Community group pressures councilman on East New York rezoning

City Councilman Rafael Espinal's office could soon be a site for sit-ins, as a union-backed group clamoring for low-income housing has made him its top target.

New York Communities for Change released a report Wednesday entitled "Educating Espinal," aimed at pressuring the Brooklyn councilman to push for changes in the City Planning Commission's proposal to rezone East New York.

The group, which claims to represent roughly 1,000 East New York residents, wants new affordable housing generated by the rezoning to more closely reflect the neighborhood's low incomes. More than a third of East New York residents make below $23,000 yearly, less than the lowest income rung in the mayor's new mandatory affordable-unit requirements for developers.

The group wants Espinal, who represents part of the area, to push for new apartment buildings on Atlantic Avenue and Pitkin Avenue, which under the rezoning can grow taller, to be 50% affordable for low-income tenants.

"Espinal’s been very passive about really pushing aggressively on the affordability front," the group's director Jonathan Westin said. "The time for passivity is over."

Espinal bristled at the prospect of the grassroots group's lesson. “I don’t need to be educated on what my community needs. I was born and raised in the neighborhood by a working class immigrant family that supported six kids on about $40,000 per year," he said in a statement. "I lived through the crack epidemic in the '80s, proudly attended the public schools in East New York, and continue to live here today. I’ve spent the past year and a half meeting with residents, elected officials, and local leaders, and I know what my neighborhood wants to see in the final East New York Plan. The only people who need to be educated are those who don’t live here."

The de Blasio administration has said the group's demands cannot be met without massive city subsidies. Asking developers to hit such affordability levels would result in nothing being built, according to the mayor's office. That view won out when the City Council approved City Hall's citywide mandatory inclusionary zoning plan in March.

Councilwoman Inez Barron also represents East New York but has escaped the group's wrath. She voted against the mayor's plan because, she said, it was not sufficiently affordable for her constituents.

Some opponents of the mayor's rezoning initiatives fear they will exacerbate gentrification and displace poor neighborhood residents. Rachel Rivera, an East New York resident and member of New York Communities for Change, said in a statement that her landlord has been harassing her since the rezonings were announced.

“I am a mother of six living in a one-bedroom apartment, because I cannot afford anything else," she said. "Council Member Espinal must fight harder to ensure that people like me, not just wealthier newcomers, benefit from this rezoning."

In City Council hearings about the mandatory inclusionary housing plan, officials said that subsidies dispensed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development would create lower-income affordable housing than those rules required.

New York Communities for Change says the housing projection for the neighborhood under the rezoning and including HPD subsidies is still insufficient.

This article was originally posted at Crains on March 31, 2016 and written by Rosa Goldensohn

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