March 9, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
With members of Laborers Local 79 setting the beat on drums and plastic plaster buckets, a loud crowd of more than 250 people packed the Latino Pastoral Action Center in the southwest Bronx March 5, expressing concerns about the city’s plans to rezone the neighborhood’s main streets from manufacturing and commercial use to residential use.
The rezoning, part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create affordable housing by piggybacking on luxury development, would cover 73 blocks along Jerome Avenue north of Yankee Stadium. Intended to encourage the construction of up to 4,000 lower-priced apartments in the area, the plan, like a similar one in the works for East New York in Brooklyn, has many residents fearing it will spark gentrification that will push them out.
Local 79 Bronx business agent Barrie Smith expressed three main concerns: That the jobs created by the plan be union, that they provide real opportunities for people in the neighborhood, and that the new development not lead to gentrification.
“I want to make sure that the people born and raised here can afford to stay here,” said Smith, who is also president of 100 Black Construction Workers. “I’m not about just building. I’m about coordinating construction with the community.”
The meeting was organized by a coalition that included Community Action for Safe Apartments, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and the Latino Pastoral Action Center. About 50 Local 79 members came. “We have a basis to be suspicious,” the Rev. Ray Rivera, director of the Latino Pastoral Action Center, told the crowd, although he said after the meeting that such suspicions were “not necessarily antagonistic.”
The main suspicions expressed were that the city hadn’t yet done much to consult neighborhood residents, that the new development would catalyze gentrification, that rezoning Jerome Avenue as residential would put some 200 auto-repair shops out of business, and that the “affordable” housing produced would still cost too much for current residents. The mayor’s plan relies on requiring developers to include 20% affordable units in new construction, but “low-income” units built under that system are usually designated for households making $35,000 to $50,000 a year and rent for $900 to $1,250 a month. In the southwest Bronx, the median income is about $25,000, so $625 would be an affordable rent there, people at the meeting said.
The coalition wants any rezoning plan to follow four main principles: Strong anti-harassment and anti-displacement policies; “real affordable housing,” meaning what current neighborhood residents can afford; real community participation; and good jobs with local hiring.
That means “a local hiring program for union construction… to build housing we can afford,” Sherice Valentine, a member of Local 79 and 100 Black Construction Workers, told the crowd. That program should include apprenticeships, she added. That, Barrie Smith told LaborPress, would create “career-oriented jobs” instead of low-paying, intermittent nonunion work, and give people “a fair opportunity where they’re from.”
The city is expected to issue its recommendations in the fall, and the plan would then have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process and be approved by both Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the City Council.