Former City Councilmember Inez Dickens, who jumped over to the State Assembly this year, was widely regarded as absent from discussions on the Department of City Planning (DCP)’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem. Her replacement, however, might take a different approach.
Though the vast majority of the city’s proposed rezoning falls in District 8—under City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito’s purview—a small portion lies in District 9, including the west side of Park Avenue north of 118th Street, and a 10-block section between 126th and 132nd street. At the least, any rezoning of Park Avenue is sure to impact residents living just to the west in Dickens’ former district.
While Dickens’s office was involved in the East Harlem Neighborhood Planning (EHNP) process lead by Mark-Viverito in 2015, with staff serving on the ENHP steering committee, the former councilmember is not remembered as a particularly vocal participant in that process. And by the time the city released its rezoning proposal in November, Dickens was already on her way to Albany, and did not take a public stance.
Lermond Mayes, Dickens’ chief of staff, says it’s true Dickens let Mark-Viverito take the lead, but that her office also worked to ensure the ENHP included economic development strategies that would create more jobs for those living near Park Avenue, and focused on ensuring that the 10-block section in the district received the preservation zoning residents desired (and the city’s zoning plan does reflect this request).
But former State Senator Bill Perkins, who won the special election held to replace Dickens, brought up some other concerns in an interview with City Limits. While the former Senator admits that he is not familiar with the details of DCP’s proposal or the ENHP plan, he says he is looking forward to the opportunity to “vet” the city’s proposal, and says he’s deeply concerned that the word affordability has become a “misnomer” for housing that is rarely affordable to the residents of East Harlem.
“I don’t automatically buy the argument that poverty concentrated, that all it does is create self-destruction,” he says, questioning the premise that building a lot of low-income housing in one place is a recipe for failure, as some planners believe. “I’m not against higher-income integrating into a neighborhood, but you can’t, as policy, just build for the wealthy.”
East Harlem Rezoning
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Asked whether he would support the ENHP’s demand that 10 percent of the total housing created through a rezoning be affordable to families making $25,000 and below, or Community Voices Heard’s demand that 30 percent of the total housing be affordable to such families, he says, “why not 80 percent for that crowd?”
Asked whether that was realistic given the limited amount of subsidy the mayor has at his disposal, he would not back down. “What you conceive, you can achieve. That’s how you start.”
While Perkins claims he’ll take a tough stance when it comes to affordability and rezoning affecting his district, he already has a challenger with a detailed critique of the city’s proposal. Perkins’ spot will be up for reelection again in November, and Transit Workers Union activist Marvin Holland, who placed second in the February 14 special election, has already vowed to run again.
“I’ve been very consistent and out-spoken…that I’m against the way the current rezoning plan is drawn,” Holland says, explaining the rezoning footprint is too large and the planned maximum building heights are too high. As for the affordable housing part, there’s nothing in the plan for the many East Harlem families that make less than $25,000 a year, he argues.
He says he’s somewhat familiar with the ENHP, and is aware it had “some community involvement.” But he thinks that the neighborhood should demand even more affordable housing for the $25,000-and-below income bracket than requested by the ENHP, given that not all the low-income housing will be reserved for East Harlem residents.
Holland is also critical of the mayor’s affordable housing plan in general.
“It’s being driven by big developers to build more market-rate affordable housing,” he says. Giving tax abatements to developers so they’ll build a small percent of below-market units and a large number of market-rate ones “is what’s driving the gentrification that’s taking place across the city,” he contends.
According to Holland, a better plan would entail using city owned land and non-profit developers to build deeply affordable housing, preventing landlords from warehousing their buildings, fighting discrimination against housing voucher holders, and investing in the city’s Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program and Housing Development Fund Corporations (HDFCs).
One other candidate, Shanette Gray, has also filed to run against Perkins in November, but she could not be reached for comment. City Limits also reached out to the four candidates who have filed to run for Mark-Viverito’s seat. Diane Ayala, Mark-Viverito’s deputy chief of staff, and community activist Edward Gibbs, could not be reached for comment. Former Community Board 11 member* and DOE professional Edward Santos says he will continue speaking with community members about their concerns regarding the rezoning and will pay attention to the findings of the board’s rezoning task force, but feels “a comment at this time would be premature and possibly misguided without input from the community.”
Local business owner Tamika Mapp says she attended some of the EHNP workshops related to small businesses and education, and is familiar with both the EHNP and the city’s plan. Both plans, she says, won’t provide enough housing affordable to the many East Harlem residents living on social security and disability.
“Where are they going to stay now? They’ve lived in this district all their lives, and now they’re going to get displaced,” she says.
Mapp also says the proposal selected by the city for the redevelopment of the 111th street ballfields does not include enough low-income units. And she’s uncomfortable with “25/75″—a reference to the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, which requires that 25 percent of units in market-rate buildings be reserved for low-income families. Rather, she says a “50/50” model would be something she could get behind.
Asked whether this was realistic given the city’s resistance, Mapp says the city should be spending less on shelters and more on subsidizing low-income rents.
*Correction: Originally said Santos was still a member of Community Board 11.