The gentrification debate usually revolves around the idea that new, more affluent people are coming and current, less wealthy residents might be being driven away.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. doesn’t see it that way.
For him, new development—even of subsidized housing open only to people with relatively high incomes—is about retaining an incumbent population of professionals in the Bronx who now live in apartments that are cheaper than they need because they lack other options in the borough.
And it’s also about slapping “anarchists” around. At least that’s how Diaz pitched it to a room of housing advocates and developers at the New York Housing Conference’s annual symposium on Wednesday.
Diaz was joined on the dais by Rafael Cestero, a former city housing commissioner, and Daniel Hernandez, who currently works for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The two men talked about the importance—and challenges—of a multiagency approach to housing development that schedules infrastructure investments so that the new parks, schools and bus lines are in place when the new residential units come on line.
Process, the two stressed, is so important. Diaz agreed. A good process, he said, helped you to “weed out the anarchists.”
“Let’s face it, there are people who want the Bronx to stay the way it was in the 1990s*. There’s a handful of them,” Diaz said. “They don’t represent the community.”
Pointing to the Yankee Stadium redevelopment, where indications are that no major displacement has occurred, Diaz said: “We don’t subscribe to the notion that gentrification has to be about pushing one community out to bring another one in.”
“I strongly believe that there is a population of professionals and skilled workers in the Bronx that if we don’t give them what they want they are going to leave,” trapping the Bronx in its place as the borough with the highest poverty “because they take their employment status and their salaries with them,” Diaz added.
Census data suggests Diaz is right that there is a growing professional-level population in his borough. From 2005 to 2013, the share of Bronx households making less than $15,000 fell from 30 percent to 26 percent, while the number making more than $100,000 rose from 15 percent to 20 percent. The brackets in between barely changed.
But the Bronx also leads the city in sending families to the city’s homeless shelters, hinting that its housing needs are not exclusively at the high end.
“What the community needs to understand in my borough is that while you have professional naysayers, you can’t always address everything with emotion,” Diaz continued Wednesday. “You can’t just always just shout ‘No! No! No! No!’ when a city agency brings you down to the table and asks you what you want [you say nothing.]”
“Look,” continued Diaz. “It’s happening. It’s happening. It’s happening. This is real. Ten years from now it’s changing. It’s happening” and if a community group doesn’t articulate a real vision “you’ll be left in the dark. You’ll be left in the cold and you’ll be chanting and screaming ‘What’s happening?'”
Diaz, of course, was depicted as a naysayer himself for opposing the 2009 deal that would have developed a mall in the long-dormant Kingsbridge Armory; Diaz said “no” because the scheme lacked a living-wage clause. He later nurtured the current plan for the site, which includes extensive community benefits and living wages, though for a smaller number of jobs than promised in the ’09 approach.
* Editor’s Note: Diaz’s office insists he said 1990s, not 1950s as I reported earlier.