The Story Behind The Story

Posted on November 24, 2015


Every week, the news media reports on issues relevant to the work we support. But often, these accounts tell only a small part of a more complicated and nuanced story. In our new series, we ask our grantees to fill in the blanks. Discover the events leading up to the story and how the issue fits into the bigger picture. Find out what’s next for the people involved and their partners who are behind the scenes.

Today’s “Story Behind the Story” was sent to us by Susanna Blankley, director of CASA: Community Action for Safe Apartments.They, along with members of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, have been working to protect and advocate for community members in the Bronx.

Here’s their story:

Last week, the Daily News reported that the Bronx Borough Board voted unanimously rejecting the city’s rezoning plans. What led up to this point? What happens next?

In response to the city’s plan to re-zone close to 73 blocks along Jerome Avenue in order to facilitate the construction of private residential housing, community members started to organize and formed the Bronx Coalition for A Community Vision. Over 1,500 Bronx residents participated in a community-led visioning process. Through this process, they discovered several things about the area slated for rezoning: the average income is $25,000; most people pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent; and there is a severe shortage of housing for people making less than $50,000 per year. This data, combined with community residents’ experiences, informed the affordable housing recommendations released on October 21st by the Bronx Coalition for Community Vision, just three weeks before the Borough Board’s vote. This policy platform calls for all new housing to reflect the needs of current residents.

Jerome Avenue is one of 15 neighborhoods being rezoned throughout the City. While we are organizing around the rezoning of Jerome Ave, residents are organizing in East Harlem, Staten Island, West Flushing, Inwood and East New York. And, in addition to the neighborhood rezonings, the mayor is also trying to pass a citywide change to the zoning text called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). MIH calls for developers who benefit from an up-rezoning to set aside 30 percent of newly built units as affordable to families making an average of $69,000 per year. This amount is almost three times the income of people in the neighborhoods being rezoned in the South Bronx, and is in direct contradiction to the recommendations the community put forth. In addition, there are no provisions for local hire, community participation, or anti-displacement and preservation measures. The mayor’s plan will bring density and affordable housing — but affordable to whom? We believe that inclusion in this case means securing affordable housing for wealthier residents, which will cause the displacement of people of color throughout the city.

quote-1

Just 10 days before the Bronx Borough Board’s hearing, the Bronx Borough President attended a widely criticized party hosted by developers in the Port Morris section of the Bronx. The theme was the burning of the Bronx, and the event attracted more than 2,000 people–many of whom were models, celebrities, and artists. The developers who hosted the party bought the land for $58 million dollars and then tried to rename it to the “piano district.” Apartments in their buildings will start at $3,000/month. The ability to build high-end residential housing on that land only exists because the land was rezoned in 1997 and again in 2005 with no provisions for affordability.

It was in this context that more than 400 faith leaders, union members, community residents, artists, and tenants rallied in front of the Bronx Borough Board’s November 12th hearing and testified about the real lack of community engagement and the need for strong preservation and anti-displacement policies and real affordable housing.

On November 19th, the two community boards that had voted in favor of the mayor’s plan reversed their votes and six city council members and the Bronx Borough president voted no.

This would not have happened without sustained, smart, and strategic grassroots organizing. This unanimous rejection of the mayor’s plan creates space for community needs to be incorporated.

In terms of what’s next, we will continue to organize around our policy recommendations related to the specific plan for Jerome Avenue. The issue of mandatory inclusionary housing will have to go before the city planning commission and then to city council for approval. We have a unified set of recommendations to change mandatory inclusionary housing to reflect community needs, and we plan to push the city council to require those changes.

The story went on to report that Bronx Borough Board members were upset about the elimination of parking lot requirements. What other provisions of the plan did the Borough Board object to?

While it is true that many individual community members have raised concerns about parking, we actually have not taken a position on this. At the community board and borough board hearings, almost all of the testimony was about displacement and affordability.

Are there changes that could be made that would better accommodate the needs of community residents?

To read the Bronx Coalition for A Community Vision policy platform, click below:

report2

How did community residents make their opinions known? What needed to happen to get them organized? What is necessary to ensure they continue to work together?

Community members testified, rallied, spoke with media, and created their own policy platform! An incredible coalition of local faith leaders, auto workers, union members, tenants, and residents came together to plan the visioning process, adopting a set of principles: real affordable housing, real community participation, strong anti-harassment and anti-displacement policies, and good jobs and local hire. The steering committee then planned out a series of four visioning sessions.

quote-2

At each session, we gave an overview of the community engagement process and of our coalition, and presented and shared data and information on the current status of jobs and employment, affordable housing, community involvement, commercial industries and tenant harassment. Grounded in this data and in our shared experiences, we worked in groups at each visioning session to brainstorm a list of solutions. Each session was attended by 100 to 150 community residents. We also collected over 500 surveys about people’s concerns and hopes for the rezoning. This data is used throughout the platform to document the needs identified by community members. And we conducted extensive community outreach to ensure as many residents and workers as possible knew about this process.

Between March and September 2015, more than 1,500 community members attended the forums and visioning sessions. More than 6,500 doors were knocked to tell tenants about the rezoning process. More than 322 business owners had conversations with members of the coalition about the rezoning, while all businesses got information and flyers and more than 2,000 community residents were called.

We are working to make sure that we keep meeting in response to the plans of Jerome Avenue, but also in order to make sure that the recommendations in our policy platform are enacted.

What else would you have added to this story if you could?

The administration continues to say that they are guiding and shaping development that is inevitable. But that is simply not true. Development in many neighborhoods wouldn’t happen without the land being rezoned. So the administration is facilitating development. The power of the administration to do this creates opportunity and responsibility. The fact that people are organizing to participate in this process is an even greater opportunity to do things differently.

quote-3

Community members all over the city, in a city whose citizens barely vote, are saying that they want to be actively involved and engaged. They want to be a part of the solution to the housing crisis in this city. People aren’t just saying no to the mayor’s plan. They are saying yes to their neighborhoods and to the belief that we can chart a new and different way forward. They are saying that we didn’t just elect a new mayor to have business as usual, but that we are willing to put our time, energy, and resources into our city to make sure that we don’t see business as usual. This is the real history being made here. Unfortunately, the mayor has said that, despite his concerns, he is forging ahead with his plans. If he does, and continues to preach about his plan, as he did this past Sunday in the Bronx, instead of authentically engaging with community members, he will not only send a message that he doesn’t think community members are capable of this level of civic engagement, he will have missed an amazing opportunity.