Amidst the glow of candlelight, Sonia Ville, 80-year-old Puerto Rican member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, born and raised in El Barrio, led chants of “El Barrio is Not for Sale! It is to Be Loved and Defended!” as East Harlem families began their candlelight vigil Wednesday evening to protest the Mayor’s plan to rezone their community. At the height of the holiday shopping season, children, families and other members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio spoke out against what they call the Mayor’s luxury housing plan in front of the oversized Christmas tree at the corner of East 106th St and Third Ave.
Maria Mercado, a member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, said that this year she and her neighbors only want two Christmas gifts: “We want Mayor De Blasio to scrap his destructive rezoning plan and we want our Councilmember, Melissa Mark-Viverito to publicly and unconditionally oppose the Mayor’s rezoning plan.”
Candles in hand, Ms. Ville and other members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio spoke to passers-by who stopped to ask about the candlelight vigil. Community residents explained that they were asking the Mayor to get rid of his luxury housing plan for Christmas and they explained the reasons why.
Residents told neighbors that they reject the Mayor’s plan because 70% to 75% of the new units will be market-rate, luxury apartments. “The Mayor lies and says it’s an ‘affordable housing plan’, but we know that isn’t true because the vast majority of the apartments are designated for rich people,” says community resident and member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Salome Leon. Tenants criticized that the “affordable units” are not accessible to the low-income community of El Barrio. Tenant Sandra Cruz said, “Those ‘affordable units’ are for people who earn an average annual income of $46,620 to $62,150 for a family of three. The majority of us don’t earn that and we can’t pay the high rents because we are poor.”
Community resident Josefina Salazar explained why she is here with her children and her neighbors holding a candlelight vigil while others are busy preparing for the holidays. “We want everyone to know that we are opposed to Mayor De Blasio’s luxury housing plan because if this plan is approved, landlords will pressure us even more to leave our apartments because we are low-income tenants and they want to replace us with rich people who can pay much higher rents,” said Ms. Salazar. Ms. Ville added, “It will no longer be known as Spanish Harlem because they will transform it into a community for the rich.”
Earlier in the day the NYC Department of City Planning held a public hearing on the environmental impact of the newest proposed changes to the city’s Zoning law, changes which are necessary for the Mayor’s new housing plan to go through. Community residents complained that the hearing was scheduled for 9am when very few people could attend because they had to work at that time. “They don’t want us there. They are ignoring the community and it’s a lie when they say they want to hear from us - they scheduled the hearing when we can’t go,” said Ms. Salazar, to shouts of agreement from the crowd.
Leading up to this vigil, Movement for Justice in El Barrio members have organized community protests against the Mayor’s “luxury housing plan” and have given testimony at Community Board meetings calling on Community Board 11 to cast an unequivocal “no” vote against the plan. On November 23rd Community Board 11 voted “no with conditions.” However, many community residents complain that these conditions still favor the development of luxury housing in East Harlem.
Residents argue that they won’t be fooled by the Community Board, the Department of City Planning, the Mayor or anyone else who tries to dupe them or to dismiss the concerns of the community. Residents are not just criticizing, but are offering their own plan.
In place of the Mayor’s luxury housing plan, Movement for Justice in El Barrio calls on the De Blasio administration to preserve the rent-stabilized housing units where many of the city’s low-income residents currently live. The organization says that day after day these low-income New Yorkers find themselves at the risk of being displaced from rent-stabilized apartments by law-breaking landlords, and Mayor De Blasio’s Housing Department which fails to enforce the housing code to make negligent, repair-denying landlords comply with New York’s housing laws. Community residents have a 10 point plan to preserve rent stabilized housing which they developed at Consultas del Barrio organized by Movement for Justice in El Barrio, where thousands of community members came together since the beginning of the year to learn about the rezoning plan and to develop their own proposal.
“We want very little for Christmas this year,” added elder, lifelong community member Sonia Ville. “We want to stay in our homes and preserve our beloved Barrio. That is all we are asking of Mayor De Blasio and Councilmember Mark-Viverito.” When Ms. Ville said that the group will keep protesting the luxury housing plan and will keep promoting their own 10 Point Plan until they achieve their goals, the crowd erupted in cheers. Ms. Ville then led a rousing chant of “El Barrio united will never be defeated!”
Tricia Schultz is a special education and English as a New Language teacher who has worked for Jobs with Justice and labor unions.