A recent study confirms local renters’ displacement fears
A recent report on the risk of tenant displacement puts Mott Haven at ground zero. With its perfect storm of a low-income population coupled with good access to transit and recent development activity, the neighborhood scored among the highest in the city for the dubious honor – confirming residents’ fears that rents across the area are on the rise.
The report also proved that neighborhoods with a majority of people of color are most vulnerable to displacement, thanks to discriminatory policies of the past. Among all census tracts in New York City, the Bronx had the highest percentage of those at risk: 71 percent compared to 45 percent citywide.
The report, titled “Pushed Out: Housing Displacement in an Unaffordable Market,” by the Regional Plan Association, a non-profit that studies urban planning, scored neighborhoods from 0 to 15 on three categories, and Mott Haven and Port Morris topped out on all three.
“A neighborhood could gain 15 points just on economic vulnerability alone,” said Pierina Ana Sanchez, a director at the Regional Plan Association, “then add to that access to more than one train station, bus lines and walkability to stores, and it pushes an area’s score up higher.”
A recent walk around the neighborhood organized by South Bronx Unite added a picture to the data. The walk, which toured a 14-block area between 140th and 132nd streets and between Willis and Lincoln avenues, highlighted a number of new developments, including one building of market-rate units on 132nd Street and Alexander and even a luxury development on Bruckner Boulevard between Lincoln and Alexander avenues.
The tour guide on the walk, Mychal Johnson from South Bronx Unite, took participants down 138th Street, noting the string of mom-and-pop stores that not only are owned by local residents, but employ local residents. Those stores could also be at risk from rising commercial rents, said Johnson.
The developer of the market-rate units on 132nd Street, JCAL Development Group, is asking $2,000-2,400 a month for a studio. But that building is part of a five-building plan. The first of the developments, on Bruckner Boulevard, contains affordable housing for households earning 30 to 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). Another structure is priced for 70 to 80 percent of AMI, and some in the neighborhood have said that’s not low enough.
But William Bollinger, a principal of JCAL who, with his partner, Joshua Weissman, joined community members on the walk, said, “We can only work within the program. If people don’t like that, they need to address the administration to get lower AMI bands into the project.”
Johnson is quick to point out that most developers are not as accessible as JCAL is to conversations with the community. That dialog is key, he said, when private land is being developed.
Activists agree that Area Median Income standards are part of the problem. The AMI for New York City is currently $90,600 for a family of four. The median household income of Mott Haven is currently $19,400 for a family of four, approximately 21 percent of AMI.
“Too often they build affordable housing but people who live in the neighborhood can’t live in it,” said Johnson. “So who is it affordable for?”
According to a recent report from New York University’s Furman Center, the median rent for a 2- or 3-bedroom apartment in Mott Haven/Melrose increased 17.7 percent from 2009 to 2014. This was one of the highest increases reported in the Bronx and nearly twice the level of the 9.4 percent median increase reported for the city.
Mott Haven resident Ana Maria Cardenas, who also took the tour, has been feeling that pinch. She’s currently paying $800 for a single bedroom in a shared apartment that she found through friends. Without that connection, Cardenas said she would not be able to live in the neighborhood.
“I’m in a very lucky situation,” said Cardenas, “I have friends who lived in the area who needed a larger space and couldn’t find one in their price range.” That price range was $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
The RPA study proposed several strategies going forward including strengthening existing laws to protect renters against sudden increases, greater subsidies for low-income renters and using government-owned land for permanently protected housing. South Bronx Unite has proposed a similar strategy for the use of publicly-owned lands: establishing community land trusts that would remove land from the market and allow it to be used for community needs, said Libertad Guerra of South Bronx Unite.
That approach is seconded by Picture the Homeless, a not-for-profit organization that published its own study of vacant land. Working with an army of volunteers canvassing one-third of the city, the organization was able to identify enough vacant lots to house almost 200,000 people. The goal is now to push the City Council to create legislation to support the idea.
Picture the Homeless has also been active in protesting the proposed Southern Boulevard rezoning over concern that new residential development would drive rents up further, displacing even more residents.
“Our communities have been here through the good times and the bad times of the city,” said Jose Rodriguez, a Longwood resident and member of Picture the Homeless. “We’ve helped the city grow. For the city to not attempt to help keep communities of color to stay together… You know, you can make money anywhere.”