Renters Call for Local, National Action as Rents Rise

Renting is on the rise. Since the Great Recession, there has been a Great Reset, from owning to renting. And rents have been getting higher and higher in cities and suburbs nationwide.

It should be no surprise then, that renters and advocates have been showing up this year. In July, the Tenants March on Washington drew hundreds of tenants from across the country to demand more federal support for affordable housing programs. And this week Right to the City has declared a National Renter Week of Action.

The actions are aimed above all at the Feds. President Trump’s 2018 budget proposes cutting $6 billion from Housing and Urban Development’s $46 billion budget, a move HUD Secretary Ben Carson supports.

The effect of this on New York City would be catastrophic. New York has some of the strongest tenant protections in the nation, but they require the budget and the vigilance of City agencies to enforce.

And it’s more important than ever before as the City embarks upon ambitious re-zoning projects designed to create more affordable housing, but, are also creating shorter-term vulnerabilities, potentially opening up low-income residents in these communities to displacement, as RPA discussed in Pushed Out.

Perhaps nowhere has this been more visible than in East Harlem, where the City’s push for a rezoning to create more affordable housing has been at odds with what the predominantly renter community, the Community Board and recently, the Manhattan Borough President believe is necessary to prevent large-scale resident displacement.

City Hall’s proposed rezoning spans a 96-block stretch in the neighborhood and could bring between 3,000-4,000 new apartments to the area if approved. Yet, the community has a different vision for how to get there. The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan was developed through an intensive 18-month planning process that included thousands of residents, hundreds of meetings, interviews, focus groups and a range of activities designed to get all participants up to speed on the issues at hand. It calls for at least 20 percent of all new affordable housing to go to residents earning below 30 percent of the area median income, more robust preservation efforts, a broader rezoning area to include the wealthier parts of the neighborhood down to 96th Street and east to 5th Avenue, and a maximum residential density of R9, not R10.

The community rhetoric has gotten very heated. Thus, despite similar goals – a more inclusive and affordable city – Mayor Bill de Blasio and the East Harlem community are on opposite sides.

What is going on here?

RPA has a track record of highlighting  the perils of expiring affordability restrictions. Our latest research shows that  between 200 and 500 East Harlem units will lose their affordability restrictions each year over the next 30 years. Tenants feel this squeeze in real time, and are afraid of being pushed out of their community.

City agencies must be proactive about enforcing these programs, encouraging landlords to re-up their subsidies and working with State and Federal agencies to ensure they remain in the budget and grow. Beyond these measures, the City should also take additional steps to ensure future affordability, including accelerating a pilot of transferring ownership of land to community land trusts, listening to the recommendations of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan and the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision and thinking comprehensively about a city-wide strategy for affordability. Otherwise the rent will just be too damn high, and the good intentions behind the rezonings will be too damn slow.

In RPA’s forthcoming Fourth Regional Plan, we will be highlighting strategies to accomplish inclusive planning, community wealth building and robust anti-displacement protections as we share a vision for the next generation.


Photo credit: Right to the City Alliance; Molly Nichols; Creative Commons

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