Conference revisits rezoning controversy

By Victoria Edwards. Speakers line up at the mic at the third annual Gentrification Conference on Jan. 10.

By Victoria Edwards. Speakers line up at the mic at the third annual Gentrification Conference on Jan. 10.

Housing official says city is doing its best to protect residents from gentrification

More than 400 people packed into a Highbridge community center on Jan. 10, eager to lend their voices to the ongoing debate about the controversial Jerome Ave. rezoning plan and the effect they say it will have on the South Bronx.

The city’s plan to rebuild along a two-mile, 72-block industrial corridor worries many residents and merchants who fear they will be priced out of the neighborhood. The third annual Gentrification Conference at the New Settlement Community Center allowed those who fear the consequences of the plan to air their grievances.

“When we can get city officials in the room listening to the voices of the people, hopefully it’ll be the beginning of a more involved partnership,” said Michael Kamber, co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, which co-hosted the third annual Gentrification Conference along with New Settlement Action Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the online publication City Limits.

“All of these people are complaining and angry, but it doesn’t translate into action,” he said. “When you get 500 people together, it’s the beginning of real action.”

After an opening skit at which volunteers portrayed gentrification’s differing sides—-developers, city planning bureaucrats and tenants —panelists debated the issue and government’s ambiguous role in it.

The commissioner of the city’s Housing Preservation and Development, Vicki Been, tried to assure the restless crowd that her agency is doing everything it can by enforcing anti-harassment policies against irresponsible landlords and protecting tenants. She highlighted recent indictments against two landlords and touted the administration’s use of subsidies and other incentives to pressure developers to build affordable housing, and added that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $60 million allocation for legal representation for harassed tenants should be taken as another sign the city is committed to protecting tenants.

But one of the panelists, Fitzroy Christian, who is a tenant in one of the buildings CASA works with, argued that the city’s development policies are wrong to begin with.

“When you change the use of the land it means stronger incentives for the landlords to harass and displace tenants,” said Christian.

Members of the crowd echoed that sentiment, loudly heckling Been during her remarks and countering that the mayor is looking out for the interests of the wealthy at the expense of working class New Yorkers.

“They realized the Bronx had good public transportation, so de Blasio started helping his developer friend millionaires,” said Carolyn Eubanks, a Pelham Parkway Bronx resident.

Elias Williams, 24, a Mott Haven resident, said he sees the first signs of gentrification close to home that have already affected Harlem and Brooklyn.

“Based on the new building near us – it’s a new development that will encourage landowners to raise the rent,” he said. “I have talked about it with my parents. They are worried, but if it goes up we will move to the south.”

But another Mott Haven resident artist and urban planner Elizabeth Hamby, 35, said the debate helped plant the seeds of a popular movement against gentrification.

“What happened today that is critical is that people started by telling stories,” Hamby said. “Sometimes urban planners go straight to negotiating with people about what they want, but the storytelling piece is critical: it helps all of us see our shared humanity.”