Jerome Study Raises Questions of Affordability

What does affordable mean?

That was the question of the night as a couple hundred vocal residents from across the Bronx gathered in a noisy Mt. Eden gymnasium Tuesday to discuss a new city rezoning effort that could change the borough’s landscape.

The affordability in question was all about housing, and the definition is different for a lot of people.

The Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision put up signs like this in the gym to gauge community interest in their proposed demands (Tyler Pratt/The Ink)

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that the city of New York was in the middle of a “housing crisis.” Rents have risen upwards of 10 percent since 2005, while personal incomes haven’t budged. In an effort to offer a solution, the mayor’s office unveiled a sweeping plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units across all five boroughs.

The Department of City Planning has aimed its sights on several locations across the city, one smack in the middle of the Bronx: Jerome Avenue.

The Jerome Avenue Study looked at the possibility of rezoning 73 blocks mostly along Jerome Avenue roughly between the Cross Bronx Expressway up to Fordham Road. This includes the neighborhoods of Highbridge, Mount Eden, Concourse, Mount Hope, University Heights, and Morris Heights. The Planning Department calls it an area of mostly “low-scale commercial, industrial, and auto-related uses,” but it’s also home to more than 2,800 residential units.

Since catching wind of the study, local organizations and leaders have jumped into action and formed the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision. Made up of local unions, community centers, leaders and associations, the coalition is working to make sure the study includes their voices and benefits the surrounding Bronx communities. Its list of demands includes community participation in planning, job creation for local residents, and better anti-harassment and anti-displacement policies for tenants and businesses. Most important, only Bronx residents would have access to the affordable housing units.

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Another roundtable discussion Tuesday night for community members demanding any Jerome avenue rezoning bring in good jobs and use local hires. (Tyler Pratt/The Ink)

“How can it be affordable, if I can’t even afford it?” said one frustrated volunteer in the middle of the roundtable discussion portion of the evening.

Speaking over loud fans and many voices, Fitzroy Christian fielded questions like this many times as he sat at one of the tables erected in the gym of Latino Pastoral Action Center at 14 West 170th St., flanked by community members, mostly women. The leader of Community Action for Safe Apartments, or CASA, had hoped to spend the hour going over a list of demands. But the discussion kept coming back to the same question.

Affordability doesn’t always mean cheap. The Mayor’s office defines affordable housing differently for different incomes. It should be somewhere between one third to a quarter of a monthly income. For individuals with incomes of less than $25,000 per year, rent should be no more than $629 a month. For households with upwards of $100,000 per year, rent should not exceed $3400.

This disparity is what worries some Bronx residents. If the city works with developers to build brand new buildings for an array of incomes that could lead to higher rents for everyone in the long run. According to Christian and his roundtable, high rent is already a problem in the Bronx.

“More and more of us complain that we don’t have friends any more,” said Christian. “They’ve moved away. They’ve moved back south.”

In hopes of avoiding further losses, Christian and the coalition have put together a list of demands they hope to present the city when it begins hearings on the rezoning. The centerpiece being that new housing should reflect the needs of the existing community. One example is in the number and sizes of units that are built.

“You have to build apartments with more bedrooms,” said Christian. “Here I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and a sixteen-year-old son and only one room for them. So now my son has to sleep on the couch. Living rooms become bedrooms with tables and furniture always being moved around.”

Photographer Rhynna M. Santos, who has been photographing the auto workers and shops of Jerome Avenue for an upcoming exhibition, reads a list of coalition demands. (Tyler Pratt/The Ink)

One woman, sounding exasperated in the middle of the discussion, proclaimed, “We’ve seen this done before.” She added. “Joining a group didn’t prevent the rent from going up.”

As Christian and the volunteers picked up chairs and packed up the home-cooked Dominican food after the meeting, he expressed hope for change, because unlike previous city administrations, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s had made room for community voices.

“This wasn’t possible before, to have a say,” said Christian.

The biggest problem is making sure the community knows about the plans.

Belinda Gallegos, 42, a photographer living off the Grand Concourse, said she only found out about the study from her husband, a plumber in Brooklyn, who was told by his union.

“I use the 4 train a lot,” said Gallegos. “So I walk down Jerome and I’ve never seen any signs that told me about it. This is going to have a big impact. Everything is going to change.”

By Tyler Pratt


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