Many in East Harlem Say No

El Barrio's East River Plaza, on top of which the three apartments towers are to be constructed.

El Barrio’s East River Plaza, on top of which the three apartments towers are to be constructed. (Photo by Mally Espaillat/NYCity Lens)

Updated on October 20

East Harlem is gearing up for battle in the most communal way possible.

The Blumenfeld Development Group plans to construct three apartment towers on top of the East River Plaza, a shopping center that extends from 116th to 119th Street. Though the development is still in its early stages, the project was met with much opposition at last month’s Community Board 11 meeting. A key component for El Barrio’s aversion to these plans is that they fear the apartments will function as incentive for wealthier people to move to the neighborhood, pushing out residents who have lived there for years. The development company, however, has said it will try to set aside 25 percent of the units in the towers as affordable housing.

“It’s pretty clear how folks feel,” says John Krinsky, a member of the East Harlem/El Barrio community land trust work group, a non-profit organization that works to own land and lease it to the community. “Nobody is falling for it, and it can be threatening to the neighborhood as a whole. If you so radically change the income level of an area, it means that there’s a lot of other shenanigans that can happen with landlords, more tenant harassment, more residents being pushed out. All of a sudden, the neighborhood isn’t the neighborhood anymore.”

So the community has decided to fight back with their weapon of choice: a community land trust, an organization that works to take land out of the market and make sure it’s used to the benefit of the community. More often than not, this means preserving and ensuring affordable housing for the residents.

“A community land trust means no cheating,” says Krinsky. The trust is collectively owned and directed by a board, composed of residents, community members, housing specialists, and often representatives of public officials. “The idea behind it is that the land is community controlled, with the interests of the different kinds of board members balancing each other out.”

By establishing a community land trust, lease protections would be set in place to ensure that housing remains affordable over the long term and that any land purchased within the community would be used for the good of the people living there. Though El Barrio has been organizing to officially establish a community land trust since 2012, the East River Plaza expansion plan has lit a new flame under the movement.

In a public meeting held over the summer, a developer on the project, David Blumenfeld,  confirmed that the developers are trying to set aside 25 percent of the 1,100 units—or about 275 apartments-for affordable housing, higher than the standard 20 percent that is usually set at the affordable rate. This rate would be 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income.

“It’s still early in the planning process,” said a spokesperson for the developers. “But we’ve taken steps to ensure the affordable housing is truly affordable for low-and-moderate income families in East Harlem.”

This is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10  years, by allowing developers to build more units into their plans if they opt to make a higher percentage of them affordable.

However, trust members remain skeptical. The reason: the area median income is a federally set level, they say, not one determined by the neighborhood. “The East River Plaza apartments set aside for East Harlem are “low income” as defined by the government,” said Lynn Lewis, the executive director for Picture the Homeless, an organization dedicated to providing a voice for the homeless and board director for El Barrio’s land trust. “Low income in East Harlem is lower than that. A four-person family living in the area might make $29,000 a year. A full-time minimum wage worker makes about or less than $20,000 a year.” In 2013, the area median income for New York City was $63,000 for a four-person family, while the latest census reports East Harlem’s median income as $30,759.

Joining the fight for a community land trust is local activist group N.E.R.V.E.—Nuevo El Barrio Rehabilitacion de Vivienda y Economia. The group, founded in 1975, has begun reaching out to other coalitions, including Latino Justice and Environmental Justice in an effort to build as big of an opposition to the development plans as they can.

Meanwhile, the East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust has been holding meetings in the community to discuss exactly what they should do to take action. They’ve also been surveying residents in buildings owned by the city. Surveys are conducted to find out the real needs of the people in the buildings, so that the trust can plan to prevent resident’s displacement, says Krinsky.

The members of the trust haven’t given up hope, as many in the  community seem to be responding positively, attending meetings and offering  help whenever needed.

“We know why we oppose it,” says N.E.R.V.E. general manager and East Harlem resident Roberto Anazagasti. “Now we need people who also oppose it to join us. We need to structure ourselves. We’ve been talking about it; now we have to do something about it.”

Note:  An earlier version of the story did not include a quote from the developers.