Bill de Blasio

One year later, how well has the East New York rezoning worked?

Sarina Trangle

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal marveled at signs the city has started spending more than $250 million to improve East New York and Cypress Hills since he and his colleagues voted to rezone the area.

On a tour of his district in late April, Espinal hardly let more than five blocks pass before pointing out another benefit of the money: A new Workforce1 Career Center has opened, where people can learn about job openings and get resume, interview and other career advice. In another part of his district, the NYPD will create a community center with programming for people of all ages inside a 1920s-era courthouse that has mostly been used for NYPD administrative work in recent years. A burnt out funeral home is slated to become a child care center. And atop a planned affordable housing development and new 1,000-seat school, Espinal hopes greenhouse roofs will rise, creating an “urban gardening district.”

A year after revamped land use rules were implemented in East New York, the community’s housing stock has not yet dramatically changed. But Espinal is so pleased with the progress that he suggested he was open to revamping land use rules in Bushwick, another part of his district where New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is weighing a rezoning. “My whole district may be rezoned,” Espinal said. “We were all yelling at the top of our lungs, and nobody was listening. But (the rezoning) process actually gave us a voice.”

How the area develops will be closely watched because it was the first community rezoned under de Blasio, who has announced City Hall will consider rezoning 15 neighborhoods as it looks to increase the city’s residential housing stock. Last April’s vote also made East New York the first neighborhood to adopt Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a new zoning code that allows for larger residential development, but requires that a portion of the new housing be affordable. Espinal said the below-market-rate housing and new tools to prevent residents from being forced out of their neighborhood will help families that have been struggling to keep up with the gentrification sweeping across Brooklyn.

But some do not see the rezoning as a remedy for displacement, but rather the root of it.  

“We’re assisting folks in court because of the harassment they’re experiencing from their landlord,” said Renata Pumarol, deputy director of New York Communities for Change, a group that works to support low-income families. Pumarol added that landlords in East New York seem to believe they can replace their current tenants with people who can afford higher rents. “Landlords are trying to push folks out,” she said. “Rents are rising. And the rezoning hasn’t even happened yet.”

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Indeed, there are no signs a private housing construction boom has begun, as some feared. No projects that depend on Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, or MIH, have advanced except for two ventures lawmakers were already aware of when they voted to pass the rezoning. Before that vote, the nonprofit Phipps Housing firm agreed to build about 1,000 below-market-rate homes and incorporate some retail space where a food processing plant once operated, at 3301 Atlantic Ave.

Espinal’s office said the first phase of Phipps’ project will create 403 homes, with 121 units reserved for families earning up to 30 percent of the metro area median income, and the other 282 apartments set aside for those making up to 60 percent of AMI. Phipps’ plans may change slightly before it signs a regulatory agreement with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, but any adjusted targets will not exceed 60 percent of AMI, according to Espinal’s office.

The second project is slated for city-owned land at the corner of Chestnut Street and Dinsmore Place. City Hall outlined broad plans for 200 units of affordable housing on that property during the rezoning process, and months after the matter passed, in December 2016, the city requested that companies submit proposals to build a mixed-use development. Their request asked developers to earmark at least 15 percent of the homes for families earning up to 30 percent of AMI, but allows firms to reserve units for those earning up to 90 percent of AMI as well.

“The rezoning is only here to try to slow down gentrification,” Espinal said. “People will argue that it will accelerate gentrification, but being pushed out of your home two years from now or being pushed out of your home five years from now, I believe, has the same consequence. And we have to make sure that there’s a plan to retain you in your community.”

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But that plan does not have seem to be providing protection to everyone, according to Cea Weaver, the research director at New York Communities for Change. East New York has relatively few rent-regulated homes, Weaver said, and lawyers have a much harder time keeping tenants in homes that are not rent-regulated, which means the legal assistance offered by the city is not widely effective. There also seems to be a communication gap preventing tenants from learning about various benefits and protections they are entitled to when a landlord uses city financing to rehab a building, she said.

A series of flipped homes have also stirred worries, said Bill Wilkins, who helped steer a coalition formed when East New York residents were pushing for various changes to the rezoning proposal. Wilkins said 225 homes were flipped in East New York zip codes between 2014 and 2015 as word of the proposal spread.

Wilkins said he considered a home flipped if someone bought it and resold it within a year. Wilkins said he did not think the flips were widespread enough to impact the area’s strong sense of community. But he said the rapid turnover can be problematic as longtime homeowners are exploited when they do not know how much their homes are worth.

“It’s upsetting – a home was sold for $113,000 and then 148 days later, it was sold for $675,000 – that’s a $562,000 difference,” Wilkins said, suggesting the city undertake a public outreach campaign to inform homeowners about how they can find an accurate assessment of their home’s value. “Other than that, I would give the administration, I would give them a B or a B+. There’s nothing I can say that they promised us that they didn’t do.”

What’s more, many East New York families earn less than the income levels targeted by the two projects in the works, which means they cannot be assured they will be considered for units in either development. More than one-third of families in the rezoned area earn less than 30 percent of AMI, the lowest income level developers must house in the two projects. East New York’s median household income of $34,512 is far lower than the metro AMI, which was $63,500 for a single person in 2016. While highlighting this, the city comptroller estimated an early version of the rezoning plan could put 50,000 people at risk of being priced out of their neighborhood.

Still, Espinal pointed out the city typically offers local residents first access to half of government-sponsored housing in their community, which is expected to place East New York residents in half of the more than 6,000 homes the city expects the rezoning to generate over the next decade.

As part of his negotiations over the rezoning, Espinal got the city to extend the length of time it plans to provide legal representation to tenants in New York City Housing Court and to launch the East New York Homeowner Help Desk, which offers advice on home repairs, preventing foreclosures, avoiding scams and utilizing weatherization loan programs. The councilman said the initiative would help homeowners navigate the shifting neighborhood, but contends the administration should do more outreach to ensure that East New York residents know about the resource.

But longtime East New York resident Brother Paul Muhammad said the skyrocketing home prices are cause for serious concern. He argued the community will be destabilized if East New York’s younger generations, such as his daughter, cannot afford the mortgages on their family homes. He viewed the rezoning as a veiled plot to remove a community of predominately black and Latino homeowners to make space for wealthier, whiter people priced out of Manhattan.

“It’s racist to the core because you couldn’t go into any other neighborhood to take over the land like that,” he said. “They’re not going to Coney Island and Bay Ridge and talking, ‘Do you want to build towers?’ over there. There needs to be a federal investigation into are the people of East New York’s civil rights being violated?”

City Hall declined to comment on the allegation, but Espinal disputed the idea that the city had skirted federal fair housing rules during the East New York rezoning. “The only thing the (East New York) rezoning discriminates against are the forces of displacement, which are clearly spreading throughout the entire city,” he said in a statement. “This seems entirely consistent with (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s) framework for (furthering fair housing).”

Still, there are legitimate questions about whether the city fulfilled its duties under the federal Fair Housing Act, according to Gregory Louis, deputy program director of the Group Housing Representation Unit at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, a firm that successfully blocked another city rezoning on the grounds that it did not abide by the act. Louis said the federal Fair Housing Act requires cities to scrutinize, among several things, whether their housing policies have any discriminatory racial impact.

But Louis said there is no clear path for recourse because of timing quirks: New federal rules were not phased in soon enough to impact the city during the rezoning. And under the state regulatory framework, the period for challenging the city’s analysis of how the zoning may impact “vulnerable populations," or in this case low-income black and Latino families, has elapsed.

“The study in that case,” Louis said of the city’s analysis of the East New York rezoning, “doesn’t take a very serious look at the reality or the economic reality of the very vulnerable population the city thinks would benefit from MIH but can’t.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this post, City & State inaccurately reported that the 225 flipped homes in East New York was larger than the amount of homes flipped in any other part of the city.