Coming to a city near you: de Blasio’s Gentrification

Gentrification is an issue in most U.S. cities, but it seems especially out of control in New York City: high-rises continue to be built, creating further disparities between lower-income communities of color and higher-income white ones.

Bill de Blasio defined his campaign for mayor of New York as a battle against “the tale of two cities,” portraying himself as an advocate for affordable housing and income equality. Upon his campaign announcement in 2013, de Blasio emphasized the need for government that will “protect neighborhoods and guard the people from the enormous power of moneyed interests.” However, in his six years as mayor, de Blasio has done all that he previously denounced, and more.

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Specifically, his promises to increase affordable housing for lower-income New Yorkers have been subverted by deals made with private developers. His initiative has been concentrated mostly in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Stuyvesant Town, where about 5,000 apartments have been either preserved or created to be rent-regulated. Those few apartments, however, came at a price—the deal de Blasio negotiated with city developers grants them significant tax breaks, supposedly in order to incentivize their commitment to affordable housing.

In 2017, de Blasio reinstated the 421-A Tax exemption plan, a property tax break that allows for housing developers to be tax-exempt for three years during the construction period and, for thirty-five years after construction, fully exempt from the tax increase. The amendments de Blasio made to the expired plan mandated that, in order to qualify for the exemption, at least 25% to 30% of the units must be considered affordable housing—an increase from the 20% required by the original plan.

For one of these buildings under the 421-A plan, 365 Bond Street, out of its 429 apartments, 86 were offered as options for affordable housing— 20 percent. However, the issue with 421-A is that there is no contractual obligation to the affordable housing units: there is nothing stopping you from increasing the rent steadily every year, making it unaffordable for those in the units by renting out formerly-affordable housing units at a regular rate. Unsurprisingly, this occurs frequently.

Renters like Valerie Roberts, 61, who live in the building, were not aware that their units were even considered affordable—and they are increasingly frustrated as they watch their rents go up year after year beyond their control. If things continue the way they’re headed, at a certain point, renters will no longer be able to afford their apartments. Their landlord won’t be held accountable for violating the affordability of the unit, and at the same time will continue to reap the benefits of the tax break for years to come.

De Blasio’s reinstatement of the 421-A tax plan has exacerbated the issue by costing the city about 82 million dollars annually in uncollected property tax—a price paid preemptively, without ensuring that housing developers uphold their end of the bargain. Those 82 million dollars could have been invested in the $93 million budget needed to expand anti-eviction legal services or in the $1.2 billion budget needed to increase affordable housing for veterans and senior citizens.

In recent years, higher-income and whiter communities like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights—which boast beautiful brownstones with million dollar price tags—have put signs in their windows that signify their non-interest in being bought out. (Park Slope is 69% white and Brooklyn Heights is 72%.) Communities of color in Brooklyn do not have the same choice when private developers offer millions of dollars that significantly outweigh the value of their homes or buildings. This wealth gap also creates a vicious cycle: while lower-income communities are the ones in need of affordable housing, their homes are the ones that get bought out. Then, buildings go up with some affordable housing units, only to have them phased out a few years later. Wash, rinse, evict, repeat.

What we need to do now is eliminate the 421-A tax exemption plan and reallocate the lost property tax revenues from these buildings into ensuring that affordable housing units are actually in existence and remain affordable. First, housing developers should be required to provide the minimal 20% affordable housing units in order to move forward with construction. Then, they should be contractually obligated to maintain the affordability of the units. This could be verified by city agents who corroborate the relative affordability with the residents themselves, so that there is a way to maintain that these rents aren’t increasing to unaffordable amounts. If the tax exemption plan is eliminated, it will decrease the incentive to gentrify low-income communities of color, allowing room to finally think critically about the space problem in New York City before knocking down pre-existing homes and damaging communities.

What de Blasio fails to realize is that his own “affordable-housing” policies are making New York unaffordable for communities of color, forcing us out of a city we have always called home. New York City’s character is defined by its unique blend of cultures and communities—one which is now being replaced by Trader Joe’s, ‘hipsters’, and artisanal bars. The homes I walked by all the time are now being knocked down for a narrow high rise (161 Winthrop Street) that sits in the middle of two houses on my aunt’s block. Those policies, enacted by the very same mayor who claimed to be a “protector of neighborhoods,” have ruptured my community. The New York that we call home is slowly becoming unrecognizable to those of us who made it what it is today. Welcome to your second city, Mr. Mayor.  

Sarah DeSouza