De Blasio’s Doomed Housing Plan

This piece, by Samuel Stein, was originally posted on Jacobin. We recommend it be read and shared widely: download a PDF here to print and share!

He called it the “most ambitious affordable housing program” ever initiated by an American city. It would “change the face of this city forever” as “the largest, fastest affordable housing plan ever attempted at a local level.”

On May 5, 2014, at the site of a construction project in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York City’s progressive new mayor Bill de Blasio sketched the outlines for his housing plan: 80,000 new low-cost homes, 120,000 more homes preserved. It would put Robert Moses and Michael Bloomberg to shame, dispatching construction cranes to the city’s every nook and cranny in the pursuit of affordable housing.

“This plan,” de Blasio proclaimed, “will create opportunity for so many people who are currently being priced out of our city. It will create affordability in the midst of what has been the greatest affordability crisis this city has ever experienced.”

There is no doubt that New York needs a radical expansion of its affordable housing stock. In a city where almost 70 percent of residents are renters, one-third of tenants pay more than half their income in rent. Between 2000 and 2012, rents rose much faster than wages — 75 percent rent increases compared to 31 percent raises.

A minimum-wage earner would have to work 139 hours per week to be able to afford the average apartment. More than sixty thousand people, including twenty-two thousand children, are homeless. For a city of extraordinary wealth, New York is terrible at housing its vast low-wage workforce.

The Consensus Housing Policy

De Blasio’s solution relies mostly on one tool: inclusionary zoning. It’s an extremely popular program among housing experts and advocates, and is becoming something like the country’s consensus housing policy. Hundreds of US municipalities have adopted this approach, including Boston; Washington, DC; Denver; San Diego; and San Francisco.

The details vary from case to case, but the idea is for private developers to incorporate some percentage of below-market-rate units into their new developments. These units can be rented or sold, as long as they are targeted towards households within specific income brackets.

The affordable apartments are often subsidized by government programs, usually in the form of tax credits. Inclusionary mandates are frequently coupled with increased zoning capacity, such as the ability to build more on given parcels of land than the law currently allows. In doing this, the state creates value out of thin air, but it recaptures a percentage of the profits through affordability mandates.

New York started experimenting with inclusionary zoning twenty-seven years ago, but the program really took off during the Bloomberg administration, when more than a third of city was rezoned in 122 targeted neighborhood actions. Many of these rezonings were resisted by local residents, who saw them as a Trojan horse for gentrification.

To counter this narrative, the Department of City Planning often used inclusionary zoning as a way to sweeten the deal and show that the city’s actions would provide new homes for the working class. The standard Bloomberg model allowed developers to build 20 percent bigger if they set aside 20 percent of the new apartments at below-market rates.

There are two common and accepted criticisms of this framework. First, it hasn’t actually produced much low-cost housing. The affordable units created by Bloomberg’s inclusionary zoning account for just 1.7 percent of housing growth between 2005 and 2013. They failed to even match population growth, let alone deal with rising inequality.

The other critique is that the “affordable housing” that is available is not actually affordable to most New Yorkers. As with a lot of other programs, the inclusionary rents are based on Area Median Income (AMI) — the federal government’s calculation based on incomes, rents, and construction costs in the city and its wealthier suburbs.

In 2013, AMI for an average household in the New York metro area was $77,310; in the city alone, however, the average family made $50,711. Under Bloomberg, most of the inclusionary housing was targeted to households making 80 percent of AMI, or roughly $61,920; that was more than the city’s average income, let alone a given neighborhood’s standard. Some new apartments were built for “middle-income” households making 175 percent of AMI, or $135,293, with rents around $3,380 a month.

If the critique of inclusionary zoning is that it produced too few apartments at too high rents, then the solution seems obvious: the city should force more developers to build inclusionary housing, and to do so with better income targets.

That’s basically what Mayor de Blasio is recommending. De Blasio proposes that the city build eighty thousand new affordable apartments over the next ten years, mostly through inclusionary zoning. Much has been made of the “mandatory” nature of this program (as opposed to Bloomberg’s voluntary “bonus” system), but it will not be universal. Only neighborhoods that are upzoned for bigger buildings and higher densities will see inclusionary development.

We don’t yet know how much low-cost housing will be included in each building, but de Blasio has signaled support for a 20 percent low-income, 30 percent middle-income, and 50 percent market-rate split. By wholeheartedly embracing inclusionary zoning, the new mayor gets to put forth a big, bold plan for reducing inequalities without fundamentally challenging the dynamics between developers and communities, landlords and tenants, or housing and the market.

The de Blasio plan for affordable housing doubles down on the Bloomberg model, rather than rethinking its approach.

A Boon for Developers

Inclusionary zoning is a fatally flawed program. It’s not just that it doesn’t produce enough units, or that the apartments it creates aren’t affordable, though both observations are undeniably true. The real problem with inclusionary zoning is that it marshals a multitude of rich people into places that are already experiencing gentrification. The result is a few new cheap apartments in neighborhoods that are suddenly and completely transformed.

De Blasio wants to use inclusionary zoning to create sixteen thousand apartments for families making $42,000. That’s just 3 percent of the need for such apartments in the city today, according to the plan’s own figures. At the same time, the mayor’s policies would build one hundred thousand more market-rate apartments in the same neighborhoods. What will happen when these rich people arrive? Rents in the surrounding area will rise; neighborhood stores will close; more working-class people will be displaced by gentrification than will be housed in the new inclusionary complexes.

Tom Angotti, the director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development, argues that inclusionary zoning’s proponents “deal with housing as if it existed in a free market — as if it were just a matter of individual apartments combined. But it exists in a land market, where values are determined largely by location and zoning capacity. In areas with high land values, the new inclusionary development will just feed the fire of gentrification.”

Worst of all, inclusionary zoning could actually incentivize the destruction of existing affordable housing. Many New York City neighborhoods are filled with rent-regulated apartments, often at lower densities than the new inclusionary zoning rules would allow. The average income for rent-stabilized tenants is $37,000; for rent controlled tenants it’s $29,000. Both are significantly lower than the income targets for many inclusionary apartments.

When neighborhoods are upzoned to allow bigger buildings, rent-stabilized landlords will have every reason to sell their properties to speculative developers. The new buyers could then evict all the tenants, knock down the existing properties, and build something bigger and more expensive. A percentage of the new building would be affordable, but the outcome would likely be a net loss in low-cost apartments and a major hit to the rent-regulated housing stock.

So far, most inclusionary developments have been built on empty lots and converted commercial sites. But if the program is dramatically expanded, inclusionary zoning could actually hasten the loss of affordable housing in New York.

Even if all this happens, the plan will likely be touted as a success. The new affordable apartments will be easy to spot, but those lost will not. Inclusionary zoning might displace more poor people than it houses, but when the system’s casualties aren’t counted, they aren’t seen.

While some free-marketers at the Manhattan Institute, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and the New York Post are pushing back against the plan, Big Real Estate is lining up in support. They want to stay on the mayor’s good side, of course, but they also know a deal when they see one.

The City Hall press release announcing the proposal came with a ringing endorsement from Steven Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York and one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state. It also included praise from Bill Rudin, whose company is responsible for the plan to convert St. Vincent’s Hospital into a luxury condo complex; opposing that development was a centerpiece of the de Blasio campaign.

Developers know inclusionary zoning will ultimately bring them greater profits. It is a sort of neoliberal win-win-win: the real estate industry gets to keep on building and making lots of money; cities get an influx of upper-income taxpayers, while offering some support to the working class; and nonprofit developers get new contracts for housing construction and management.

Rather than curbing speculation or aggressively taxing landlords, inclusionary zoning keeps the urban growth machine primed and ready to build. It allows cities to address their housing crises without challenging the norms of neoliberal urbanism or slowing governments’ retreat from public housing and welfare commitments. What this and other public-private partnerships will not do is fix the city’s perpetual housing crisis.

There are ways to make inclusionary zoning work better than it has so far. It could be used only on vacant lots, or in neighborhoods that currently have no affordable housing whatsoever. Alternatively, it could be applied as a blanket over the entire city, so that the rules cover all new construction, whether or not it results in increased density. However, this is the way inclusionary zoning functions in San Francisco, and clearly it has not transformed that city into a beacon of affordability.

There is an Alternative

The truth is, cities know how to create affordable housing. The simplest, most direct, and cheapest way to do it is to build or acquire public housing, and actually maintain it well. Public housing not only provides affordable homes, but takes land off the speculative market, acting as a bulwark against gentrification.

We also know that rent controls are the most effective strategy for keeping private housing prices down. The strength of rent regulation is its universality: rather than applying to a small percentage of otherwise exorbitant housing, it can keep all rents in check.

New York’s rent laws are filled with loopholes, but those loopholes can be closed as easily as they were created, and tenants around the state are mobilizing for such reforms. The regulatory framework could even be expanded to cover commercial and community spaces, which would go a long way toward broader neighborhood stabilization.

Democratically controlled community land trusts remain the best way forward in today’s context, when government is reluctant to either finance public housing or dramatically expand rent regulations. The model has many variations, but in most cases it pairs a piece of land owned by a nonprofit with a building owned by a mutual housing association, which sells or rents the apartments at low costs and with limited outside management. If people can use these tools to take land off the market and develop permanently affordable alternatives, they can effectively decommodify their housing and reclaim community control.

The solutions are out there, but the political will is not. Inclusionary zoning — a housing policy built on displacement — seems to be the most government is willing to do. And many leaders in the housing movement continue to support it, despite its failures. They argue that some new affordable housing is better than none, and that the program can be tweaked to produce better results.

One group, however, has refused to endorse this policy. Picture the Homeless, an organization of homeless New Yorkers, has consistently challenged policy orthodoxies and pushed the boundaries of debate around housing, property, and land. Their position is that inclusionary zoning will do nothing for those in the shelters and the streets, and cannot possibly solve the city’s housing crises.

Scott Andrew Hutchins, an active member of Picture the Homeless, told me he thought the inclusionary plan was “a very sick joke.” That day, he had gone to apply for a job in the Bronx that paid about $20,800 a year. While he was there, he saw a sign for a new inclusionary development. Its smallest apartments were for people making $28,355.He knows the system is not for him. “Basically all these people are doing is creating more housing for people who don’t live here to move here, and pushing out the people who do live here. It’s creating too much housing we can’t afford.”

Politicians and policymakers treat housing like a puzzle to be solved with the right balance of subsidies and profits. But affordable housing isn’t a mystery, it’s a contradiction: it can’t be done in a way that benefits both capital and workers in equal measure. There are ways to do it well, but they are not profitable. There are ways to do it poorly but profitably, and that’s exactly what inclusionary zoning does.

We need housing policies that confront capitalism while providing a genuine social good; inclusionary zoning does neither. As long as it remains the consensus position for politicians, nonprofits, and developers alike, we will see no end to the housing crisis.

Locals Fearing Gentrification & Displacement Challenge Bronx Rezoning Plan

This piece was originally posted on Gothamist.

Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera. (David Brand/Gothamist)

Speaking to a standing-room only crowd at a town hall in Mount Eden in the Bronx Thursday, City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera announced that they would seek to delay a proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue unless it includes more affordable housing for the area’s poorest residents.

Many locals have expressed concern that affordable housing built under the current rezoning proposal, which would cover a 73-square-block commercial area around Jerome between 167th and 183rd Streets, would be out of reach for them, opening the doors for major displacement in an area where the median household income is just over $26,000.

“I will stand with you if it means we have to delay ULURP and push it back because we need to get this right,” Gibson said, referring to the Uniform Land Use Review Process by which rezonings are approved. “I will support every position that you have and make sure it is a position that can be written into the final plan on Jerome.”

The current city plan calls for the creation of 3,250 units—without a specific provision for the number of affordable units—and tens of thousands of square feet of space for community facilities like hospitals or churches, as well as new commercial and retail space. Developers who take city subsidies would be required to include affordable housing in their projects.

But advocates at the meeting said they feared that even if all developers take subsidies, many units would be too expensive for local residents.

According to the city, the rezoning plans are too preliminary for a specific breakdown of affordability of potential new units. Citywide, a quarter of affordable units financed so far under Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan have been targeted at families making under $40,000 a year (still far above the neighborhood’s median income).

“In the housing plan, the City committed to reaching more of the lowest income New Yorkers,” a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development told Gothamist. “While early in the process, we are actively engaged in discussions with residents of the Jerome Avenue neighborhood about the needs of the community, which will be reflected in future development proposals.” The spokesperson also noted that Mayor de Blasio recently announced an additional $2 billion investment toward increased affordability.

Advocates called for all units to be affordable, distributed evenly among four income brackets, with a quarter each for families that make up to $27,000, up to $36,000, up to $45,000, and up to $56,000.

(David Brand/Gothamist)

City Council members wield tremendous influence over rezoning projects in their districts, as it is customary for their colleagues to defer to their positions on a project. That gives Gibson and Cabrera an effective veto over any rezoning plan.

“None of us want this to fail,” Gibson said. “I don’t want to get to a point where I say to my colleagues ‘I want you to vote no on Jerome.'”

Cabrera, who sat beside Gibson at a folding table, said he supported her commitment but encouraged constituents to continue rallying and raising awareness among community residents without completely ruling out the rezoning proposal.

“I’ve been through a ULURP and I can tell you the biggest leverage that we could ever have happens at the end because there’s something about urgency, about creating a dynamic at the very end that they’re going to have to give in and give us what we’re asking for,” Cabrera said. “Let’s not give up the leverage we have, which happens, literally, at the 11:59 point 59 hour.”

The city’s proposal does not yet include local hiring or wage requirements, and a large group of union members turned out to advocate for guaranteed wage floors to encourage the use of union laborers. Wayne Molton, a member of the construction union Local 79, said he believed the plan should include prevailing wage requirements for all workers so that laborers earn a union-level salary.

“We are not against non-unions,” Molton said. “We are mad because of the exploitation going down, the unsafe work practices going down, because we understand that billionaires are pocketing the money that belongs to this community.”

Among attendees, there was a sense of trepidation about the big changes a rezoning would bring to the neighborhood. “I come from the Lower East Side and I can’t move back there. I have friends in Williamsburg,” Community Action for Safe Apartments organizer Carmen Vega-Rivera told Gothamist. “I saw what happened there firsthand and I now I see it’s happening here.”

“I have invested in my community and have waited many years to see the reinvestment return to me and my community and that has not happened,” Vega-Rivera said. “So who are we building for? Is it for us? No. It’s for others.”

Race, Displacement, and City Planning in NYC: A Q&A with the Editor of ‘Zoned Out!’

This interview with the editor of Zoned Out! was first published on Gothamist. We highly recommend picking up the book, and learning more about how developers, landlords, and other capitalists run development in NYC!

This week, Gothamist sat down with Hunter College urban planning professor Tom Angotti, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and an editor of Zoned Out!, a new book on the impact of government planning and housing policies on communities of color. We spoke to Angotti, who also contributed to the book, about how federal housing programs solidified residential segregation, the limitations of zoning policies, and the city’s affordability crisis.

How has the federal government contributed to residential segregation in New York City over the decades?

The federal government shaped urban development and residential patterns all over the country through two major programs. One was the Federal Interstate Highway Program, which made possible the growth and development of the suburbs. And the second program was the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage guarantees for new home development.

The two went hand in hand to create the suburbs that now have the majority of the urban population of the United States. That spurred an exodus from the old industrial cities and large central cities, while at the same time, the federal government was cutting back on its support for central cities. That had a profound racial edge in several different ways.

First, the mortgage guarantees available to the suburban home owners were not available to neighborhoods with large minority populations, which were essentially, African American. In fact, it was the practice of redlining, which means red lines were drawn around areas in which at least 5 percent of the population was African American. Those areas that were redlined could not get mortgage financing. This led to the decline of housing quality in large central cities that had African American populations, while at the same time, it favored relatively well-to-do new suburban developments in the suburbs. Those new suburban developments were largely unavailable to people of color, due to exclusionary zoning and discriminatory practices that prevented blacks from getting housing in the suburbs. Those were the key policies.

The Federal Urban Renewal Program was another way that federal, state, and local governments contributed to segregation and displacement. The program took large swaths of land in central cities that were occupied by communities of color, relocated people, condemned the property and then turned it over to new developers. At that time, we used to call the Urban Renewal Program the “Negro Removal” (Because “Negro” was the term used at the time.)

Tom Angotti. (Courtesy of Tom Angotti)

In the 1970s, when problems for communities of color became critical and there were urban rebellions, there was massive abandonment of housing. New York City was a major case of this, where there was massive abandonment in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn, which was accompanied by a withdrawal of federal assistance. First by the Nixon administration, and then most famously by the Reagan administration, which cut back on funds for new housing development and essentially ended the construction of new public housing.

You talk a lot in the book about the limits of rezoning to address New York’s housing crisis. Can you talk about that?

Zoning is not a strong tool for providing housing. What it can do is encourage the land market to grow in certain areas when the zoning has changed so that new development becomes possible in those areas. It can encourage new development. But the 20 to 30 percent of affordable housing units are dwarfed by the 70 percent or more market-rate luxury housing that has the effect of driving up rents and land values in the area and displacing more existing affordable housing than new housing that’s created. In addition to which, the affordable housing isn’t truly affordable to the people living in these neighborhoods because of the way affordable housing is defined by government.

Affordable housing is created by capital, and since there’s very little public capital available, it’s almost entirely private capital. Private investors want to put their money where it’s going to grow and it’s going to develop. They don’t make money on affordable housing, unless it’s so heavily subsidized that it becomes a profit center for them. In which case, they’re milking the public coffers to provide a very little bit of affordable housing.

By relying on zoning for the main land use tool, New York City relieves itself of the responsibility of doing any serious comprehensive planning, either for its neighborhoods or for the city as a whole. Changing policies across the board, making housing, community facilities, schools, libraries, open space – all of the things that make for a stable community – those are very strong tools.

Zoning’s a weak tool. Zoning is a convenient tool for developers because it pretty much limits the extent to which the city government can shape new development. It limits questions to “How big is the building?” or “How much open space is required?” These are all physical elements. But there’s so much more to communities and neighborhoods than just the physical elements. Then there’s the economic question which is, “How much of this new development that’s spurred by zoning is going to be affordable to people?”

The city gives the impression that the only way to get affordable housing is by rezoning, and that’s not true. People have bought into that idea. And the mandatory inclusionary housing program gives the false impression that it’s the only program.

Map of Brooklyn from 1938 showing redlined neighborhoods (National Archives and Records Administration via Urban Oasis).

How do New York City’s zoning and housing policies affect people of color?

The problem starts because the city does not openly discuss the question of race. It acts as if everybody’s colorblind – that race doesn’t matter. It acts as if its programs are applied neutrally across the board. And it doesn’t explicitly examine how its policies disproportionately affect communities of color.

They did so during the period of widespread abandonment. The city was very clear that they were not going to invest in these neighborhoods. Sometimes they’re very explicit about it, but mostly they simply refuse to discuss the question of race.

Today, it really isn’t much different. The Fair Housing Law, which was passed in 1968 as part of the Civil Rights Act, mandates that governments not discriminate. It’s not simply a matter of intentional discrimination, but also de facto discrimination. If there is a discriminatory impact in its policies, governments have to change those policies. New York City has never looked critically at its policies to determine whether there’s a discriminatory impact based on race. The first step is to admit that it needs to analyze and assess its policies in that regard.

People are starting to talk about the Fair Housing Act. There was a Texas case before the Supreme Court last year where the Supreme Court reaffirmed that discriminatory impact, not simply intention, was the criterion that had to be applied.

They’re doing something very perverse in the upzonings that are essentially contributing to the displacement to African American, Latino, and other minorities. They’re justifying it as integrating segregated communities of color, but that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that they’re eating away at the areas encompassing the communities of color, so that developers can speculate and build housing that is available mostly to whites, because they’re people with higher incomes. What they’re doing is expanding the white neighborhoods into the communities of color.

In our book, the chapter on Harlem demonstrates on a small scale how that happened with the Frederick Douglass Boulevard rezoning. It’s located in a part of Harlem that’s adjacent to the Upper West Side. It is not integrating Harlem – it’s expanding the Upper West Side, which has already been transformed into a mostly white area, from the multiracial, multicultural area that it once was 30 to 40 years ago.

How have communities dealt with these big changes?

Communities have been fighting displacement for a long time. People organized. They organized tenants associations. That’s the most effective method. Building by building, apartment by apartment. Fighting against slumlords who are disinvesting, who are buying out tenants, who are doing anything possible to encourage people to leave, who are even torching their buildings and working with drug dealers to intimidate their tenants to get them out. 121616Cover.jpg But rezonings are very difficult to deal with. With zoning, most people don’t understand it. It’s kind of a hocus pocus, a lot of technical terms, and the way they’re explained at community meetings, they’re explained in way that doesn’t encourage most people to get engaged in any serious way – a lot of pretty pictures and maps, and a lot of nice sounding fairytales about how great the neighborhood’s gonna be after the rezoning.

The big challenge today is to discredit this kind of charade.

What can the city do to mitigate the disruption and displacement caused by gentrification

The first thing City Hall has to do is to start seriously planning with neighborhoods and communities, particularly communities of color. This is going to take time. It’s a slow process. But the city doesn’t do planning and it doesn’t even do planning city-wide. You should base your zoning on a clear, long-term picture and strategy of what neighborhoods should be like. If you do it only in some neighborhoods, it’s unfair because then there’s no city-wide vision. There needs to be a city-wide vision and process, and that takes time.

The other thing that government needs to do is to reformulate its approach to housing. It needs to go back to the provision of truly affordable housing. The only way that you can make truly affordable housing available to the people with limited incomes in New York City is to do it with public dollars – direct investment.

Since the Reagan revolution up till today, the predominate medium has been the public-private partnership. But the private sector, developers and builders, always dominate these partnerships. The public sector is the junior partner. The public sector needs to be aggressive as they were with building public housing and build housing directly and finance it directly. It’ll be a lot cheaper than the low-income housing tax credit, which is the main subsidy program nationally. It’s an expensive program because it’s essentially giving these huge tax breaks to rich people who don’t need it.

Let’s put public money into the housing, and at the same time save public housing. The largest stock of public housing in the nation is at risk and is in the process of being privatized. Keep that public. Use public dollars for that instead of giving more tax breaks to developers. And provide the infrastructure for them so that they can make money on new property deals.

Zoned Out! is available on Amazon

Gentrification Fears Dominate Discussion at Bronx Zoning Hearing

This piece was originally posted on DNAInfo.

CONCOURSE — “The Bronx is not for sale!” residents chanted at a hearing Thursday night about proposed zoning changes in New York in which the community’s fears of gentrification and displacement took center stage.

The hearing at the Bronx County Building focused on Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), two changes to the city’s zoning regulations meant to increase affordable housing.

However, several Bronxites at the packed hearing blasted the proposals for not focusing enough on building affordable housing that residents could actually afford and described them as plans to price residents out of the borough, repeatedly breaking out into enthusiastic chants of “The Bronx is not for sale!” throughout the meeting.

“Take into consideration that segment of our New York City society that wants to pay the rent and wants to have housing but cannot afford it,” said Bronxite Cheryl Westbrook. “And right now, they are not being mentioned.”

The hearing was held by the office of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., although Diaz himself was not at the meeting.

This greatly upset many people in the crowd, who responded to his absence with boisterous chants of “Where is Ruben?” and “Ruben is for sale!”

Diaz could not be at the hearing because he had a prior engagement, according to his staff.

However, he said in a statement that he would take testimony from the hearing into account when making his own recommendation on the proposed zoning changes next week.

Residents held a protest outside of the building before the meeting began to express their anger over the proposed zoning changes.

“I truly believe they’re trying to kick us out of here,” said Ramon Martinez, a 29-year-old Bronx carpenter who was at the protest. “And when I say us, I mean the middle class.”

Multiple attendees at the hearing also made derisive comments about the Piano District in response to a billboard that recently went up by the Third Avenue Bridge proclaiming that luxury waterfront living is on its way to the South Bronx.

The sign attempts to rename part of the borough as the Piano District, encapsulating many of the fears borough residents have about being pushed out of their neighborhoods by gentrification and rising rents.

“There is no Piano District,” said Hillary Mercedes, who went to the hearing and lives in Mt. Eden. “This is the South Bronx.”

“A group of people that comes in to claim a piece of land as its own and rename it not only is a classic Columbus narrative but, as history notes, it has no intentions to preserve a community that is already there,” she added.

The city’s MIH proposal would require that developers make sections of their new residences available at below market rate prices, while ZQA would let the city add up to 20 additional feet on height allowances for buildings to make more room for affordable housing.

Several Bronx community boards have already rejected these proposals, and while the negative comments far outweighed the positive ones at Thursday night’s hearing, the changes did receive some support.

Paul Freitas of the affordable housing company West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, for instance, said that the changes would help the city build additional housing for seniors.

“This will generally translate into more units of affordable senior housing,” he said. “WSFSSH strongly supports the provisions of the Zoning for Quality and Affordability.”

A History of the Woodside BID

This excellent grassroots history was originally posted by the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project.

Plans are underway for the establishment of a BID(Business Improvement District) in Woodside.

What is a BID?

In short, a BID is a nonprofit organization with a board of majority property owners that oversees economic activity and usage of public space in a given area.  The BID is advertised as a beneficial public-private partnership that contributes to the well-being of the neighborhood by providing services like sanitation and security, or by engaging in projects to improve lighting, signage, painting, etc.  Sounds nice!  However, the BID can also act as a political lobbying force in the interests of landlords.  Most importantly, the BID can be used to encourage large scale corporate development in areas that are seen as undesirable, such as low income immigrant neighborhoods.

In reality, BIDs destroy neighborhoods.  We understand that a BID would help speed up gentrification by leading to a massive increase in property value, the closure of local businesses in favor of large corporate chains, the loss of immigrant jobs, police harassment of immigrants, criminalization of homelessness, and ultimately, the displacement of all working class people from the neighborhood.  The evidence of the negative impact of BIDs is found in over 70 current locations where BIDs now exist in NYC. We must prevent the Woodside BID at all costs.  In order to understand what we’re up against, here is a brief history of the Woodside BID proposal:

Four years ago, a meeting was held at St. Sebastian’s Parish Hall during which a very small handful of local officials pushed the idea forward for the creation of a BID on Roosevelt Avenue.  At that time, those behind the BID proposal included:

City Councilmember – Jimmy Van Bramer
Former Community Board 2 Chair – Joe Conley
Chair of Woodside on the Move – Bob Piazza
Owner of Ottomanelli Burgers – Frank Ottomanelli

Fortunately, the BID failed to garner any interest from local business owners and even small landlords.  Enter QEDC(Queens Economic Development Corporation).  In November of 2014, QEDC was given a “Capacity Building” grant by SBS(Small Business Services), the city agency that assists nonprofit development organizations in the establishment of BIDs through their Neighborhood Development Division.  One of the Capacity Building grant requirements is the creation of a “corridor assessment” document, to be used for the “commercial revitalization” of Roosevelt Avenue between 57th St. and 70th St.  This initial grant was used to try to warm up small business owners and community members to the idea of nonprofit intervention, and ultimately, the establishment of a BID.


On June 23rd of 2016, QEDC presented their corridor assessment to community members at a public meeting at Woodside on the Move.  QEDC also announced their plans to start a merchants association.  SBS sees a merchants association as a precursor to the BID, as they explain in their Merchant Organizing grant:

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 11.34.44 AM.png

According to an amNewYork article published on August 3, 2016, Bob Piazza, the Chair of Woodside on the Move, has explicitly stated that the merchants association is being used(like a Trojan horse) to gain support for a BID:

“In a second attempt to get local merchants to band together to improve their area, Woodside on the Move has teamed up with the Queens Economic Development Corporation to try to form an association. […] Bob Piazza, president of Woodside on the Move, said he hopes the business association will allow merchants to see the benefits of pooling their resources together and potentially create excitement about future BID proposals.”

As we speak, the QEDC and Bob Piazza are working to establish the Woodside BID.  In response, Queens Anti-Gentrification Project is kicking off a campaign to defeat the BID and keep QEDC out of our neighborhood.  We have many activities planned out over the next few months, and we invite those who live in or around the neighborhood to join us and defend Woodside from gentrification and displacement.

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Video: Anti-Gentrification Protesters Disrupt Queens Developers’ Conference

This piece, written by Nick Pinto, was originally posted in the Village Voice.

Yesterday morning some hundred bankers, investors, developers, and other people intent on making money in Queens real estate had gathered for a breakfast conference at the Gantry Loft, a restaurant in Long Island City.

When Maria Torres-Springer, head of the New York Economic Development Corporation, took the podium, she barely had time to celebrate the mixed-use waterfront projects catalyzing growth in Queens before she was interrupted by protesters who had infiltrated the audience in business-breakfast drag. “That’s not true!” one woman in the second row shouted. “Working families cannot stay here! From Ridgewood to Corona, Queens is not for sale!” Farther back, another woman stood up, and a third: “From LIC to Flushing, Queens is not for sale!”

Here’s what the kerfuffle looked like:

Minutes earlier, Jamie McShane, a senior vice president at the Real Estate Board of New York, had given some opening remarks, as had New York City Council majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. “It’s been just an amazing accomplishment over the last few years in this borough,” Katz had said, “and all of you being here today just shows that it’s onward and upward. People want to come here, live here, play here, make their money here.”

Robert Knakal, the chairman of New York Investment Sales at Cushman & Wakefield, had told the audience how his longstanding fondness for Queens began when he lived in the borough for a year after college, before moving to Manhattan, and how that relationship grew in 2000, when his firm had “filled up all of our territories in Manhattan [and] we were looking for another place to do business, and we opened up our Queens office.”

The morning’s schedule included panel discussions featuring prominent developers, bankers, and Business Improvement District executives, as well as the executive director of the Friends of the BQX, the developer-backed group advocating for a streetcar route along the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts.

But throughout these proceedings, a steady din could be heard from outside the restaurant. Across the street, a group of about twenty people calling themselves Queens Is Not for Sale had unfurled banners and were chanting into megaphones.

After the disruption a lengthy and awkward tussle ensued as the event’s organizers, including Josh Schneps, the publisher of a chain of community newspapers, attempted to force four protesters to leave, and the protesters noisily declined. In a spirit appropriate to the occasion, organizers correctly pointed out to the protesters that they were on private property. The protesters did not find this information persuasive.

Some joker briefly played the Jeopardy theme song on the sound system, then switched to the Twilight Zone theme. It was threatened that the police would be called. The police were called. Eventually, the four women were squeezed out the door, but remained noisily in the stairwell outside. An attendee who identified himself as a retired lieutenant offered his advice: “Just lock ’em up.”

As the noise in the stairwell continued, Torres-Springer resumed her remarks, “When I hear those kinds of comments and frustration on the part of New Yorkers,” she said, “what that tells me and what I hope it tells you trying to build the city to do this work, is that we need to…make sure we’re pushing forward an agenda of inclusive growth.”

Outside on the street, the protesters were undeterred. “Maria Torres-Springer, you said you would work hard to create livable neighborhoods through your position as head of EDC,” read a statement they handed out. “But livable neighborhoods can’t be created as long as real estate developers sell off our neighborhoods.”

The group also said it is unimpressed by the mayor’s affordable-housing plan, arguing that the threshold of “affordability” is still far too high for many Queens residents. “I had the rent go up 30 percent on my apartment in Jackson Heights two years ago,” said one protester, who declined to give her name. “These people are making a profit off of turning our own neighborhoods into places where we can’t afford to live.”

Activists Protest Swizz Beatz’s Art Fair in the Bronx

This piece, by Seph Rodney, was originally posted on Hyperallergic.

Last weekend, the rapper and record producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, along with Bacardi — for which he’s reportedly the new “global chief of culture” — staged an art fair in the Bronx. According to Remezcla, the event, titled No Commission, was first produced last December in Miami, where artworks were offered without the participation of galleries or other middlemen, earning a million dollars for the artists who participated. Perhaps that’s why Dean, himself an art collector, thought the fair might be a way to support the communities of the Bronx, the borough in which he was born and raised.

Dean’s plans, however, were mired in controversy from the start. To launch the event, he arranged a party in a property newly acquired by developer Keith Rubenstein, who’s head of Somerset Group, one of the leading commercial interests seeking to rebrand and build out the Port Morris section of the South Bronx. Rubenstein is notorious among local residents for having thrown a widely reviled, star-studded party last year, which featured bullet-riddled cars and flaming trash cans to illustrate its theme, “Bronx is burning.”

Then there was the artist list for No Commission: according to the Welcome to the Bronx blog, only about a third of the participants had significant connections to the borough, and no Latino artists were included (the full list of artists appears here). So, although another son of the Bronx, A$AP Rocky, played at the opening night party on Thursday, August 11, for many activists, artists, and concerned citizens, the entire event seemed like a sales tactic to provide street cred and cover for rapacious developers. Ed García Conde of Welcome to the Bronx was reportedly able to meet with Dean for several hours and express his concerns that “artists [are] being used as pawns for developers.” He secured a promise from Dean that the producer would collaborate with Conde on a future event that will include local artists in a “more neutral location.”

The protesters flanked by a few police officers (click to enlarge)
The protesters flanked by a few police officers (click to enlarge)

Nevertheless, many longstanding local activist groups decided to stage a protest on opening night of the fair, spurred by artist Shellyne Rodriguez, a member of Take Back the Bronx who also spoke with Dean. According to Rodriguez, her sit-down with the rapper was unproductive. Essentially, she said, Dean pleaded ignorance of Rubinstein’s significant role in the gentrification of the South Bronx. Dean claimed that he just wanted to give back to his community, and that Knicks star Carmelo Anthony had suggested Rubenstein when Dean was looking for a No Commission venue. Rodriguez went on the say that Dean dangled the option of a closed-door meeting between Rubenstein and the activists, but only if the protests did not go forward. Rodriguez refused the bait — unlike Conde, she said, who ended up endorsing the fair — because “our position is that no artists should be involved.” She thought a forum with Rubenstein would need to be public, or it would essentially function as PR for his interests.

Artist Shellyne Rodriquez of Take Back the Bronx, who was a leader in organizing the protests
Artist Shellyne Rodriquez of Take Back the Bronx, who was a leader in organizing the protests

Rodriguez spread the word about the protest to other organizations and reached out to Hyperallergic, which has been reporting on the competing agendas of pop-up art exhibitions, commercial real estate developers, and activist groups in this economically depressed area. In fact, it’s the area I live in, so when Rodriguez contacted us, I decided to walk down to 101 Lincoln Avenue, where the on-ramp to the Third Avenue Bridge and Bruckner Boulevard meet and Lincoln begins its southeast turn to skirt the Harlem River. When I arrived, around 6:45pm, I saw some 12 protesters carrying signs and sporadically addressing people heading into the party. They were accompanied by a few police officers standing off to the side, looking completely uninterested. One woman was speaking into a microphone attached to a portable speaker: “ … will appropriate your culture, disrespect and replace you!,” she chanted.

Pilar Maschi of The Bronx Is Not For Sale clearly expressing her sentiments
Pilar Maschi of The Bronx Is Not For Sale clearly expressing her sentiments

I spoke first with Pilar Maschi, who was affiliated with The Bronx Is Not for Sale; she was holding a sign that read “Fuck You Keith Rubinstein.” “They are trying to get buy-in with the community,” she replied when I asked her why the protest had been organized. “They’re bringing in their tokens, their sellouts, people who are not necessarily from the Bronx, but I guess they are of color. They are legitimizing and selling out their community by participating in an event like this.” The theme of “selling out” was repeated by several protestors. Wanda Salaman, executive director of the local nonprofit Mothers on the Move, told me she knew the one-bedroom apartments in the buildings that have yet to be constructed would cost $3,500 per month, a price point she believes would drive out longtime residents. She claimed to have heard during tenant meetings that owners of buildings in the district are already offering residents thousands of dollars to move out so that they can raise rents. This starts a cycle, she said, “and in less than two months, they may be homeless.” She thinks the art fair is connected to this process. “Do not use artists to sell our community out,” she added.

Wanda Salaman of Mothers on the Move
Wanda Salaman of Mothers on the Move

Trying to get more clarity on the precise connection between an art fair and selling out, I turned to the artist Alicia Grullón, who founded Percent for Green. She explained that the argument the groups were mounting was not against the artists themselves — and here we were interrupted by Pilar, who yelled and insisted that they were protesting the artists. When Pilar allowed her to continue, Grullón explained that she, at least, was there to protest the developers, both because the artists in No Commission were not from the South Bronx community, therefore Dean and company were not actually welcoming locals, and also because the mix of art, development, and real estate often leads to gentrification and displacement. How that happens, according to Grullón, is speculation. She contended that when wealthy people come to a neighborhood to buy paintings, they don’t just purchase art — “they are also speculating the area to make further investment, to make their money grow. That’s how the process works.” It’s a story that has played out in many Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Bushwick, and is now happening in Harlem as well.

Of all the people I talked to, Shannon Jones of Why Accountability — the one who’d been speaking into the microphone when I first arrived — had the most comprehensive conception of how all the distinct issues swirling around Dean’s fair related to each other. “It all goes hand in hand: the militarized police state, greedy developers pushing you out of your neighborhood, horrible housing, miseducation of black and brown children,” she said. “A classic move of white supremacy is to use black people to further what they want to do,” she continued, seeming to suggest that Rubenstein was using Dean to further his own aims. Shannon claimed that Bronx politicians sold out the community by “rezoning these areas and not mandating any new housing built here be affordable for the people who live here,” and pointed out that the South Bronx “is the poorest congressional district in the entire country” (a designation corroborated by The Economist earlier this year). She said it made no sense for her to go to an art fair party when her friends and neighbors were at risk of being displaced. “6,000 evictions [take place] every year in the Bronx,” she said. The statistics I found paint a worse picture: 11,000 evictions took place in the borough in 2012. Given such dire numbers, which indicate the slim chance the working poor have of surviving, it’s no wonder that Pilar said to me, in referring to the fair and party, “this is violence.”

Protesters questioning the economic future of the South Bronx

It struck me that all these women (and it was mostly women at the rally) were determined and principled, and refused to see themselves as powerless in confrontations with developers who have already secured contracts and agreements and will start building soon. It’s a difficult task they’ve taken on, but a crucial one: to convince artists, politicians, landlords, and tenants not to participate, not to take the money and run, to forgo the ostensible, immediate profit for a long-term plan that’s sustainable for the majority. Their struggle reminds me of a phrase Deep River, an alternative exhibition space run by a group of artists in LA, used to print on its stationery and send out with its emails: “Resistance is futile, except when it isn’t.”

The No Commission fair took place August 11–14 at 101 Lincoln Avenue in the South Bronx.

Swizz Beatz, Playing Clean Up, Helps Developers Rebrand The ‘Piano District’

This piece by Josmar Trujillo was originally posted on Huffington Post.

There’s a controversy brewing in the South Bronx.

For over a year, Bronx activists have been fighting off real estate developers who’ve been trying to rebrand the neighborhood as a new ‘hot’ area ripe for gentrification. Swizz Beatz, the Bronx-born producer and DJ who’s made hits for the likes of DMX, Noreaga and the Lox, has thrown his headphones into the ring with an art show that some activists are pointing to as a part of that rebranding campaign.

It all started when Keith Rubinstein, a real estate developer and founder of Sumerset Partners, bought up waterfront land in the South Bronx where he’s looking to build two gigantic luxury high-rise buildings. A five-acre space along the Harlem River will also be developed by Somerset to have high end stores and a waterfront promenade. In other words, Rubinstein, who’s put his Upper East Side mansion on sale for $84.5 Million, is doing for the Bronx what developers have already done to Brooklyn.

To make matters worse, an art party hosted by Rubinstein last year birthed the incredibly shitty idea that the South Bronx neighborhood should be renamed the “Piano District”. That gentrifying renaming attempt (think SpaHa—SpanishHarlem, or WaHi—Washington Heights) was the source of much drama, igniting a firestorm on Twitter last year with the hashtags #WhatPianoDistrict and #TheBronxIsNotForSale.

2016-08-22-1471887334-2032675-KeithRubensteinandBazLuhrmann.jpgDeveloper Keith Rubinstein and “The Get Down” creator Baz Luhrmann at a party

The party itself, which saw celebrity appearances from the likes of Carmelo Anthony (whose support of a development in Brooklyn is being called out), Kendall Jenner, Naomi Campbell and Maxwell, was decorated with images of burning trashcans and bullet-riddled prop cars. As if a room full of celebrities, bougie artists and rich white people toasting one the country’s poorest neighborhoods falling into the hands of developers wasn’t bad enough, someone actually thought using the imagery from the Bronx is burning days was a good idea.

The internet ate them up.

Another attendee at that party was Swizz Beatz. Swizz came back this year with a 4-day art show called “No Commission” where artists sell art with all the proceeds going directly into their pockets. The concept would be Swizz was giving back to the community, helping up-and-coming artists and splashing in a touch of hip-hop. Performances from ASAP Rocky, Fabolous and even DMX wowed the crowds, though apparently not many were actually from the Bronx. Baz Lurhmann, the Australian director who created “The Get Down” Netflix series about the Bronx and rise of hip-hop, threw a premiere party on Jerome Avenue (ground zero for the Bronx rezoning battle) that same weekend, partying with Swizz.

Bullshit alert: the space for the party was provided by Keith Rubinstein, who’s basically leading the charge to gentrify and ultimately displace a good number of poor South Bronx residents.

2016-08-22-1471887546-3979882-ScreenShot20160821at10.14.10PM.pngWeird white dude with Crusader cross painted on his face in front of ‘gritty’ Bronx car at party (Photo: Dope magazine)

In a recent interview with Vibe magazine, Swizz tried to downplay the negative vibes around the show, which was met with protests. He also explained that he, not activists who’ve been breathing down Rubinstein’s neck about his development plans, had gotten the “Piano District” name dropped following a 30-minute one-on-one conversation.

“I got him to change the name “Piano District,” because I told him the people didn’t like that. So to those protesters I said, “Listen, I know you may not like this guy. I’m still learning him myself, but one thing I can say is he did give us this property to have fun and give back to these streets. He did push his plans back for us to have this property. Also changed [his mind], and said he won’t name this this “Piano District.”

So, he won’t name it?

No. I had him do that in 30 minutes. If I got that man to change his mind in 30 minutes about naming this the “Piano District,” what else can we [make] him do? What else can we sit down and have a decent conversation about, instead of protesting and being hostile? You don’t have to protest if a person is willing to listen to you, but some people just got they own agendas.”

Still, Swizz patted himself on the back and big-upped Rubinstein:

“I commend the landlord, Rubenstein—who owned both spots—because this probably cost him $2 million because he pushed this project back two months, with all the builders and workers and different things just so we could have a celebration.”

2016-08-22-1471887760-275935-ScreenShot20160821at10.41.33PM.pngSwizz Beatz at his “No Commission” art party with Bacardi CEO Michael Dolan (Photo: Compound)

Shellyne Rodriguez ia Bronx born and bred artist. She’s one of the protesters that Swizz tried to brush off in Vibe magazine as people with “their own agendas.” She’s also an organizer with Take Back The Bronx, a group that’s been turning up on Rubinstein (labeled “anti-white” by the New York Post) and the luxury high rise twinkle in his eyes.

“Let’s take note first that [Swizz] is openly commending this landlord, who means to displace our community to build a new Soho”, she says. “Rubenstein paid 2 Million dollars to have Bacardi and Swizz Beatz provide an amazing PR campaign by throwing a huge popular concert and major art event with an impressive Coachella level lineup of musicians.”

Chino, a 33-year old Bronx student and member of Take Back The Bronx, points out that what Swizz is doing “should be a wake up call” to artists: “If you stay neutral in a moving car, you’re just supporting whoever is driving. Before you get turned into a hood ornament for the murder-machine, take some time to educate yourself on how gentrification works, and specifically how it uses art and creativity.”

Shannon Jones, co-founder of Why Accountability, a police accountability group based in the Bronx, sees similarities in the Bronx and what happened with another musical celebrity that lent his street cred to the redevelopment of Brooklyn. “We learned this when Jay-Z was splashed all over the Barclays Center and the Nets. We cheered his success and ignored the eminent domain and displacement in downtown Brooklyn,” she explains. “Whoever balked was a ‘hater’ that didn’t ‘understand business.’ Come to find out he only owned one-fifteenth of one percent of the Nets organization—far from the part owner he was publicized as.”

Rodriguez is also annoyed that Swizz, with the help of the fawning Vibe story, insinuates that he got the incredibly unpopular “Piano District” name scrapped. “This was a PR nightmare for [Rubinstein] and Swizz came in to clean that up. We bust our ass to go after Rubenstein for that arrogant colonizer bullshit. While Swizz Beatz was partying with him at the Macabre Suite, we were out on the streets.”

The Swizz Beatz fight is of course an extension of the fight with Rubinstein. Rodriguez explains that there’s much to absorb about how the fight against gentrification and displacement might look in the future. “The more real estate developers sink their claws into artists, the more diligent we have to be,” Rodriguez says. “It’s unfair when artists like Swizz wave golden opportunities at starving and emerging artists in neighborhoods that are being threatened with displacement. Who’s gonna say no?”

This complicates the picture, in some regards. It’s no longer Keith Rubinstein’s white $84 Million dollar apartment sellin’ ass as the obvious face of gentrification. With art and hip-hop slathered on the surface, gentrification takes an edgy new face. The plans for the “Piano District” remain on course, simply leaving the name behind.

“What’s going to happen to this property after this show is already bought. The plans are already done. So let’s go out with a blast at least,” Swizz told Vibe. Rodriguez and Take Back the Bronx don’t accept that and ask artists to look at the bigger picture. “Is space and our careers more important than housing for poor people of color?”