At an emotional Lower East Side town hall meeting on Saturday afternoon, hundreds of concerned residents, a number of small business owners, and representatives of community organizations were visibly upset. Instead of being met by Mayor Bill de Blasio himself, they were greeted by a representative from the administration. “We have been reaching out to him for months,” Jei Fong, a coalition representative, told B+B. “We personally invited him to this meeting. This is a real slap in the face.”
The Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side called a meeting to air a number of grievances including the displacement of their neighbors, the case involving their longtime former State Assembly representative, Sheldon Silver, who was recently convicted on federal corruption charges, and the Lower East Side’s current zoning model, which allows for indignities like so-called “poor doors” in luxury condominiums.
“Where is de Blasio? Where has he been?” wondered Jacqueline Herran, a communications student and member of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), one of the community organizations that forms part of the coalition. According to a blog post on the NMASS website, the coalition announced their plans for a December 5th town hall-style meeting and invited the Mayor on November 23rd. “He has time to travel to Puerto Rico, Italy, and Israel, but he can’t take time to meet with people in his own city?! Mayor de Blasio’s stark disregard for our community is appalling,” the blog post reads.
According to a press release on the Mayor’s website, de Blasio spent at least part of his Saturday speaking to a Jewish congregation in Sheepshead Bay, just prior to the first night of Hanukkah which began on Sunday.
Back on the Lower East Side, the atmosphere inside the hall at Seward Park High School was almost celebratory as longtime fellow activists gathered for a heated discussion about what felt like a perfect storm of grievances. Just days earlier, community boards across the city overwhelmingly rejected the Mayor’s citywide zoning proposals. Skeptics of this model, which emphasizes mandatory inclusionary housing, argue that it would actually benefit wealthy developers over the poor, echoing the coalition’s criticism of the proposed rezoning of the Lower East Side. This model eliminates the current cap on building heights and allows for the construction of massive towers like the notorious Extell building — whose renderings include Gucci bags — and which the coalition has vehemently protested since the development became a possibility.
The Coalition’s own rezoning proposal, which has been signed by over 10,000 people, was developed in conjunction with the Pratt Center for Community Development. This plan’s main objective is to maintain affordability and preserve the cultural and aesthetic integrity of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Former Assemblyman Silver promised that families displaced by the controversial SPURA (Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) would be prioritized and provided with affordable housing on the site. The chunk of land – six acres, to be precise — is now being developed as Essex Crossing. Developers have promised that 500 of the 1,000 residential units will be reserved for “low-, moderate-, and middle-income families,” but this is not nearly enough to accommodate those who have been displaced, says Fong, and Essex Crossing has come to be seen as a betrayal by Silver.
On top of that, many community members are enraged at the results of a two-year investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office, which found that 194 landlords controlling more than 1,400 units across New York City have been illegally collecting tax breaks for rent-regulated units that essentially didn’t exist. (A Propublica investigation found that the problem is actually much more widespread– and that “in reality, state and New York City officials have tolerated the problem for years — and ignored pleas to investigate.” The publication’s own analysis turned up results that question “the legality of leases for about 50,000 apartments across the city.”) All this looks especially bad for the developer-led rezoning of the Lower East Side, which allows developers to collect on the same 421-a tax exemption that these landlords took advantage of to line their own pockets.
Earlier this year, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & LES organized two marches to City Hall, one in September and another in October. Both demonstrations were attended by over 1,000 people who joined the coalition in urging the city to consider their community-led rezoning plan. “Since our plan was developed in 2008, it has been dismissed by the city as being ‘too ambitious,'” said Fong. “But the city has never really engaged with us on the matter, or provided specifics.”
The affordable housing designation under 421-a is misleading, says JoAnn Lum, also of NMASS, because what might be considered “affordable” in other parts of the city is not necessarily affordable to the communities currently residing on the Lower East Side. For example, she says, the controversial city-driven Essex Crossing is said to designate half of its residential units to affordable housing, but effectively only 20 percent are really affordable to current residents of the neighborhood ($1,200 a month in rent). The rent of the other units are upwards of $2,600 a month. Lum also argues that the city’s development plan raises the cost of surrounding real estate, making it more difficult for small businesses to remain in the neighborhood.
Residents also expressed their outrage at the existence of “poor doors” in luxury towers. District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar, who has lent her support for the community-led proposal in the past, said: “to ‘poor doors’ that treat members of our community like second-class citizens, I say ‘not in my district.'” Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who has also announced her support for the coalition’s proposal, addressed the crowd, characterizing the current zoning of the Lower East Side “economic racism.”
Another point of outrage was the East Village Rezoning Plan, which was approved in 2008, and protects real estate in this wealthier, predominantly white neighborhood, effectively pushing opportunistic developers southward. “Since the approval, we’ve seen so much more luxury development in the Lower East Side and Chinatown– [all] because we were excluded from protection,” said Herran. “Are we not entitled to the same protections that our neighbors in the East Village have?”
It wasn’t the Mayor that spoke to the crowd on Saturday but Tommy Lin, an unflappable representative of De Blasio’s office. When he stood up and asked the crowd,”How are you doing today?” he was met by a chorus of booing. Buttoning his suit jacket and pushing back his gelled hair, he told the attendees, “There has to be some kind of compromise.” He expressed sympathy and said that he, too, had grown up on the Lower East Side and had shopped at Pathmark all his life. “I intend to speak to all of the groups represented here and find out exactly what it is you want.”
“We want the Mayor!” someone shouted from the back.
“Have you actually read the city’s plan?” asked Lin.
“Yes, it’s a shitty plan!” another attendee responded.
Participants agreed to march to the Mayor’s home at Gracie Mansion on December 16th.
Eventually Wing Lam, the Executive Director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, stood up and took the mic. “We have been trying to speak to the City for seven years!” he exclaimed. “Because we are Chinese, we are Latino, we are African-American, we are poor, that’s why they’ve ignored us for seven years! So the Mayor didn’t dare to show up here, he sent a representative, after what, seven years? For these seven years, they’ve ignored us, the only words we got were ‘you are too ambitious.'”
Update: Since a previous version of this article was published, Jei Fong has reached out to us to clarify her position on Silver.
Correction: A previous version of this article quoted Jei Fong as saying that Silver was in support of the coalition. She has since told us that in fact, he never outrightly expressed support. It also stated that Silver promised that the SPURA land would be used for public housing. In fact he promised affordable housing more generally.