Rezoning Criticized in Neighborhoods of Color

The Bedford-Union Armory in brooklyn. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The City Council finally approved a controversial development plan to transform Brooklyn’s Bedford-Union Armory into an apartment complex and recreational center, a move that has sparked outrage among the residents of Crown Heights.

The much-debated project was approved after Council member Laurie Cumbo agreed to lower the cost of apartments designated as affordable housing and to discard the development of 60 luxury condos.

The plan will create 400 apartments (to be rented 60 percent below market value), a recreational center, offices for nonprofit organizations and a low-cost health clinic. Of the apartment units, 250 will have low rents of between $521 and $1,166.

Cumbo argues that the “world-class” project is beneficial to the Crown Heights neighborhood and compares it to the commercial districts of Chelsea Piers and Asphalt Green.

“We wanted to have that in the middle of Brooklyn,” said Cumbo. “We wanted to have low-income housing for the residents of Crown Heights. We have not seen this level of investment in many years.”

Still, detractors say that the project is a “fairy tale” that will end up becoming a nightmare for the poorest residents of the area. Activists insist that rezoning will contribute to expelling longtime tenants, leaving thousands of families and elderly residents homeless, most of them people of color and minorities.

Rent-regulated housing at risk

Grassroots organizations such as the Crown Heights Tenant Union and New York Communities for Change (NYCC), among others, filed a lawsuit in collaboration with the Legal Aid Society on Wednesday in an attempt to halt the controversial development plan. Critics say that the project would accelerate gentrification in a neighborhood that is already fragile and plagued by social injustice.

“Tenants in rent-regulated housing are not immune to displacement,” said Jennifer Levy, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit. “We have seen how the development of certain neighborhoods has contributed to the expulsion of longtime residents. The city’s actions are not taking this reality into account.”

The lawsuit states that the Council did not make an accurate evaluation of how the project could contribute to the gentrification of Crown Heights by arbitrarily excluding tenants benefiting from rent regulation. New York laws require an environmental impact statement for any large-scale project, and the report is subject to the city’s approval.

Levy explained that, despite the fact that rent-regulated apartments are legally protected against rent increases, tenant harassment is “fierce and persistent” because owners resort to tactics – such as ignoring emergency repair requests – seeking to benefit from market-price rent prices.

According to the Legal Aid Society, there are approximately 12,703 rent-regulated apartments in the Bedford-Union Armory zip code.

“Today’s vote by Laurie Cumbo and the City Council is nothing short of betrayal,” said Vaughn Armor, the NYCC leader in Crown Heights. “Despite campaign promises, Cumbo approved a project that turns a public resource over for private profit, and in exchange she is giving us a recreation center that no one will be able to use because they will have been pushed out. This is an insult.”

Pushback in East Harlem

Despite the opposition of the residents of Crown Heights, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the City Council’s decision, adding that his administration has preserved affordable housing at a record pace.

“Alongside the East New York and Downtown Far Rockaway [development] plans, the East Harlem plan and Bedford Armory Recreation Project mean thousands of affordable homes for neighborhood families […],” said Mayor de Blasio in a press release.

“We are making progress, and today we applaud Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Members Bill Perkins and Laurie Cumbo and the dedication of the East Harlem and Crown Heights communities for working with us to guarantee a fairer future for New York.”

However, according to the Rent Guidelines Board, 7,524 apartments were deregulated last year across the city.

The lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society intended to delay the City Council vote scheduled for Thursday, but the Brooklyn Supreme Court denied the petition on Wednesday. Still, advocates plan to continue with the legal complaint until a more exhaustive environmental evaluation is ordered.

The approval of the Bedford-Union Armory project adds fuel to the controversy of the rezoning of East Harlem, another neighborhood hit hard by gentrification and tenant expulsion.

“The mayor states that the city’s rezoning plan for East Harlem and Bedford-Union Armory will bring thousands of affordable housing units to our communities, but the truth is that these proposals disproportionately increase the number of luxury housing and rentals and make our neighborhoods even less accessible to poor and working people. They will become a recreational backyard for the rich,” said Karla Reyes, resident of East Harlem and organizer for Justice Center en El Barrio.

Activists say that 2018 will be a year of intense pushback against the city’s rezoning plans.

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