A Personal Reflection on New York City Gentrification

A Personal Reflection on New York City Gentrification
The line between perpetrator and victim of gentrification is often blurred for low-income New York City residents, including many graduate students.   Photo Cred: Rebecca Krisel By Rebecca Krisel As a woman in my early 20s living in New York City on a non-profit and now student income, I have always sought to live in convenient and affordable neighborhoods. But in the face of New York City’s ever changing rental prices, I have moved every year since I graduated from college in 2010. After living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I moved to Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, Clinton Hill and finally, to where I live now– Bedford-Stuyvesant. Each move represented my ever increasing fraught relationship with New York City real estate and the constant chase for an affordable place to live. With each new move I made, I was attempting to flee the waves of gentrification—a term used to describe the urban planning process whereby developers purchase or renovate property in deteriorating neighborhoods, increasing property values and often displacing low-income families and small businesses. Though I fled each newly gentrified area, by moving to the next frontier of relatively cheaper real estate, I was myself becoming the gentrifier. It’s a role that comes with feelings of guilt for those being replaced. However, as these areas became ever-more popular and the annual rental prices increased, I also found myself being displaced from these neighborhoods. Therein lies the problem. What is a graduate student like me to do in a city of absorbent housing prices? Is it possible for students with meager incomes to find housing stability without displacing long existing tenants? The issue at heart is a dearth of affordable housing in New York City. According to city data, in 2012 almost 55 percent of all rental households were rent-burdened, meaning they were spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing costs. And from 2000 to 2012, the share of households who were rent-burdened increased by more than 11 percentage points. Much of the cause of these rent-burdens is the fact that yearly increases in rent are not commensurate with an increase in wages and income. In my own experience, rent increases ranged from 10 percent to 22 percent annually. Per year, my salary increased on average only 4 percent. Landlords get away with rent increases in popular neighborhoods because the demand for housing is so high; kicking one renter out and bringing new ones in is as easy as replacing a light bulb. “Rents in Brooklyn increase on average by 7 percent every year while salaries increase by only 2 percent,” said Abdula Greene, 41, a former prosecutor who now works with the people-of-color led grassroots community organization, Equality for Flatbush. As a result, “families are moving to upstate New York, or parts of Pennsylvania,” Greene explained. Equality for Flatbush is working to safeguard Brooklyn’s Flatbush and East Flatbush communities from the effects of gentrification. The group is currently running a social media campaign called “Before it’s gone/Take it back” encouraging current and long-time Brooklyn residents to visually document their neighborhoods as a response to the gentrification crisis. Community residents are sharing images such as an African-American woman holding up the campaign sign “Before it’s gone/Take it back” at the entrance to the C train at the Kingston-Throop station in Bedford Stuyvesant. In addition to families, whole communities are sometimes becoming displaced. A 2014 anthropological study done by Hunter College, “New-Build Gentrification and the Everyday Displacement of Polish Immigrant Tenants in Greenpoint, Brooklyn,” documents how the Polish community that once lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn has now created new ethnic enclaves in the Queens neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Middle Village and Maspeth. Filip Stabrowski, the author of the units and build an additional 80,000 new affordable units–all within ten years. “Affordable” housing means that rent will make up no more than 30 percent of a family’s income. Requiring an initial investment of $41 billion, paid for with city, state, federal and private funds, the program will become the most expansive affordable housing agenda of its kind in the nation’s history. While New York City housing policy is not addressing gentrification itself – a force that would be nearly impossible to stymie – the de Blasio administration is focused on increasing the total number of affordable housing units available to New Yorkers. In an effort to reach New Yorkers ranging from those at the bottom of the economic ladder to those in the middle class, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in May 2014 his affordable housing plan, “Housing New York: A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan.” In it, he pledges to preserve 120,000 existing affordable units and build an additional 80,000 new affordable units – all within ten years.   “Affordable” housing means that rent will make up no more than 30 percent of a family’s income . Requiring an initial investment of $41 billion, paid for with city, state, federal and private funds, the program will become the most expansive affordable housing agenda of its kind in the nation’s history. “I think it’s very wise. But it’s also extremely ambitious,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a professor of real-estate development at Columbia University, in a May interview to The New Yorker. We have yet to see whether Mayor de Blasio’s plan will have as far reaching results as intended. As a mid-20s white graduate student, caught playing at once the role of the perpetrator as well as that of the victim in gentrification, hopefully the new housing plan will allow me to stay put. But for the moment, rents remain high and continue to rise.   Rebecca Krisel is a first-year Master of International Affairs student.   This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on November 19, 2014.

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