Gentrification, Homelessness Key Topics at De Blasio’s Harlem Town Hall

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Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Residents look to be recognized to speak at the Harlem town hall.

On Thursday night in Crown Heights, opponents of the City-Hall backed Bedford Union Armory project were greatly peeved at what they described as the mayor’s avoidance of the town hall to which they’d invited him. But in Harlem, where the mayor was instead engaged, he received a warm welcome.

The conversation there touched on a variety of subjects, from homeowners’ quality of life concerns to the necessity of increased funding for Harlem-based cultural and LGBTQ organizations. A six-year-old stole the show by asking for a waterpark on 5th Avenue; then a 96-year-old stole it back by asking for a bus shelter.

Though the mayor was thanked for reducing stop and frisk, there were still concerns raised about interactions between citizens and law enforcement or other city agencies. The mayor was asked to explain what would be done to respond to the NYPD shooting death of an emotionally disturbed man in Flatbush on Monday, as well as to the insensitivity and harassment some had said they’d faced at the hands of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). The mayor said efforts were underway to train more police officers to handle situations with mentally ill people and provide implicit bias trainings for ACS workers, and he heralded the city’s new all-purpose mental health hotline, 1-888-NYC-WELL.

Predictably, lack of affordability was a reoccurring subject. Harlem is contending with visible signs of change like a newly opened Whole Foods, while the east part of the district is in the midst of considering a neighborhood rezoning. Here’s a few of the specific concerns that were raised, and how the mayor and his team are addressing them.

1. Pass the Housing Not Warehousing Act – Picture the Homeless has been advocating for a package of bills that would require the city to create a database of vacant land and buildings in an effort to end landlord warehousing. De Blasio confessed that he had never heard of the act, but said he is “very concerned about any situation where housing is held off the market.” The Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) has in the past opposed the bill as unnecessary.

2. Listen to Residents of TILs and HDFCs— There was a large turnout of residents from both the Tenant Interim Lease program, which helps tenants of abandoned and foreclosed buildings become cooperative homeowners, and Housing Development Fund Corporations, the name for such buildings that become coops. The De Blasio administration has tried to reform the two flawed programs in what it describes as an effort to preserve long-term affordability, but the administration is getting a lot of pushback from residents on the proposed reforms.

3. Work with Faith Leaders to Build Affordable Housing – The leaders of a community organization and a church each said they’d had difficulty connecting with HPD to develop vacant properties that they own or city-owned properties that they occupy. De Blasio emphasized the importance of working with non-profit community leaders and the private-sector to build affordable housing. Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer said HPD would follow up and she offered an apology for any poor communication.

4. Lead Violations Must Be Enforced – Peggy Shepard from WE ACT for Environmental Justice said the city’s laws governing lead removal are not properly enforced. “We take very seriously our responsibility to enforce the lead law,” said Torres Springer. “We’ll make sure that we’re following up on either a specific building or additional ways that we can be more aggressive.”

5. Target More “Affordable Housing” To the Lowest Incomes – A member of Community Voices Heard said that the city should set aside 40 percent of housing built on public land to households making less than $25,770 for a family of three, and ensure local residents had access to union construction jobs. De Blasio insisted there was a need for affordable housing across the income spectrum. He said he was using the tools he could to try to create good local jobs in conjunction with development.

6. Commercial Rent Control Must Be Passed – A restaurant owner called for commercial rent regulation, saying “Black businesses are squeezed financially by property owners.” De Blasio, expressing his sympathy, said he didn’t think commercial rent control would pass legal muster, and emphasized other tools, like the recently passed commercial tenant harassment bill, that can be used to protect businesses from displacement.

7. A ‘No’ With No Conditions on the East Harlem Rezoning – The final speaker of the night directed her question to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who had until Wednesday to make her decision on the rezoning of East Harlem proposed by City Hall. Brewer said her decision would be announced Thursday morning, but added: “We’re listening very carefully to the community.” (De Blasio did not respond to the question).

(Since Sal Albanese, one of the mayor’s challengers on the Democratic ticket, also made an appearance, we asked him what he thought of the mayor’s rezoning proposals. “I’m going to scrap all of De Blasio’s rezonings because they result in the hyper-gentrification driving the people out of the city,” he said, explaining that he would instead build “real affordable housing” and fund it by getting the State legislature to pass a bill enacting a Pied-a-Terre tax on expensive apartments owned by absent overseas buyers. The bill, condemned by Republicans and real estate industry leaders, has gone nowhere since it was first introduced in 2014.)

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