Here Come the New Neighbors

Shaun McCleese fishes in the East River, just south of the Astoria Houses campus at sunset on Monday, October 27, 2014. McCleese is a resident of the Astoria Houses. Photo by Elah Feder for NY City Lens.

Shaun McCleese fishes in the East River, just south of the Astoria Houses campus at sunset on Monday, October 27, 2014. McCleese is a resident of the Astoria Houses. Photo by Elah Feder for NY City Lens.

A shopping cart lies face down near the shore. Further along the waterfront, a section of metal railing has rusted through and collapsed. Still, among the locals, this is a popular spot for fishing. There isn’t much else to do in this part of Astoria—though that’s about to change.

For more than half a century, Astoria’s Halletts Point peninsula was divided roughly in two: the north half covered in industrial lots, the south half by the Astoria Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development, home to more than 3,000 people. The neighborhood, described by residents as isolated and neglected, is among the city’s poorest, with a median household income of just $22,558, as estimated in the American Community Survey 2008-2012 average. Most are Hispanic or African American.

So when Lincoln Equities announced plans for the $1 billion Halletts Point luxury complex right next door to the Astoria Houses, even claiming a few lots on the housing authority campus itself, residents naturally worried they would be displaced.

“It’s more or less a neglected area in northwestern Queens, and somebody all of a sudden wants to develop,” said Claudia Coger, president of the Astoria Houses Tenants Association. “Your flag goes up—what does this mean for us?” After working with the housing authority and the developers, Coger was reassured that her community would not be pushed out, and that this could even help them. But then a second mega-development, Astoria Cove, was proposed for the peninsula’s north shore, once again raising concerns. Astoria Cove has been especially controversial, and at a recent hearing, was slammed by councilmembers for failing to guarantee enough truly affordable units.

As a public housing complex, Astoria Houses should be here to stay—its residents can’t easily be driven out by soaring rents like low-income tenants elsewhere. Still, in the coming years, their area will be flooded with high income neighbors. So what happens to members of a poor community suddenly living among the rich? Will their boats rise with the tide or could this hurt them?

In many ways, the future of Astoria Houses looks brighter than ever. Construction is expected to start by year’s end or beginning of next. If all goes according to plan, the peninsula’s locals will soon have access to an affordable supermarket, a new elementary school, nearly 70,000 square feet of retail space, and a wide waterfront esplanade. There’s even talk of a ferry to Manhattan. The Durst Organization, a prominent real estate company whose holdings include a share in One World Trade Center, recently bought a majority stake in the Halletts Point development, a significant vote of confidence for the project.

“In all the models I’ve seen on the computer, it’s very pretty,” said Marta Gonzalez, an Astoria Houses resident of five years. Eric Matthews, another resident, looks forward to seeing fewer abandoned warehouses, and having access to stretches of waterfront currently fenced off for industrial uses.

One of the most significant benefits could be to the community’s health.

In the mid-1990s, guided by the theory that the problems of the poor are largely caused by their concentration in segregated neighborhoods, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted a relocation experiment. Under Moving to Opportunity, the department offered housing vouchers to randomly selected families, with some vouchers requiring that they move to low-poverty areas and stay there for at least a year.

Over 10 to 15 years, families that moved to low-poverty areas had, on average, slashed their rate of diabetes by more than 40%, extreme obesity by more than a third, and depression by 27%, compared with those not offered vouchers, according to research by Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago and colleagues. The mechanisms at play are unclear, but it could have to do with living closer to grocery stores, exercise spaces, and medical services, along with the reduced stress of living in safer neighborhoods, according to research cited by the authors.

While these kinds of results have not been consistently observed across relocation programs, they suggest what is possible: the benefits of a higher income neighborhood can effectively act as medicine.

Attending schools with wealthier peers could also boost kids’ academic performance.

“Giving low income students the chance to go to middle-class schools is probably the best thing we can do to improve their achievement,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, families living in public housing apartments are randomly placed to neighborhoods across the county, and their children attend local schools. Montgomery is one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., so some public housing children end up attending affluent elementary schools. After a few years in their new schools, kids in the lowest-poverty schools have much higher math scores than those in moderate-income ones, according to a Century Foundation report by Heather Schwartz, a researcher at the RAND corporation.

Factors like better funding, more qualified teachers, more parental involvement, and interactions with ambitious peers could explain the success of students in higher-income schools, according to a report by Kahlenberg. Notably, however, Ludwig found no improvement in academic outcomes for Moving to Opportunity kids.

The closest public school to Astoria Houses is P.S. 171, which received a ‘C’ grade in three of its last four Department of Education progress reports, and a ‘B’ in 2011. Anticipating an influx of new students, the housing authority has reserved a site for a school on Astoria Houses grounds. Whether it gets built will be up to the School Construction Authority.

But what residents of Astoria Houses really want are jobs. Last year, unemployment for the census tract was 25%, more than double the New York City rate, and 36% of families were living below the poverty line according to American Community Survey 2008-2012 averages.

The developments could be exactly what residents have been waiting for. “It’s not a lot of jobs out here, and it could benefit us,” said Renee Roach, an Astoria Houses resident, noting that the new development will need constructions workers at first, and later restaurants will need servers and cashiers. Though discussions on this front with the developers were very encouraging according to Coger, at this point there are no guarantees. In commenting on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, Helen Marshall, former Queens Borough President, insisted that the developers hire locals, including Astoria Houses residents. In response, the developers indicated only “an intention to develop a jobs program to support local hiring,” and that hiring preferences were beyond the scope of the document.

For some residents, this is beside the point. They’re not worried about how much the developments will benefit them, but how much they’ll hurt.

Felicia Murphy, who’s lived in the Astoria Houses since she was eight, thinks the neighborhood is beautiful the way it is. A pair of swans visit each year, and there are waterfront views of Manhattan—views that will be partly blocked by the new high-rises. What they need isn’t rich neighbors, but G.E.D. preparation and job training centers, she said. This will only benefit the rich, she said, and she worries her community will get pushed out. “To me, they’re trying to make it private,” she said.

Tom Angotti, professor of urban planning at Hunter College, CUNY, agreed that privatization down the road was a risk. Conflicts will arise if wealthier residents decide low-income residents make the area unsafe or don’t like the smell of their barbecues, he said, by way of example. (Barbecuing is already forbidden at the Astoria Houses, along with picnicking, but the new esplanade could bring its own rules.) “People know who always wins those conflicts,” he said. “It’s people who have access to city hall and city policy, and can put pressure to get rid of public housing.”

But public housing residents are more likely to be stigmatized than bought out, according to Mark Joseph of the University of Chicago, who studies mixed-income developments. In poorly integrated communities, low-income residents are treated like a nuisance and can experience double standards when it comes to policing and neighborhood rules, Joseph said.

In a study with his colleague, Robert Chaskin, Joseph tracked resident perspectives on their communities. “I did not pay $300,000 for a condo to live next to the projects,” one higher-income resident said at a community policing meeting. Low-income residents, in turn, sensed that their neighbors didn’t want them there.

Matters can escalate beyond tensions. Boys in Moving to Opportunity families who moved into low-poverty neighborhoods were more likely to experience police harassment, according to interviews by St. Joseph’s University’s Susan Clampet-Linquist and colleagues. When black people gather in public spaces, “white people look out the window and call the police and they just say, ‘You gotta leave,’” one boy said. Girls, in contrast, spoke more favorable of their new neighborhoods.

According to Joseph, increased police presence isn’t inherently bad. “In many cases, the lower income households and residents who we’ve talked to feel that’s a good thing,” he said. “What they don’t want is a situation where there’s one set of rules for low income families and another set of rules for high income families.”

If proactively and thoughtfully planned, Joseph believes integrated communities can truly benefit lower-income residents, particularly through improved security and amenities—as long as they have equal say in shaping the rules and equal access to services. Or as Marta Gonzalez, whose building is among the closest to the new development, put it, “It’s wonderful, but we would like to enjoy it.