An anti-gentrification protest adds to growing citizen dissatisfaction with elected officials in Queens
By LOUIS FLORES
A group of approximately 100 Queens residents gathered under the 7 train station at 46th Street last Thursday to call on New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) to oppose large-scale real estate development projects that residents said would raise the cost of residential rents and displace long-term Queens tenants.
Collectively, the activists then marched through a section of Sunnyside, Queens, behind a large banner with the slogan, "SAY NO J.V.B.," in reference to their political demand to Councilmember Van Bramer in respect of those real estate projects. The march ended with a "speak-out" in front of Councilmember Van Bramer's private residence. The three main projects that the activists were asking Councilmember Van Bramer to oppose were : the proposal to zone Sunnyside Yards for large-scale development ; the further rezoning of Long Island City ; and the light-rail project known as BQX. Some activists separately called on Councilmember Van Bramer to adequately fund and save the New York City Housing Authority, the agency that owns and manages the City's stock of public housing apartment buildings. (The public housing agency faces a reported shortfall as large as $17 billion in its capital improvement budget ; as a consequence, public housing tenants live in apartments that are not being properly maintained.)
For this report, Councilmember Van Bramer did not answer an interview request made by Progress Queens. The protest was organised by a group know as the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project. Other groups participated in a planning committee for the march, and some groups separately endorsed the march or the political demands made by marchers, including Queens Is Not For Sale and the Greater Astoria Historical Society, amongst other groups, according to Facebook posts. A member of Queens Is Not For Sale, who spoke on behalf of the group on condition of anonymity, described the impact of pro-development Government policies as an onslaught, saying that, "Queens is under attack. We cannot rely on the justice system, any politician who takes developer money, and the police. We are calling for sustainability, not perpetual growth."
According to some Government reform activists, conditions that gave rise, in part, to the protest included the inability of citizens to use official channels, like Queens Community Boards, to oppose large-scale real estate projects and policies. Late in 2015, Community Boards in Queens voted to overwhelmingly reject two amendments to New York City's zoning laws. The amendments were designed to support the pro-development policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City). Despite wide-spread Queens community opposition to the zoning amendments, Mayor de Blasio reached a political compromise in early 2016 with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) to pass the zoning amendments, according to a report filed by the journalist William Bredderman for The New York Observer.
The anti-gentrification protest last week adds to other pockets of community dissatisfaction with the de Blasio administration's real estate policies. Mayor de Blasio has announced plans to open 90 new homeless shelters across New York City to expand the number, and to replace some types, of shelters. In the past, the de Blasio administration has opened new shelters in Queens despite community opposition. Some communities have opposed new homeless shelters for aesthetic reasons. Separately, some advocates for the homeless have opposed the creation of new shelters, because their mere creation would not solve the underlying conditions that keep people living in poverty. On another real estate issue, still yet separate community groups, some affiliated with a former elected official and a very influential political operative, are opposing the large-scale redevelopment plans for Willets Point, according to a report published by The Times Ledger. In all cases, the de Blasio administration has refused to answer to the community.
At the protest on Thursday, some activists decried the consequences that the displacement of long-term tenants would have on the ethnic and cultural mix in some Queens neighborhoods. The changing population mix in Queens neighborhoods is a subject of controversy between some community leaders. Some community leaders defend the current make-up of some Queens neighborhoods, like Jackson Heights and Corona, and those community leaders see pro-development Government policies as an effort to deliberately make some Queens neighborhoods unaffordable to the very communities that give neighborhoods their unique character.
Queens, the new hotbed for community activism ?
The anti-gentrification protest in Queens also marked another notable, public rejection by community residents of the policies supported by their elected officials. In Jackson Heights, residents have been protesting against New York State Senator José Peralta (D-Queens) after reports questioned his motivations for abandoning the mainline Democratic Party conference in the State's upper legislative house in favour of conferencing with a breakaway group of officials, who have been described to enable a neoliberal legislative agenda. One issue that gave urgency to the rise of the protests against State Sen. Peralta was that the anti-immigration policies enabled by the breakaway group of officials, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, were in danger of converging with the anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration. The Trump administration's anti-immigration policies have separately threatened travelers from Muslim-majority nations using New York City's airports and the employees of at least one Queens-based business, the Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City, leading to a series of protests. For now, these disparate pockets of community protest have been autonomously forming across Queens, but they are taking place against waves of recent, larger national, social movements, like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the organising that produced the recent Women's March on Washington.
The segmented nature of Queens-based and nation-wide calls for reform may find a common ground in economic issues impacting everyone, said a noted activist, who has provided political analysis to Progress Queens. "State Sen. José Peralta's defection to the Independent Democratic Conference which is keeping the Republicans in power in the New York State Senate may well be seen as an important moment in the struggle against gentrification in Queens as aggressive neoliberalism continues to make Jackson Heights and the borough as a whole increasingly unaffordable," said Pauline Park, an LGBT activist and long-time resident of Jackson Heights, adding, "Many find it disturbing that Bill de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a progressive platform, seems instead to be complicit in the real estate industry's development of luxury housing for the wealthy at the expense of long-term residents of modest means ; and while many City Council members talk a good game, quite a few who claim to be progressive, including Jimmy Van Bramer, seem to be working hand-in-glove with developers in ways that foster gentrification and undermine the community interest. All of this seems to be informing the latest burst of community organizing in Queens."
The role of money in politics
At the same time when citizens are protesting against real estate policies that are detrimental to citizens, some advocates for reform are embracing the use of electoral politics to bring about change. At the protest on Thursday, mayoral candidate Sal Albanese said that he was inspired by increasing levels of the community involvement, but he added that an issue had to be made of the role of the large-sized campaign contributions made by real estate developers. The size of the campaign contributions made by real estate developers was the source of the "power of developers" to set City real estate policies, and that needed to change, Mr. Albanese said. Mr. Albanese, a former New York City Councilmember, has been advocating for the adoption in New York City of a campaign finance system enacted in Seattle, known as the Democracy Voucher program, which provides voters with publicly-financed vouchers that can be endorsed to campaign committees. The Seattle system also bars campaign contributions from Seattle City contractors and lobbyists under certain conditions, amongst other reforms, in an effort to decrease the role of money in politics. As a sign that New York City has become unaffordable to low-income and working class citizens, Mr. Albanese noted that many New York City employees are unable to afford to pay their residential rents. "It's a tragedy that people working for the City are living in shelters," Mr. Albanese said. In 2015, The New York Post estimated in a report that hundreds of full-time New York City employees are living in homeless shelters, and some live on the streets or out of their automobiles as a consequence of unaffordable residential rents.
The role of money in politics was one reported aspect of a recently-concluded, wide-ranging Federal corruption investigation into the campaign finance activities of Mayor de Blasio. Investigators were reportedly probing whether the de Blasio administration gave preferential treatment to the real estate industry in exchange for political contributions from real estate developers. As reported by Progress Queens, Manhattan Federal and Municipal prosecutors closed their reported parallel investigations into Mayor de Balsio's campaign finance activities without the filing of charges.
- It’s now more expensive to rent in Queens than in Brooklyn : report [2015-08-13] [The New York Daily News]
- Queens' population, real estate boom makes it look like the next Brooklyn [2016-09-19] [CNBC]
- Rents Rise in Northwest Queens [2016-10-07] [The New York Times]
- Van Bramer ignoring impending protest by anti-gentrification group in Queens [Progress Queens]
- Van Bramer and Dromm calendars show private meetings with developers and other elected officials : FOIL records [Progress Queens]
- Despite rent freeze, landlords still raise rents on some rent-regulated apartments [Updated] [Progress Queens]
- Tenants of Brooklyn apartment building protest superintendent accused of harassment [Progress Queens]
- 58 per cent. of New Yorkers are one paycheck away from becoming homeless : Study [Progress Queens]