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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We're about two weeks from New York's April 19 presidential primary vote. The three remaining Republican candidates and two remaining Democrats have been campaigning in New York, which is more in play than it has been in several cycles. Hillary Clinton is set to hold events in New York City and Albany Monday, including a rally with Gov. Cuomo and a meeting with state Assembly Democrats, and while the candidates are also paying attention to Wisconsin as the week begins, New York already has a great deal of their and the nation's focus. It should be an exciting and dramatic two weeks. As this week begins, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns continue to spar over whether there will be a Democratic debate in New York before the state votes.

All three Republican candidates - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich - are set to attend the New York GOP's annual gala, set for April 14. The candidates are expected to campaign in New York over the next two weeks.

The day of the New York presidential primaries, April 19, is also the date of special elections in the state Legislature, including the races to replace both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both those races appear competitive two weeks out. The Senate race is especially important given that Democrats are eyeing this year's elections as a chance to take control of the chamber - they already have a wide majority in the Assembly.

Monday will see return to a focus on the recently-passed state budget. Hillary Clinton will rally in New York City Monday with Gov. Cuomo and others to celebrate that the budget includes a path to a $15 per hour minimum wage and a paid family leave policy.

There is sure to be more analysis of the $147-plus billion budget this week, it was passed Friday after much last-minute negotiating (a deal was announced just a few hours before the midnight Thursday deadline, with voting by the Legislature taking place through Thursday evening and into Friday - the state's fiscal year begins April 1). The new budget was met with some criticism, largely over the process by which it was agreed upon and passed with little time for review by lawmakers and the public, and much celebration, especially over the minimum wage and paid family leave provisions, as well as increased funding for education, transportation infrastructure, and more. There is a lot of budget language to digest as the details have been made public.

The Legislature is due in Albany for three days of post-budget legislative session this week. Including this week, there are 27 days of session scheduled between now and its scheduled end on June 16. Issues to address include mayoral control of New York City schools, which expires at the end of June (the Senate will hold two May hearings, it recently announced, at which Mayor de Blasio is expected to testify), a property tax abatement program to spur affordable housing development (renewing or replacing the expired 421-a program), raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16, the Dream Act, and much more - including government ethics reform, which the governor says will be his top priority after none was included in the budget deal.

On Monday we expect the City Council's official response to Mayor Bill de Blasio's $82 billion preliminary budget plan. The Council has held a month of budget hearings and now has the state budget to consider, so it is able to give its response to the mayor, who will take it and the state budget into account as he prepares his executive budget. When de Blasio releases his updated spending plan in a few weeks, it will kick off another round of Council budget hearings as the two sides head toward a deal by the end of June and the July 1 start of the city's new fiscal year. Since major cuts in funding to the city from the state that Gov. Cuomo had in his budget plan were taken out of the final deal, there will be little drama to the city budget process the rest of the way. The biggest bone of contention appears to be whether the mayor is insisting on enough agency savings. There will also be small battles over things like levels of library funding.

Many eyes are also on East New York as the week begins. A large area of the Brooklyn community is set to be rezoned, the first of 15 neighborhoods where the de Blasio administration plans to significantly change land use rules to facilitate more housing and community improvements, but the clock is ticking as the administration and local stakeholders, led by City Council Member Rafael Espinal, negotiate the final details of the plan. There is no zoning subcommittee or land use committee vote scheduled as of Sunday evening, but one could be scheduled if a deal is reached. The parties have until the end of the month to reach and pass a deal.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

The City Council’s preliminary budget response to Mayor de Blasio is expected on Monday.

At 11 a.m. Monday at the Javits Center in Manhattan, The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice will hold a "victory rally for $15 minimum wage and paid family leave" - participants will include "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo; Hillary Clinton; George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Chair of the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice; labor leaders; advocates and minimum wage workers." City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is expected to attend the rally, according to her schedule.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at 1 Police Plaza, "Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton will host a press conference to discuss monthly crime stats," according to the mayor's public schedule.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss several items, such as the provision of certain parking privileges for press vehicles, the requirement of curb extensions at certain dangerous intersections, and the establishment of Earth Day 2016 as a car-free day for private and all non-essential city vehicles.
  • 10:30 a.m., the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to discuss various candidates for appointment to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Board of Corrections, and the City Planning Commission.
  • 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to address several land use applications.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Contracts will hold an oversight meeting on the challenges facing nonprofits in city contracting.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit "a Model Dual Language Program to make an announcement," at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan.

On Monday at noon, "At a press conference Monday, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance will release a new report on Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC Plan, his administration's blueprint for increasing the city's environmental sustainability and resiliency. The report shows that six low-income communities of color on the waterfront designated by the city as Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs)—the South Bronx, Sunset Park, Red Hook, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the North Shore of Staten Island—are still the most vulnerable to the threats of climate change and not sufficiently protected by the OneNYC Plan. A number of constructive recommendations for strengthening the plan are offered in the detailed report."

At 5 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks "at 32BJ Security Contract Rally" at the Wall Street Bull. At 9 p.m., Stringer will appear on BronxTalk with Gary Axelbank (BronxNet TV or Bronxnet.org).

At 7:30 p.m. Monday in Albany, the burgeoning Museum of Political Corruption will host a roundtable discussion and public forum on political corruption following a reception and fundraiser. Speakers include Frank Anechiarico, professor of government and law at Hamilton College; Blair Horner, Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group; Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law School professor and Congressional candidate; Jimmy Vielkind, Politico NY Albany bureau chief; and Thomas Bass, SUNY Albany professor, who will moderate.

Tuesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m., Bill Mulrow, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo will discuss the administration’s budget goals and legislative priorities, including a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and infrastructure projects, at a Crain’s New York Business event. Moderating the conversation will be Crain’s New York editor Erik Engquist and Ken Lovett of the Daily News.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday on the Upper East Side, the launch of LinkNYC Kiosks with free Wi-Fi and more, featuring City Council Member Ben Kallos, Assistant Commissioner Telecommunications Planning at NYC Department of Information and Technology Stanley Shor and LinkNYC General Manager Jen Hensley (86th Street and 3rd Avenue, South East Corner).

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 10 a.m., the Committee on Immigration will address a resolution calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a decision in U.S. v. Texas, which overturns the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and upholds the implementation of President Obama’s expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs.

At 2 p.m., a town hall meeting to discuss the 2017 referendum to hold a New York constitutional convention will be held at the University at Buffalo. The event will feature a number of experts, such as Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz and Henrik Dullea, who served as director of state operations and policy management for Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-91, who will discuss what a constitutional convention would look like and the issues at stake in constitutional reform.

At 6 p.m., The Coalition to End Broken Windows will launch a two-day conference, Breaking Broken Windows, at the CUNY Graduate Center. Participants will evaluate, debate, and debunk Broken Windows policing theory, which “contends that policing disorder leads to reductions in serious crime.” They will also analyze the era of mass criminalization and imprisonment while working towards alternative solutions for a better future for New York City. Speakers include a variety of academics, advocates, and journalists, including Noha Arafa, of New Yorkers Against Bratton, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and Professor Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College.

Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Queens, "City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Access Queens will host a Town Hall on the 7 train with New York City Transit President Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim. At this event, 7 train riders, angry and frustrated by seemingly endless delays, overcrowding, and weekend and evening closures, will have the opportunity to ask questions and share concerns directly with the president of New York City Transit."

Wednesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

The Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute will host a conference beginning at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to address “The Future of Charter Schools—And School Choice—In NYC,” following a recent study ranking U.S. cities on various school-choice metrics (by the Fordham Institute) finding that local political support for charters in NYC has fallen from 8th to 26th place, and the city’s overall ranking from 3rd to 12th. Speakers include Priscilla Wohlstetter, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University; James Merriman, president of the New York City Charter School Center; Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute; and Charles Sahm, Director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to address several resolutions on Nicholas’ Law, the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, Congressional funding for gun violence research, safeguards against wrongful convictions, and opposing the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Economic Development will hear a bill requiring a survey and study of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among the leadership of city contractors.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet to address several issues deferred from the meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to evaluate the structure and content of the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Albany, "State Senator Liz Krueger will hold a forum on modernizing sales tax collection in New York State. New York State's current system of sales tax collection has not kept up with changes in retail payment methods and technological innovation. This forum will evaluate proposals for modernizing the collection of sales tax to improve its efficiency for retailers and to reduce the potential for fraud through sales tax suppression. One tax researcher has estimated that sales tax suppression costs New York State $1.7 billion in revenue annually. A number of other states and countries have adopted or are exploring the adoption of new technologies to address these issues."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host a panel to discuss “Moving Beyond the Rhetoric: Creating a Diverse Workplace in the 21st Century.” Panelists include professionals leading Bloomberg LP’s Diversity and Inclusion group; Kristen Titus, Founding Director of NYC Tech Talent Pipeline; Anthony Crowell, President of New York Law School; Eulas Boyd, Dean of Admissions at Brooklyn Law School; and Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs” and will discuss their experiences in building and instituting workplace diversity policies.

Thursday
At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Columbia’s schools of International and Public Affairs and Law will host a public policy forum about policing, criminal justice reform, and public integrity. Loretta Lynch, the 83rd Attorney General of the U.S., will deliver the keynote address. Former Mayor David Dinkins, who the event is named for and is a professor at Columbia, will deliver remarks. Professor Ester Fuchs will moderate a panel on on "Criminal Justice Reform and Public Integrity" featuring Mark Peters, Commissioner, NYC Department of Investigation; Daniel C. Richman, Paul J. Keller Professor of Law, Columbia Law School; Ken Thompson, Brooklyn District Attorney; Nicholas Turner, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice. (This event is by invitation only.)

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to address a land use application and introduce a bill establishing a temporary program to resolve outstanding penalties imposed by the environmental control board.
  • 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a full-body stated meeting, which will be prefaced as usual by a pre-stated press conference hosted by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

State Legislature hearings Thursday:

  • 10 a.m. in Albany, the Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance and the Assembly Standing Committee on Health will be hosting a public hearing to evaluate the process of modifying or enhancing health insurance coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Noon in Oakdale, the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction will host a public meeting to examine the issues facing communities in the wake of increased heroin abuse.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, the MTA will hold a public hearing about a proposal to restore service to the N and Q lines in connection with the opening of Phase I of the Second Avenue Subway, expected to be completed late this year.

Friday and the weekend
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the New York Press Association Spring Convention, which will begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Staten Island Borough President James S. Oddo will join the ROLE Call in hosting the NYC Fatherhood and Family Enrichment Conference at Port Richmond High School. This event aims to enhance Fatherhood Engagement by offering seminars and workshops in family and fatherhood services.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Kelly Fan and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Wary of Gentrification, East Harlem Braces for Change


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 Mark-Viverito at an East Harlem planning session (photo: William Alatriste)


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Community calls for community planning
City officials have not yet presented a timeline, much less a plan, for rezoning East Harlem, but that hasn’t stopped residents from preemptively organizing against “upzoning” that they believe will accelerate displacement of low-income people in their neighborhood. Two community-driven plans have emerged from El Barrio since November: one, an attempt at leveraging rezoning for a higher percentage of more deeply affordable housing and community benefits through collaboration with city officials; the other, an outright rejection of the mayor’s plan and a demand for better protections for immigrants and very low-income people living in regulated rental units.

Speaker Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx, told NY1 in January, "The question is, do we want to let things stand and get nothing out of it, or do we try to get something, allow the density to happen, with a benefit to the community? To me, the answer is very clear. We have to get something for the community.”

“Getting something for the community” seems to be the theme of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which was completed in February by a broad coalition led Mark-Viverito, Manhattan President Gale Brewer, and advocacy group Community Voices Heard.

east harlem planning tableThe EHNP is the product of a 10-month process in which over 1,300 East Harlem residents filled out hundreds of community surveys, gathered for seven community vision workshops on 12 topic areas, and produced an exhaustive list of recommendations for neighborhood preservation and improvement. While it certainly won’t halt fear of gentrification and displacement, it may go a long way in influencing the rezoning plan put forth by City Hall, and, many believe, stemming the tide of displacement while improving the community in a variety of ways.

The plan’s recommendations span 12 themes, ranging from improvements to NYCHA developments to arts and culture preservation to senior needs, but two issues took precedence over the rest: the preservation of affordable housing and job creation.

The plan specifically calls for better enforcement of anti-tenant harassment laws, additional legal and educational support for tenants, and policy changes and increased funding aimed at preserving existing regulated units and bringing more units under regulation. The plan also recommends that the city build off of the affordability that will be required on private rezoned sites under the new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing rules. The plan recommends 100% affordable units on public sites, and asks that all tools, such as HPD subsidies and programs, be utilized to achieve deeper affordability for the lowest-income residents.

Participants also heavily emphasize job creation, job training, and living wages as changes they want to see accompany increased density in their neighborhood.

East Harlem’s distinction as the home district of the powerful City Council Speaker sets the area apart from other neighborhoods on deck to be rezoned. Still, other Council members took notice of the EHNP effort, even attending the final planning event, eyeing ways in which they can lead a local process to get ahead of a more centralized, mayoral administration-run plan for rezoning.

The EHNP coalition sent the 134-page plan to the City Planning Commission and other city agencies after its release on February 25.

Community planning in New York neighborhoods is not a new concept; the Department of City Planning has been organizing “place-based planning studies” in other to-be-rezoned neighborhoods to help develop recommendations for affordable housing, economic development and infrastructure investments, and assisting community and borough boards in the creation of 197-a community plans.

The city created the rezoning plan that is now being negotiated for East New York after a number of community meetings, and the process is playing out in Flushing and other areas slated for rezonings.

But the Speaker calls the EHNP the first of its kind in the city, emphasizing a proactive, bottom-up approach.

“We’re kind of doing it upside-down. Usually an application is presented and we respond to it, right?” Mark-Viverito said to the audience at an EHNP community forum on January 27, referring to the typical land use review process (ULURP), which is taking place in East New York. “The [East Harlem] application hasn’t even been submitted. We have a plan, we’re giving it to the city, and we’re forcing the city to consider and take into account those needs in the application process.”

It remains to be seen whether the Speaker’s influence will fortify the plan once the rezoning process begins in East Harlem, but many people involved believe that the strength of the plan’s process and government-community partnerships have given the neighborhood the best chance of success as they both brace for and embrace the rezoning.

"This is a document that we actually want to govern how East Harlem is developed and evolves over time,” said Sondra Youdelman, director Community Voices Heard, in a February interview with Gotham Gazette. “Now it's up to the city to figure out which policies and tools need to be coupled together to make this happen.”

'Consulta del Barrio'
Movement for Justice in El Barrio, founded in 2004, is an organization predominantly comprised of and led by immigrants - mostly women - who have lived in rent-regulated apartment units in East Harlem for decades. The organization claims over 1,000 members and organizing within 95 privately-owned buildings in El Barrio.

MJB released in November 2015 a 10-point plan that roundly rejected the mayor’s zoning plans as they stood then and focuses almost exclusively on housing preservation for low-income residents in rent-regulated apartments, people of color, and immigrant communities, which the group says are disproportionately displaced by landlord harassment and gentrification.

“Our members didn’t want to just reject the plan,” said Juan Haro, an organizer at Movement for Justice in El Barrio. “They wanted to put forward a concrete proposal to improve the housing situation in our neighborhood.”

The document is also an indictment of what Movement for Justice calls a failure by HPD to enforce housing codes and protect tenants’ rights.

“We believe that when HPD is not responsive to landlords breaking the local housing code, and their unresponsiveness allows landlords to get away with driving out tenants, which contributes to displacement and gentrification,” Haro said.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio’s plan calls for increased and independent oversight of HPD; a public education campaign to inform tenants about HPD's role; a new body to collect fines levied against negligent landlords; publication of inspection documents in multiple languages, penalties for landlords who fail to make repairs within 24 hours of emergency violations; the establishment of an East Harlem HPD oversight team; and improvements to HPD’s inspection and follow-up speeds.

According to Haro, over 8,500 East Harlem residents participated in 12 public meetings throughout the year-long “Consulta del Barrio,” or neighborhood consultation. Haro highlights the group’s bottom-up organizing strategy and pragmatic outreach effort, which targets very low-income residents and immigrants, and favors flyering over social media.

“We know that there is a digital divide,” he said. “Many folks in the neighborhood don’t have access to Facebook or Twitter, so we focused on on-the-street outreach, and worked in the evenings and on weekends when more people weren’t at work.”

Public meetings were “fluid and organic,” Haro added, and residents attended to learn more about the intricacies of the rezoning proposal and land use in general. Participants voted to reject the mayor’s proposals, and formulated the demands that would become the pith of the 10-point plan.

The plan concentrates on protecting tenants of regulated, private apartment buildings, because those tenants have the most at stake as the neighborhood gentrifies, Haro said. “Landlords cut off basic services and violate local housing codes,” he said. “They offer buyouts to tenants to surrender their units. They threaten to bring in immigration authorities or ask for proof as citizens and threaten based on citizenship."

The de Blasio administration has mounted an initiative to deter evictions and landlord harassment in rapidly changing neighborhoods with the creation of the Tenant Support Unit in August of 2015. The mayor announced in February that the unit had resolved its thousandth case since it began offering assistance to tenants.

While reviews of the unit’s methodology have been mixed, the administration touted a ten-fold increase in free legal services for tenants, for a total of $62 million in funding that will be fully implemented for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year.  As a result, de Blasio said, evictions by city marshals have decreased 24 percent since he took office, down from 28,849 in 2013 to 21,988 in 2015.

While the new support measures and protections introduced by the mayor seem to be having a positive effect, members at MJB believe that they will still be forced out once rezoning takes hold.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio members organized a series of protests against the mayor’s plan leading up to a Community Board 11 vote on MIH and ZQA in November.

Sandra Cruz, a member, said at a rally before the meeting, “We are against the mayor’s ‘luxury housing plan’ because we know that 25-30% of the apartments that the mayor says will supposedly be constructed for low-income people will not be accessible to the poor people of East Harlem, because we don’t make enough money to pay those high rents.”

CB 11 voted “no with conditions” on the mayor’s citywide zoning plans. This feedback, similar to that of community boards across the city, helped inform the City Council’s negotiations with the de Blasio administration over the final versions of MIH and ZQA.

Movement for Justice sent its 10-point community plan to Speaker Mark-Viverito and Borough President Gale Brewer in November, but have not received a response, they said. Meanwhile, Mark-Viverito, Brewer, and a variety of other stakeholders, were in the process of creating the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan.

Next for East Harlem
With MIH and ZQA in place, East Harlem stakeholders are watching the neighborhood rezoning process as it unfolds in East New York, the first neighborhood rezoning being moved by the de Blasio administration, in consultation with the City Council.

Like East Harlem, East New York’s population is predominantly Latino and African-American, and the neighborhood AMI is around $34,000. City Council Member Rafael Espinal represents much of East New York and remains adamant that the plan for the area not help in pricing out long-term residents.

"Neighbors on my street are already jacking up the rents to $1,800 [per month]," Espinal said at a March 8 City Council hearing on the East New York rezoning.

Parallels between East New York and East Harlem are undeniable, and many are watching the process for clues as to how the future may unfold in El Barrio. East Harlem may be slightly further along in a gentrification process as of now, but both neighborhoods are changing.

Though some involved in the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan are skeptical as to how much of the document will be seriously considered by the city, the speaker hopes that the document will serve as a model for other communities down the road.

“It would be great,” she said at the January 27 community forum, “if the administration established some sort of process to create neighborhood plans in every area that would be rezoned.” She followed this up by devoting a portion of her February State of the City address to the Council’s proposal that the city develop a Neighborhood Commitment Plan that would accompany all rezoning proposals, “describing and tracking commitments for housing, schools, infrastructure and other city services.”

“Planning for the future of our neighborhoods should start from the ground up and infuse the voices of everyday New Yorkers into policy decisions,” Mark-Viverito said in her address. She remarked that the community planning process is an opportunity to discuss neighborhood concerns “from school overcrowding and pedestrian safety to sewers and public transit.”

For community organizations in El Barrio, the work has only just begun. Leaders across groups and initiatives say they’ll continue to apply pressure to the city to respond to demands for deeper affordability, better protection of tenants’ rights, neighborhood improvements, and capital investments. Essential, they say, is community power in all processes.

Even as the future of East Harlem seems unsure, long-time resident Pearl Barkley notes the surge of neighborhood civic engagement around rezoning as a silver lining.

“I grew up in a time of social movements, with activism throughout the neighborhood,” Barkley said. “Right now, when I attend meetings, I see young people standing up, excited to talk about what they want for their city. That gives me hope. It makes me happy.”

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by Maggie Calmes, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Wary of Gentrification, East Harlem Braces for Rapid Change


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Hank Prussing's mural, The Spirit of East Harlem (via @ManhattanCB11)


Pearl Barkley moved to East Harlem in the 1950s, when she was six years old. Her family lived in the Jefferson Houses on 115th Street, where she lives today and works as an organizer with Community Voices Heard, an economic justice advocacy non-profit.

“Many people remember the fires, the abandoned boarded up buildings, and the people who left,” Barkley said in an interview. Essential services began disappearing from the neighborhood in the 1970s, she said, due in large part to city and federal policies that encouraged “benign neglect” of poor neighborhoods of color.

“They left the neighborhood to fend for itself,” Barkley said. “And the community was strong, but it suffered.”

“Now, East Harlem is a hot property,” Barkley said. “We have to bring the focus back to the people who were originally here and went through all of this. We have to make sure that the people who were here can stay here.” While she doesn’t necessarily take issue with newcomers to the neighborhood, Barkley emphasizes that preserving homes for long-term residents of the neighborhood should take precedent over new developments.

Newcomers have been moving into East Harlem for some time, drawn by its upper-Manhattan perch, lower rents, and access to public transit. But now, El Barrio - like a variety of other low-income areas populated predominantly by people of color - is becoming increasingly desirable to developers hoping to accommodate waves of middle-class renters.

In February, The New York Times named East Harlem one of New York’s Next Hot Neighborhoods, noting that 21 development sites had recently “traded hands,” and pointing to its lower-than-average real estate prices, good transit options, and historic architecture.

“If you want to stay in Manhattan,” the author wrote, “East Harlem may be your best bet.”

To long-term residents who want to stay in their neighborhoods, this kind of attention from the real estate market is synonymous with anxieties about inequity, marginalization, and displacement. And rightly so, as rents have skyrocketed across the city, incomes have stagnated, and the affordable housing crisis tops the list of policy issues facing New York City.

Now, as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration prepares to rezone 15 neighborhoods, including East Harlem, as part of a plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in New York City, residents are bracing for further shifts that some believe will drastically change the landscape of their neighborhood, push long-term residents out of their homes as new residents move in, and threaten local businesses. In a word, gentrification: the force that has been sweeping through New York City neighborhoods and striking fear in places set for new investment.

Even as policies like Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which requires set percentages of rent-controlled units in new developments, move toward enactment in an administration-run rezoning process, some East Harlem stakeholders are making proactive attempts at steering their community’s future. Led by the Speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose home district includes East Harlem, a broad coalition of residents and groups created a comprehensive plan to shape the rezoning of the neighborhood.

Members of that coalition and other groups have organized to protect against displacement while also championing changes that will improve their community.

It remains to be seen how successful residents will be in achieving control over the way their neighborhood changes -- and who will be left to enjoy the fruits of that labor. But one thing is certain: East Harlem - a low-income community populated primarily by people of color, imbued with deep-rooted history and culture, situated in an area ripe for speculation by developers, struggling amid an affordable housing crisis -- is at a tipping point.

Community character
The neighborhood of just over 123,000 residents hugs the northeast corner of Central Park along Fifth Avenue, runs South until 96th Street, and spreads east toward the Harlem and East Rivers, where large portions of the East Harlem Esplanade are crumbling into the water.

East Harlem is one of the largest predominantly Latino neighborhoods in New York City, the result of waves of Puerto Rican and Latin American immigration to the area after World War I, followed by more South and Central American arrivals throughout the 20th century. In spite of demographic changes over the last decade, East Harlem is still mostly populated by people of color and an immigrant neighborhood, with Hispanic and black residents comprising 81 percent of the population, and about a quarter of residents foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2013.

The dominant culture is reflected everywhere: Spanish is spoken on every corner, storefronts advertise Latin American food, music, and good, and large-scale, colorful murals pervade the neighborhood with images of Latin American activists and artists.

It is no coincidence that this is where Mark-Viverito, born and raised in Puerto Rico, settled after coming to the United States in 1987 to attend Columbia University. After college, Mark-Viverito participated in a mentorship program for young Latinos, coordinated New York-based efforts to drive the U.S. Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, co-founded women’s economic justice group Mujeres del Barrio, and served on Community Board 11. Mark-Viverito was elected to the City Council in 2005, and re-elected twice before becoming the first Puerto Rican and Latina to win the Speaker’s office when her colleagues selected her in 2014.

The Speaker is now at the helm of a City Council reckoning with an affordable housing crisis and scars and fears of gentrification across several neighborhoods; charged with the task of building and preserving affordable housing and improving neighborhoods while protecting communities’ cultures and livelihoods at a pivotal time. It is a struggle filled with economic and social tensions exemplified in East Harlem.

MMV shaking hands distrit“It’s an ongoing battle,” the speaker (pictured, left) told La Respuesta in a 2014 interview. “Longtime residents in our communities that are finding themselves with limited options to stay, and feel they have no other place to go and are being displaced, is obviously alarming. We have a responsibility to do as much as we can to try to figure out how to stem that tide, but we’re also faced with limitations.”

East Harlem’s history as a stronghold of people of color and immigrants follows the arc of many other urban communities throughout the U.S. The neighborhood first felt the impact of urban renewal initiatives in 1938, when NYCHA began razing low-rise tenements and relocating residents to make way for “towers-in-the-park” housing developments also seen in larger examples at Stuyvesant Town and Co-op City. The city cleared more land containing factories, stores, and community centers in the 1960s, but failed to attract investors to the area. The result was an abundance of overgrown lots and a fragmented urban landscape that set the scene for the increase in poverty, violence, and arson that plagued the neighborhood during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

These policies, Pearl Barkley said, along with growing wealth disparity and disenfranchisement of low-income people of color, pushed East Harlem - its residents, infrastructure, and local economy - into the political periphery, and dramatically exacerbated socioeconomic problems that plagued the neighborhood throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Housing East Harlemites
Today, a lack of affordable market-rate housing all but defines the residential landscape of East Harlem, where the majority of residents rely on public housing, rental assistance, or rent stabilization to afford their homes. A 2011 report from Columbia University calls East Harlem one of the “last holdouts of undeveloped Manhattan,” citing its waterfront and public transit options as contributors to the neighborhood’s growing vulnerability to displacement. These factors, combined with the voracity of the real estate market and a concentration of low-income residents, have cranked up pressure on the housing stock in El Barrio, driving rents - and fears of displacement - ever higher.

Enter Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to encourage more residential development all over the city, with affordable housing mandates, and to rezone East Harlem to add density and neighborhood improvements. De Blasio and supporters of his approach, including Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, believe that without this type of government intervention, the forces of the market will run wild over East Harlem as they have in Central Harlem, several Brooklyn neighborhoods, and elsewhere over the past two decades. With any increase in development, though, comes heightened fear as well as very real change.

Not enough housing, not enough income
With only 8 percent of privately-owned units owner-occupied, East Harlem is a community of renters. And, over half of rental households are considered rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of total household income on gross rent, or severely rent-burdened, paying more than 50 percent of income on rent, and are particularly susceptible to the throes of the real estate market.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Census Bureau reported in 2014 that 55 percent of rental units in East Harlem were either rent-stabilized or government-assisted, and another 28 percent are NYCHA units, leaving less than a quarter of the renter-occupied housing stock unregulated.

While there is still a considerable concentration of regulated and subsidized units in East Harlem, this cache is shrinking as units age out of rent regulation and landlords evict or coerce tenants into vacating stabilized apartments in order to raise rents.

The loss is considerable, with 2,500 rent-stabilized or subsidized units disappearing from East Harlem between 2007 and 2014, and a projected 4,200 more gone by 2030, according to Community Board 11’s 2016 Statement of Needs.

The mayor hopes to curb the loss of such regulated rental units through his Housing New York Plan, which seeks to preserve 120,000 existing affordable units throughout the five boroughs. To this end, the administration has doubled HPD’s funding and begun initiatives around landlord harassment, deregulation, and targeted investment in vulnerable communities, among others. The administration is more aggressively targeting opportunities to work with landlords to offer benefits in exchange for extending rent regulations.

De Blasio said at a press conference in January that the administration is ahead of schedule, having preserved nearly 14,000 units in projects like Stuyvesant Town, Riverton Houses, and smaller buildings, and that the overall program was on track to build or preserve 200,000 units by 2024.

While critics of the plan assert that not enough affordable units are targeted at very low-income New Yorkers, de Blasio said that 75 percent of the 40,000-plus units built or preserved over the first two years of the timeline have been for extremely low income, very low income, and low income residents.

Concentrated public housing
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) plays a vital role in maintaining a large portion of East Harlem’s affordable housing stock, with 30% of residents living in NYCHA-owned properties. This is the second-highest concentration of public housing in the city - a result of urban renewal initiatives begun in 1941, when one of NYCHA’s earliest housing developments, the East River Houses, went up on 102nd Street. Another wave of renewal, led by Robert Moses and funded by the 1949 Federal Housing Act, razed existing structures and constructed the Thomas Jefferson Houses in 1959. Today, there are 24 public housing developments in the neighborhood.  

Over the last two decades, federal and state budget cuts have weakened NYCHA, leaving the agency with a $74 million deficit in 2015, and facing capital needs of about $17 billion over the next five years, according to the city. This shortfall has resulted in crumbling buildings, breakdowns in communication between tenants and the agency, increased violence in housing developments, and myriad other problems.

Mayor de Blasio launched last summer the NextGeneration NYCHA initiative as part of a “ten-year plan aimed at preserving public housing for the future generations,” according to the city’s website. The administration describes NextGen as a long-term strategy to change the way NYCHA properties are funded, operated, and designed, and to revamp the way the agency engages with residents - all in an attempt to prevent the housing authority from being turned over to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development - an acquisition that could result in the sale of housing sites.

The most controversial aspect of NextGen NYCHA is a plan in which underutilized land within NYCHA developments will either be leased for housing development, with buildings half market-rate and half affordable. Opponents say that the plan too-closely resembles former Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt at infill on NYCHA land, which de Blasio vehemently opposed, and a step on the path to privatizing what is now public housing.

NYCHA CEO and Chair Shola Olatoye told City Limits in May 2015 that building affordable housing on NYCHA land is a way to reconnect public developments to surrounding neighborhoods.

"Residents want improved playgrounds, basketball courts, things we do not receive funding for. One way I can deliver on that is to maximize revenue from development,” she said. "If people want their development to improve, they have to be flexible about what kinds of changes they're willing to accept."

De Blasio said at the program’s launch that it would result in the construction of 10,000 new affordable units on NYCHA land. If the plan succeeds, it will eliminate NYCHA’s crippling operating deficit. The city’s argument is that this strategy will add affordable housing, new revenue, and community improvements.

The first NextGen project in East Harlem led to the opening last fall of the East Harlem Center for Living and Learning, which occupies a parking lot once owned by NYCHA. The project includes an eleven-story residential building containing 100% subsidized units. The New York Times reported in January that the development serves a “mix of working and disabled tenants, many from the neighborhood.” The building connects to the new Dream Charter School, which serves almost 500 students.

While the Times reported “overwhelmingly positive reactions” to the Center, it remains to be seen whether similar “infill” initiatives will be welcomed by other NYCHA residents wary of privatization and gentrification - or if the program will even produce enough revenue to bolster the floundering agency. Olatoye told the City Council on Monday that while its financial situation is improving, NYCHA is still tens of millions of dollars in the red, but is hoping that programs like NextGen will ease the burden.

“With NextGen, we can reduce NYCHA’s deficit by a total of more than $1 billion over the next five years,” Olatoye told the Council.

Space to use
The East Harlem housing shortage is exacerbated by vacancy of both city- and privately-owned properties, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer and area organizations.

Stringer and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been traded barbs in February over a comptroller report indicating that, as of September of 2015, HPD owned 1,131 uninhabited lots throughout Manhattan, and chiding the city agency for what Stringer called a lax pace of transference for properties that should be developed into affordable housing. Stringer held a press conference for the report’s release outside of an HPD-owned vacant property on East 123 Street, one of over 50 vacant properties the comptroller’s office found in East Harlem.

“This vacant lot has been owned by the city since the seventies, collecting garbage, attracting rats, and hurting the proud community of El Barrio,” Stringer said at the press conference. “We’re in an affordability crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen – yet our most valuable resource, vacant space, is readily available all across this city.”

Stringer was joined at the conference by members of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization based on East 126 Street that has long campaigned for turning vacant lots into affordable housing sites.

The organization released its own report in 2012, for which teams of homeless and formerly homeless PTH members and other volunteers scoured Manhattan neighborhoods in search of vacant buildings and lots. They identified 143 empty lots and buildings in East Harlem, and highlighted a block of East 116th Street between Lexington and Park as an example of the problem: nearly half the buildings were empty or boarded up. About 95 percent of all vacant properties surveyed were privately owned.

Commissioner Been’s rebuttal, which was included in Stringer’s report, emphatically denied the comptroller’s findings.

"Your assertion that HPD allows vacant City-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong,” Been wrote.

Been went on to clarify that residential development is only feasible on about 670 of the 1,100 properties; the rest are unsuitable due to location in dangerous areas like flood zones, or lack adequate access to public transportation or sewage infrastructure. Of those 670 viable sites, Been wrote, “roughly 400 have been earmarked for developer designation within the next two years.”

The remaining sites will either be developed for residential uses within the duration of de Blasio’s 10-year housing plan or turned over to the Department of Parks and Recreation for use as community gardens.

An acute homelessness problem
For those who have managed to hold on to housing, the rent - as in the rest of New York City - is going up. East Harlem’s median gross rent increased by 53 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates for 2013.

The data combine to paint a bleak picture for low-income residents of El Barrio. As of 2013, over a quarter of East Harlem households were considered in “severe need” by HPD, based on the number of people who are rent burdened, entering homeless shelters, or living in overcrowded apartments.

This grim combination appears to hit East Harlem residents particularly hard, resulting in the worst case scenario for a number of households. According to data from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), 306 families entering shelters in 2014 listed East Harlem as their last address - the highest rate of entry to family shelters from any neighborhood in Manhattan.

Jazmin Berges, 32, has been living in Marcus Garvey Park for the past three years. Berges was born and raised in the Bronx, but moved to East Harlem with a partner. When that relationship ended, she was unable to find housing that she could afford.

“Rent is going sky-high in the neighborhood,” Berges told Gotham Gazette. “The community is being restructured, small businesses are closing, and people who lose their jobs can’t afford their rents.”

Berges, who works with Picture the Homeless, believes that rent regulation doesn’t go far enough, and emphasized that a community land trust - a not-for-profit entity that acquires and holds property to preserve accessible housing - is the only way to keep permanent affordable housing in East Harlem. “Even low-income housing isn’t low-income housing,” Berges said.

New land use rules come to East Harlem
It is unsurprising that East Harlem was included on the list of 15 neighborhoods to be rezoned under Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. The plan targets lower-density and low-income areas where demand is or is soon expected to be strong enough to support new development. Over several years, beginning this year with East New York, in Brooklyn, the administration plans to rezone the 15 neighborhoods to allow for more density and neighborhood improvement through more green space, school seats, and transportation infrastructure. The big centerpiece, of course, is housing.

Essentially, the city’s plans mandate that any area rezoned to allow greater housing density - neighborhood or individual plot of land - will require significant numbers of affordable units as part of market-rate development.

The New York City Council overwhelmingly voted in favor of the two major components of the plan that the neighborhood rezonings rely on - Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) - on March 22. The passage was a considerable victory for the administration after months of pushback and protest from community boards and advocacy groups, and negotiations with the City Council to modify the plan to include more affordability and a few other tweaks.

According to the plan, which was changed to include more units affordable to lower-income households, MIH requires that developers who build residential units in rezoned areas set aside 20-30% of new units as permanently affordable for households making 40-80% of the Area Median Income, or AMI. Under MIH, there are a variety of options that will be chosen by City Council members, developers, and the mayoral administration. ZQA, which stirred less broad controversy than MIH, focused on changing parking requirements and height limits to encourage more senior affordable housing, improve retail space design, and streetscape planning.

Mayor de Blasio said in a statement after the vote, “New York City is now one step closer to being a city where everyone can work and live,” and thanked Speaker Mark-Viverito for her efforts in passing the “landmark legislation.”

City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod said at a hearing on MIH in February that the program “will bring new affordable housing to neighborhoods where it otherwise wouldn’t be built, and act as a cushion against potential gentrification of communities caused by broad demographic trends we are seeing in so many neighborhoods, simultaneously freeing up city funds to provide even more deeply affordable housing at lower rents where economic need is great.”  

Some opponents of MIH see a flaw in that what the plan defines as “affordable” does not include the lowest-income residents in what are now largely low-income neighborhoods.

Affordability levels are determined by the area median income of the five boroughs, plus Putnam, Westchester, and Rockland Counties, which comes out to about $77,700 for a three-person household. The AMI for East Harlem is $33,595, or less than half (43%) of the figure that serves as a baseline for affordability calculations.

MIH mandates that a percentage of affordable units built in rezoned neighborhoods must be affordable to households of certain earnings - for example, one option sets aside 20% of units for those earning an average of 40% of AMI, or about $31,00 for a family of three. This is the lowest income band option in MIH, and one that the Council insisted on adding to the de Blasio administration’s initial proposal. Households in East Harlem’s poorest zip code, 10035, earn an AMI of just $24,000, which critics say puts new affordable units out of reach.

The mayor, the speaker, and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been have stated often that a combination of HPD subsidies and other housing programs will address the gap of affordability for the lowest-income New Yorkers. This is where the neighborhood rezonings also factor in. Mark-Viverito has said repeatedly that she plans to get to 50-50 market rate-affordable for new development in her district.

Community Board 11, which represents East Harlem joined 43 other community boards across the city in voting against de Blasio’s proposal on November 23 of last year.

"But in the end," the mayor said at a press conference in November, "the community boards aren't the final decision makers.”

READ ON - PAGE 2 of 2 - How East Harlemites are attempting to shape the future of their neighborhood and more



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