Protesters rally against SoBRO

By Victoria Edwards. Demonstrators in front of SoBRO on Bergen Street in Mott Haven on Jan. 15.

By Victoria Edwards. Demonstrators in front of SoBRO on Bergen Street in Mott Haven on Jan. 15.

Demonstrators say organization contributes to area gentrification

A handful of protesters beat drums and held up protest signs in front of the offices of SoBRO, demonstrating against what they say is the organization’s cozy relationship with developers and contributing to gentrification in the South Bronx.

“We want the community to be aware,” said Longwood resident Lisa Ortega, speaking on behalf of #BronxIsNotForSale, a community activist group. “We tend to rely on nonprofits because they are a resource in the community. We tend to really trust them. We want the community to know we should not be doing that. We should look at who actually is opening the door to gentrification in our area. SoBRO is one of the organizations that did that, along with politicians.”

Members of #BronxIsNotForSale members chanted “SoBRO, shut them down down” and the “Bronx is not for sale.”

“They give nice classes to cover up what they’re doing. They had a $25,000 plate gala. Their interests are not our community’s interests,” said community organizer Rafael Mutis, 54, who lives in Spanish Harlem but works in the South Bronx. “They are trying to buy people off by giving classes that prepare them for dead end jobs.”

Artist and activist Shellyne Rodriguez echoed Mutis’ criticism of nonprofits that profit from community development projects in disadvantaged communities.

“This is blatant class war. In 2016, I can’t accept the bullshit story that nonprofits tell us that they’re revitalizing the community while they’re getting million dollar contracts and rolling out the red carpet for luxury developers,” said Rodriguez.

A SoBRO client who was leaving the building as the protest was unfolding, however, said the GED classes the organization offers provide him the only opportunity he has found to support his daughter, and he would suffer if the program were cut.

“I don’t understand it,” said Lamar Duncan, 17, who lives on Mosholu Parkway. “I don’t know what it’s about. I just don’t want anything happening with my school program because I need that. My daughter’s just born and it’s helping me provide for her.”

SoBRO’s CEO and President Phillip Morrow rejected the protester’s claims that SoBRO is looking to gentrify the South Bronx, countering that the nonprofit has recently secured two contracts to build housing for the mentally ill and homeless.

“We have a large number of Section 8 apartments,” said Morrow. “We have a project that is 96 units for large families and we take Section 8, so people pay 30 percent of their income for rent.”

“I don’t know what they’re protesting,” he said. “I don’t get it. We haven’t displaced anybody. We are building on vacant parcels. No on is being moved. No one is being displaced.”

But Morrow agreed that gentrification is a genuine threat to South Bronx residents, and it is forcing out low-income residents.

“In Mott Haven we have all of this noise about development and it’s the beginning noise of middle and upper income people moving to the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re watching that. I think this group is concerned. But we’re not perpetrators of it. We’re not participating in it anyway. But we do pay attention to that. We’re not ignoring it.”

One#BronxIsNotForSale organizer who participated in the rally, Chino May, 32, said he recently had to move out of his Hunts Point apartment. Even if SoBRO isn’t pushing tenants out directly, he contended, the development projects the group is involved with help cause rents to rise and lead to displacing low-income tenants.

“Claiming SoBRO is not displacing people is like not pulling the trigger yourself, but contributing to the environment where someone gets killed,” May said.