Councilmember Rafael Espinal: 'East New York was a neighborhood that has been neglected for a very long time. ... Bushwick is like a flame or a fire that's out of control.'

William Alatriste for the New York City Council

Councilmember Rafael Espinal: 'East New York was a neighborhood that has been neglected for a very long time. ... Bushwick is like a flame or a fire that's out of control.'

It’s been almost half a year since the City Council adopted the controversial East New York Community Plan, upzoning the neighborhood’s major avenues to promote housing and commercial development. Local Councilmember Rafael Espinal claimed victory in securing over $250 million in community benefits–including funding to improve parks, schools, and the East New York Industrial Business Zone—as part of the rezoning. Yet some community advocates are disappointed that the plan did not include more units for families making the lowest incomes and more measures to protect tenants in one-to-two family homes, among other concerns.

On Tuesday, City Limits asked Espinal to discuss what’s happened in East New York since the plan’s passage in April and to talk about the community-generated rezoning effort spearheaded by a 48-person steering committee underway in the other half of his district, Bushwick.

Councilman Rafael Espinal: It’s been almost six months since we passed the rezoning. I have to say that in the past few months I was very nervous: Is the administration going to actually deliver on all these promises they’ve made? But I have to say, after the budget passed they did dedicate almost half of the dollars that they committed into the budget.

City Limits: You mean of that $250 million, they’ve included more than $120 million in this year’s budget?

Espinal: I would say like $100 million of it was put in. We’ve received $17.45 million for our local schools so they can get technology upgrades and rebuild their cafeterias, their gyms, their open spaces. We’re finally getting to the point where all the infrastructure that has been neglected for decades by previous administrations is receiving the levels of investment that the community has needed for a very long time. We just recently had a visioning session for East New York’s first full-fledged community center. The community is very excited, and it’s very heartwarming to see how they’re now understanding how important this process was for the neighborhood.

City Limits: The administration has also committed $12 million to homeowners for small home repairs or possibly basement legalizations. Is there any progress with that?

Espinal: There are a lot of people in the city who feel that basement legalization is the way to go and there are a lot of people who don’t feel that way. I felt it was important for us to have a pilot program to address the issues of homeowners. They’re underwater in their mortgages and they’re being approached daily by real-estate speculators who want to buy their homes to flip their properties. I thought that the best way to alleviate homeowners was creating a path to legalization for these basement units so that they can earn a few extra dollars.

The administration was a little hesitant at first because of all the pushback they’re getting from the fire department and from other constituencies. But they agreed to put together a task force that would address that issue. That task force is my office, members of the community, the mayor’s office and the several agencies involved. The $12 million dollars will be set aside in the budget after the task force puts together the recommendations on how to move forward, whether to move forward with a path to legalization or whether to alleviate homeowners with other issues they’re facing.

City Limits: I’ve heard the administration make the argument that there are a lot of people already living in illegal basements. If you legalize them—well, it’s sort of a shady argument—are you just going to lose affordable illegal apartments?

Espinal: That’s always a possibility, but our goal with the $12 million is give it to homeowners as a loan to retrofit their basements and in the life of that loan they have to provide an affordable housing unit. If the rent is $1000 and they tap into that fund, then the rent will have to stay at $1000.

City Limits: The plan included the development over the next two years of 100 percent rent-restricted housing and other community resources on several large sites, including the Chloe Foods site and the Dinsmore-Chestnut site. How are those projects going and when can we expect them to break ground?

Espinal: The largest site was the Chloe Foods site, which was a burnt down building and formerly it was a food processing plant that employed almost 80 percent of Cypress Hills. Phipps committed to build 1000 units there. Next door is a city-owned HPD site where the city has committed to building a 1,000 seat school and 200 additional apartments.

Currently, Phipps is cleaning up the site. There was a notice sent out recently about how they’re going to do a study to make sure the area is not contaminated and then they’ll be able to build as soon as possible. The city held visioning sessions for their HPD site and there was a strong community presence and interest in creating truly affordable housing for the community there. The city has committed to putting out an RFP by the spring of next year for their site.

City Limits: At the last minute, the administration heeded the community’s calls to not rezone Arlington Village, a large dilapidated housing complex recently bought by speculators, so that the speculators would have to negotiate a separate agreement with the community in order to secure a rezoning. That was something you pushed for, right? Is there any sign that the current owners are interested in negotiating with the community?

Espinal: I had two concerns: the loss of affordable housing and the possibility of leaving a plot of land neglected by the previous landlord to sit there and create unsafe conditions for tenants. I would like to see that area redeveloped as soon s possible but the reality is that we couldn’t trust the current owners and I wasn’t comfortable providing them with the air rights that they were looking for. Currently we don’t know the status of the project. We’re still waiting to see whether the current owners are going to sell or if they’re going to come back to the table to look for additional air rights.

City Limits: Some people were really disappointed that there weren’t more units for families making below $24,000 a year. By one calculation, a third of East New Yorkers make less than that, but less than 10 percent of the total housing units will be for that income bracket. Are you also concerned about that and do you think there’s more that can be done?

Espinal: I’m concerned for all New Yorkers who are making below $24,000. There are a lot of issues they’re facing and there’s a lot we as a city need to look at to help them move out of that income bracket. The reality is, given all the tools that were put on the table, it was impossible to address the housing issues for that income bracket. We also have to look at the bigger picture. Seventy percent of East New York is making up to $60,000 a year, and they’re at just as much at risk of being pushed out of the community and ending up in homeless shelters. I believe that this plan addresses the needs across the board.

City Limits: I understand that there are people in East New York who are saying they need more than the one new school planned for the Dinsmore-Chestnut site. I’m sure the administration has its own arguments against committing resources to more schools. How do you deal with being caught between two visions of infrastructure planning?

Espinal: To play with the title you guys used in an article, you have to be the “man in the middle.” You have to look at both sides and figure out what you believe is the best path forward. The community was arguing that in 10 years there will be an influx of new constituents but we don’t know what 10 years will look like. If we end up building two schools and having empty classrooms, what use is that? I think it will be the job for the next councilman ten years from now to say, “You know, our schools are beginning to become overcrowded, let’s work with the administration to build a new school in the neighborhood.”

City Limits: It sounds like there’s been a lot in the works, from the $16 million plan to revitalize the Industrial Business Zone zone to the new Workforce1 center that’s under construction. Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?

Espinal: There was a lot of fear and there was a lot of hesitation from the community at the beginning of this process but at the end of the day I believe that we’ve secured the best plan for any neighborhood in the city in East New York. We’re addressing the unemployment crisis in the area; we’re addressing the crumbling infrastructural needs in the neighborhood and we’re also building affordable housing in a neighborhood that currently doesn’t have many rent-stabilized affordable housing units.

City Limits: Now you’re pivoting a bit and giving some attention to the other part of your district. How has the East New York rezoning process informed your thinking in terms of what should happen in Bushwick?

Espinal: East New York was a neighborhood that has been neglected for a very long time. What we did there was like sparking a fire for the constituency, and we were able to put in enough protections in place to contain that fire.

Bushwick is like a flame or a fire that’s out of control. People are being displaced. People are migrating east to East New York because they can’t afford the rents there. They feel like there are no opportunities for jobs. They’re being pushed out by the day. We have to figure out a way to contain that fire.

How do we do that? Find more ways to create affordable housing, create more local jobs and invest in the local infrastructure, make sure the school have resources, make sure there’s a brand new community center and open space to create an overall holistic community.

Their main concern is to preserve the side blocks because currently you’re seeing one to two family homes being built to three to four stories, destroying the character of Bushwick just to make a profit. Our first goal is to make sure we create a zoning so that no one can build higher than the current housing.

But we’re also focusing on the commercial corridors where there is a lot of undeveloped property and a lot storefronts that are underdeveloped, and figuring out how we can rezone those areas to trigger Mandatory Inclusionary Housing so we can have permanent affordable housing while also creating vibrant commercial corridors. They also want to look at the Industrial Business Zones and see how we can create local jobs there and how can we incentivize other businesses to move into those areas and how we can protect the current manufacturing zones from being turned into housing.

It’s very similar to East New York. I think what I’m able to bring to the table is that I know what the ceilings are—I know how far the administration is willing to go, so I’m able to curtail expectations. I’m able to tell them: “We can fight tooth and nail but this is not going to happen because the administration won’t move on it.” So if someone comes in and says, “We want 100 percent of the housing at 30 percent AMI or below,” I’m able to tell them, “This administration is not going to do that.”

City Limits: I can imagine people objecting and saying, “Bushwick shouldn’t settle for what East New York got, Bushwick should push for more.”

Espinal: The administration looked me in the eye and said “No other neighborhood will get more than what East New York got” and that’s the reality. And if the administration at any point figures out how they’re able to get deeper affordability on those units, I’m going to demand for the same to happen in East New York. If there’s a creative way to do that, then I’ll be very supportive.

Also, I don’t think we can address the affordable housing crisis with housing. That’s why I pushed for a jobs plan, that’s why I pushed to invest in our education. Because these are issues that at the end of the day contribute to the reason that people are making below 30 percent AMI.

City Limits: In East New York the administration came and said, “Hey we want to rezone this area,” but in Bushwick this is really coming from the community board, right?

Espinal: This was a process that was brought from the community to the administration. We told the administration from the beginning that we will only move forward with what the community feels comfortable with. East New York was different: We woke up one morning and saw the administration say on TV that the administration was going to rezone East New York. So it’s very different in that regard and I think its’ a very exciting time for Bushwick.

City Limits: Can you tell us more about the planning process? Does Bushwick have a steering committee like in East Harlem?

Espinal: Yes, we created a steering committee and the committee created subgroups. For example, we have a subcommittee on economic development, open space, on affordable housing, on schools, and each group will get together weekly or biweekly and come up with recommendations. Those recommendations are given to the steering committee and the steering committee at the end of the day will work out what the final plan will look like. We’ve partnered with Hester Street Collaborative because they helped Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito with her East Harlem plan, so we thought they were the right players to help guide us.

City Limits: In East Harlem they published a plan, and the administration has been working on a response. Do you expect the same process in Bushwick?

Espinal: Oh yeah, I believe the community will publish a plan and make it available to the administration and the administration will respond, and then the community will respond back. There will be this back and forth until we come to a common ground. I do expect that elected officials will play a role in making sure the administration is forthright in what they are able to deliver, and push them to deliver on things they say they can’t but that they really can.

City Limits: Which major boulevards is Bushwick considering upzoning?

Espinal: The community will decide at the end of the day what it will be, but we’re looking at Broadway, we’re looking at Knickerbocker, Wyckoff, Myrtle. These are big commercial corridors in the neighborhood that are dense and where there are opportunities to build strong retail and encourage development that would include Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.

There is also a lot of city owned land in Bushwick owned by other agencies and used as parking lots. NYCHA developments also have these parking lots and underutilized properties. We’re studying to see how much housing we can maximize there and if not housing, if we can create open park space for the community.

City Limits: On the one hand it seems absolutely true that all these investments that you worked really hard to get to the East New York community are exactly what we should be focusing on, and also affordable housing and all the anti-displacement strategies that are coming with this. But I do understand the skepticism about bringing market-rate housing to low-income neighborhoods because of the question of whether that’s going to just exacerbate displacement. But it seems that you are not too worried.

Espinal: I’m not too concerned because at the end of the day this is Brooklyn and people are moving into Brooklyn at a very fast rate. If we do nothing, then all the current market-rate units that are affordable will no longer be affordable in due time. So we have to step in and we have to make sure the investments are in place to create as much affordable housing as we can.

For residents seeking to become more involved in the Bushwick community planning process, contact the office of Councilmember Rafael Espinal at 718-642-8664 or Community Board 4 at 718-628-8400.