Inwood Residents Killed a ‘Trojan Horse for Gentrification’ — Now What?


Some three hundred people packed the corner of Broadway and Sherman Avenue on Monday night, a steaming evening on the blocks where Broadway curves around the primeval stone wall of Fort Tryon Park and Washington Heights turns into Inwood. It was the eve of the City Council’s vote on a proposal to rezone the site at 4650 Broadway, now a two-story parking garage, to let a developer build a seventeen-story luxury building there in exchange for including some below-market-rate apartments. This crowd was loudly opposed.

City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez arrived about 6:45, entering a small U-shaped space inside police barricades to the accompaniment of an impromptu marching band — two drummers, two vuvuzelas, and the rhythmic metal scratch of a guira — and chants of Ydanis, comprende, Inwood no se vende. The councilman’s attempts to work out a deal for the site — letting the developer, Washington Square Partners and Acadia Realty Trust, build a bulkier building with about 350 apartments, on the condition that half be affordable, with 20 percent reserved for people with incomes of roughly $31,000 and another 30 percent at higher rents — had angered many in the community, who called the project a “Trojan horse for gentrification.”

Rodriguez had said that he would reveal how he would vote that evening, after the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition announced plans to picket his district office. Speaking in Spanish and then English, he drew applause when he said he’d never voted for a rezoning in his seven years on the council, and boos when he praised Mayor Bill de Blasio for “the most progressive affordable-housing plan in modern history.” Finally, he gave his decision.

“We have not been able to get to a point where I feel it is in the community’s best interest to move this spot rezoning forward,” he said. “Therefore, I tell you that as of this moment I will not be supporting the rezoning of Sherman and Broadway.” Applause burst out before he finished the sentence.

The next morning, the council’s zoning subcommittee and land-use committee both voted unanimously against the rezoning. Land Use Committee chair David Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) said the city had been unable to reach a compromise with the developer on either the size of the proposed building or the rent levels.

Rodriguez indicated he’d decided to oppose the plan because “in this type of community,” it would create “pressure for landlords to increase rents.”

“This is why I voted for Ydanis, so he could listen to the people and vote against gentrification,” said local activist Estevan Nembhard.

“I feel like it’s a victory for us who helped educate the community. He felt the pressure. The community united. We’re thankful he listened to his constituents,” said Ana Rosario, a 31-year-old social worker.

Assembly member Guillermo Linares, who represents the area, said the rezoning would have been “highly detrimental to the community. It would have opened the floodgates to gentrification.”

Rodriguez said at the council hearing that he was “lucky to represent a community that knows how to fight.”

The 4650 Broadway site would have been the first spot rezoning under Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing scheme, which enables developers to build taller and bulkier buildings in exchange for including lower-rent units. Its defeat leaves the developers with the right to build a 199-apartment luxury building, and Washington Heights and Inwood still facing a housing crisis.

According to Rodriguez, 16,000 people were priced out of the two neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010, while only 250 affordable apartments were built there during the Bloomberg administration. They were also among the main targets for “predatory equity” landlords such as Pinnacle and Vantage, whose business model was to buy up “undervalued” buildings with rent-regulated tenants and try to force them out.

“We’re already being displaced,” says Rosario. “You’ve seen it happen in Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, Long Island City, and Harlem. We don’t want it to happen here.”

Rosario recently left her Vermilyea Avenue apartment and moved in with relatives. The landlord who acquired the building in April, she says, stopped accepting people’s rent checks and then sued to evict them for nonpayment. “Within a year, a lot of people have been displaced. There’s nobody left on the fourth floor.”

She was paying $1,062 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and says it’s since been converted to a two-bedroom and now rents for $2,100.

“They just harassed us to the point where it wasn’t worth staying,” says Josmar Rojas, a 37-year-old personal trainer who left his one-bedroom apartment on Vermilyea after the landlord accused him and his partner of illegally subletting it. He had been there for 24 years and was paying $1,060. The two are now living with Rojas’s cousin and looking for a permanent apartment. Their old home is going for more than $2,000.

Washington Heights and Inwood have more rent-stabilized apartments than anywhere in the city, according to a 2012 study by the Furman Center at New York University, with more than 85 percent of the roughly 65,000 rental apartments there regulated.

Despite having rents slightly more than half the market rate, more than half were spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent — as were over 70 percent of the market-rate tenants. Some estimate that more than one-fourth of neighborhood residents are paying “preferential rents” — less than the legal maximum under rent stabilization, but which can be raised to that level when their lease expires.

Rezoning opponents’ biggest fear was that even though the proposed building would contain some affordable apartments, it would stimulate gentrification by giving landlords a signal that they can charge much higher rents. “They’re sprinkling in some lower-priced housing, but what it really is is a way for developers to get a foothold in the area,” Samuel Biagetti of Uptown for Bernie, part of the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition, said after a rally on August 6.

The rezoning would not bind the developer to include below-market apartments beyond the 20 to 30 percent required by Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, said a zoning adviser to the coalition, who asked to remain anonymous because they work in real estate and aren’t authorized to speak to the press. Any higher proportions would depend on agreements with the developer and the availability of subsidies. They called the claim that half the apartments in the project would be affordable “fantasies with no enforceability.”

Some people called Rodriguez a sellout for not unequivocally opposing the rezoning, a charge that made him prickly — after the rally on August 6, he accused the protesters of “Trump-like actions.” His political background is decidedly left-wing. He emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was eighteen, was a leader in the City College of New York protests that stopped a tuition increase in 1989, and was beaten and thrown to the ground by police while trying to witness the eviction of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. (He settled a lawsuit for $30,000 and donated the money to the Center for Constitutional Rights.) He wasn’t afraid to pose for pictures with Nembhard, who was wearing a red-and-green Communist Party USA T-shirt.

“We know now that if we do not build affordable housing, we will continue to see members of our community forced from their homes by greedy landlords,” Rodriguez said on Monday night. “If we do not take action by redoubling our efforts to preserve rent-stabilized units, putting in place the resources necessary to ensure every tenant who needs legal services has a lawyer, and ultimately building new affordable housing for those making as little as $15,000 a year, like many in this community, we will lose the human character of the neighborhood we love.”

Inwood and Washington Heights, once heavily Irish and Jewish, are now mostly Latino, especially Dominican. You are much more likely to see purple-and-yellow posters for the Dominican Liberation Party’s presidential candidate than for Donald Trump.

The blocks west of Broadway, historically more middle-class, show signs of gentrification, while the east is largely working-class. On the northwest corner of Broadway and Dyckman Street is a Starbucks; on the northeast, a 24-hour restaurant called Albert’s Mofungo.

On Sherman Avenue, a couple blocks north of the spot-rezoning site, are the Agua Azul bodega and Quisqueya Records, one of Manhattan’s few surviving record stores, specializing in bachata and old-school salsa and merengue. Men play dominoes in the neon light from the lawyer/tax-preparation

With the rezoning of 4650 Broadway stopped, Inwood activists are now turning to a much larger land-use issue. The de Blasio administration’s plan to rezone the Sherman Creek area — the northeastern tip of Manhattan, east of Tenth Avenue from 201st Street to 221st — is expected to begin the Uniform Land Use Review Process, commonly called “ULURP,” this fall.

“This is a preamble to the bigger picture,” assembly member Linares said after the vote Tuesday morning. “If the approach to the rest of Inwood is the same, it’s the beginning of the end.”

Inwood is one of fifteen neighborhoods slated for rezoning under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, along with East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the west Bronx. The plan relies on trickle-down from luxury development to finance “affordable” apartments. Developers have the options of reserving 20 percent of the apartments built for households earning roughly $31,000, 25 percent for those around $47,000, or 30 percent at $62,000 or $89,000. If the buildings are to contain a higher proportion of below-market units or more apartments for lower-income people, they will need government subsidies, generally from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

The main argument in favor boils down to “gentrification is happening anyway, and without this we’d get nothing.” The main criticisms are that encouraging luxury development will stimulate gentrification and that the “affordable” housing built will cost far more than people in the neighborhood can pay: The median household income for Community Board 12, Manhattan north of 155th Street, is estimated at $37,000 to $42,000 a year.

The City Council approved rezoning East New York in April. About one-fourth of the more than 7,000 apartments projected to be built there are expected to be affordable to people making $31,000 a year — in a neighborhood where the median income is around $35,000. In May, the Department of City Planning postponed releasing its draft for the Jerome Avenue corridor until next month. In June, the administration dropped its Flushing West rezoning plan after objections from local councilmember Peter Koo.

Another issue is the effect on local businesses. “Nobody’s been able to guarantee that the businesses will stay here,” says Eddie Perez of the Sherman Creek Business and Employees Association. He estimates there are 20 to 25 businesses in the area slated for rezoning, including auto body shops, beer distributors, and the restaurant and bodega supply business where he works. The company closed a branch on Jerome Avenue last year, he says, out of fear that it would not be able to stay if the rezoning there went through.

The association has identified a truckyard on 207th Street as a site where businesses could be relocated, he adds. It’s already zoned for manufacturing.

“We’re not against the rezoning plan. We just want an option that saves jobs,” he says. “That little pocket is perfect.”

Biagetti said he hopes that “any rezoning that happens comes from the community. We don’t want an EDC [New York City Economic Development Corporation] plan that serves developers.”

“We have to have 100 percent affordability,” says Linares, with what is “affordable” determined by looking at the income levels in the neighborhood. While it’s desirable to have different income levels, he adds, that shouldn’t displace massive numbers of families and small businesses.

“How can we put together a proposal that is more than ‘anything or nothing’?” Rodriguez asked a protester after the August 6 march. “There is no one around with the big heart and the big pockets who will say, ‘Let’s build 100 percent affordable.’ ”

Regardless, says Rosario, “We’re going to continue to fight.”