NEW YORK — The Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, one of the borough’s poorest, is a mish-mash of auto body shops, cheap hotels and storage units along wide car-friendly thoroughfares, with townhouse- and tree-lined side streets. It’s about an hour’s train ride from the commercial centers of Manhattan—a distance that has protected its residents from the rapid gentrification the rest of the borough has experienced over the last decade.
But the city’s booming economy is putting pressure on every neighborhood. East New York—which sits right next to Bushwick, the section of Brooklyn perhaps now most synonymous with hipsters, garish condo developments and jacked-up real estate values—is next in line for transformation.
Small changes are already evident: stores closing, houses being flipped. “There are sprinkles of other ethnicities and races now, but it’s still a little,” says Mathew Carroll, 30, a painter and an activist who teaches East New York kids about sexual health. His family has lived in this largely African-American and Hispanic neighborhood for two generations – long enough that people know him, give him daps as he walks to the deli.
Carroll shares a basement apartment with his sister in a townhouse on a block that looks typical for the area—two- and three-story row houses, some nice, others dilapidated, some single-family, others split into apartments. Smoking a cigarette in his cramped bedroom, Carroll says East New York hasn't reached peak gentrification yet. “It hasn’t blossomed into coffee shops on corners and art district stuff,” he says.
But you get the sense it’s coming. Bushwick is running out of room for coffee shops; it’s now nearly impossible to buy a brownstone in nearby Bed Stuy, where the white population jumped by 600 percent between 2000 and 2010, for under $1 million.
New York City, like virtually every other major U.S. metropolis, has so far failed to adequately address the displacement of long-time residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. But it’s hoping to change that with a major new affordable housing plan that will be tested in East New York. Billed as the most ambitious of its kind in the entire country, the program is supposed to bring thousands of affordable units to the area (while also creating thousands of units of luxury rentals).
The changes happening here pose a tough question not only for its residents, but for lower-income people in every gentrifying city, which these days is nearly every city: if the most heralded affordable housing plan in the nation can’t save a neighborhood from the pressures of the market, what can?
Here’s the dilemma that nearly every city government faces: Federal aid isn’t what it used to be. Taxes are lower than they used to be. You can’t run a city anymore without wealthy people living within your borders and funding your tax base.
So governments have come to rely on attracting companies that add to their tax base as well as the high-paid workers who settle in their downtowns. Gentrification, it turns out, is a budget survival strategy for cities.
That’s why New York’s previous mayor Michael Bloomberg once said, somewhat notoriously, “[Billionaires] are the ones that pay a lot of the taxes. They’re the ones that spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants and create a big chunk of our economy…[I]f we could get every billionaire around the world to move here it would be a godsend.”
That’s why the economic development czar of Detroit (a city sorely in need of a tax base) once said, “Bring on more gentrification. I’m sorry, but I mean, bring it on.”
But reviving a city through gentrification—what some neighborhood activists have called “trickle down economic development”—doesn’t come without consequences. New York, which was essentially its own version of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s is a good case-in-point: sure there’s a new tax base, the trains run on time more often, and crime is down. But hardly anyone can afford to live here comfortably anymore.
In the last four years, New York has added over 300,000 people to its population, which now sits just shy of 8.5 million, according to the Department of City Planning. Brooklyn took in over a third of that growth. Planners weren't even expecting the city to grow much past 8.5 million people until 2020, and that’s left the city with very, very low vacancy rates: about 1 percent in Manhattan, and 3 percent in Brooklyn. And that’s allowed landlords to charge astronomical rents. The median rental price for an apartment in Brooklyn is now about $3,000. A recent survey found that half of New Yorkers said they weren’t able to make ends meet or were barely getting by.
Enter Bill de Blasio, the slightly awkward jolly giant (he’s 6’ 5”) of public policy. He easily won the mayor’s race in 2013 on the promise to save New York from itself–to rein in the global capital many residents felt was destroying their neighborhoods—with some of the most progressive policies in the country. The crown jewel of these proposals: adding 80,000 units of affordable housing and preserving 120,000 more that are at risk of becoming unaffordable. Numbers-wise, no housing plan in the nation can match it.
Without funds from the feds or regulation from New York’s notoriously real-estate friendly state government (the leader of the state’s senate was recently arrested on corruption charges involving real estate interests), de Blasio’s plan has instead relied on the market to do its bidding. He’s betting big on “inclusionary zoning” – a process that allows developers to build much taller buildings, but requires them to make at least 25 percent of the apartments in those buildings affordable for people with low and moderate incomes. It’s essentially a recognition that the market is coming to change places like East New York whether its residents want change or not—the only option is to try to get something out of that change for the poor.
It’s unclear exactly when the zoning changes will be implemented. De Blasio is currently in the process, somewhat unsuccessfully, of trying to convince East New Yorkers of the plan’s worth. This week, the area’s community board rejected the plan (though community board votes are only advisory). If the zoning changes move forward, thousands of apartments — some affordable, some not — would begin construction over the next decade.
East New York would be the first neighborhood to test whether this process works on the scale de Blasio has proposed. “Our goal is to get ahead of that market and set the terms for the future, requiring affordability, pushing back on speculation, and protecting tenants’ in their own homes,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for the city, wrote in an email. “Had those tools been used in other parts of Brooklyn years ago, this borough would look very different today.”
What happens to East New York will be a test of progressive, market-based urbanism – the idea that if coaxed in the right way, the private market will provide what’s needed for the poor. Inclusionary zoning is loved by most urban planners because it sidesteps the need for federal investment and new laws; it piggybacks on what’s there. From New Orleans to San Francisco, Detroit to Denver, inclusionary zoning has been presented as a possible godsend for rapidly gentrifying downtowns.
But residents and some academics in East New York are skeptical. They say affordable housing piggybacking on the market ignores the pig: a deluge of market-rate housing in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
“The flip side of the inclusionary zoning is that you're giving tax breaks to developers to build affordable housing but the rest of the housing is being built in neighborhoods that have always been low-income neighborhoods,” said Becky Amato, the assistant director of Civic Engagement Initiatives and Urban Democracy Lab at New York University. “There are some ways in which the effort to build affordable housing, according to these proposals, is actually creating gentrification as well.”
The city has promised that it will help those most vulnerable to these market forces with increased legal protection. But the real estate speculation that came with the city’s plan is already having an effect. Since the city’s housing plan was announced last year, land prices tripled.
Ivelisse Vazquez, a 39-year-old mother of three, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in East New York for which she pays just over $1,000 a month. A few months ago, her landlord began refusing to make repairs in what she says is an attempt to get her out. She called the city, an inspector came and sent a warning to the landlord, but so far, nothing has changed. “If I have to leave here, I’ll have to go back to a shelter,” Vazquez said.
Mathew Carroll is already feeling the pinch of rising rents in East New York. He used to pay $500 a month for his small apartment, until last year when the rent was raised by $300. It’s going to go up again next year, and Carroll said he fears being pushed out completely.
“I don’t hear anything in the city’s plan about keeping us here,” he said. “What are they doing to keep artists here? All I hear is moving new people here. Everything in New York to me has become about money. There’s no more culture. The culture is money.”
Several of Carroll’s friends have already left New York because of its high prices, most down south. Some relatives have moved to Syracuse, where they could buy the kind of spacious houses that are unattainable for all but the super-wealthy in New York City.
“There’s no space,” Carroll said. “No space for arts, or to have a community garden or to raise kids. There’s no space. No space.”
Throughout East New York, people like Vazquez and Carroll are feeling out of options. Earlier this month, the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network held a protest outside the Brooklyn Museum where a group of real estate developers had gathered for an annual conference.
“This is a crisis,” one protester shouted. “Every community of color is under threat!”
It was cold, windy, sparsely attended. As much as it was a protest, it was a symbol of the odds those activists face in stopping the changes that are coming to East New York. There were about 50 protesters, 15 cops, three reporters, and no elected officials outside the museum. Inside, people representing tens of billions of dollars of changes imminently coming to Brooklyn’s neighborhoods met with each other and some local electeds. Some attendees got out of their Ubers and chauffeured rides and passed the protesters on their way in. But most used a private entrance.
Peter Moskowitz is a writer based in New York. He's writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books/Perseus.