Grading De Blasio: In East New York, Mayor’s First Rezoned Neighborhood, Promises Fall Short – Gothamist

A vacant on Atlantic Avenue between Euclid Avenue and Chestnut Street slated for more than 1,100 affordable apartments. The city said it would break ground on the first phase of the project by 2018.

A vacant on Atlantic Avenue between Euclid Avenue and Chestnut Street slated for more than 1,100 affordable apartments. The city said it would break ground on the first phase of the project by 2018.

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A vacant on Atlantic Avenue between Euclid Avenue and Chestnut Street slated for more than 1,100 affordable apartments. The city said it would break ground on the first phase of the project by 2018.

Gwynne Hogan

The busy stretch of Atlantic Avenue along the border of Cypress Hills and East New York in Brooklyn used to be exclusively home to low-slung warehouses, auto body shops, vacant lots, checkered with a handful of residences.

Now, several large apartment complexes as tall as 14 stories jut up from the horizon, in various stages of completion. Recently demolished buildings have been cordoned off with construction fencing, primed for new residential towers with a mix market-rate and subsidized housing. The activity was born out of Mayor BIll de Blasio’s rezoning of Cypress Hills and East New York in 2016.

Five years after the de Blasio administration rezoned a 190-block swath of the two neighborhoods, just over 100 new units of below market-rate housing have opened so far to tenants. That’s out of a promised 1,200 apartments that were supposed to have broken ground by 2018, according to figures collected from community groups and confirmed by the city.

And the city made an even larger projection: the rezoned area would be a bustling reinvigorated neighborhood with 6,400 new apartments by 2030, half of which would be below-market rate. Five years on, it’s not clear if that will ever come to pass.

East New York was the first strike in the mayor’s lofty plan to create or preserve hundreds of thousands of affordable units throughout the five boroughs — a lynchpin of his 2013 campaign promise to reduce inequality and end New York’s “Tale of Two Cities.”

The administration announced its push to rezone 15 neighborhoods in 2014 with the aim of enabling the construction of more below-market development. De Blasio’s plan was to give middle- and low-income families a chance to stay in their communities amid the tide of gentrification. He has since been criticized for not focusing on housing for very low-income families, even as the homeless population spiked on his watch.

And while his affordable housing goals, as defined by City Hall, appear within reach, it hasn’t been easy. And the challenges around the East New York rezoning were a prologue for the zoning fights the mayor would face throughout his two terms in office.

The selection of East New York as the first neighborhood to be rezoned led to a contentious, months-long fight as the proposal churned through the city’s cumbersome, multi-layered land-use process.

Residents, community leaders and advocates say some of their worst fears about the rezoning, which sparked street protests and demonstrations at City Hall in 2016, are coming to pass. The city hasn’t made good on some of its core promises to the neighborhood, critics argue, while the rezoning triggered a surge in real estate speculation that’s further pinching vulnerable tenants and homeowners.

“Is the East New York rezoning a blessing or a curse on our community? Right now, it’s been a curse on our community,” said Albert Scott, chair of a local homeowner’s association and longtime community activist and critic of the rezoning. “It’s just a mechanism for displacement.”

Asked about progress on the East New York rezoning plan, Jeremy House, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, initially stated 1,200 new apartments had already been constructed in the rezoned area. After several follow up requests, House clarified that number included units that were yet to be constructed or in progress. He added that overall 3,900 affordable units had been financed by the city, though that number appeared to include units all across the East New York community district, not just in the rezoned area.

“[The rezoning] has spearheaded millions [in] investments into local parks, a new school, and several 100% affordable developments,” House said. “The rezoning has been a tremendous success in setting a path for a more affordable and equitable neighborhood.” 

Incoming Councilmember Sandy Nurse is on the left and community activist Albert Scott is in the center on a recent morning touring Atlantic Avenue.

Incoming Councilmember Sandy Nurse is on the left and community activist Albert Scott is in the center on a recent morning touring Atlantic Avenue.

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Incoming Councilmember Sandy Nurse is on the left and community activist Albert Scott is in the center on a recent morning touring Atlantic Avenue.

Gwynne Hogan

Since the plan was approved in 2016, a handful of new market-rate apartments have opened in East New York where landlords are charging upwards of $2,800 for a two-bedroom apartment, higher than the median asking rent citywide of $2,200, according to data from StreetEasy.

Home prices are surging, up to a median asking price of $800,000 from $500,000 in 2016, according to data from the same company. Median rent has jumped 29% since the rezoning, higher than the overall Brooklyn or citywide rates.

And community groups fear the market-rate development is outpacing affordable construction. By 2018, the city was supposed to break ground on the first phase of an affordable complex with more than 1,000 apartments. It remains a vacant lot. Remediation efforts of the site have delayed the project, according to the Department of City Planning.

“All these market-rate units are coming online sooner,” said Boris Santos, a board member at the East New York Community Land Trust, a local nonprofit geared towards preserving land for affordable housing and community gardens. “Rents could go up sooner before our folks could enter into a safe, quality living condition.”

“One and Done”

Beyond delays to the affordable housing construction, there are other promises the city made that appear to have fallen by the wayside.

There was a pledge to attract 3,900 additional jobs to an industrial area south of Broadway Junction. That’s yet to materialize, as City Limits previously reported. Mary Mueller, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, told WNYC/Gothamist that the projected job numbers were based on another rezoning of the industrial area that never advanced, in part because then-Councilmember Rafael Espinal left office abruptly in 2020, leaving the district unrepresented for nearly a year.

Asked for comment, Espinal pushed back on the EDC’s characterization.

“EDC is blatantly creating a narrative that protects them from  any responsibility to follow through on a plan that was promised by the Mayor and the agency,” he said. “When I left the Council, EDC and the Mayor’s office were left with a clear vision on what needed to be delivered, if they abandoned those plans, it was only because they believed it was convenient to cut funding to a majority Black and brown community during a crisis.”

Funding promised to homeowners to help bring basement apartments up to code was slashed when the pandemic hit and was never restored, even after cataclysmic flooding drowned New Yorkers in their basement apartments.

A 275-apartment affordable complex named Chestnut Commons nears completion on Atlantic Avenue.

A 275-apartment affordable complex named Chestnut Commons nears completion on Atlantic Avenue.

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A 275-apartment affordable complex named Chestnut Commons nears completion on Atlantic Avenue.

Gwynne Hogan

Even more symbolic promises — such as a pledge to study the neighborhood’s demographic shifts and to release annual updates on how the rezoning plan was going — were abandoned. An online tracker meant to bring updates to residents about the rezoning’s progress, hasn’t been updated since 2018.

“There’s no consequences for not living up to, or at least reporting what you tried to do. It’s like one and done,” said Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, an affordable housing developer. The group was among several organizations involved with the Coalition for Community Advancement, which formed in 2015 to fight for deeper and more affordable housing as part of the rezoning.

Neugebauer’s organization is nearing completion of Chestnut Commons, a 275-unit affordable housing complex on Atlantic Avenue. She expects the housing lottery — which the city uses to winnow down the applicant pool from hundreds of thousands of prospective tenants — for that building to open in the coming weeks. While 1,200 apartments have already been planned for specific lots across the rezoned area, Neugebauer said it’s become increasingly difficult for her group to plan for additional affordable development.

“Fulton Street, Atlantic Avenue, Glenmore Avenue, Pitkin Avenue — the cost of that vacant land went through the roof,” Neugebauer said. “We have tried to negotiate with all of the property owners of big sites and they just want astronomical prices.”

A 2016 analysis from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development Community found prices for vacant land shot up 266% in the rezoned area in the 18 months before and after de Blasio announced the East New York rezoning. That’s compared to a 64% rise in the rest of Brooklyn Community Board 5 which includes a broader swath of East New York and Starrett City. Neugebauer said that trend has continued in the years since.

$267M Towards Community Upgrades

The city has followed through on some of the monetary commitments it made to East New York, as part of the 2016 rezoning. Around $267 million went towards an array of projects including a brand new 1,000-seat school that began welcoming new students this fall, sewer system upgrades, street redesign along Atlantic Avenue, facelifts at several neighborhood parks, a renovated community center and a new job training center.

“Our local parks, the green infrastructure is the best it’s ever been in my entire existence in this community,” said Espinal, the former councilmember and lifelong Cypress Hills resident, who served as a key steward of the city’s plan during negotiations with the de Blasio administration. “A lot of the goals that we have put forward are being met.”

Former Councilmember Rafael Espinal makes remarks at a groundbreaking ceremony at Dinsmore Place in East New York.

Former Councilmember Rafael Espinal makes remarks at a groundbreaking ceremony for a school at Dinsmore Place in East New York.

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Former Councilmember Rafael Espinal makes remarks at a groundbreaking ceremony for a school at Dinsmore Place in East New York.

John McCarten

But critics say those types of neighborhood investments were long overdue, even before the pathway was cleared for developers to build large apartment complexes.

“You can’t come to me and say you’re going to give me a pair of shoes but you’re taking one of my legs,” said Brother Paul Mohammed, who leads a local mosque, and is a longtime community organizer. Beyond that, Mohammed questions why East New York was even selected in the first place.

“Mill Basin, Bay Ridge, hello, Bensonhurst. I don’t hear about rezoning out there. They got land. You didn’t dare go there with that garbage,” he said. “What is it about us here in East New York? Poor Black people on valuable land.”

“No More Area-wide Rezonings”

Though de Blasio wanted to rezone 15 neighborhoods during his tenure, he only ended up making it to nine. Behind East New York, came Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, Bay Street on Staten Island, Inwood, Midtown East and East Harlem in Manhattan, and Far Rockaway in Queens.

City planning experts argue the neighborhood rezoning plan would have worked best in housing markets that were already hot, by requiring affordable housing in neighborhoods where developers were building market-rate housing already. But instead, most of the nine neighborhoods de Blasio focused on were low income communities of color. That trend finally broke in the last weeks of de Blasio’s administration when the Gowanus and SoHo/NoHo rezonings cleared their final hurdles.

De Blasio chose neighborhoods that needed other things from the city that they were not getting and that their own residents did not have the money to do,” said Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society, referring to the parks and infrastructure upgrades East New York got once the rezoning had passed. “He was looking for willing partners in the City Council and those willing partners were all people who needed something else from the city.”

Some city planners question whether targeting specific sections of neighborhoods for development was a useful exercise at all.

Moses Gates, who specializes in housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association, pointed to other broader reforms that did more to spur affordable housing citywide than painstakingly crafted, block-by-block rezonings. He cited the Zoning for Quality and Affordability amendment that was enacted by the City Council in 2016 , designed to make the construction of senior housing easier.

“It’s just not efficient. It takes so long, so much political capital, so much contention, so many resources,” Gates said. “These things cost a lot of money for, in the grand scheme of things, what [are] reasonably small areas.”

On the ground in East New York, Neugebauer, with the local development corporation, has come to the same conclusion.

“No more area-wide rezonings,” she said. “The city is not holding themself accountable or developers accountable for neighborhood needs.”

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