The squat, triangular building at the corner of Westchester Road and Southern Boulevard is not a thing of beauty. It is a one-story brick structure with few windows that sits in the shadow of the elevated 2 and 5 train. But it is where Rafael Salamanca, Jr., has spent much of his life. He used to play in the basement where his mother worked for a healthcare company. Later Salamanca, who dropped out of high school but attained his GED and eventually an associate’s degree, worked for the same outfit, in the same basement. Now his office as the City Councilmember for the Bronx’s 17th district occupies most of the first floor.
Soon, the building will be demolished in an example of the changing real-estate market in the Bronx, which is a force that Salamanca will be positioned to shape as the new chairman of the Council’s powerful Land Use Committee.
That gavel is always considered a plum because the Council’s land-use powers are its most powerful policy tool. The city’s legislature has the power to approve the sale or acquisition of city property and to change the zoning map that governs the private real-estate market. The mayor can veto those moves, but the Council can override the mayor. Unlike the budget, where the Council can’t really force the mayor to spend money, or lawmaking, where its authority is limited by mayoral prerogative and state power, the Council has the last word on land. That’s real juice.
Over the next four years, the spotlight on Land Use is likely to be especially intense. At least five of Mayor de Blasio’s proposed neighborhoods rezonings—the heart of his affordable housing plan, which he recently expanded to a goal of 300,000 units—remain to be done. The discussion about closing the jails on Rikers Island will increasingly revolve around the question of where to put replacement facilities. De Blasio’s effort to tackle the homelessness epidemic by constructing 90 new shelters will trigger controversies in dozens of neighborhoods, inevitably creating opportunities for the Council to play a role.
No member except for Speaker Corey Johnson will do more to shape that role than Salamanca, who takes the powerful post despite being a relatively junior member of the Council. Because Salamanca joined the body by special election in 2016, the only Council members with less seniority are the 11 members first elected last November.
But Salamanca’s experience is deeper than that: he was a community-board member, and then a district manager of Bronx Board 2 for five and a half years. “I think that gave me firsthand experience on how to deal with developers on a very grassroots level in terms of what the asks are,” he tells City Limits. After joining the Council and dealing with more than one land-use application in his first months—he has handled seven in his short time on the Council—Salamanca asked Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to name him to the vacant chair of the land-use subcommittee overseeing planning, dispositions and concessions, and she did so. That job “gave me a broad understanding of the different type of issues that are affecting different communities,” he says.
“I’m going to come in here, number one, wanting to work with each individual member. I’m going to be really hands on in terms of how we deal with every project,” says Salamanca, 37, who is married and raising a 17-year-old stepson and a 3-year-old son. “I want to sit with the members and ensure that they’re getting the best deal possible.” Job number one, he says, is “ensuring that you’re not displacing communities.”
‘Mixed income, mixed income, mixed income’
His approach to development is reflected in two major developments approved in his district during the last Council. One is La Central, a 992-unit, five-building complex in which every unit will be income targeted—a.k.a., “affordable”—with some aimed at very low incomes, like $23,310 for a family of three. On the other side of the spectrum are affordable units for more affluent people. Same goes for Bronx Commons, a mixed-use development with 305 apartments reserved for families making $22,000 to $89,000. The median income in Bronx community districts 1 and 2, which form the bulk of Salamanca’s district, is $24,670, and the poverty rate there is 40 percent.
“I live in a low-income community, and what’s happening is, we have underutilized land and we have developers who want to come and want to build in this community and I’m all for it, you know. To know that, down the block, a vacant lot that has been vacant since I was a kid where people would dump garbage is now being developed for some kind of senior housing” is gratifying, he says. “If a developer comes in saying they want to bring in market [rents], they know the answer will be ‘no.’ What comes with that? Displacement comes with that.”
Still, Salamanca says he doesn’t support creating affordable housing solely for the lowest-income New Yorkers, whom statistics indicate fare worst in the housing market: “My approach has always been mixed income — mixed income, mixed income, mixed income.”
One issue that has come up in several rezonings to date is whether the city can and should impose local-hiring requirements on developers who take advantage of the new density that a rezoning permits. Asked about this, Salamanca says: “I believe in pushing the envelope as much as you can, within the legal parameters.”
Salamanca’s support for development—albeit qualified—has earned him criticism from advocates who feel that rezoning and development on any scale will almost certainly gentrify the Bronx and trigger displacement. These conflicting opinions are likely to clash if the city moves ahead with a rezoning in the Southern Boulevard area, where the Department of City Planning is currently conducting a neighborhood study.
“What I’m taking out of this study is that we’re going to be able to identify areas that have been forgotten for many years. We’re going to be able to identify needs of the community,” Salamanca says.
“We need schools. We have families that are going to come here with children. We need parks. We need more support services. With this study we’re going to be able to identify what changes we can make within this community without displacing our community, while keeping this community intact,” he continued, noting the possibility of millions of dollars’ worth of city infrastructure investments. “Right now I’m not saying that I’m favoring a rezoning, because I’m not. What I’m looking forward to is the study. ”
Salamanca says he feels the city needs to be more aggressive at surveying people in the neighborhood to get a sense of what they want the future to look like. In other neighborhoods where a rezoning has been contemplated or passed, there have been significant levels of worry that—in spite of whatever steps the city takes to try to ensure affordability—increasing density will invite market-rate housing that triggers displacement.
The deeper docket
Two of the de Blasio rezonings are already undergoing public review: Jerome Avenue in the Bronx is nearing a final vote, while Inwood in Manhattan has just begun the process. As far as the future of the other neighborhoods that could see a rezoning—Bay Street in Staten Island, Long Island City in Queens, and Bushwick and Gowanus in Brooklyn—Salamanca told City Limits he was unsure when those projects would begin the seven month Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure or ULURP, the public review process that culminates in a Council vote.
For all the prestige of the Land-Use chairmanship, Salamanca will not wield absolute authority. Johnson has the power to set the stage and the Council’s professional land-use staff have great influence as well.
“The speaker is the speaker. I’ll take guidance from him in terms of any controversial land-use items that come up. The staff, the land-use staff, they are a wealth of knowledge — past experience, how items or applications that are very similar have been dealt with in previous years. They too will help in terms of giving the councilmembers the pros and cons in terms of what has happened in the past.” Salamanca says his job is to take the information from the staff and “sit with that local member and say, ‘Hey, this is the direction that your community wants to go in and so let’s go in that direction. Let’s see if we can get the best deal possible for your community.'”
The question is what happens if the local Councilmember decides the deal isn’t good enough. The extent to which individual members have the power to scuttle projects in their districts is not fixed by law—it’s a fluid aspect of Council culture. Mark-Viverito was criticized as she left office for allowing Councilmembers a lot of sway over proposals affecting their neighborhoods. Salamanca indicates that he supports deferring to the local member on whether to pass or kill a rezoning proposal, so long as that member articulates a rationale for why they feel that way. The chairman also says he supports giving community boards more power, but didn’t have specific ideas for how to do so.
A primary concern for Salamanca is whether the city is moving toward a fairer distribution of social-service infrastructure. He says he has “close to 30 shelters in my district” and that he has secured “a verbal commitment from [the de Blasio administration] that they’re not going to open up any more shelters in my district.” He insists he’s not “anti-shelter” but argues that in Bronx community district 6, only 600 of the 1,200 people living in shelters are from that community district. “And so fair share, in terms of doing their part, is something that falls in line in my committee.” This same argument drives his opposition to opening up a jail in his district to help replace Rikers: His district has long hosted a Correction Department jail barge and a youth detention facility. “We’ve taken other communities buildings for far too long and it’s time for our community, to revitalize our communities,” Salamanca says. “That’s why right now I’m a ‘no’ — unless the mayor’s office comes with this overwhelming plan.
Two years, five elections
Salamanca joined the body by special election in 2016 after Maria del Carmen Arroyo left her post, getting 39 percent of the vote in a six-person field. Thanks to quirks in the political calendar, he has already faced four elections since then, and won each one handily.
He raised nine times as much as the combined fundraising haul of the eight people who mounted some sort of challenge to him in 2017, and was among the top fundraisers citywide. Only about a sixth of his donations came from the Bronx. Unions are among his big givers, as are real-estate law firms and developers. Steven Roth of the Vornado Trust wrote a check to Salamanca for the maximum amount 23 days after the election ended. The PAC run by the trade association for property owners, the Rent Stabilization Association sent him $2,250.
“I feel that I’ve gotten better asking for money. In the beginning I was very shy. I guess with time — in order to get your message out, I’ve gotten better. And I have another four years, I have another election in four years and so I need to prepare for that as well,” he says. “Regardless of whether you want to send me a contribution, when a decision needs to be made that affects my community, I’m going to stand with my community, there’s no doubt about that.”
Salamanca says that by staying as close as he has to his roots, he has a sense of the different needs affecting his district. He has friends who never received much education and need low-income housing. He has friends who went to school, came back and are earning $90,000 or $100,000 grand. They want to stay. How do you create space for all of them?
“I feel that in my time as a councilmember, these eight years that I have here, I have a responsibility to my friends and family, to my neighbors and everyone, to improve this community without displacing anyone in this community,” he says, “Is it hard? It’s easier said than done.”