Bronx organizers propose alternative rezoning plan

By Lori Freshwater. Thomas Agnotti

By Lori Freshwater. Thomas Agnotti, a professor at Hunter College’s Urban Planning program, addresses a gathering at Brook Park on Oct. 6.

Activists emphasize local hiring and strong anti-displacement policies

South Bronx community organizers opposing the city’s Jerome Avenue rezoning plan unveiled their own counter-proposal Wednesday night that would seek to get the community involved in what happens to the area.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan, first unveiled on Sept. 8, would turn a 73-block radius of Morris Heights from a mainly commercial area to a residential one. This would make way for thousands of affordable housing units.

Members of South Bronx Unite, Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, who met at Brook Park in Mott Haven for a panel discussion about the dangers of rezoning, are afraid this will lead to massive displacement and small businesses closing.

“The only way to fight [rezoning] is to stop it, stop it before it starts,” said Thomas Angotti, a professor at Hunter College’s Urban Planning program.

The private real estate industry makes money from rezoning, Angotti said. The value of the land that they bought up, often secretly, can shoot up to a hundred-fold what they paid for once rezoning goes through.

“Rezoning helps them accomplish their goal of turning the city into one giant speculative field,” he added.

Carmen Vega-Rivera of CASA agreed. Her tenant rights organization resides in the heart of the Special Jerome Avenue District, as the project is labeled. The rezoning plan, one of the largest of its size, would cut through 14 neighborhoods in southwestern Bronx, Vega-Rivera said.

Vega-Rivera is concerned that the rezoning plan would displace locals.

Around 78 percent of the residents in the neighborhoods affected make $50,000 or less while 45 percent make $20,000 or less, Vega-Rivera estimated. The mayor is proposing to build housing at the rate of $50,000 to $72,000.

“We want to make sure that affordable housing means affordable for neighborhood residents,” Vega-Rivera said.

In the past, similar plans have made housing unaffordable and displaced locals, particularly people of color, in Williamsburg, Harlem and Chinatown, which Angotti documented in his newly-released book, “Zoned Out: Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City.”

To counter those effects, Vega-Rivera along with other community organizations formed the Coalition for a Community Vision, which aims to get the community involved in the rezoning process.

The coalition also wants the city to hire locally and put in place strong anti-displacement policies, including anti-harassment policies and subsidies given to those who are being displaced.

Vega-Rivera said the city needs to give residents a chance to get involved in the rezoning process so that it meets community needs. Community-based organizations were the key to that, panelists argued.

South Bronx Unite organizer Mychal Johnson, who is involved in the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust, said a community land trust could help stave off rezoning and reclaim the community’s right to have its say for the land.

The community land trust is designed to transfer publicly-owned land into the hands of the people, not officials or private owners, Johnson said. Community land trusts ensure that housing in the area is permanently affordable.

“We show [the city] what community accountability looks like,” Johnson said.

Nevertheless, Angotti warned that it is very difficult for communities to control rezoning in the current system. Although community boards are elected, they have no money and no say in what the government actually does. Angotti likened their role to playing “charades” because they have no political power.

“The next civil rights movement is that communities need to have power,” he said.