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the West Bronx. The plan relies on trickle-down from luxury development to finance “affordable” apartments. Developers have the options of reserving 20 percent of the apartments built for households earning roughly $31,000, 25 percent for those around $47,000, or 30 percent at $62,000 or $89,000. If the buildings are to contain a higher proportion of below-market units or more apartments for lower-income people, they will need government subsidies, generally from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

The main argument in favor boils down to “gentrification is happening anyway, and without this we’d get nothing.” The main criticisms are that encouraging luxury development will stimulate gentrification, and that the “affordable” housing built will cost far more than people in the neighborhood can pay: The median household income for Community Board 12, Manhattan north of 155th Street, is estimated at $37,000 to $42,000 a year.

The City Council approved rezoning East New York in April. About one-fourth of the more than 7,000 apartments projected to be built there are expected to be affordable to people making $31,000 a year—in a neighborhood where the median income is around $35.000. In May, the Department of City Planning postponed releasing its draft for the Jerome Avenue corridor until next month. In June, the administration dropped its Flushing West rezoning plan after objections from local Councilmember Peter Koo. 

Samuel Biagetti said he hopes that “any rezoning that happens comes from the community. We don’t want an EDC [New York City Economic Development Corporation] plan that serves developers.”

“We have to have 100 percent affordability,” says Linares, with what is “affordable” determined by looking at the income levels in the neighborhood. While it’s desirable to have different income levels, he adds, that shouldn’t displace massive amounts of families and small businesses.

“How can we put together a proposal that is more than ‘anything or nothing’?” Rodriguez asked a protester August 6, after he joined them in a march to the Sherman Creek area. “There is no one around with the big heart and the big pockets who will say ‘let’s build 100 percent affordable.’”

Regardless, Ana Rosario says, “We’re going to continue to fight.” 


A version of this article appeared on the Village Voice Web site.