Batista is afraid to call 311 about problems at her Bronx apartment building because, she says, the landlord retaliates. Ram’s fight against his landlord in housing court bled across his entire life, he recalls, producing sleepless nights and trouble at work. Maria tried withholding rent to force the owner of her building to make repairs, but she ended up having to miss days at her job to facilitate the work on her apartment.
The stories collected by Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) for the report the group issued Thursday are the kind you would hear in any low-income neighborhood over the past 20 years. But for CASA, they are a preview of what will become even more common if a city-led rezoning of the Jerome Avenue corridor occurs without extensive protections—and resources—for low-income tenants.
The argument between the de Blasio administration and its critics over whether rezonings cause displacement has been underway for months, shifting from East New York—where a rezoning was approved last spring—to East Harlem, where a proposed rezoning is now under formal consideration, and Jerome Avenue, where a rezoning proposal is in the early stages of review.
The city argues that a growing population is already driving a voracious real-estate market into those neighborhoods, bidding up rents and putting the squeeze on the poor. The mayor’s allies point to Bushwick as an area that has seen pronounced gentrification despite the absence of a rezoning. If anything, the city argues, a rezoning can reduce those pressures by allowing the construction of new, market-rate housing and—through the mandatory inclusionary housing mechanism and direct city subsidies—facilitating the creation of income-targeted or “affordable” units.
(Research cited by the city on what impact gentrification has on low-income tenants generally finds no connection between gentrification and displacement of low-income people, although the effects are complex, the data is old and rezonings introduce a complicated variable.)
CASA and other community groups see the world very differently from City Hall. They point to the 2005 rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront, which preceded dramatic changes to the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, triggering the wave of gentrification that eventually washed up in places like Bushwick. The underlying problem, these groups argue, is that while the market alone can bid up the value of land, a rezoning can produce an instant, and dramatic increase the value of land. And the more valuable the land, they argue, the more incentive there is for bad landlords to try to drive low-income tenants out by providing terrible maintenance, withdrawing preferential rent discounts or imposing excessive charges for building-wide or apartment-specific capital improvements.
CASA, however, does not call for a rezoning to be defeated. Instead, much like the community organizations that were part of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, CASA nods to the political likelihood of a rezoning and calls for one that is rewired to primarily serve low-income residents:
In this pivotal moment, when the city is poised to move forward with a rezoning in the Southwest Bronx, we are faced with two possibilities. The first possibility is that the rezoning will be a gift to landlords. The tactics that landlords use to displace tenants will pay off when the rezoning changes land values, and the promise of their slow and steady neglect will bear fruit in richer, whiter tenants. The other possibility, the one we fight for, is that this will prove to be a rezoning for low-income tenants of color. That the rezoning will be buttressed by so many anti-displacement policies that it will be something different: investment that corrects the past wrongs of our city’s developers and policy makers and creates a new path forward of development without displacement.
The key to making that happen, the group says, is a restructured affordable housing subsidy term sheet to target even lower incomes than the city’s ELLA or MIH programs do, coupled with citywide anti-harassment measures like the right to counsel and the certificate of no harassment program. While disagreeing with groups like CASA on the risks of rezoning, the de Blasio administration has shown an openness to talking about those ideas. The question is whether the Jerome Avenue proposal will move ahead before those conversations are complete.