Adi Talwar

Protesters at a December 15, 2016 hearing on the scope of the environmental review to be done ahead of a proposed East Harlem rezoning.

When the de Blasio administration introduced its proposed rezoning of East Harlem to the City Planning Commission last week, the Department of City Planning staff described it as a response to the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan created by a steering committee of organizations appointed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. That steering committee is not pleased, however, and is pushing the administration for a plan more like its own.

But other East Harlemites are pushing back against both plans. They continue to challenge the assumption that residents want any kind of rezoning at all, as well as the notion that the 21 organizations on the steering committee can adequately represent the sentiments of East Harlem residents.

Who are these voices in opposition? They include, at the least, El Barrio Unite, a community group that originally organized to oppose the development of luxury towers at the East River Mall; Movimiento por Justicia del Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio), an immigrant-led group dedicated to fighting displacement in East Harlem; and East Harlem Preservation, a volunteer group which works to preserve and promote the neighborhood’s history and culture as well as several other community activists.

Doubting the premise for a rezoning

There’s the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan: requesting minimum increases in density for a variety of avenues sufficient to trigger mandatory inclusionary housing, as well as hundreds of other recommendations related to housing preservation, deep affordability, and many other categories. And there’s the city’s plan: proposing larger density increases but confined to a smaller geographic area and accompanied by its own preservation and affordability plan and investments from other agencies, many of which are yet to fully explain their plans.

Assessing what percent of the total East Harlem community completely opposes a rezoning is a matter of controversy. El Barrio Unite says it has 1,300 people enrolled in its listserv who support its position; Movement for Justice in El Barrios says its membership includes 1,052 members across 95 apartment buildings; East Harlem Preservation has 2,000 people subscribed to its newsletter. Pilar DeJesus, a resident and tenant paralegal for the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project and an opponent of any rezoning, says she’d guess that 70 percent of people who’ve heard of a rezoning oppose the idea completely, while steering committee members had differing perceptions of how much public support any of the approaches had.

However many are out there, rezoning opponents usually have the same reason for objecting: that the city can only guarantee that, under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, about a quarter of the new housing introduced to the neighborhood on private land through a rezoning would be rent-restricted. Under the best case scenario likely to play out there, 25 percent of units would be on average affordable to households making $51,540 for a family of three, and with just 10 percent of the total units set aside for families making up to $34,360—both higher than East Harlem’s median income of $31,000. They argue that the resulting influx of thousands of market-rate apartments would result in the gentrification of East Harlem and the displacement of existing residents.

“We know because this process has already begun; started by the 2003 ‘rezoning’ of East Harlem, which continues today with accelerated higher rents and fewer truly affordable apartments,” wrote Roger Hernandez of El Barrio Unite in his December testimony on the city’s plan, referring to an earlier rezoning of several neighborhood avenues that observers say are now the site of high-priced market-rate developments. “The term ‘affordable’ is a misnomer in both the mayor’s proposal and the [East Harlem Neighborhood Plan] because both proposals utilize a defined income band that is much higher than the average residential incomes.”

Hernandez is not alone in expecting exacerbated gentrification: A report released last month by the real-estate company GFI Realty sees the “inevitable rezoning” as a key step in the neighborhood’s transformation into an upscale destination. The speaker’s plan was described as key to paving the way for a rezoning that the community could accept.

In addition, developers interviewed by City Limits in March nearly unanimously cited East Harlem as one of the most attractive potential rezoning neighborhoods for market-rate development. And, as City Limits reported in January, research by MIT masters student Leo Goldberg found that Bloomberg-era rezonings that increased density were followed by increases in white, wealthier populations and decreases in low-income populations of color at rates higher than city averages. (The de Blasio administration says its rezonings are different and mandate rent-restricted units.)

In a document released last month, the city responded to the opposition by emphasizing that an East Harlem rezoning would allow the city to trigger mandatory inclusionary housing, creating new rent-restricted units, and that the city will also make other investments in deeply affordable housing and preservation. Without a rezoning, the city expects the creation of 2,472 units of market-rate housing on private land over the next 10 years. With the rezoning, by City Limits’ analysis, the city expects the creation of about 4,470 units of market rate housing and about 1,490 units of rent-restricted housing over the next ten years (though it’s possible there’d be fewer rent-restricted units, but targeted to lower income groups). The city has also promised about 2,400 more rent-restricted units on public sites, though 760 of these units were in the pipeline way before de Blasio came to office.)

The question of whether a rezoning could itself speed the loss of affordable housing was not addressed in the city’s April report, which said only that an accompanying Environmental Impact Statement would quantify the risk of displacement. However, that Environmental Impact Statement simply said that the rezoning would create more new units of rent-restricted housing than would be created without the plan, and deemed an in-depth displacement analysis unnecessary.

The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which considers a broader geographical area, the possibility of development on some private and public sites not considered by the city, and a 15-year period instead of a 10-year period, expects the creation of roughly 6,000 market rate units on rezoning avenues and roughly 6,000 rent-restricted units through mandatory inclusionary housing and on public sites over 15 years. That’s a higher share of affordable units than the city has yet promised, but still a lot of market-rate ones: Accepting this plan means believing that the risk of adding those market-units is worth the benefits, and believing that the city will be able to deliver on the recommended protections.

Some opponents do not have that faith.

“How exactly does the city intend to fund and enforce the ‘affordable’ housing requirements when they can’t manage what’s already in place vis a vis tenant harassment/displacement and irregularities with the current stock of rent-regulated units? Why hasn’t the city addressed/incorporated anticipated cutbacks in federal funding into their plan?” asked Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation in an e-mail to City Limits. “We have raised many valid questions that remain unanswered.”

Opponents offer alternative plans

The de Blasio administration often responds to rezoning critics by arguing that “doing nothing” won’t stop gentrification, or the opposite—that critics want to keep poor neighborhoods poor, depriving them of city and private investments. But opponents dispute that they’re asking the city to do nothing.

El Barrio Unite calls for both preservation efforts and the creation of deeply affordable housing; The group’s sponsor, N.E.R.V.E. Inc., was one of the non-profit developers that applied for a 100 percent affordable housing development at the 111th Street ballfield site. Hernandez says N.E.R.V.E presented a “massive rehabilitation plan” including the creation of a large community land trust encompassing the 111th street site and other N.E.R.V.E. buildings, the use of new buildings to accommodate residents from at-risk buildings in East Harlem so those older building could be renovated, and space for most of the original community gardens on the site. Ultimately, the city selected another proposal from the for-profit developers Jonathan Rose Companies and L+M Development Partners.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which says many of its members are non-English speaking rent-stabilized tenants, representing the “sector of the community that will be the most impacted by the Mayor’s Luxury Housing Plan,” has its own 10-point plan that involves a list of strategies to improve the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD)’s visibility and code-enforcement efforts. The group says that in 2015, after de Blasio announced he would target East Harlem for a rezoning, Movement held workshops over nearly a year that involved 8,000 East Harlem residents. No records are available to prove this, but a representative for the group said that instead of relying on digital communications, for each of its many meetings the group handed out 15,000 fliers, put up posters, and made personal contacts on streets, subways and in stores, thereby reaching a large portion of the immigrant community.*

The result was a 12-page, 10-point plan focused on HPD’s policies that can be viewed in its entirety here. It was completed a few months before the 138-page, multi-subject East Harlem Neighborhood Plan.

The plan calls for the creation of an independent, citywide commission to oversee HPD and the establishment of a hotline where citizens can make complaints about HPD’s performance. Similar oversight is prescribed on a neighborhood level: An East Harlem HPD Oversight Team made of local tenant associations would review HPD’s performance on a variety of fronts and ensure tenants’ complaints got back to HPD. HPD would be required to file reports to the oversight team every six months.

Publicizing HPD’s responsibilities and improving language access is another thrust of the Movement’s plan. It recommends the city use public-service advertisements throughout the five boroughs to inform tenants about the 311 hotline and HPD’s role enforcing the housing code, especially during the winter months. It also wants the administration to improve HPD’s web presence and hire community workers to make tenants aware of their rights and distribute multi-lingual literature. Inspectors would be required to carry violation notices in multiple languages and send violation reports in the tenant’s language.

Several recommendations address the issue of code enforcement. The Movement plan calls for an increase in the number of HPD inspectors, for the department to conduct inspections “24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” for inspectors to clearly indicate to tenants when they will visit so tenants can be home to provide access, and to guarantee call-backs to tenants to find out if violations have been fixed. The plan also demands HPD follow through with the agency’s emergency repair program, under which HPD must send their own contractors to make repairs at a cost to the landlord if a landlord fails to correct a dire violation within 24 hours. At a hearing for the city’s plan in December, members of the group said HPD only uses this program when the agency is “embarrassed into action, when tenants call the press and demand justice,” and that tenants are forced to wait weeks or months for even emergency repairs. And the plan faults the city for failing to collect fines from landlords who have not corrected violations, and recommends establishing an administrative tribunal to collect fines or to grant inspectors the ability to write citations that require immediate payment.

Movement says it submitted its plan to the city, and one year later received a letter from the Department of City Planning and HPD saying that the agencies are already following these recommendations. In a response to a request for comment on Movement’s plan, HPD told City Limits that in developing its own neighborhood plan, it considered feedback from a variety of stakeholders, including statements from the Movement, and that HPD shares many of the Movement’s goals.

HPD’s housing plan for East Harlem, intended to work in concert with the proposed rezoning, was released Monday and documents city-wide and local initiatives, including topics addressed by the Movement plan, like public outreach and code enforcement. Public outreach efforts include hosting tenant fairs, participating at community events, distributing multilingual housing resources, and funding community organizations that engage in tenant advocacy. The plan notes that the agency is continuing its citywide code enforcement work, and making an additional effort to survey properties in the proposed rezoning neighborhoods of East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, and Inwood—including the use of “block sweeps,” in which inspectors dispatched to one building also examine all the buildings on that block and take action if they see signs of distress. It notes that it has spent $38,600 on emergency repair work in East Harlem since last summer.

The Movement, which said it would need more time to review HPD’s plan, is wary that the agency’s public outreach efforts may be too superficial. The group is also not alone in finding fault with the city’s oversight of landlords. In the past year, the Comptroller’s Office has issued reports critiquing HPD for failures to collect certain fines and for lacking a system to track landlords who repeatedly violate affordability agreements (HPD disputed both analyses, but noted that it was acquiring new staff and improved technology to streamline its oversight efforts.) DeJesus of the Urban Justice Center says that in her work as a tenant advocate, she frequently witnesses a lack of city transparency concerning how inspectors report and clear violations.

In addition, a wide coalition of tenant advocates and elected officials are now rallying around the Stand for Tenant Safety legislative package, a set of 12 bills that would change the way the city handles code violations, illegal renovations and tenant harassment. There are overlaps between the Movement’s plan and the Stand for Tenant Safety bills, including an emphasis on speeding up the city’s response time to repairs.

Judith Goldiner of Legal Aid agrees with several aspects of the Movement’s plan: The importance of hiring more inspectors, of improving public outreach especially to the undocumented community, and of finding ways to improve code enforcement. That said, she thinks the group should consider broadening their plan to deal with both the revision and enforcement of rent-stabilization laws, she has some doubts about the effectiveness of the group’s proposal to use an administrative tribunal to collect fines, and she has witnessed HPD’s emergency repair program working successfully.

Undeniably, the Movement’s plan is brief and tightly focused on rent-stabilized housing when compared to the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which includes recommendations related to NYCHA, construction on public land, and funding to bring more landlords into affordability programs, among other initiatives. Yet it still represents a concerted effort by rent-stabilized tenants to come up with a proposal that can address their vulnerability through better enforcement of their housing rights and without resorting to market forces.

It’s worth noting that 75 percent of the East Harlem’s housing stock is rent regulated in some form—under NYCHA, rent stabilization law, or some other form of government assistance. In other words, due to East Harlem’s housing stock composition, one might argue it has a lot of other tools in the toolbox it could use to prevent the displacement of existing residents.

Conflicts with other local reps

The tension that has emerged in East Harlem is not only one about whether a rezoning is or is not necessary, but also about the functioning of democracy. Opponents of a rezoning argue that they’re repeatedly ignored and shut out from decision-making spaces, and they accuse not only the city, but fellow advocates and local representatives, of selling out East Harlem. (Some of the groups have also criticized City Limits’ coverage for implicitly endorsing the inevitability of a rezoning.)

“The EHNP committee members are all beholden to the speaker for funding for their various nonprofits and properties,” wrote East Harlem Preservation’s Marina Ortiz in an e-mail to City Limits. Ortiz has also said that as a former community board member, she was often pressured to vote the way the speaker wished. “The Speaker should be ashamed of herself for trying to gaslight an entire community into believing that the harm she is doing is ‘for their own good,’ and for demonizing those who are rightfully critical of the rezoning. She answers to developers with an eye towards her next prize (career).”

“El Barrio Unite was not invited to participate [in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan] because we were already identified as an opposition factor to the rezoning… We all got the message—we weren’t invited because the process was rigged,” wrote Hernandez in an e-mail to City Limits.

Movement has repeatedly sent both the speaker and the community board their plan and says they have been repeatedly ignored and dismissed.

“We question whether it has to do with the fact that we have the lowest income levels in our community and/or whether it is because many of us our immigrants and/or whether it is because many of us do not speak English,” says spokesperson Lopez in an e-mail to City Limits.

Other players in the rezoning debate reject the claim that skeptical voices have been silenced.

“CB11 has not ignored Movement of Justice,” wrote Diane Collier, chair of Community Board 11, in an e-mail. “I can assure you that their 10-point plan has been discussed at our housing and rezoning committees.  All of our residents are equally valued and encouraged by our diversified outreach efforts to come and be heard.  To date, Movement of Justice members have not attended and participate in our rezoning meetings.  No invite is needed. Just attend.”

She was referring to the board’s recent rezoning task force meetings, held every two weeks. According to its mission statement, the task force aims “to ensure the rezoning reflects, preserves, and enhances East Harlem’s unique culture and results in economic vitality, affordable housing, and improved quality of life for all residents.” While task force members say a rezoning is not a “done deal,” its leaders have expressed a belief that it is important to add just enough density to the neighborhood to trigger the mandatory inclusionary housing policy.

In the case of El Barrio Unite, the organization did receive an invitation to participate after it expressed concerns about the Neighborhood Plan steering committee process, but Hernandez said the group decided to reject that offer on principle.

It’s true that the steering committee included a developer, Artimus, and true some leading members of the steering committee, such as Community Voices Heard and CIVITAS, receive discretionary funds from the speaker. Yet members of Community Voices Heard who spoke to City Limits emphasized that while they had decided to work with the speaker, that didn’t mean they were beholden to her.

“It’s more a difference of how does one effect change—how does one convince the decision-makers to do the right thing or not,” says Dennis Osorio, a member of Community Voices Heard.

Osorio says he “cautiously” supports the East Harlem Neighborhood plan (not the city’s), and regards it as providing a necessary baseline of demands, including a minimum increase in density, new preservation solutions, the construction of 100 percent affordable housing on a variety of public sites, and investments in NYCHA. That said, he fully recognizes that any rezoning could have severe gentrifying effects. To him there are benefits to triggering the mandatory inclusionary housing policy, but he can also sympathize with those who want investments in preservation and 100 percent affordable housing without a rezoning, and that he finds it “worrisome” that the administrative always sells these things as a “package” with the rezoning.

Daisy Gonzalez, a Community Voices Heard organizer, notes that her organization has demands that go beyond those in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan related to investments in public housing and the creation of deeply low-income units. She emphasizes that CVH wants “to be at the table when decisions are being made that are going to impact our neighbors,” notes that “we are not guaranteeing that in the end we will be in support of the final draft” of whatever plan the city and the speaker negotiate, and says she is open to more public meetings in order to ensure all groups have a chance to participate.

Dorothy He, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito, wrote that the speaker believes the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan “was an open, transparent and inclusive process from the beginning” and intends to stand by its priorities. She also emphasized the importance of a minimum upzoning, which would ensure “almost all the additional floor area…would be affordable housing.”

Any hope for the underdog?

Indeed, with Mark-Viverito—who gets the final say on the rezoning—firmly standing by the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, one might wonder if those who oppose any rezoning in the community have a chance of being heard.

Urban Justice Center’s DeJesus doesn’t have much hope. While she has long made it clear she opposes a rezoning of any sort, she also recently joined the steering committee’s subcommittee on housing preservation and hopes to pressure HPD to make their plan as good as possible.

“We need them, because rezoning is happening, and I think the only way we can stop rezoning is we get real anarchy,” she laments. “I don’t know if organizers are ready to plan for that.”

Other organizers say they are still determined to fight. El Barrio Unite is planning to challenge mayoral candidates on their rezoning plans at a candidate forum in East Harlem on Thursday, and Movement for Justice in El Barrio is similarly committed.

“We will continue to fight relentlessly against the Mayor’s Luxury Housing Plan and for the implementation of our 10 Point Plan,” wrote representative Lopez. “We are more motivated than ever to stop those that are attempting to impose this Luxury Housing Plan on our community from replacing us with their culture of money.”

The question remains how steering committee members, and most importantly, the Speaker, will react if the city agrees to some, but not all, of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan’s top demands. In such a likely case, the neighborhood’s future remains far from clear.

* * * *

The Community Board 11 task force will hold a meeting to discuss the city’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem on Thursday May 4, 6:00 pm, at the Bonifacio Senior Center at 7 E 116th Street. HPD will present its neighborhood plan, while George Sarkissian from the Speaker’s office will present the priorities of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan Steering Committee members.

On May 16 at 6:30 pm, the board will host a hearing on the rezoning and the 111th Street ballfields project at the Siberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, 2180 3rd Avenue.

*Correction: At first we wrote that a representative said the group handed out 15,000 fliers, spoke to people on streets and in stores, and put up posters. In fact, the representative said this was done for each of several community meetings.