East Harlem Residents Protest Rezoning Plan

The community, mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican, opposes El Barrio’s gentrification. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

The community, mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican, opposes the gentrification of El Barrio. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Residents of East Harlem and members of the group Movement for Justice in El Barrio gathered at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 116th Street at noon on Friday Nov. 6 to protest what they say are plans for a residential complex to be built in the area. The city said that no such plans exist as of yet.

Nearly 30 demonstrators questioned the possible displacement of the low-income Hispanic and immigrant community if the area is ultimately rezoned. Of the new housing units, 75 percent will be sold at market prices and 25 percent will be reserved for families with a lower income.

“It isn’t affordable housing if it is meant for people with annual salaries between $46,620 and $62,150, as the mayor is proposing,” said Josefina Salazar.

The protesters also believe that the potential changes in the neighborhood and the arrival of higher-income residents will lead to an increase in the cost of living and to pressure and harassment by landlords seeking to push out residents.

Juan Haro, a 35-year-old Mexican who directs the Movement for Justice in El Barrio organization, said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan favors luxury housing. “Moreover, landlords will feel they have more power to harass the residents and jack up the prices. That’s already happened on 125th Street in Central Harlem: It used to be a neighborhood of poor blacks, and now the change is evident,” said Haro.

The leader said that the mayor’s housing plans would allow construction of private residential complexes in some parks surrounding public housing. “Bloomberg tried but couldn’t do it. Instead of rezoning, we want the HPD (Department of Housing Preservation and Development) to force the landlords to fulfill their obligation to fix and renovate.”

“We have to preserve our dear neighborhood and prevent it from turning into a gold mine for large corporations and a paradise for the rich. Impoverished and long-time residents have a right to stay in El Barrio,” said Salazar.

A spokesperson for City Hall wrote to El Diario that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is heading an open effort to create a plan for East Harlem in which affordable housing is protected and that allocates the resources and investments the community needs. “We are creating tools that will make it a requirement to have affordable housing in this neighborhood and to ensure that neighbors are protected against harassment.”

City Hall flatly denied the existence of any plans for the area, adding that everything will be up for discussion at the Community Board meetings. “In East New York, the plans are nine months ahead of East Harlem’s and they will get 50 percent affordable housing and million-dollar subsidies for low-income people. The East Harlem protests are political and, at this time, are unfounded,” said the spokesperson.

Worried ahead of time?

The demonstrators who gathered for Friday’s protest are also concerned about the possibility of losing a number of rent-stabilized apartments, and presented a 10-point plan to safeguard them. “We demonstrated that, for years, we have lived in apartments where there are constant violations of housing [maintenance] codes due to the eternal battle in which the landlords just want us to move out so they can renovate and raise the rents,” said Mexican-born María Moreno.

Leopoldo García, a 63-year-old Puerto Rican who used to be a superintendent and now receives disability benefits, said that he lives alone and that his income would not allow him “to aim for one of those apartments they will be building.”

Manuel Tenango, 38, a Mexican who has lived in El Barrio since 1995, said that “it all seems to suggest that they will be kicking out low-income people, and that is not right. It also looks to me like they want big companies to come, which affects small business owners like me.”

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