Adi Talwar

A view from the Grand Concourse of Jerome Avenue with its elevated 4 train, the Cross Bronx Expressway ramps and 174th Street.

There are no signs of the auto repair shop America Tires, which was located for 18 years at 1331 Jerome Avenue. In its place are all the markings of a future construction project. The property was purchased by Atlantic Development and the Doe Fund last year for $11.1 million to develop an 15-story project to include 255 apartments that will be entirely below market rate, with all-tenant access to a laundry room, lobby, outdoor recreation space, and a 128-bicycle garage. It was one of the first properties to change hands after the City Council approved the Jerome Avenue rezoning one year ago.

In the 12 months since, the city has begun to make good on an estimated $189 million in capital projects and services—from new and improved parks and playgrounds and pedestrian safety improvements near the Cross Bronx Expressway to business assistance and new schools—that were promised as part of the rezoning.

Tenant advocates, however, say the concerns they had during the rezoning debate—about potential displacement of tenants and businesses—have not been assuaged. Advocates say they are beginning to notice renovations taking place in older buildings, but they fear those will just give landlords an excuse to raise the rent. Small-business advocates say some businesses like auto-repair shops without official leases or firms located on properties sold just before the rezoning are already gone.

One tenant leader, Carmen Vega Rivera, says she and some her own neighbors may soon face displacement themselves.

“The apartment next door to me is at risk. Landlords are using major capital investments to get us out. The building across the street from me, same thing. This is happening in spurts all over the area,” says Vega Rivera, who is a leader of Community Action for Safe Apartment (CASA).

Housing help and capital construction

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development boasts it has preserved more than 750 homes since the rezoning in addition to the 5,500 units preserved during the three-year planning process, and has hosted several events to assist tenants and property owners. HPD says it has helped over 12,000 residents to stay in their homes, including 11,000 who received free legal services and more than 2,700 who connected with a range of city resources such as tenant harassment assistance programs.

The city’s Department of Small Business Services has hired a Jerome Program Manager to provide a central contact point for businesses seeking assistance of all kinds and to help connect people seeking jobs to businesses and construction projects in the corridor. The agency also opened an SBS Mobile Unit to ensure easier access to the local workforce for training and recruitment. An estimated 20 local businesses have enrolled in the commercial lease assistance program, which provides a range of services including guidance on new leases and lease renewals, assistance with breach of contracts/landlord harassment, support with unwritten leases and support with lease terminations. SBS said a handful of businesses have consulted with the agency’s partnering micro lenders since January this year.

The Department of City Planning says more capital projects are underway for Jerome Avenue. Construction at the intersection at Jerome Avenue and the Cross Bronx Expressway and at Clifford Place Step Street will wrap up this spring. The neighborhood also can expect to see a disabled-accessibility project at the 170th Street 4 train station. The city says design plans for Bridge Playground and Corporal Fischer Park and Morton Playground are underway while work has started on a new plaza at West 181 Street.

Design is underway for a new 478-seat elementary school in District 10 at 2355 Morris Avenue as well as a gym for P.S. 246 at 2641 Grand Concourse, and a site at 1302 Edward E. Grant Highway has been chosen as the grounds for a new 572-seat elementary school in Community School District 9.

“After years of community-based planning, we’re now hard at work preserving and building affordable housing, jobs and businesses in this transit-rich corner of the Bronx. Hats off to our hard-working partners in the Jerome Avenue community and their elected officials who continue to guide needed investments in their neighborhood,” Department of City Planning Director Marisa Lago said in a press release last week.

But tenant advocacy groups dispute the notion that the Jerome Avenue process was “community-based” and believe it is still disengaged. “We want to know what is being developed, will those residents get the services they need, if its supportive housing then are they getting social and mental services?” Vega Rivera says. “There is no communication here. We have to seek those answers.”

“For them to say this is a public process is ridiculous,” says Fitzroy Christian, a CASA leader and resident. “The value of the properties increased almost immediately and rents are going up. We lost a 35-year-old, mom-and-pop shop for home-improvement supplies in the area. The landlord sold the property before the rezoning even happened,”

Councilmembers Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera say there is more work to be done but argue the rezoning was important and crucial for the community and its lack of resources.

“It is important to reflect on how much we have accomplished and highlight the work that remains to be done. A significant amount of affordable housing has been preserved, brand new parks and schools are in design, and a range of programs to assist tenants, local business owners, and the surrounding community are rolling out. This neighborhood plan is a true testament to what can be accomplished through a partnership between community and government,” said Gibson in a statement.

Cabrera said the new schools being constructed and affordable housing being preserved and constructed are all fruits of the community’s engagement with the city, “This progress affirms the collaborative process we used to create a shared vision. One year later, I still believe that our process for the Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan is a prototype for all future rezoning projects. We set a high bar and are living up to it,” he said in a statement.

HPD says it has put in place several programs to combat displacement and tenant harassment. It estimates 2,700 tenants were provided free legal services from a variety of city resources. Last June, HPD launched its Partners in Preservation initiative from which advocacy groups Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition and New Settlement Apartments/CASA were awarded $490,000 to develop and coordinate anti-displacement strategies. The Certification of No Harassment program has been launched in the area as well, and 16,000 housing inspections have been done, resulting in roughly $700,000 in emergency repairs, the agency says.

In housing development, an estimated 1,300 new affordable, supportive or senior homes are proposed on half a dozen sites, with specifics subject to approvals by city housing agencies, according to HPD.

Auto concerns

In the rezoning plan, the fate of the strip of auto-body repair shops that crowded Jerome Avenue for decades became a contentious issue because many of those businesses belonged to residents in the area and they also hired locally. After negotiations, the city facilitated services such as the mobile workforce unit, hiring the Jerome Program Manager and setting aside $1.5 million as a relocation grant. But Pedro Estevez, president of United Auto Merchants Association, says none of those services are adequate.

“[The city] have systematically disseminated the auto-repair businesses. Those businesses have invested their whole life savings into their business. Today they have nothing to show for it. It has been a death sentence for many of those families,” said Estevez. “I am extremely upset. I have young mechanics who are ready to be certified and there have been no services for them. During the rezoning, there were a lot of promises but none have accomplished. There is no plan to relocate those businesses and it is too late.”

Estevez says the city’s plan to relocate the auto repair shops will not work when those shops have already been evicted from their locations. According to Estevez, America Tires’ owner had no time to relocate and decided to shut down his entire business. Estevez also said that SBS had not published the application for the relocation grant online and feels the city was not prepared for the impact of small businesses on Jerome Avenue.

According to SBS, it is finalizing program details for the Jerome Avenue Relocation grant program, which include Administrative Code changes, to run later this year. While the city waits for the program to start, the agency has met with local businesses to discuss all pending issues and resources, including the proposed relocation grant. The 20 local businesses which enrolled in the commercial lease assistance program includes food and accommodations businesses, retail businesses, transportation/ warehousing businesses, auto repair businesses, and beauty salon, according to the SBS.

Learning lessons

With a second Bronx rezoning possible in the Southern Boulevard area, veterans of the Jerome Avenue debate are sharing takeaways from that episode and their experiences since.

On Thursday evening, residents gathered at Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association (BK CIA) offices on Westchester Avenue to discuss tenant rights, rent laws and changes coming to the Southern Boulevard as the City studies the area for a possible rezoning.

Banana Kelly CIA has been meeting with groups such as CASA and Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The meetings revolve around lessons different community groups have learned from rezonings in their neighborhoods. Gregory Jost, director of organizing at BK CIA, said one of the biggest lessons the organization learned from the Jerome Avenue rezoning was the power of creating coalitions and building relationships with other advocacy groups.

Jost says the lessons always point to one bigger questions: How can low-income communities of color create more control over their economy?

He says the victory of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the decision by Amazon to withdraw from sitting their second headquarters in Queens has given community-based groups the inspiration needed to think deeper and bigger.

“Sometimes it is about building up a part of larger movement,” said Jost. “We know evictions are a huge issue.  We know landlord harassment is an issue. So then how do we dig a level deeper or two levels deeper and get what we need here?”

Community land trusts and credit unions are two ideas that community groups are discussing. But Jost says without the support of the administration and elected officials, those ideas will remain mere concepts instead of turning into anything as real as a rezoning is.