That’s the question a provocative new article in the New York Review of Books poses. As Michael Greenberg argues, building affordable middle-class housing in poor neighborhoods like East New York, South Williamsburg, and Crown Heights, leads to gentrification. (If the several-page article is too long, Curbed has a handy Cliff Notes.)
Because the affordable housing draws in wealthier neighbors, landlords push out their poorer tenants, even if rent regulations should protect them. Rents across the area go up and, Greenberg argues, poor residents can’t afford to live anywhere near their old home.
Critics assail Mayor de Blasio for focusing affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods. However, supporters including Errol Louis in the Daily News argue that middle-class people need help, too. The Mayor’s team is also working on building political support, making the Crown Heights City Council election a proxy battle over the issue.
What’s going on in Crown Heights?
One of the de Blasio administration’s key projects is the Bedford-Union Armory in the heart of Crown Heights. The City-owned former National Guard armory would, under the current plan, include condos, rental apartments, basketball courts, swimming pools, and room for local nonprofits. However, community members have strongly opposed the project, saying that it should be 100% affordable, rather than 50%, with affordability based on the Crown Heights median income, rather than the broader New York Metropolitan Area Median Income (which considers the suburbs, as well).
After initially equivocating, Crown Heights Council Member Laurie Cumbo opposed the plan. However, groups like New York Communities for Change say her opposition doesn’t go far enough and it has become a flashpoint in the race.
Ede Fox, a former City Council staffer who lost to Cumbo in the 2013 election and is running again, launched her campaign pledging to stop the Armory project. Fox’s campaign also accused Cumbo of having “sold out” the community. Now, de Blasio’s team is sending Cumbo volunteers and leaning on politically-connected unions to support her.
Adding to the intrigue, the project is scheduled for a City Council vote after the election. Cumbo could cut a deal with the Mayor and developer after she no longer faces the pressure of an upcoming election.
Is this just a Brooklyn issue?
East Harlem is also becoming a flashpoint over affordable housing. Last week, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced her opposition to a proposed rezoning to allow more development in the heavily-Latino neighborhood. Though Brewer can’t stop the project, the City Council is likely to share her concerns about new housing not being affordable enough and the city not doing enough to protect tenants from harassment. In addition, the rezoning excludes the area closest to the new Second Avenue Q Train at 96th St, which could also support more affordable housing.
So what should de Blasio do?
One key factor is that New York City isn’t actually building that much more affordable housing. Mayor de Blasio set a goal of 200,000 affordable apartments. However, 60% of those are already built and the goal is to “preserve” them as affordable housing, renovating and repairing them as necessary.
The truth is that building new housing is difficult and politically fraught. That’s true in Crown Heights and East Harlem but also in Midtown East, where the City Council just approved a rezoning proposal. However, after pressure, they excluded the mostly-residential Turtle Bay area so that the plan will exclusively help new office towers in Midtown.
Nevertheless, developers and experts say that to really drive down rents, New York City needs to build more housing across the city, not just in poor neighborhoods.