The Fight to Save ‘Our Beloved Barrio’

East Harlem residents are demanding Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito drop a plan to build high rises and instead adopt initiatives to keep the neighborhood affordable.

“El Barrio belongs to the people that live here,” said Diana Vega a member of the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, speaking to residents of East Harlem on Sunday at a rally organized by the group to decry unchecked growth and gentrification in their neighborhood.

At issue is a proposed rezoning plan for East Harlem championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration that would allow construction of high density residential and commercial properties as a tall as 35 stories. Opponents of the plan, put forward in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application, caution it is the first step towards allowing luxury high-rise developments that will displace longtime tenants and squeeze out local businesses in favor of wealthy newcomers and pricey cafes and boutiques. Rather than rezoning, they are demanding the city adopt initiatives to preserve housing for low-income tenants.

Some of the new developments under de Blasio’s plan would be required to have a percentage of affordable units based on the area median income or AMI, but not enough to squelch the rising tide of gentrification, say opponents of the plan. According to the city, the yearly AMI for the New York metro region, which includes Westchester and Putnam counties, is $85,900 for a three person household. Estimates of median family incomes in East Harlem range from $23,000 to $33,000 a year.

“We don’t want luxury housing,” said Teresa Lopez, an El Barrio resident who was among the crowd that gathered at the corner 117th and Lexington. “We want to keep our homes, our shops and our beloved barrio.”

Protesters proceeded south to the residence of East Harlem City Council representative Melissa Mark-Viverito, chanting, “El Barrio no se vende! Se ama y se defende!” (El Barrio is not for sale! It is to beloved and defended!)

The Mayor’s rezoning plan must be approved via simple majority through the City Council before it can proceed and Mark-Viverito’s vote is crucial to its passage. Mark-Viverito, who serves as Speaker of the Council, is politically close to the Mayor and has historically seen eye-to-eye with him on housing issues.

The councilwoman helped craft the initial East Harlem Neighborhood Plan but many of its recommendations, including a call for at least 50 percent of new units built in El Barrio to be affordable, are absent from the de Blasio administration’s current rezoning blueprint.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced her opposition to the plan earlier this month, noting: “[T]he community gave extensive, thoughtful and informed input, but the administration could not see its way to support significant elements of the community’s recommendations, which forces me to recommend a disapproval of the application.”

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