For more than two years, the residents of East Harlem and Community Voices Heard (CVH), along with Community Board 11, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, engaged in an unprecedented and intensive effort to shape the future of our beloved neighborhood, and developed the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan (EHNP).
Beginning in 2015, more than 1,500 community members joined their neighbors and expressed their hopes and concerns around the future of the community at dozens of planning meetings, training sessions and public hearings. The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan is a comprehensive blueprint for addressing the needs of our community, which is struggling for its very survival against entrenched poverty, rising rents, displacement, and gentrification.
Throughout the process, we built a diverse coalition of private- and public-housing tenants and homeowners to demand real solutions to community needs. CVH members pushed for innovative policies and programs to benefit low-income residents regardless of whether the neighborhood is rezoned. We recognized that a rezoning does not need to be a prerequisite for community improvements, but that they are, in fact, two separate things.
The members of CVH have made their priorities for El Barrio clear: create direly-needed units of truly affordable housing that meet the income constraints of neighborhood residents; preserve the existing stock of affordable housing; invest in and repair New York City Housing Authority buildings and grounds where many residents live in unhealthy conditions and are forced to wait years for basic repairs; and produce well-paying career opportunities, including union construction jobs.
These priorities fit squarely within Mayor de Blasio’s public commitments to strengthening communities and creating truly affordable housing. Given the mayor’s public commitments, we believed he would embrace the communities vision and adhere to the priorities outlined in the EHNP. We expected the mayor to listen to the people of El Barrio and to recognize the value of our plan, which was born out of a vibrant grassroots democratic process.
But our hopes were misplaced. Sadly, City Hall has disregarded our time and efforts and ignored the community.
The consistently empty rhetoric from the administration and City Hall’s rezoning proposal for East Harlem are detrimental to our community. The mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program is anemic. It neglects the community’s needs completely.
Therefore, we reject the mayor’s rezoning proposal. Not only does it fail to reflect what the community prioritized in the EHNP, but it will allow nothing short of a land grab for developers.
De Blasio’s developer-backed rezoning scheme would put families at risk of homelessness and enable developers to reap huge profits by expanding the dominance of large, unaccountable, corporate interests over the lives of low-income and working families. It would allow the construction of massive, sun-blocking skyscrapers and sprawling chain stores and restaurants next to single-family homes and deteriorating NYCHA buildings. It would allow for the construction of buildings as high as 30 stories where six-story buildings are the norm, create 120,000 square feet of commercial space, and another 27,500 square feet of office/industrial space. This scheme would drive up land values for private interests at the expense of current residents, including homeowners who could be priced out as taxes rise because of skyrocketing property values.
Thousands of the city’s poorest working families would be left behind – or cast out.
According to the U.S. Census, almost 60 percent of East Harlem residents would not benefit from the mayor’s affordable housing program. The developer-first scheme would not create nearly enough of the affordable housing units so badly needed by the community, nor would it stop the relentless attacks on the dwindling supply of affordable housing that still exists.
Low-income families will continue to be driven out by rising rents and unscrupulous landlords, who harass tenants with cruel tactics, like cutting off the heat in the dead of winter. Tenants in privately-owned buildings will be left defenseless dealing with landlords who try to push them out of their rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments, so they could replace those tenants with higher-income renters, or sell off their land to developers. Tenants are understandably stressed about the very real possibility of being displaced and being unable able to find homes that they can afford.
A broad rezoning of the neighborhood will not secure what community members have fought for for more than two years. The EHNP process required concrete commitments from the city before beginning ULURP, and they did not follow through. To have two people in a room, the mayor and City Council speaker, making last-minute deals would dishonor what has been, and what should remain, a community led process. That is why the mayor’s rezoning proposal must be rejected. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer recognizes this and has commendably opposed the mayor’s plan.
It is now time to put an end to the rezoning discussions and refocus our efforts.
Many of the community’s concerns can be met without wholesale rezoning. We can build truly affordable housing – that is permanent – on public land where the city can mandate all aspects of development, including rents and income requirements and guarantees of union jobs. Instead, the city is moving forward with public land giveaways for-profit developers with a proven track record of employing nonunion construction workers and refusing to provide maximum permanent affordability.
We can protect a wide-range of tenants, invest in NYCHA, and negotiate better deals for new private development that comes to East Harlem.
We can have both positive changes in our community and economic growth.
Community Voices Heard and residents from all walks of life have dedicated countless hours toward creating a vision and a path for East Harlem’s future and a route to get there. We have invested in our community for the long-term. We will continue to fight for positive change and for the right to remain.
City Hall cannot silence our efforts. We urge Speaker Mark-Viverito to vote no on the proposed rezoning. We will continue to work with East Harlem residents to ensure that our voices will be heard. Join us.
Afua Atta-Mensah, Esq., is the executive director of Community Voices Heard.