CityViews: Gowanus Rezoning Must Defend Against Displacement as Well as Climate Change

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During Superstorm Sandy, the waters of the Gowanus rose, posing a health risk to its neighbors.

Neal Ungerleider

During Superstorm Sandy, the waters of the Gowanus rose, posing a health risk to its neighbors.

On Thursday night the Department of City Planning is scheduled to hold its second public meeting about the re-zoning of the Gowanus/Boerum Hill area; the theme is resiliency and sustainability. As a neighborhood that is deeply polluted and sits on the waterfront there is no question that any changes in the local zoning must address the realities of climate change and environmental racism including rising sea levels, extreme weather, and contaminated soil and waterways.

Our neighborhood public housing developments sit in the toxic floodplain of the Gowanus Canal, which means that low-income people of color are disproportionately exposed to dangerous pollutants every time we experience sewage overflows or flooding associated with heavy rains or storms. Despite the acute impacts that were experienced locally due to Superstorm Sandy—and despite the fact that NYC was found by a federal judge to have displayed “benign neglect” for its actions—we still lack a neighborhood-wide Community Emergency Response Plan for Gowanus. This means our community – particularly our most vulnerable residents; children, seniors, people with disabilities and medical problems – is at risk when the next climate disaster occurs.

Indoor conditions in local NYCHA buildings, such as leaking roofs, poor air flow, mold, lead, sewage overflows, vermin, pipes that are prone to rust and freezing, and non-functioning elevators all can exacerbate health problems or cause life-threatening living conditions for thousands of Gowanus and Boerum Hill residents. As the public-housing funding gap grows greater, and is potentially under even greater threat by the new federal administration, we must insure that any re-zoning addresses these environmental injustices within public housing as a top priority.

However these are not the only challenges to our community’s resiliency and sustainability. In addition to addressing environmental resiliency and sustainability as part of any re-zoning plan, the city must also address the concurrent crisis of displacement that is devastating our area.

In the last 10 years, land values and rental prices have gone through the roof in this community – in part because of speculation about a potential re-zoning of the neighborhood. The result has been the displacement of local tenants and local businesses. As re-zonings in other Brooklyn neighborhoods have shown us time and again, allowing for the development of market-rate residential housing where none previously existed causes displacement. At the same time, low-income residents who have been denied access to quality job opportunities and training rarely see benefit from the increase economic activity associated with re-zoning.

Climate change is real and its impact on our community is real. There is no question that we need to prepare as a community for the coming years of super storms, sea-level rise, heat waves and flooding. And there is no question that we all want to see the long-standing pollution in our community addressed. The key question is: Who is this new and improved community for?

From the standpoint of those in our community facing displacement, there is limited value in planning for environmental resiliency and sustainability if you are going to be pushed out of the neighborhood before you can benefit from it. Therefore any neighborhood planning or large scale land use action must first address the realities of:

• low- and moderate-income tenants being displaced by rising rents and the landlords who harassed them;
• public-housing residents being displaced by poor housing conditions, proposed private development and a neighborhood that is changing so rapidly that there is no affordable place to shop for food or access healthcare or other necessities of life;
• mom-and-pop businesses that have kept our community strong and affordable being displaced;
• industrial businesses that pay our community residents good wages being displaced;
• the increasing segregation and competition for quality school seats; and
• a lack of housing truly affordable to community members living doubled up, living on the street or otherwise dealing with severe housing insecurity.

Disproportionately, those of us who are most deeply impacted by the above are seniors, people with low incomes and people of color.

We need to expand the conversation about resiliency and the sustainability in our community to include the resiliency and sustainability of the people in our community – of the community as a whole. The city needs to address the crisis of displacement as a precursor to planning for a re-zoned neighborhood. The city further needs to recognize that environmental impacts are not shared equally in our area and prioritize addressing those burdens that disproportionately destroy the health and safety of low-income residents and people of color. This is critical not only because the re-zoning presents an opportunity to address long-standing inequities in our community but because a re-zoning stands to make these inequities and crises significantly worse.

We call on the Department of City Planning, the mayor, our local elected officials and all relevant agencies to come to the table with us and implement effective neighborhood preservation mitigations before any re-zoning is certified. So-called “corrective actions” after the fact will be too little, too late.

Any re-zoning that labels itself environmentally “resilient” or “sustainable”, while failing to protect the residents and businesses who built this neighborhood from the concurrent crises of displacement and environmental racism, will not pass muster in our community.

Dave Powell is the Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Fifth Avenue Committee. Ed Tyre is the President of Gowanus Houses Resident Association Inc. Alyssa Aguilera & Jeremy Saunders are the co-Executive Directors of VOCAL-NY.

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