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Bronx Activists Stand Up for Affordable Housing in New York

NEW YORK – Whether in grueling heat-filled days or frigid temperatures, a cadre of activists has been fighting for the soul of their Bronx community.

Their communities lie in the heart of Jerome Avenue between 184th and 167th streets. It’s there where the city looks to rezone 92 blocks, the largest rezoning for the Bronx in years. For the last three years, the valley-like neighborhoods, from Mt. Hope to the Grand Concourse, have been studied by the city.

They’re home to a largely low-income Hispanic bloc and a concentration of auto mechanics that do business below the rumbling 4 subway line. Hispanics from all backgrounds make up more than 60 percent of the population.

Marguerite Casey Foundation Journalism Fellowship

Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation issues Fellowships to support in-depth multimedia storytelling so the public and policymakers can gain a deeper understanding of families, what it means to be poor and the need for solutions.

David Cruz, editor in chief of the Bronx-based Norwood News is a 2017 recipient of the Foundation’s Journalism Fellowship. This story, which first appeared on March 1 in the Norwood News, received Fellowship support.

The next round of the Journalism Fellowships will be announced later in 2018. Marguerite Casey Foundation publishes Equal Voice, which features stories of America’s families creating social change.

Graffiti-strewn with ripped up business awnings and cracked streets, quality of life along the two-mile stretch remains relatively low, given the high crime rate, poor health outcomes and expensive apartments relative to residents’ take-home pay. Two-thirds of residents set aside more than 30 percent of their take-home salary on rent, making them rent-burdened.

For New York City, the answer to a crunched housing market is making affordable housing more available through rezoning. The Jerome Avenue proposal is pushing for some buildings to go as high as 19 stories. In exchange, the city is committed to building 4,000 affordable housing units and preserving 1,500 other units as a way to resist market pressure to increase the rents. It needs approval by the New York City Council, which is set to vote on the proposal in the coming weeks following a lengthy public review process.

The New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) is overseeing the rezoning with help from multiple city agencies, including the Parks Department, Transportation Department and most notably Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

For Carmen Vega-Rivera, an activist with Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision (BxCCV) and a Bronx resident on the Grand Concourse for 37 years, the rezoning proposal has swallowed up her life. Getting around with a walker, Vega-Rivera, along with a sentry of community activists, has spent three years convincing the city to rethink its zoning policy. If New York City history has taught her anything, historically minority neighborhoods primed for rezoning will see many move out given housing policies that ultimately allow market forces to reign.

“I’m so angry I’m thinking what about my daughter and my grandkids. Where they gonna live? My son, who is with me, where’s he going to live?” said Vega-Rivera, speaking to the Norwood News at Court Diner on East 161st Street and Walton Avenue, a block and a half east of Jerome Avenue.

Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a grassroots tenant-organizing group, has helped spread word of rezoning to its membership of 5,000 strong as part of BxCCV.

The Jerome Avenue housing proposal was introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in February 2015, one of the first proposals born out of his Housing New York plan, which seeks to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing through its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program (the figure has now been pushed to 300,000). It’s one of 11 rezonings currently carried out by DCP. The neighborhoods are mostly comprised of Black and Hispanic residents.

And it’s promising affordability in an area that’s vastly dependent on it.

Real Affordability

But the affordability question and its consequences have been stuck in the mind of Vega-Rivera along with many activists. Affordability, after all, is a relative term. For Vega-Rivera, rents can determine whether one can live in a neighborhood.

She points to the city’s housing policy that proposes some rents on new affordable housing units to be at 60 percent Area Median Income (AMI), or $51,540 for a family of three. HPD enforces those guidelines. Building affordable housing is largely dependent on whether developers will build them in exchange for tax subsidies.

The policy presents problems for a third of the residents characterized as living in poverty, making less than $20,780 for a family of three. That makes them ineligible to even apply for affordable housing through HPD’s Housing Connect lottery. Even apartments the city has committed to build, set aside for extremely low-income earners, won’t make them eligible, as requirements stand at 30 percent AMI, or $25,770 for a family of three. This has led Vega-Rivera to conclude that new housing is not intended for the existing community, including the rent-burdened. Worse, new housing at the rates proposed by HPD can lead to a speculative jump in rents around the area prime for rezoning.

“If you’re making $20,000, even $40,000, where you going to move? Can you pay the $2,800? Can you pay the $3,200?” asked Vega-Rivera, referring to the types of rents she’s been inquiring about in her area in the last few months.

New York City’s AMI formula is lumped with incomes in neighboring Westchester and Rockland counties, where salaries are much higher. This skews the policy unfavorably toward the very low-income earners.

In DCP-led community visioning sessions, representatives told a number of CASA members that affordable housing will indeed come to the satisfaction of Jerome Avenue residents. They just weren’t aware it wouldn’t be for them, recalled Sheila Garcia, executive director of CASA.

“My members were like, ‘Oh, the city is going to mandate housing and it’s going to be affordable.’ And I said, ‘How much money do you make in a year?’” asked Garcia. The member said $20,000.

“The units will not be for you because you don’t actually make the amount of money in your household in order to qualify for the housing,” Garcia remembered responding.

At a hearing on the rezoning held by City Planning Commission, Madeline Mendez, a disabled Hispanic woman living on Social Security, took her frustrations out on the board that ultimately approved the rezoning as part of the public review process.

“[Supplemental Security Income] is $19,000 a year. Do you think I could afford those affordable housings that you’re making for the middle class and the upper class? Do you think my community that makes $25,000 in under a year could afford those affordable housings that you’re planning to make? Do you think that them developers are considering us?” said Mendez. “We’re being discriminated and you all know that.”

Affordability, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

“The people who qualify for ‘affordable’ housing are people who make more than a lot of people who actually need it,” said Gregory Jost, adjunct professor of sociology at Fordham University. “The formulas are kind of set up to benefit certain people and not others. And then what happens is that those who don’t benefit, which are a lot of people in the neighborhoods where there’s a lot of targeting for, like, rezoning, feel completely shut out, because the rezonings trigger a whole wave of speculative investment, which then triggers displacement.”

Jost is part of “Undesign the Redline,” an exhibit chronicling the health effects of neighborhoods that were redlined, a federal policy where so-called “hazardous populations” comprised of mostly minority neighborhoods were deliberately deprived of investment. The area of Jerome Avenue that’s the present focus of rezoning was deemed “Definitely Declining.” A review of the original maps outlining redlined neighborhoods show 9 of the 11 current rezonings fell in areas redlined by the federal government in the 1930s.

HPD has attempted to assuage the rent-burdened by increasing the number of mandatory affordable housing units.

Exchange Policy

Deeper affordability is the main component to CASA’s quest for the impoverished. Change in the face of affordability is second.

Rezonings are usually followed by positive change. For Jerome Avenue, that includes upgraded sidewalks, street trees, benches, lighting and major, multi-million dollar renovations to parks, including Aqueduct Park, Mt. Hope Garden and Grand Avenue Playground.

Vega-Rivera looks upon these changes with satisfaction and resentment. On one hand she’s content with the city taking a closer look at what’s needed, which include more open public spaces and a plan to fix the infrastructure. But on the other hand, these changes come with strings attached.

For Vega-Rivera, the city appears to engage in an unspoken exchange policy where new amenities come in exchange for affordable housing that’s not quite affordable to the current masses. Rezoning usually spurs development, but at the expense of dangling positive amenities she believes won’t be enjoyed by the existing population. Change is good, but only on the community’s terms, according to her. “It shouldn’t be a tradeoff…and say that the developers can’t build real affordable housing for those that need it. That’s no tradeoff for me. That’s what pisses me off,” she said. 

Garcia agrees. It’s one reason that drove community boards 4 and 5 to give conditional approval to the proposal (Community Board 7 is also included in its rezoning, with just a sliver of the rezoning proposal edging into the neighborhood, compelling the board to defer to boards 4 and 5), realizing the city’s investment to Jerome Avenue was rare.

“The city is saying to people of color, poor people of color, ‘The only way we’re going to invest in your community is if you let us rezone and make your home more unaffordable for you and maybe potentially displace you in order to provide good schools,’” said Garcia. “It’s actually really hurtful, and it says something how we value poor people of color throughout the city.”

The mayor’s office did not return an email seeking comment.

Regardless, Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, whose 16th Council District represents a large swath of the proposed rezoning, is seizing on the moment. Throughout the public review process, Gibson has noted the city has made little investment on Jerome Avenue until now.

“Despite the real fear and the anxiety that many families and residents feel, and I hear it almost every day, I realize the risk that we are taking, but I also realize how much is at stake,” said Gibson in testimony she gave at the Nov. 29, 2017 City Planning Commission hearing. “Many of our seniors and families have lived in the Bronx for a really long time, and they deserve to stay there. They lived in an era of the dark days in the Bronx. And now that we have brighter days ahead they certainly deserve to remain. I will not allow this community to be shortchanged.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera, whose 14th Council District covers a portion of the rezoning proposal, said the “proposed rezoning comes at an important time when my district and the entire district have a critical need for affordable housing. But this is only part of the story. In truth, District 14 is an extreme one of the basic amenities that are crucial to community survival.”

Cabrera’s and Gibson’s vote arguably count as most members typically vote in line with the Council member whose project overlaps with their district. Gibson arguably has the most power. She could effectively advance or kill the rezoning on several conditions, namely that the city consider creating more seats to ease the already overcrowded schools in the areas. It’s the promise of schools that convinced CB4 Chair Kathleen Saunders to back the proposal.

The potential casualties of the rezoning are the existing auto industry that lines Jerome Avenue. Born out of a policy to put affordable housing above everything else, the city’s proposal will change zoning distinctions at where automotive shops do business, revising the distinction from commercial to residential effectively putting them in the line of fire for displacement. An August 2017 report by BxCCV notes that the “introduction of housing will displace auto businesses in these areas, as property owners can receive a significantly greater return on their investment for residential uses.”

Yes, the affordable housing stock will increase along Jerome Avenue with the intent of keeping the housing market affordable. But Tom Angotti, an urban planner, retired professor of urban planning at Hunter College, and author of “Zoned Out,” a book on rezonings, notes that’s not always true. Market forces will dictate and cause a speculative jump in land values and rents along Jerome Avenue, where two-thirds of the units are rent-stabilized and vacancy rates are lower than New York City’s average.

Those units appear to be always in constant threat: Over the last 10 years, 172,000 of the nearly 1 million rent-stabilized units in New York City were deregulated, pushing those rents beyond the $2,500 to $2,700 threshold needed to keep them regulated.

This paradox happened in Greenpoint-Williamsburg following the 2005 rezoning. There, thousands of Hispanic families fled while White families began to settle. This came even as nearly 10,000 housing units were built, which included affordable housing. Median incomes rose from $46,255 to $71,325, a 65 percent jump, from 2002 to 2013.

“[T]he increase in development potential led landlords to buy out or evict tenants, while homeowners in affordable units were enticed to leave. And then the affordable units that were built weren’t truly affordable to most local residents. And many of the promised affordable units were not even built,” said Angotti in an email. 

Back on Jerome Avenue, the city admits that their rezoning proposal “could” result in 4,000 affordable units. In its Draft Neighborhood Plan updated in October 2017, the city also admitted that only 1,000 of the 4,000 affordable units earmarked for construction will ultimately remain affordable, opening the door for increases.

Creating those units depends on the real estate industry where private developers may not be sold on the subsidies offered by the city. “The city is saying, and they said this in the past, ‘Of course we’re going to build all this housing, but we’re going to prioritize developers that use the least amount of subsidies.’ We know that right now that would be catastrophic for anyone who lives on Jerome,” said Garcia.

Even Right to Counsel, enacted by the city to offer attorneys to tenants in Housing Court against their landlord, won’t help, said Garcia. “Right to Counsel is irrelevant to Jerome if people can’t actually afford the rent,” said Garcia. “No attorney will be able to keep you in your house if you can’t pay the rent.”

Gentrification is certainly on the mind of Vega-Rivera. She’s beginning to see rents creep along the Grand Concourse, running parallel to Jerome Avenue. “Where’s the affordability in this neighborhood?” she asked. 

In her apartment building just outside the proposed rezoning area, at least 37 housing units in her building remain vacant.

Thinking Inclusively

For the last three years, the city has hosted a total of 41 types of public meetings and get-togethers related to the Jerome Avenue rezoning.

Vega-Rivera has long believed that the city is not listening to its residents, especially when it comes to its affordability terms. In the early stages of the rezoning effort, she was struck that meetings had taken place well after the city announced its intent to rezone the neighborhoods. “I know that firsthand because I learned about meetings that were already happening when the announcement was made in 2014, and I learned about meetings that took place that fall in 2014 that did not involve me,” said Vega-Rivera. “I was shut out. Is it because I’m an agitator? Is it because I speak up? Is it because I know about my community? I know what the needs are.”

Garcia of CASA remembers a summer festival on the Grand Concourse where several streets were shut down. DCP had set up a table outlining the Jerome Avenue rezoning while downplaying plenty of the technical terms. “They just had a table and told people, like, ‘Look we’re going to make the community beautiful, we’re going to bring all these things in,’” Garcia recalled. “I think that’s problematic because it’s not giving people the context and engaging in a conversation that’s real.”

The city swears it pays attention to the needs. By City Charter mandate, rezoning proposals go through a public review process involving community boards.

While Vega-Rivera calls it “lip service,” Angotti says their version of planning falls flat.

“New York City does not do planning. It really has not done it in any open democratic systematic way. What they call planning is nothing more than holding some meetings at which residents, local business owners, are simply observers who get the chance to speak from time to time but have really no fundamental control over the decisions that are gonna be made,” Angotti argues.

Fighting Back

Regardless of socioeconomic background, Angotti said the best thing anyone facing a rezoning is getting organized.

“There’re really three rules: Organize, organize, organize. [P]rivileged communities, White communities. That’s how they get what they want. That’s the only way that people are going to get anything,” said Angotti. “If you’re going to sit and wait, you’re never going to get anywhere. If you’re going to believe they’re mainly to support your interests, then you’re not going to get anywhere.

BxCCV has taken on that strategy. For its part, they’ve convinced the city to agree to some safeguards that include a revised term sheet, tougher tenant protections, legal representation for qualifying tenants at housing court and a certificate of no harassment program that verifies that landlords seeking building permits have not harassed tenants.

Those would not have come without intervention.

“We don’t want to make the same mistake twice,” said Garcia.


David Cruz, a recipient of a 2017 Journalism Fellowship from Marguerite Casey Foundation, is editor in chief of Norwood News, a publication based in the Bronx area of New York City. This story first appeared in the Norwood News. It is reprinted with permission. On Twitter, Cruz is @CWEBCRUZER, and the Norwood News is @NorwoodNews. About the top photo by David Cruz: Carmen Vega-Rivera of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision is working for better affordable housing in the area. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America.  

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