Many Unanswered Questions at Last Public Hearing for Jerome Avenue Rezoning

John McCarten/NYC Councl

In the coming month, councilmembers Fernando Cabrera (left) and Vanessa Gibson, whose districts overlap with the rezoning area, will negotiate with the administration on a final plan.

At the final public hearing for the city’s proposed Jerome Avenue rezoning held by the City Council on Wednesday, it was clear that some things had truly changed—and some things really hadn’t—since the first hearing in September 2016, when hundreds of residents marched through the streets and descended on Bronx Community College to oppose the rezoning.

The Jerome Avenue rezoning is in the final stages of the seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) through which a rezoning is approved or disproved. The proposal would allow substantial new commercial and residential development on a Bronx corridor that is mostly zoned for auto-related uses, with a portion of the new housing required to be permanently income-targeted. Community Boards 4, 5, 7 and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz have already voted in favor of the proposal with conditions, and the City Planning Commission also voted in favor. In the coming month, councilmembers Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera, whose districts overlap with the rezoning area, will negotiate with the administration on a final plan.

At that first hearing in September 2016, community activists demanded two key anti-displacement strategies that they have, in fact, won: access to counsel for tenants in housing court, which is being rolled out across the city over five years, and the establishment of a Certificate of No Harassment program, which requires landlords to prove they have not harassed tenants before receiving permits for building work. Gibson mentioned these wins in her opening remarks on Wednesday.

But there is much from that first hearing that, despite some new initiatives, remains a source of concern to advocates and residents. There is the issue of whether the rezoning will create quality jobs for local residents and whether sufficient resources are available to auto-businesses that may be displaced. There are concerns that the city has underestimated the real-estate pressures the rezoning could trigger, and there is debate over the definition of “affordable” housing. The contours of the rezoning proposal itself haven’t changed much, despite calls to expand the “retention zones” where the current auto-zoning is left intact. Instead, the amount of space for auto-retention was slightly reduced, while a few new development sites have been added to the upzoning area.

“I realize the risk we are taking and I also realize how much is truly at stake,” said Gibson, explaining that she saw the planning effort as an incredible opportunity to garner needed investment for the district but also that the plan, “cannot and must not move forward without real investments and protections for our residents and their families.”

Continued debate on rezoning’s risk

The city says the market is still weak enough that developers will work with the city to build 100 percent below-market housing with the use of city subsidies, but skeptics say the rezoning will increase real-estate pressures, leading developers to create market-rate housing that is unaffordable to local residents, and triggering rising rents in the surrounding community.

At the hearing, members of Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision and their technical assistants demanded that the rezoning be reduced to half its size so that instead of inducing the production of roughly 4,000 new units, only about 2,000 new units would be built. They argue this will reduce the change to the market and ensure that the housing that does get built is all below-market. According to Adrien Weibgen of the Urban Justice Center, the Council reduced the density of the East New York rezoning by 10 percent and in the East Harlem rezoning by 25 percent before Council approval.

Gibson referenced this proposal in one of her questions to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and asked the agency to explain what percent of the 4,000 units were expected to be income-targeted. HPD’s Leila Bozorg restated that developers were likely to work with the city to build 100 percent affordable housing.

But as pointed out by Weibgen and discussed in an earlier investigation by City Limits, in the environmental analysis for the rezoning, the city assumes that over the course of 10 years, some developers will actually build market-rate units, so that in one scenario the city predicts about 57 percent of the total 4,000 units would be affordable.

At least for now, though, there are certainly developers who are willing to commit to building 100 percent affordable units. A representative for Maddd Equities said the company hoped to construct 720 rent-restricted units across two sites on River Avenue using HPD’s Extremely Low Income and Low Income Affordability (ELLA) subsidy program, while another developer, William Bollinger of JCAL Development Group, said that “knowing the market…most development of any scale here would be financed by city housing programs and probably targeted for people at the lower-income bands.”

How much preservation?

If there’s anything everyone agrees on, it’s that investing in the preservation of existing affordable housing is key to preventing displacement. The de Blasio administration has touted its investment in preservation within the Jerome Avenue area over the past four years, with 5,500 units preserved to date in Community Boards 4 and 5. The administration also recently committed to another 1,500 units over the next two years in conjunction with the rezoning plan.

Gibson says that if so many units were preserved in just the first term of the administration, it should be feasible to preserve 2,500 or even 3,000 units in the area over two years. Diaz is also pushing for more preservation, and on Wednesday his office released a report identifying 2,075 apartments in the quarter-mile radius of the rezoning that it believes should be prioritized for preservation. The analysis gave priority to units that have high rates of violations, are already benefiting from some kind of subsidy or governmental assistance program, and that are located on census tracks that have lower household incomes, larger family sizes, high percentages of children and seniors and high unemployment.

Bozorg said that while HPD shares Gibson’s goals, “one of the things we’re limited by is that we’re actively going out and trying to get private land owners to work with us to bring their buildings into our affordable housing programs.” In other words, the city can’t force property owners to enter preservation deals — they are dependent of landlords deciding they want to.

The Bronx Coalition has also long demanded the creation of a task force focused on tracking displacement in rent-stabilized buildings, and on Wednesday ANHD’s Christopher Walter proposed that the city create a task force to explore the creation of a No Net Loss pilot program, which would require the city to conduct a detailed assessment of the rent-regulated housing stock in the area and create a proactive strategy to protect units, especially those serving families making the lowest incomes, and monitor the gain and loss of units at each income bracket.

HPD’s housing plan says it is already stepping up its code enforcement efforts and its outreach to landlords who are not yet in affordability programs. It’s also agreed to work with Diaz to launch a “Southwest Bronx Housing Task Force” to identify problematic buildings such as those with high rates of violations and create an action plan to address those problems.

Auto fate still unclear

Concerns remain about the potential displacement of auto-businesses along the Jerome Avenue corridor. The city predicts that 43 auto-businesses and 45 non-auto-businesses will be “directly displaced” on sites that are mostly likely to be redeveloped, but advocates think those are grave underestimates.

Gibson has vocalized a need for a financial support package to help businesses that want to relocate. She also called for the hiring of a coordinator who can help link all small businesses to the Department of Small Business Services (SBS)’ programs and the more frequent deployment of SBS’s new mobile outreach vehicle to her district.

Carol Samol of the Department of City Planning said that in addition to the four retention zones, it is designing a “compliance program” that will be targeted specifically to help auto-businesses who need assistance meeting regulatory requirements, and that in the next few weeks the administration will announce a program that will offer loans of up to $250,000 to qualifying small businesses, which could help those businesses in their current locations or help them to relocate.

Critics want more, including the expansion of auto-retention zones, financial resources and workshops to support such businesses, and investments in spaces where auto-businesses can operate. Pedro Estevez, head of the United Auto Merchants Association, introduced the “Auto Business Readiness Project,” a proposal that would employ UAMA—to the tune of $4.6 million over five years—to provide technical assistance, workshops and trainings to businesses and employees, and to create a new Automotive Training Center. He also proposed the creation a vertical auto-merchant building that can accommodate businesses displaced from the rezoned areas.

Seeking good jobs

The Bronx Coalition for Community Vision has repeatedly questioned the efficacy of the city’s HireNYC program, which requires subsidized developers and other companies doing certain kinds of business with the city to make a “good faith effort” to hire residents from the city’s Workforce1 Centers. Some labor advocates don’t like that the program does not ensure workers are employed by unions and does not come with wage standards, and they also say there is a lack of data on the program’s performance. Granted, the program was vastly expanded by the de Blasio administration in 2015, and so data on the results is still limited. City Limits obtained limited data on the programin December and found some signs of success.

At Gibson’s request, SBS’s Blaise Backer came to the hearing prepared with data for HPD Development—the component of HireNYC that deals with the construction labor for developers receiving housing subsidies. According to Backer, 135 Bronx residents were referred to jobs, of which eight were residents from the surrounding community districts. 19 of the 135 were hired, as of December 31, at an average wage of $16.

As for building service jobs, HPD does not currently require projects it subsidizes to pay prevailing wages, but says that a majority of its project developers do anyway.

Trains and Schools

Elected officials and residents alike are still deeply concerned about the potential for the district’s severe school overcrowding to be further exacerbated by the rezoning. As previously reported, so far the city has found room for 388 new seats through an expansion of an annex at one school, but no additional capacity has yet been announced. A representative from the School Construction Authority said that there were “active conversations” ongoing with a variety of private property owners as well with the DOE. Indeed, a few of the developers who spoke said that their spaces could include space for a school.

Many of Cabrera’s comments were focused on quality-of-life issues, including the necessity of investing in accessible train stations. “We share your advocacy for accessible service with the MTA,” said a representative from the Department of Transportation, noting that the MTA has agreed to focus dollars on station improvements and the city has pointed to Jerome as a priority.

Some members of the public later said they were uncomfortable with the way that long overdue investments in the community were being used as “bargaining chips” for a rezoning they strongly opposed.