Growing up in East New York, I remember a time when housing was extremely affordable and homeownership was attainable to those who strove for the American Dream. But, this was also a time when Brooklyn neighborhoods struggled due to decades of disinvestment by our city and state governments. Our housing, schools, parks and overall infrastructure crumbled, jobs were lost and crime was at an all-time high.
We in East New York yearned for when we could have equal access to the investments and services found in more affluent communities. We always hoped that our next Mayor, Governor and even President would take action and create a bold plan to address the inequalities and socioeconomic problems we faced.
The East New York Neighborhood Plan is the kind of action the neighborhood has been waiting for. Many argue that the plan will have the same negative impacts as prior rezonings in other parts of Brooklyn. That it would create too many market rate units and accelerate gentrification. But, the reality is– East New York is already a market unit rich neighborhood, with very few rent regulated apartments. Its close proximity to Bushwick and Williamsburg, which are going through an affordable housing crisis, has organically made ENY an attractive location for residents being squeezed out of those rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and it was an inevitable breeding ground for real-estate speculation. So, something needed to be done.
Let’s take Bushwick for example. If you would have told Bushwick residents ten years ago that the neighborhood would see record highs in real estate prices, similar to Williamsburg, many would have scoffed. Yet as displaced Williamsburg residents– old and new– migrated to Bushwick looking for cheaper rents, it created immense pressure on its housing stock, driving up costs. Simple economics; low supply and high demand drove up costs and fueled displacement. The culture and character of Bushwick rapidly changed and in 2014, it was named the “7th coolest neighborhood” in the world by Vogue Magazine. Unfortunately, there were no mechanisms in place to protect residents and prevent these negative effects. Now we are scrambling to put the brakes on this global accelerated gentrification through a potential Bushwick rezoning.
The history of neighboring communities and the lack of rent protected units in ENY, looked to have been creating its fate.This reality necessitated that we take action: we will prevent massive displacement through guided development, and investments to the people of the community. And, with new tools like MIH, we have a formal vehicle to hold developers accountable so that we can at least have a place for low-income folks to be a part of new development, unlike in Bushwick and Williamsburg.
While some automatically associate “rezoning” with displacement, in ENY the rezoning was a tool for preservation by focusing on the creation of permanently affordable housing at historic levels and providing free legal assistance to keep tenants in their homes.
With the support and guidance of the community, I fought for this deal and I fought for our future. There were many days when I stormed out of meetings with the Administration and was prepared to terminate the plan if we did not strike a better deal. We even cut out plots of land where we felt there was intention to harm the community and turn a profit. In the end, what we were able to deliver was miles ahead of what was presented to us from the outset.
Through my negotiations and input by the Coalition of Community Advancement, I was able to secure over $260 million for: a new 1,000 seat public school, an all ages community center, a first of its kind homeowner help desk to keep people in their homes and a Workforce1 center to connect people with jobs. In addition we invested in the Industrial Business Zone to create 4,000 jobs there, and millions of dollars are going to the renovation of dangerous Atlantic Ave, local parks, 27 existing public schools, and more.
This level of strategic and targeted investment has never been seen before in any community, especially not in communities that were on the brink of gentrification. The demographics that were most vulnerable in other gentrifying neighborhoods stayed susceptible because of a lack of holistic government intervention, but in ENY those same demographics will have more resources than ever. As I reflect on the ENY Planning Process, there are certainly aspects that could have been done better, but I firmly believe with my conscience that we did the right thing and that time will show the impact of our work.
A Democrat first elected in 2013, Espinal is the representative for the 37th Council District (East New York, Cypress Hills, Bushwick and Brownsville).
This article appeared in our latest ZoneIn print newsletter, which was distributed in East New York on Friday and is available here. Earlier newsletters covered Far Rockaway, the Lower East Side and East Harlem.