The Citywide Alliance Against Displacement, a group of community activists from different neighborhoods, accused the mayor of promoting “racist rezoning plans” that target and displace communities of color.
Advocates argue that the mayor’s policies have favored real estate interests rather than everyday New Yorkers.
“We’re sick and tired of de Blasio’s racism and corruption,” said Gemel DeShazo, a member of the alliance. “De Blasio helps his richer developer friends by selling our public housing and land. It’s time for de Blasio to step down right now.”
Hundreds of people attended the afternoon protest, including residents from neighborhoods that have felt the pressures of gentrification, such as East Harlem, Williamsburg, Ridgewood, Lower East Side and Chinatown.
Among their demands were “ending racism in city planning” by passing community-based plans, ending public funding for luxury development, stopping the privatization of public lands and assets, and the resignations of elected officials who “collude with developers.”
In a statement, the mayor’s deputy press secretary Melissa Grace said the activists’ claims of a racist rezoning process were “absolutely untrue.”
“The city is focused on investing in long-underserved communities to make sure they have the good schools, clean parks, quality jobs and permanent affordable housing they deserve,” Grace said. “We are working to fight displacement and keep rents affordable in neighborhoods across the city.”
Despite the mayor’s recent announcement that his administration has built or preserved 62,000 affordable units in the last three years, protesters said de Blasio’s affordable housing program has allowed developers to create even more market-rate housing in low-income neighborhoods, pushing longtime residents out in the process.
Sarah Ahn criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plan as a “sham.” She disagreed with the notion that the “only way we can get affordable housing in our communities is by selling off” land and “giving subsidies to these rich developers.”
Ahn specifically pointed out the Flushing West rezoning proposal, which was tabled after community opposition.
“To get 300 units of affordable housing there, you’re going to displace tens of thousands of people in the surrounding area,” Ahn said. “The people are not stupid. The people really do see that this is a way to ram it down the community’s throat, by saying that the only thing we can hope for is a handful of housing units.”
Ahn said she’s not opposed to rezonings in general. She sees zoning as a tool to protect communities from developers.
She pointed to the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) rezoning plan, which was put together over eight years by a group of community organizations, as an example of that tool.
One of the main principles of the plan was that all city-owned, public land should be used to create 100-percent low-income housing.
Despite years of trying to convince the city to adopt the plan, officials have stated that it was too “far reaching,” according to advocates.
“It has all of the nuts and bolts you need in a rezoning,” Ahn said. “But what the city is saying it that it’s too ambitious. Instead, what they want to do is a rezoning that is very developer-friendly.”
Ahn also said studies have shown that community zonings have been done in the past, but mostly in “richer, whiter neighborhoods.” She said she believes in the face of an affordability crisis, the government has intervened, but on behalf of developers, not community members.
“I agree we need affordable housing, but you can do it by limiting and putting protection in these communities,” she said. “Of course, it’s not going to do everything, but it gives communities a fighting chance. It takes away that speculation.”
Raquel Namuche is an organizer with the Ridgewood Tenants Union. Although the Ridgewood organization is not part of the Citywide Alliance Against Displacement, Namuche said she protested because she felt the city was enabling developers to engage in “predatory practices” that displaced tenants.
Founded in 2014 as a grassroots group to inform tenants of their rights, the Ridgewood Tenants Union continues to educate residents about types of landlord harassment. Namuche said she’s seen practices like offering buyouts, not renewing leases, and not making appropriate repairs increase over the last five years.
“There are also developers coming into the neighborhood because Ridgewood, all of a sudden, has increased in popularity,” she said. “That has really impacted long-term, working-class residents in Ridgewood who bear the brunt of the problem.”
Namuche was skeptical of the mayor’s goal to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing because she said what the city considers affordable isn’t affordable enough. She’s also critical of neighborhood rezonings, such as the one taking place now in East New York.
“We’re creating affordable housing units, but at the same time we’re also losing many rent-stabilized apartments,” she said. “If you don’t do enough to protect people’s rights to their apartments, then what are you actually doing?”
Among the speakers at the rally was State Senator Tony Avella, who is challenging de Blasio for mayor this year. Avella told the anti-de Blasio crowd that he has fought the real estate industry in his time as a city and state legislator.
“It’s about time for New York City to have a mayor who really cares,” Avella said. “You should be controlling what goes on in the city, not the real estate industry, not Mayor de Blasio, who could care less about the rest of us.”
The Queens senator said if he gets elected, there will be “real community-based planning” that reflects a bottom-up approach. Avella later called the mayor’s affordable housing program “a failure.”
“All it’s doing is encouraging luxury development in neighborhoods where you’re displacing the very people who need the affordable housing component,” he said.
Avella, who used to work for former Mayor Ed Koch, said his old boss back then put $5 billion in the city’s capital budget to create its own affordable housing. That way, Avella said, the city gets to set the rates, not developers.
“This philosophy to force developers to do this, they don’t want to do it. They want to build luxury housing,” he said. “We have to take on the responsibility as a city to do it for the people who need it most.”
When asked how he would fund an affordable housing program, Avella said it’s a “matter of priorities.” One idea he proposed was to allow sports betting, which he claimed would rake in north of $2 billion.
Though activists were calling for de Blasio to step down, Avella said the way to take down the mayor is to beat him in an election. “That’s why I’m running, he’s beatable,” Avella said. “If all the people get organized, the people stand up instead of the big donors and powerful interests.”
He said he doesn’t expect other rumored candidates, like Comptroller Scott Stringer or Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., to step into the 2017 race. However, if an indictment is handed down on de Blasio’s fundraising practices, Avella admitted “everyone jumps in” then.
“But I’m not waiting for that,” Avella said. “I think we should take him on right now and let the people know we’ve got a candidate.”