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Housing Groups Heckle Mayor on Steps of City Hall Over Affordable Housing

By Jeff Mays | March 11, 2015 5:10pm
 Housing groups rallied on the steps of City Hall and called for more involvement in the rezoning process.
Calling for More Involvement in Rezonings, Housing Groups Heckle Mayor
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CITY HALL — Dozens of neighborhood groups rallied on the steps of City Hall Wednesday, heckling Mayor Bill de Blasio as he entered the building, while calling for more of a say in the city's plan to rezone neighborhoods across the city.

Chanting "slow it down" as de Blasio entered City Hall, the groups said they weren't being given enough details about the city's proposed zoning changes and wanted more of an opportunity to shape the plans to fit their specific neighborhood.

They asked for the mayor to stop and speak to them but de Blasio smiled and waved as he continued into City Hall.

Rezonings in such areas as East New York, the Jerome Avenue corridor in The Bronx and Flushing West, are a part of de Blasio's plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years.

Fifteen neighborhoods will be studied for possible rezoning and six have already been announced.

"It's a great plan but the devil is in the details," said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.

"We've seen what happens if they get it wrong," he said referring to wide rezonings under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he criticized for not having enough affordable housing.

As the proposals roll out, neighborhood groups say they are concerned about making sure the level of affordability actually matches the incomes in the area and that amenities such as schools are included in the plans.

The housing advocates also called for efforts to mitigate speculation, the displacement of long-time residents and to ensure that existing local businesses are protected.

"All of the small automotive and auto-related businesses will be at risk of closing," said Pedro Estavez, founder of the United Auto Merchants.

In East New York, where the rezoning planning process is underway, advocates said they were concerned because they did not have enough details about the plan for mandatory affordable housing requirements.

"We have the same vision as the mayor but we want real affordable housing," said Lorna Blake, 55, a care worker who has lived in the neighborhood for years.

"Right now, the rent is so sky high people can barely afford to pay it," she added.

Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp. said affordability was one of her main concerns.

With a median income in the neighborhood of $34,000, she said rents in new developments should match that.

"They need to adjust their definition of affordability to match our definition of affordability," said Neugebauer. "I believe the mayor's interests are the people's interests but there is a disconnect because he's not digging in on the details of the plan."

De Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell said the Department of City Planning has held 10 public workshops in the past six months.

“There is tremendous anxiety in our communities after years of unchecked displacement," Norvell said. "These rezonings are an opportunity for communities to write their own future, instead of waiting for the march of gentrification to sweep across our neighborhoods unabated."

City officials pointed out that they were already working with many of the groups involved in the protest and that the official seven month public review process has not launched for any rezoning.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she agreed with protesters that "conversations need to begin at a very grassroots level" but that it was still very early in the process.

East Harlem is one of the neighborhoods that is scheduled to be rezoned and Mark-Viverito, who represents the area, said she has already organized a community advisory council to begin discussions even though nothing has been introduced.

"I don't understand why they are talking about the pace, the conversation hasn't started," said Mark-Viverito.

But neighborhood activists such as Carmen Vega-Rivera, president and CEO of the Atabey Collaborative in the South Bronx, said community residents will remain wary until they see their concerns actually implemented into the city's plans.

"I don't want to waste my time at meetings that are just about lip service," said Vega-Rivera. "Let's include the voices and vision of the community from the start because we are the experts."