Three months after Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his long-awaited $91 million revitalization plan to redevelop downtown Far Rockaway, there’s growing speculation among residents and urban planners over whether it promotes gentrification, which is evident in other parts of the city that have been “revitalized.”
In the Queens peninsula, which had been battered by Hurricane Sandy four years ago, de Blasio’s plan would construct attractive storefronts and tall residential and commercial buildings. There are plans to develop the Thriftway shopping center (which has been almost empty for decades), a recreation center, the A train and Long Island Rail Road transit hubs, and renovate neighborhood streets. While the proposal has triggered excitement, advocates for affordable housing identified two crucial areas of concern.
First, creating “below market rate” units do not mean it will be “affordable” for longtime local residents. Second, the rent cost will speed up the tide of people being priced out of their community because mainly working-class people, most of who happen to be white, can afford it. So the first question is, who can actually afford the mayor’s planned affordable apartments? The city defines a housing “affordable” when it costs a family about 30 percent of their annual income. But keep in mind that “affordability” for a family that makes about $70,000 a year is different than one making $30,000 or less. According to city data, the median household income for residents in Far Rockaway is $38,000.
Under the mayor’s plan, the vast majority of units would be available for families that earn 60 percent of the Area Median Income—an income of about $47,000 year for a family of three. This means that many low-income residents would continue to be at risk of displacement and homelessness.
One of the most ambitious parts of the Far Rockaway proposal is that it seeks to bring in new retail businesses. De Blasio, and residents too, said it would prompt locals to shop locally.
Roman Dower, a local barber, said he believes that this investment could potentially bring in more customers. “If there are more places for people to hang out with their family, more people would come here,” he said recently. “Right now, the community does not have anything to attract people.”
Still, he worries that the massive redevelopment could increase rents, making it more difficult for long-time business owners and residents to afford.
Thomas Angotti, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College said if more money is spent on bringing in new business rather than supporting the existing ones, it would lead to displacement of the current stores.
Karmen Roberts, who has been living in Far Rockaway for the past 10 years, said she doesn’t think de Blasio, who made inequality the center of the 2013 campaign, would “purposely allow a plan to go through knowing it would cause gentrification.” Roberts added that rent cost “should of course be of concern,” but said the plan would spur economic development and create jobs.
“It’s either we let this plan pass us and allow downtown Far Rock to remain the way it is – stagnant – or we accept it and ask the mayor to negotiate, put things in place so [rents] can be affordable for most,” Roberts said. “We’re not going to agree on everything, but that does not mean we should let this opportunity pass us. So I say this to say that I’m in full support of what the mayor is doing.”
Far Rockaway is one of the 15 neighborhoods the de Blasio administration wants to rezone as part of a broader initiative to build about 80,000 new below-market-rate apartments, 160,000 market-rate units and preserve 120,000 existing homes for low-to middle-income tenants over the course of a decade.
One policy the city could implement to control rent increases for business is commercial rent regulation, Rebecca Amato, an associate professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, suggested. But the urban planning expert said such policy move would cause negative longtime impact on the community by lowering the value of properties, tax revenues and “halt growth.”
Amato added that under any plan that promises affordable housing, there’s going to be winners and losers.
“The drive of most governments is to serve the most number of people with the least amount of effort, and what you find with urban renewal policies is that is serve people in the striving lower-middle class and people moving in the middle class,” she said. “It ignores people in the most dire situation or it rewards people in pretty good shape. And I think [this] affordable housing plan is doing the same thing.”
The current proposal is has to go through the bureaucratic land-use process called ULURP, which could take up to seven months.
De Blasio won the 2013 mayoral election with overwhelming support from minority voters, largely due to his campaign promise to “end the tail of two cities” and the inequality that grew exponentially during past administrations. During his third State of the City address on Feb. 3, he said “nothing more clearly expresses the inequality gap—the opportunity gap—than the soaring cost of housing.” And it was minutes later in that same speech he announced the multi-million dollar project to revitalize downtown Far Rockaway.
The opposition and growing skepticism de Blasio getting from some residents and urban planners, do add more pressure on him as he tackles the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis. The downtown Far Rockaway plan will no doubt be a major test for him because his housing policies overwhelmingly affects his core base: communities of color.