The deal struck Thursday between City Council and the de Blasio administration on the rezoning plan for East New York has elicited a variety of responses. To Land Use chair David Greenfield, it was a “unicorn deal.” East New York Councilman Rafael Espinal called it an imperfect but “much better” plan—one, he said, he had improved by refusing to capitulate on a variety of community demands. To New York Communities for Change member Rachel Rivera, however, it was “a total sham.” Brother Paul Muhammad, a member of the Coalition for Community Advancement, called it “watered-down poison.”
Maybe Michelle Neugebauer, the executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and a member of the Coalition, summed it up best: it was a “mixed bag,” she said. “We won a lot that we’ve been calling for from the beginning, but on the issue of affordable housing we lost big time.”
Coalition members expressed disappointment in the number of units that will be affordable to the current residents in East New York, what they see as an insufficiency of new school seats, and the absence of some recommended displacement measures, among other issues. The city’s new plan, however, carries a variety of community benefits originally proposed by the Coalition, from the opening of a Workforce1 Center to the creation of a $12 million fund to finance home repairs and basement legalizations.
As housing justice advocates across the city review the outcomes in East New York, many say the results attest to the power of community organizing, especially when stakeholders put forth detailed policy alternatives.
“The more superficial coverage has tended to say ‘this is just NIMBYism,’ or
‘people just don’t want density,'” says Joan Byron, program director of the Neighborhoods First Fund for Community Based Planning, which funds community groups and technical providers that seek to develop nuanced responses to city-initiated rezonings. “That’s really not what happened here. These are folks who have been working . . . on really deep planning analysis with city agencies and brought all that planning knowledge to the process.”
It is not an easy task for stakeholders in low-income neighborhoods—often already saddled with a variety of pressing community issues—to rapidly develop meaningful alternatives that can challenge the arguments made by a persuasive administration and by agency staff members with urban planning degrees. To craft their own alternative proposal, the Coalition asked the assistance of seven legal and technical assistance providers, but even with that expert help, the task proved challenging.
This weekend, East New York stakeholders began looking back on the process—and activists in other rezoning neighborhoods looking forward—to note how their discussions with city agencies could have gone better. As the city moves to rezone 14 other neighborhoods, the way East New York unfolded offers lessons for both community groups and the administration.
Distinguishing guarantees from goals
Members of the Coalition for Community Advancement can now identify moments when they wished they’d asked different questions, and would advise future neighborhoods to press for the specifics.
“Demand right up front: What are the parameters? What are we talking about?” says Neugebauer. “How much city capital investment are we going to make? Is there going to be any additional give on the depth of affordability?”
Over the past year, the conversation between East New Yorkers stakeholders and the administration changed as advocates realized that the administration could guarantee some, but not all, of their promises. In July, the city pledged that 50 percent of the housing generated from the rezoning—or about 3,400 units—would be rented at below-market rates. The city also promised to subsidize the development of 1,200 below-market rate units in the first two years of the plan. Once the market heated up, officials explained, developers would be required to build affordable housing under the proposed mandatory inclusionary housing policy. The Coalition responded by pressing for more and deeper affordability: 5,000 below-market rate apartments, and at lower income tiers than those targeted by the city.
A few months and a little math later, however, they realized that the city’s promise to ensure affordability for 50 percent of the units could not be guaranteed: This would depend on the willingness of developers to accept city subsidies, which would in turn depend on a variety of market factors and business decisions.
Borough President Eric Adams and Espinal came to the same conclusion, and began calling on the city to find more publicly-owned sites where the city could ensure the production of 100-percent affordable buildings. In the final weeks of negotiations, the Coalition changed the language, if not the spirit, of their ask: They demanded the city make good on its 50 percent promise by committing subsidies to specific projects. They also called for the exclusion of Arlington Village, a two-block residential complex, from the rezoning area, in order to drive a hard bargain with a developer they accused of tenant harassment and speculation.
Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Hosing and Development (ANHD), says there’s a warning here for all future rezoning neighborhoods: Community advocates must seek to understand what the administration can truly guarantee, and what is beyond its ability to control. In addition, by focusing on the block-by-block specifics of the rezoning plan, advocates can ensure solid commitments. “If you scale down a little bit on the scope of the rezoning, then you scale down a little bit on the uncertainty,” she says.
Andrew Hausermann, who represents Faith in New York in the Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance, said East New York activists have set a precedent by demanding the exclusion of particular, speculative developers. He hopes that Flushing, too, will “not kowtow to people who are looking for exorbitant profits on the back of the rezoning.”
Ultimately, the city agreed to exclude Arlington Village, add another public site to the plan, and study the feasibility of developing another nearby public site. While a victory for the Coalition, Neugebauer wondered how the outcome might have been different if two years ago the city had worked to ensure Arlington Village was acquired by a developer willing to build more affordable housing. (Rita Stark, the prior owner of Arlington Village and widely known for holding out for the greatest price, sold the building for $36 million to the Bluestone Group in December 2014.) Neugebauer also wished that before publically announcing the rezoning, the city had taken sites with eminent domain or encouraged nonprofits to acquire sites.
“Before there’s even any announcement [or] hint, those critical sites need to be locked in,” she says. “Once that speculative activity [starts]….It’s game over.”
The Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) would not directly answer a question about whether it made efforts to intervene in the sale of Arlington Village, and both HPD and the Department of City Planning declined interviews for this article.
The mysteries of deep affordability
For many advocates, the biggest disappointment is the lack of units for families making below 30 percent AMI, who make up approximately a third of the population of East New York or roughly 12,000 families. The plan guarantees only about 150 units for households with those incomes, of which half will be reserved for East New York residents under the city’s community preference policy. More such units could come from the development of another public site or if more private developers agree to provide those units in exchange for subsidies.
The decline of federal investment in public housing and section 8 vouchers—historically, the main tools used to provide housing for “extremely low income” families—has left many cities struggling to provide shelter for their poorest residents. East New York advocates thought they could press de Blasio to devote more subsidies, but the administration insisted that the math doesn’t work: if developers are required to provide more than 10 to 15 percent of units for people making below 30 percent AMI, administrators argued, they couldn’t meet their operating costs, even with subsidies.
Espinal says that in the final days of negotiation, the administration put him in touch with developers who made the same argument. “It’s not feasible to go any [greater] on the lower AMIs,” he says. “I consulted with a lot of my progressive colleagues and they said that this was the best deal for East New York.” Yet Espinal says he recognizes the need to find new ways of reaching that lowest-income bracket.
Coalition members say they’re far from convinced that the city has done all it can to reach low levels of affordability. They hope to work with a citywide task force to develop a case for why the city should, and how it can, subsidize more units for people making below 30 percent AMI.
And the outcomes in East New York have certainly not diminished the calls from community groups in other rezoning neighborhoods for deeper affordability.
“It’s going to cost more dollars to get more deeper levels of affordability, but that’s a statement about who deserves to live here,” says Susanna Blankley, director of CASA New Settlements and a member of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision. “I hope the administration understands that what happened in East New York can’t happen in the Bronx. It won’t be acceptable.”
In no uncertain terms, the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision sent a letter to DCP on Monday demanding the incorporation of their comprehensive strategy in the city’s scope for the rezoning of Jerome Avenue, and insisting the city use their Environmental Impact Statement to address how their plan would meet their community’s priorities.
“The rezoning of Jerome Ave should not just be thought of as a means to the end of advancing the mayor’s affordable housing plan—the stakes for longtime community residents are high and they should not be an afterthought,” the letter read.
Beyond East New York
As other neighborhoods begin haggling with the administration, they will have a few advantages over East New York: The starting point for negotiations has changed. The city has conceded that it can use mandatory inclusionary housing to require developers to build for families making not just 60 percent AMI, but 40 percent AMI. Whereas merely half a year ago, the city dismissed the effectiveness of anti-harassment provisions, they have now agreed to study how such provisions could be instituted citywide. And the city now knows the degree to which they will be expected to engage with community groups.
“I think that the city has learned the extent to which local communities…want to be doing a detailed level of planning, and don’t just want a vague promise, and aren’t just willing to settle for what might have been the norm even five or ten years ago,” says ANHD organizer Goldstein. “I hope that the city, having seen it now…will be able to respond to it with the seriousness it deserves.”
There’s at least one thing DCP has been doing differently in other rezoning neighborhoods: In Flushing, the Bronx’s Jerome, and Staten Island’s Bay Street, the city has begun its outreach efforts by forming a stakeholder advisory committee with local elected officials, community organizations and other local leaders. These committees have provoked different reactions: in Jerome, frustration with the exclusivity of an “invite-only” committee lead to the formation of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, which developed its own plan. In Staten Island, however, Bobby Digi, the executive director of the nonprofit Island Voice and president of the North Shore Business Alliance, lauded both the diversity and inclusivity of the Bay Street steering committee. East Harlem is a whole other story, with a steering committee of local groups appointed by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that has developed its own neighborhood plan.
(In response to questions about DCP’s decision to create stakeholder committees, DCP press representative Joe Marvelli wrote in an e-mail, “There is no singular process for our community outreach in study areas…We will continue to put forth our best efforts to engage with all residents and stakeholders on a regular basis.”)
To Byron of the Neighborhoods First Development Fund, the challenge of creating a meaningful community engagement process is yet another reason why the city should consider rezoning high-income neighborhoods, too. Affordable housing advocates have long argued that rezoning affluent neighborhoods promotes economic integration and doesn’t come with the risk of displacing existing residents. Bryon adds that such a rezoning would allow the city to create “a collaborative relationship that doesn’t have such an asymmetry of power and access”—in essence, a situation where the administration finds themselves accused of taking advantage of a community’s lack of knowledge or resources to push through a rezoning.
At the least, it would inspire many progressives to see de Blasio and his team of urban planners fighting a wealthy district for the greatest amount of affordability possible—rather than apologizing for the failings of the market.