Draw the Line

Photo Credit: Barbs--. License: CC-BY-NC-ND.
Photo Credit: Barbs–.
License: CC-BY-NC-ND.

In the past few decades, New York City’s Latino neighborhoods have witnessed the continued displacement of their working class communities by the influx of young artists and professionals from other neighborhoods. In Bushwick, this transformation has been gaining momentum, sharply increasing the property values and rental costs in this previously low-income community. Jose Lopez, an organizer at Make the Road New York, a community advocacy organization in the neighborhood, was interviewed as part of the oral history project “Cities for People, Not for Profit: Gentrification and Housing Activism in Bushwick”. Here he shares his experience of seeking justice for Latino working class tenants in Bushwick who are being displaced. He talks about the parallels between artists and long-term Latino residents and explores how these groups can join forces to fight for fair housing in the area, while providing some alternative frameworks for future action.

You’ve been living in Bushwick since 1988. What were the conditions like, and what changes have you seen?

I’ve been rocking with this organization since ’99, so I’ve been here as a leader and as a staff person for 15 years. Obviously, in the ’70s, ’80s, there were the fires; crack hit the streets of New York City pretty hard. Bushwick was one of those areas devastated by the crack epidemic, leading up into the ’90s, where groups like El Puente and others were starting to put their boots on the ground with local ­churches to try and figure out ways residents can help to transform the neighborhood into a community that would better serve their needs. So we started to see some of that transition in the ’90s, lots of folks from Bushwick doing anything and everything they could to rebuild the community.

Then, into the early 2000s, we saw some transition. The thing I remember being the indicator was a 2005 article in the New York Times titled, “Have You Heard About Bushwick?” It was really a marketing pitch to folks from across the city, across the state, outside the state, to come into this neighborhood—which was for years and years completely ignored—and marketing it to folks as the next up-and-coming hot spot. That was when I became really concerned about the direction that Bushwick was moving in.

What were the kind of politics that your family was involved in? Was there any sort of activity growing up that you witnessed that influenced you?

I was probably 14 when I got started with the organization. It was a team of us, about six young people, high school students. Our very first campaign, in’ 99, was called the Wise Up Campaign. It was to address the lack of youth services in Bushwick. So we were doing the usual: organizing, building a movement of students in New York City and meeting with our local elected officials, with the mayor—Giuliani at the time—and figuring out what city dollars could be funneled out of other areas that didn’t necessarily support the growth of a young person, so that we would be able to do something like build a community space, something for young people to be involved in but also a place young people could help shape.

The fight then was the same fight that we’ve seen year after year ever since. The city says there’s absolutely no funding in communities like Bushwick to be able to build these kinds of programs and services. So that was a fight for about a year and a half. While the Giuliani era was transitioning into the Bloomberg era, there was $64.6 million earmarked to expand two youth jails in East New York and Mott Haven, in the Bronx, that were at that time only at 60 to 70 percent capacity. At the same time the city was telling us there’s no funds, they wanted to build more jail beds for young people like me. So we engaged in that fight and eventually won and got $53 million taken out of that pot and reinvested in youth education.

It’s those kinds of battles folks in Bushwick have been fighting for a long, long time—things we know address the real needs of the African and Latino population of Bushwick and of low-income communities across New York.

How do we figure out who’s entitled to what with these trends toward displacement of long-term residents? How do organizations such as Make the Road New York provide positive working examples that don’t necessarily focus so much on displacement but reinvestment in the community?

For us organizationally, our stance is politics and policy. We live in a capitalist country, so the idea, not just in Bushwick but across the country, is that they’re going to put profit over people. That is the idea of most homeowners across New York. It’s definitely the idea of the real estate board of New York, the most powerful players in the housing game right now in regard to housing policy and politics. It’s important to understand this system where folks can capitalize and take advantage of others.

So for us in Bushwick, there was this tension in the early 2000s. Is it fight against folks who don’t look like us, white artists moving in who are taking over the apartments that we built with our own sweat to have access to a more affordable rent than in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side or other places that have also been gentrified? Or is that a losing fight to go after the new renters? Do we go after winning on substantive policy change to prevent displacement in the first place? So it took a little while for the neighborhood to have that conversation and figure out that that’s really where we need to transform our energy.

I can argue with my neighbor who’s white all day long about why they decided to take the apartment, given its history, given the fact that maybe Juana and her three kids have been living there for 15 years and it was the only place in Bushwick they could afford, but that doesn’t change the situation in that moment. We can still have that conversation in a way that builds, so that we can figure out how to keep whatever’s left of the affordable Bushwick affordable. But I think ultimately the energy of New York City has to be geared into changing policies both at the city and state levels to prevent displacement in the first place.

When you look at city code, when you look at state code, every single housing law across the country is designed to be pro landlord, pro building owner, not pro tenant. Until we transform that, families who are working class are going to get the shit end of the stick, not just in Bushwick, but in New York City. Costs are rising in every borough.

When we talk about the issues facing local community residents, do you see any parallels with the younger artistic community that’s moving into the area? Is there room for collaboration with those populations?

Organizationally we have 14,500 members, all of whom are Latino immigrants, most of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers. So in terms of community coordination, it’s a hard field to navigate for a number of reasons. A, we’re still not past that point where folks aren’t still upset about the fact that new community members are moving in. B, there’s the language barrier. But I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job keeping our focus on policy. Dialogue is welcome. We want to have open dialogue.

But we also want to make sure that folks coming into the neighborhood respect the fact that some of us who have been living here all our lives know the game and have been doing this for a long time. So there are just some things that have been happening, trying to reinvent the wheel, or using language that is less inclusive of everyone. It’s those kinds of things that we want to stay away from. I’ve seen some mission statements from local artists in Bushwick who are talking about being the innovators of art in Bushwick, as if art never existed in this neighborhood before the existence of white people.

But again, the real problem is how fast the cost of living in New York City is rising. The reality is that it’s a problem for our members here, but it’s also a problem for the new folks moving into Bushwick. It’s not a problem that only goes after black and brown folk, although as the poorest New Yorkers, they feel the biggest burden right now. When you look at how we’re determining affordability—for example, in New York, a family of four, based on the area median income, it’s listed at $89,000. I don’t know many folks, artists or nonartists, black or white or brown, who are making $89,000 a year for their families. I think it’s a universal issue. We’ve just got to figure out how to get past some of those barriers to address it together.

What would you think are the biggest challenges to bridging those divides? What’s already been attempted—reaching out to other populations who have similar concerns here in Bushwick?

In terms of recent fights, we saw some stuff go down in Queens and Bushwick about rezoning. We’re at about 8.5 million people in this city. We’ll get to 9 million by 2030. So there’s this question of how do you accommodate that number in a city that has such sparse land. Building up is the way to do that. Right now, there are already laws that exist in regard to air rights and how far up developers can build. What started under the Bloomberg administration, and what’s continuing to happen under the de Blasio administration is folks are creating housing plans to be able to build massive amounts of housing in New York, to be able to accommodate the growing population we have in this city.

To do that, they’ve had to—and they will continue to—rezone particular pockets of New York City. They will choose communities like Bushwick, for example, Flushing and Bushwick Avenue, and they will rezone pieces of land to give developers the right to build very high. Between 2005 and 2011, the Bloomberg housing plan was that we were going to build 150,000 or so units. So he built 100,000 of those units between ’05 and 2011 in a hundred different rezoning processes. There were a hundred different rezoning fights. What we saw is that local communities weren’t ready to engage in those fights, weren’t ready to negotiate community benefits agreements that entitled those communities to the jobs, to the apartments at affordable rates, etc. Out of 100,000 units built in those six years, only 1,900 were actually affordable; which is less than 2 percent.

That was a huge lesson learned for communities: to be able to say, Man, they’re building all this shit, but who are they building it for? They’re definitely not building it for folks who are earning $30,000, $40,000, or $50,000. Right now, the current mayor has a housing plan, again, to preserve and/or create 200,000 units. He is going to be rezoning, very similarly to the way that happened under Bloomberg, but because of the lesson learned, it’s a time for us to engage in that fight in a different way. We know that rezonings are happening. They’ve already started.

So the question is how do we make sure that local communities are equipped with the tools on the ground to stop big-time developers from developing shit in the neighborhoods that doesn’t reflect the needs of the people who are already there?

As an organization we’re part of the Real Affordability for All Coalition. What we believe is very simple: Developers who want tax breaks, incentives, and who want to build huge luxury housing, the motto up until this point has been 80 percent market, 20 percent affordable. We think that’s bullshit. We think that has gone out with the Bloomberg administration. We know that the current administration has been talking about 70/30 to do some more. We still think that’s bullshit.

We think that 50/50 is fair. The lowest income earners make up the largest body of residents in New York. Service jobs like the fast food industry, where folks are only making $8 an hour, are the fastest growing jobs in New York now. So if we’re growing our job market but only paying people the minimum wage, we’re also growing the housing stock, but making it not affordable to the same people, then we have a problem. So we think, Cool, you want to rent 50 percent or sell 50 percent of the stock as high as you can get? Fine, do that. But 50 percent should be truly affordable, starting at the lowest income earner, which are the minimum wage earners who, on an annual level, are making about $16,000 a year. Let’s start the conversation there.

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