Ann Thompson, 76, had yet to wrap her antique glass so that she could move out of the apartment she’s lived in for the past 20 years on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Nor had she found a place to live.
Thompson, who retired six years ago and lives on a state pension, had been getting along just fine in her $550-a-month apartment on the second floor of a two-story brick home just off Warren Street. But two years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a rezoning that set off a land rush in Thompson’s neighborhood.
“The result of this rezoning is they’re kicking all the minorities out of here—I can give it to you in two words,” said Thompson, who is black. “And my God, they’re giving the seniors hell.”
Back in January 2003, City Planning Commission chairwoman Amanda Burden, Bloomberg’s Upper East Side neighbor, started the rezoning process by telling Brooklyn Community Board 6 about a “carefully thought-out” plan that would assure “preservation of the character of the neighborhood . . . while providing housing opportunities on Fourth Avenue,” according to minutes of the meeting.
That is: The city would protect the brownstones in the wealthy section of Park Slope and create “housing opportunities”—10- and 12-story luxury buildings—in the poorer section along Fourth Avenue. But these were far from “opportunities” for Thompson and her neighbors.
Within months, according to city property records, the man who owned Thompson’s house sold development rights for it to a local businessman who also bought the adjacent house and who already owned the other next-door building. (Neither owner returned phone calls.) And then, this past April 1, Thompson’s rent check came back marked, “rent not accepted—house sold.” She had to get out.
It is like that all over the neighborhood, said Thompson’s daughter, Katie Rubin, 42, who had come over to help her mother pack. People she had grown up with were being forced to find new housing, and the rents were astonishing. “Being that we grew up in this neighborhood, we know that the apartments aren’t worth $3,000,” she said.
City Planning Department spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff said that even without the rezoning, the area was still hot and could have seen development of buildings up to eight stories. The new zoning will create a lot of housing, she added.
There is a trickle-down argument to be made for rezoning land for big luxury housing developments in hopes that simply having more housing will lead to lower rents. But it means that the wealthy get theirs now, and the poor take their chances.
And since property owners don’t have to seek a variance anymore, the rezoning makes it difficult to negotiate with landlords on behalf of the ousted tenants, said Artemio Guerra, director of organizing at the Fifth Avenue Committee, a nonprofit group that is assisting Thompson. “It’s no leverage,” he said.
And it’s extremely difficult for displaced tenants to find new apartments at comparable prices. According to the most recent New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, the vacancy rate for apartments in the price range Thompson had was a scant 1.04 percent, while it was more than 10 percent for apartments renting for $2,500 and up.
Complicating the problem, it appears that the rezoning has encouraged those who rent out affordable housing to develop luxury housing in its place. Landlord Shahn Andersen said he has applied to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal to demolish the four-story, eight-unit rent-stabilized building he owns at 475 Fourth Avenue and replace it with a 10-story luxury condominium building with 20 units.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk from the landlords I know that part of the purpose of the rezoning was to make Fourth Avenue into the Park Avenue of Brooklyn,” he said, adding that he would prefer to include some middle-income housing if the city had made a subsidy available to him.
“Maybe the DCP [Department of City Planning] made a mistake,” he said.
I would say so. City Council members had pushed the Bloomberg administration for inclusionary zoning, which would allow developers bigger buildings in return for reserving some units for affordable housing. But Bloomberg and Burden rejected that.
They compromised by creating a $6 million fund for affordable housing on Fourth Avenue, but no developer has drawn on it. One solution is for Burden to admit her mistake and to grandfather in the inclusionary zoning, which has since been used in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront rezoning. It can be done as part of a rezoning now being devised for southern Park Slope. But that would still come too late to help Ann Thompson.
“If I had a place to go, I’d leave today,” she said. “The problem is, there’s no affordable housing for anybody.”