Thursday, April 28, 2016

Gentrification, Rezoning & 'Redevelopment' in New York

West 81st St. &Amsterdam Ave - my old block in NYC
Real estate and housing have been on my mind more than usual as of late, and not just because my day job is leasing residential apartments for a property management company.

Oft mentioned on this blog over the years, is the fact that I lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 years, where I formed relationships and bonds with people there that transcend time and geography.

I enjoy my spacious one-bedroom in Hamilton, NJ and I like the community where I live and work, but over the past few months, I've been feeling nostalgic for New York.

Not the exorbitant rents and lack of closet space mind you, but the energy, the convenience of mass transit and the ability to just stroll the streets, or parks and people watch. Most of all, as an artist, I miss some of the creative relationships I had there with friends who who are writers, actors, painters, singers, comedians or poets.

A couple of weeks ago I took the train into New York City to catch up with a couple of my good friends who still live on the Upper West Side (where I lived from 1996 until 2002) and just across the east river in Long Island City respectively.

Like many "expatriate" New Yorkers spread across the nation, I wrestle with my fondness for the city and the reality of the costs of living there.

Lately I've been listening to the ongoing podcast series on WNYC, "There Goes the Neighborhood"; a multi-part series jointly produced by The Nation and WNYC that explores the complexities surrounding the issue of gentrification and it's impact on East New York and the rapidly gentrifying areas of Brooklyn.

I met up with my friend Mark at an Irish pub on 14th street for a quick drink before we walked a block and hopped the L-train a couple stops into Brooklyn to the Bedford Avenue stop.

From September 2005 until August 2007, I lived half a block from the Montrose Avenue L-train subway stop on the edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was astounded at the changes that have taken place around Bedford Avenue in Greenpoint in the nine years since I was last in the area.

The other friend I went to visit, Johnny, manages a 6,000 square-foot bar-beer garden called Spritzenhaus on Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint not far from Bedford. Mark and I hung out at the bar for the evening while Johnny worked and over the course of the night I got a chance to talk with a couple 30-somethings who live locally.

Based on just a few casual conversations the rents are just astronomical, and unfortunately for many long-time residents of Brooklyn, that wave is coming and it's sweeping a lot of lower and middle income residents out of neighborhoods they've called home for years, decades and even generations in some cases - click the link above to the There Goes the Neighborhood homepage and listen to just a few minutes of the 1st podcast.

Artists rendering of redeveloped Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn
Last Friday morning I listened to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio being interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

It's no secret he's a big affordable housing advocate and he spoke optimistically about a controversial new development plan for East New York (Brooklyn) that he says will bring new construction, new jobs and new affordable housing to areas of Brooklyn that have been neglected in terms of city, state and federal funding for decades.

But the definition of "affordable housing" in New York City is relative.

While the rezoning plan does contain funding for new schools and legal aid for local residents who may find themselves facing attempts by landlords to evict them from rent-controlled apartments, ultimately, the plan is going to end up pushing lower income residents out of communities now coveted by higher income residents who can no longer afford rents in Manhattan and already-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods like Cobble Hill and Park Slope.

One of the most interesting things I've learned from the There Goes the Neighborhood podcast series is that while demographic shifts like the ones taking place in Brooklyn are basically driven by the almighty dollar in collusion with banks, real estate developers and politicians, the "where the rubber meets the road" impact skews heavily along racial and ethnic lines.

Protests against the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn 
Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt there are plenty of long-time white Brooklyn residents who have been, and will be pushed out of the city by gentrification or the realities of rising rents in New York; I know some of them personally.

But the coming "wave" in Brooklyn is going to crash hardest on populations residing in neighborhoods that have traditionally been occupied by people of color; and the mass displacement that's going to happen is going to be concentrated on blacks and Hispanics.

As a guy who works in the industry, I can tell you that real estate is a fickle thing and the place where for-profit companies who deal in housing collide with the reality of human nature can be at once a magical and explosive mix.

The factors that motivate people to pack up and move to a different community span a range of issues.

New jobs, loss of jobs, the beginning of relationships, the pursuit of relationships, the end of relationships, births, deaths, sickness, injury, sudden windfalls and sudden downfalls, disagreements with landlords, issues with pets - sometimes simple curiosity.

I've rented hundreds of apartments and you'd be pretty surprised at what makes people want to move; I really need to write a book about it.

But again, while chiefly driven by economic factors in one way or another, what's interesting about housing and real estate issues in America is that race and ethnicity are so often found at the center - and not just in urban areas like Brooklyn either.

Tomorrow I want to take a look at how racial and ethnic diversity is impacting a different kind of demographic shift in a suburban New Jersey town that I know well.

For tonight, I'm simply thankful to have a roof over my head.

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