Will Mayor’s Housing Plan Spur Gentrification?

Atlantic Avenue on the East New York/Brownsville border, the street Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to rezone for taller and denser housing.Saying that “nothing more clearly expresses the inequality gap… than the soaring cost of housing,” Mayor Bill de Blasio devoted most of his State of the City address Feb. 3 to his plans to “create and preserve” more affordable housing—plans that are both ambitious and far from adequate.

The mayor’s plans rely on mandatory inclusionary zoning to enforce trickle-down from luxury development. Their centerpiece is rezoning six neighborhoods to allow taller and denser buildings—East New York in Brooklyn, East Harlem in Manhattan, Long Island City and Flushing West in Queens, the Jerome Avenue corridor in the west Bronx, and Bay Street on the Staten Island waterfront, near the ferry terminal—with a percentage of the apartments built required to be below market rate. They anticipate the construction of 160,000 market-rate units being used to leverage building 80,000 below-market apartments.

The plans also include a giant Hudson Yards-style project to be constructed on a platform over the Sunnyside railroad yards in Queens, incentives to build “up to 4,000 units of affordable housing” in and around the Grand Concourse in the southwest Bronx, apartments for the elderly and artists, and $36 million to provide free legal representation in Housing Court to all tenants in rezoned neighborhoods facing harassment, building neglect, or eviction proceedings.

Housing advocates see two potential problems. First, “below market rate” is not the same thing as “affordable” for most of the city’s residents. Second, the rezoning plan could pave largely working-class areas over for gentrification.

“If we don’t do the zoning right, we run the risk of losing more affordable housing than we build,” says Susanna Blankley, a housing organizer with Community Action for Safe Apartments in the southwest Bronx. “It’s really critical that the housing that’s built is affordable to the people who live in the neighborhood.”

The first question is who will actually be able to afford the planned affordable apartments. Because “affordability” is based on the median income for the metropolitan area, apartments renting for more than $3,000 a month can qualify, because households with incomes of up to about $130,000 a year are counted as “middle income.” New York City residents’ median household income is actually about $48,000 a year, and it’s below $40,000 for renters. 

Mayor de Blasio’s first housing plan, released last May, estimated that the city needed more than 550,000 apartments that people who make less than $42,000 a year can afford, noting that 360,000 such households spend more than half their income on rent. Yet it planned to create only 16,000 units for this income group.

“I am further encouraged that the Administration will now require new construction projects to include affordable housing units,” City Council Housing Committee chair Jumaane Williams said in a statement, noting the failure of the 421-a tax-abatement program to stimulate such construction. “At the same time, we must also focus on our lower income bands.”

The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) called de Blasio’s ideas “a real departure from past failed housing policies” and “an impressive vision for our city,” but it also questioned the income distribution. “Currently, the Inclusionary Housing Program only creates affordable housing for the wealthier half of New Yorkers,” the group said in a statement. “As it stands now, anyone making less than about $50,000 a year would be cut out of the Inclusionary Housing program. Families of four will need to make almost $70,000.”

The west Bronx neighborhoods along Jerome Avenue and the lower Grand Concourse are among the city’s poorest. Community District 4, says Susanna Blankley, has a median income of $27,000. In Community District 5, to the north between the Cross Bronx Expressway and Fordham Road, it’s $21,000. More than 60 percent of people in both neighborhoods get either welfare, SSI, or Medicaid. 

Poor and working-class people are already being pushed out, says Blankley. Much of CASA’s work involves tenants fighting neglect and harassment, including landlords illegally refusing to renew their leases. Community District 4, where three-fourths of the housing stock is rent-stabilized, lost 10 percent of its rent-stabilized apartments in the last year alone. 

“Our concern is that the zoning is going to accelerate that,” she says. The mayor’s plan to fund Housing Court representation for tenants “acknowledges that there’s a relationship between zoning and increased harassment,” she adds, but he should have set up stronger anti-displacement policies first.


Rezoning and Gentrification

As the plan relies on trickle-down from luxury development, the poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class neighborhoods tabbed for rezoning all have elements that could make them desirable for gentrification. East Harlem and Long Island City are close to Midtown and have already seen significant luxury development. Staten Island’s Bay Street, a working-poor area perhaps best known as the place where Eric Garner was killed, could offer waterfront views a 25-minute ferry ride from Wall Street. 

East New York is currently one of the city’s poorest and highest-crime neighborhoods, but it’s right in the path of two of Brooklyn’s main waves of gentrification—one moving southeast from Williamsburg through Bushwick along the L and J subway lines, and another coming east through Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, on both sides of the A and C line. The three lines converge at Broadway Junction—a 20-minute ride from Wall Street when the A is running express, an analyst for the Massey Knakal real-estate firm noted in December.

“Additionally, the neighborhoods surrounding East New York, like Bushwick, have seen major change and it is only logical that this change will expand into bordering neighborhoods,” he wrote. “Over the last four years Bushwick has flourished into one of the most active neighborhoods in all of New York in terms of development. Many young professionals have found homes in this neighborhood and it is now to a point where expansion is necessary. With East New York just south of Bushwick, and Broadway Junction already servicing lines to both neighborhoods, the movement south has already begun…. Not only will the rezoning provide new residential and retail opportunities in East New York but it will utilize its space to its maximum potential.”

“Lately, we’ve seen what happens when a neighborhood appears targeted for more development—witness the skyrocketing land prices in East New York and Western Queens,” ANHD wrote in its analysis of the de Blasio plan. “This severely threatens the ability of the city to leverage truly affordable housing and other community amenities and increases rent pressures for both residents and local businesses.”

The private-equity firm Pinnacle, which became notorious in the ’00s for buying up rent-stabilized buildings and trying to drive tenants out, has acquired several properties near Broadway Junction and the Grand Concourse.

To avert the displacement all that would cause, ANHD recommends that the city involve community organizations in “all steps of the process,” from planning to management; not kill manufacturing jobs by rezoning industrial areas for housing; and put in strong protections for tenants before any neighborhoods are rezoned. 

“Too many communities have learned that hard way that the existing tools are insufficient protection for keeping residents in their homes,” it said. “While de Blasio’s commitment to providing free legal representation to tenants who face harassment in rezoned neighborhoods is a great start, it can’t be the only policy…. Legal representation is a response to harassment that has already occurred.”

In the Bronx, says Blankley, the city has invited “stakeholders” to planning meetings, but has done very little to inform community residents—the people “who built it up after the Bronx had burned”—about the rezoning or solicit their participation. The risk, she believes, is that if poor people are pushed out of neighborhoods like the South Bronx and East New York, there is nowhere left in the city where they can go.

There is an alternative, she says. Last year, the Real Affordability for All coalition released a study that showed half of new construction in the outer boroughs could be earmarked for people who make less than $50,000 a year, and it could be built using union labor and local workers.