Public housing residents marched five blocks south to Gracie Mansion last week with a message for Mayor Bill de Blasio: hands off our land.
The residents were protesting a recently unveiled plan to build a mixture of affordable and market rate housing on playground space at Holmes Towers on East 93rd Street and First Avenue, where they live.
Under the terms of the plan, which was announced in September, the New York City Housing Authority would partner with a private developer to build 350 to 400 apartments on playground space between the two Holmes Towers, 175 to 200 of which would be affordable. The rest will be offered at market rate.
The main goal of the initiative, named NYCHA Next Gen Neighborhoods, is to close the agency’s $17 billion budget gap. In exchange for residents’ blessing, NYCHA is promising to make much-needed repairs at Holmes and give residents first priority when the affordable apartments are built. The agency predicts the program will generate $300 million to $600 million over the next 10 years, revenue that will be split between infrastructure needs at Next Gen sites like Holmes and NYCHA’s larger capital needs. A similar program was announced in September at Wyckoff Gardens in Brooklyn.
But residents aren’t going along with the plan. Holmes residents, with assistance from a public housing advocacy organization, staged a walkout at a recent outreach meeting with NYCHA officials. The residents feel as if key decisions regarding the playground space at Holmes have already been made, and that the agency is merely feigning at including them in the planning process.
With guidance from Community Voices Heard, a public housing organization made up of NYCHA tenants across the city, Holmes residents gathered at the very park space they believe will be built over at Holmes to begin their march to Gracie Mansion, where de Blasio was hosting a party for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy to celebrate the grand reopening of the mayor’s residence.
“Gentrification is really what this is,” said Sandrea Coleman, a Holmes resident, at a rally before the march. “Who in their right, sane mind takes away a public park for little kids?”
After the rally about 100 residents headed south on First Avenue with a light police escort before cutting east on 88th Street. Residents marched with handmade signs calling on de Blasio to nix the plan altogether, reaffirming their stance that private development has no place on public land. Some marched with canes, walkers and strollers, while children who use the park at Holmes kept step alongside their parents. Councilman Ben Kallos headed the pack with a Community Voices Heard banner, as organizers led chants along city streets.
Kallos said he was no longer welcomed by NYCHA to address residents at meetings organized by the agency concerning Next Gen NYCHA.
“The mayor said he’s committed to a process but the process doesn’t seem to provide a role for community members,” Kallos said during an interview at the march.
Arriving at Gracie Mansion, residents were kept on the west side of East End Avenue, in a cordoned-off area across the street. About a dozen police officers kept order at the scene, while guests of Gracie Mansion stepped out of luxury vehicles at the entrance to the mayoral residence.
“De Blasio!” residents shouted from across the street, in a chant led by Kallos. “No private development on NYCHA land! No luxury units on NYCHA land! De Blasio, do not build on our playground!”
Lakeesha Taylor, a Holmes resident with two young children, one of which uses the playground at the development, said there’s no reason she or her neighbors should agree to the plan.
“I don’t believe it’s right that they think they can just place a building in front of us and claim it’s for our benefit when they’re taking our air, our land, our space,” said Taylor. “You’re over-populating this area, which is already overpopulated. Your over-populating the schools, the subway system, everything. And you say it’s for our benefit?”
Milagros Velasquez, a Holmes resident and tenant organizer, noted in an interview in September when the plan was announced that many who live at Holmes wouldn’t qualify to apply for the affordable units due to the income requirements. In order to qualify for the affordable apartments, a potential resident would need to make a minimum of 60 percent of the area median income, which is equivalent to a family of three making $46,600.
As an alternative to Next Gen Neighborhoods, residents and organizers are calling on de Blasio and state and federal authorities to properly fund the agency.
When reached for comment after the march, a NYCHA spokesperson said the agency is going to continue with their community outreach efforts to engage residents in the process, and said that Next Gen NYCHA is a necessary program that will provide affordable housing and much needed revenue.
“NYCHA is proceeding with scheduled community engagement — it’s critical for residents to understand NYCHA’s financial crisis and the consequences of inaction,” an agency spokesperson said. “NYCHA plans to use every tool available, including NextGen Neighborhoods, to save public housing and improve living conditions at Holmes. We are committed to continuing to answer questions, debunk myths and address resident concerns as the process moves forward.”
Community Voices Heard pressed back against the claim that the agency’s plan will save public housing or is somehow worthy of NYCHA residents’ support.
“While Mayor de Blasio and NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye say that this is the only way to raise sufficient resources to preserve the housing stock, residents believe that the lack of deeply affordable units being proposed will only exacerbate gentrification in their communities and that NYCHA residents will not get enough out of this deal,” said Community Voices Heard in a press release. “Instead, given how critical the public housing stock is to our city’s infrastructure, residents believe that significant resources need to be invested by the city and state, much like the recently agreed upon commitment to the MTA.”
Officials at the city and state level recently agreed to a joint-funding package to close the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $14 billion budget gap. A NYCHA spokesperson said the agency will continue to hold the outreach meetings, despite the walkout and march, to gather Holmes residents’ input on where the new building should go at the development.